The diminutive periwinkle-purple flowers of borage, a type of Mediterranean herb, are like nature’s version of Adderall. Francis Bacon spoke of their usefulness for “repress[ing] the fuliginous vapor of dusky melancholy” while John Gerard, a leading 16th century herbalist, exalted in their ability to “bring always courage” and “make the mind glad.”
“There be also many things,” Gerard continued, “made of these [flowers] used everywhere for the comfort of the heart, for driving away of sorrow and increasing the joy of the mind.”
Increasing joy and driving away sorrow are apparently things New Yorkers want, too. Borage is a key ingredient used by herbalist Grace Galanti, whose therapeutic elixirs from Furnace Creek Farm inevitably sell out at the Union Square and Grand Army Plaza Greenmarkets. “Courage,” the elixir that contains borage, seems to be particularly relevant to many people’s lives. Galanti debuted it just after the 2016 election and, not surprisingly, she says, “It turned out to be really popular.”
Like Gerard 450 years ago, Galanti is an herbalist: she makes it her business to know all there is to know about the medicinal, health and wellness benefits of herbs. While all herbs are plants, all plants are not herbs. Chefs appreciate herbs for their more concentrated flavor, while herbalists are more interested in their higher levels of phytonutrients—substances believed or known to be beneficial for health and disease prevention.
Of the thousands of herbs that grow around the world, Western herbalists consider around 200 to be of primary therapeutic value (traditional Chinese medicine recognizes over 400). In many cases, science has confirmed specific benefits that practitioners have known about for centuries. Some herbal compounds have even gone on to become active ingredients in medications, including ones used to treat cancer, asthma, pain, malaria and high cholesterol. Herbalists, however, are not pharmacists: rather than reduce a plant to its single active ingredient, they prefer to work directly with nature’s materials.
“When you’re using a whole plant or part, there are many different chemicals working together,” Galanti says. “They produce a synergistic effect that is greater than the sum of their parts.”
As a child, Galanti was introduced to the idea that some plants can provide therapeutic benefits. Her dad, a nature-lover and survivalist-type, would pluck fresh watercress from a spring in front of the family’s rural Pennsylvania house, she recalls, and feed the greens “in large amounts” to her as treatment for her asthma. While the watercress did not cure her of asthma, it did ease some of her symptoms. “From my dad, I got this idea at an early age that food and herbs could help with health,” she says.
After college, however, Galanti put all of that aside to pursue a conventional business career in Philadelphia. But when her mother died suddenly of cancer, she reevaluated her life. “I decided that I wouldn’t continue the stress monkey lifestyle any longer,” she says. She moved to New York City where she enrolled in a nutrition course and discovered naturopathy through a book—Women’s Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, by Tori Hudson—that she spotted at a health food store in the Upper East Side. That led her to Bastyr University in Seattle, where she pored over ancient texts like The Canon of Medicine, earned a degree in herbal sciences and also became a certified holistic counselor.
Pregnant, Galanti and her then-husband moved back to Pennsylvania and bought Furnace Creek Farm in Berks County. “My plan was to grow herbs and raise children,” she says. That idyllic future was threatened when she and her husband divorced, however. “I needed to become practical really fast in order to keep my farm,” she says.
She began growing herbs for Tim Stark at Eckerton Hill Farm, a 10-minute drive away, and learned about the New York City farmers market world through him. “I was always concerned about how I would sell enough herbs in this region in order to live and keep my farm,” Galanti says. “The New York City Greenmarkets opened up a whole new world.”
Galanti debuted at the Greenmarket in 2016 with three elixirs whose formulas she created herself. From start to finish, the process of developing a new elixir can take anywhere from a week to three months. Ideas usually begin with a therapeutic thrust—respiratory relief, say, or boosting mental and physical stamina. Galanti then turns to the 150 herbs she grows—ranging from holy basil and red shiso to elecampane and marshmallow root—to identify those that will best deliver the desired benefits.
From the chosen herbs she creates an extraction using honey, vinegar or alcohol and then goes about tinkering, blending and sipping until she finds a recipe that tastes as good as it works. “Resilience,” for example, is an elixir made from local raw honey and red grape vinegar (supplied by a fellow Greenmarketer) paired with ashwagandha and tulsi. It tastes like a light, floral nectar—one that is both energetic and calming at the same time. “It’s for the frazzled person, someone who is burning the candle at both ends,” Galanti says. Not surprisingly, it’s her best seller.
Galanti recommends that her clients stir a tablespoon of elixir into a cup of hot water for an instant tea-slash-treatment, although her formulas are also delicious enough to drink like a shot. In addition to the three (soon to be four) elixirs, she sells cold and hot teas—tisane, as she calls them, the French word for an herbal infusion with medicinal benefits—and a few powders and candied herbs. For the DIY crowd, there are also tangled brambles of whole ashwagandha root, which can be snipped and boiled into a potent energy booster and stress reducer.
“The things I bring to Greenmarket really come about from my personal experience,” Galanti says. “I have confidence in these plants and I personally cannot live without them.”
When asked about the scientific legitimacy of herbalism, Galanti affirms that science is increasingly backing up what herbalists have known for centuries. “As more and more research is conducted to provide credible scientific studies, the proper use of medicinal herbs is being documented making the practice available for the treatment of disease through Integrative Medicine and Complimentary and Alternative Medicine programs (CAM),” she says. “Scientific validation has created a greater comfort level for people to adapt their diets to include more culinary herbs that have a long history of traditional use.”
Galanti’s customers are currently split about fifty-fifty between regulars and newcomers, and are cut across all walks of life, from the “classic demographic of the woman going to yoga” to Trinidadian expats who are reminded of their grandmothers’ old backyard remedies.
With plans to expand to store shelves this year, Galanti is determined to introduce herbs into more and more people’s lives. “Having herbs as part of everyday living means the health benefits are built into our lifestyle,” she says. “Instead of being something we only use in a crisis, medicine can be food.”
Image credit: Köhler’s Medicinal Plants