horizon herbs’ richo cech on the world’s basils, and eastern spring wildflowers

horizon herbs

IF YOU DON’T HEAR FROM ME for a month or three, don’t worry: I simply got lost on a magical mystery tour of the Horizon Herbs website and catalog, a global collection that the Cech family of Williams, Oregon, has been growing organically and selling since 1985.  I’ve purchased some gift certificates to share with you—but most exciting, I had the pleasure of a Q&A with Horizon founder and herbalist/seedsman Richo Cech, on matters ranging from the world’s basils to medicinal Eastern woodland wildflowers.

What’s most fascinating about “paging” through Horizon’s world: I keep seeing plant names I know, but the descriptions go so far beyond the usual ornamental qualities mentioned elsewhere, so it’s like they’re new faces altogether. Horizon calls out plants’ uses around the world—such as that balloon flower (Platycodon) is used in Chinese cookery, in special soups and sauces, and also in traditional Chinese medicine to prevent or relieve cough, or that the Paulownia or empress tree is “one of the most significant ‘carbon sinks’ available on the planet,” removing carbon dioxide from our atmosphere and replacing it with oxygen at approximately twice the rate of a “normal” tree. Love it.

And then there are the oddballs, of which Horizon seems to have cornered the market. I have a soft spot for the plant kingdom’s oddities—such as Bowiea, which I’ve grown for 20 years as a houseplant and gifted to many happy friends (hint: you need one, too!), or new-to-me Hippie Rattle Gourd (who could resist such a name?). Or that my beloved, big perennial favorite, Aralia cordata or spikenard, is edible (its spring shoots) and has ginseng-like properties to its roots?

And then there are the Richo Cech one-liners (many below) such as this one about basil, which is in the genus Ocimum:

“If you take the ‘cimu’ out of Ocimum you get ‘om.’ ”

(You readers know how I love the woo-woo. Om!)

Like I said, I figure to be lost for quite some time. But before I wander back in to Horizon’s virtual fields, here’s the story I promised:

the q&a with richo cech

RICHO CECH, who began his career as an archaeologist and ethnobotanist in East Africa, returned to the United States in the late 1970s and began cultivating and saving the seed of medicinal plants. After taking my self-guided tour of his world, I asked Richo about my favorite stops:

Q. Your collection covers the globe, Richo [below, in Africa], but there are some sweet spots: Africa, for instance, where you love to explore.  Can you take us on a little trip to Zanzibar, and tell us about the basils that you found there?


A. You’re right, I do love to go to Zanzibar. During my archaeology days I lived for three years in the Rift Valley in Kenya so learned Swahili pretty well.  The island of Pemba in the Zanzibar archipelago, the so-called “green island” where much of the world’s clove trove comes from, is one of the last places on earth where traditional witch doctors practice their herbal art freely.

I recently had an idea that I might go and apprentice myself to an herbal practitioner.   Arriving by speedboat from Dar es Salaam, I was entranced by the white sand beaches and turquoise waters, the mangoes and the baobabs, the smiles of the people, the markets full of spices and exotic fruits.

Exploring the islands, I learned to travel by native dhow, the wooden-hulled, lateen-sailed vessel that is crafted in the traditional manner, boards carefully bent and fitted, joined together with pegs, literally adzed into shape with tools that haven’t changed for 2,000 years.

Nikolai Vavilov, the famous Russian geneticist, posited that the gene center for any plant would be where the most species of the genus existed in close association.  If this is the case, then surely Zanzibar would be in the running as the gene center for basil (Ocimum).  Arriving in the village of Nungwi, I inquired about “kivumbasi” (basil) and was immediately shown three different kinds.  I learned the local names, the uses, and how to recognize the growing plants.

Basically, there are three main types, including small, wild basils that tend to smell citrusy (Kivumbasi Lime); medium-sized basils that are cultivated in gardens for use in the kitchen and in the household (“Mrihani”) and full-sized perennial bush basils (“Mtule”).

Mtule may be found hedging the roadways, their sweeping upright racemes easily identified from a distance, emitting their clove-like aroma when one brushes past them, or rubs the leaves.  When I heard that the leaves of this plant are given to teething babies it really made sense, because even in the U.S., some dentists will use oil of clove (eugenol) to deaden pain and kill bacteria during dental procedures. [Read more about these exceptional basils on the Horizon website.]


Q. Speaking of basils, Zanzibar is hardly the only place on Earth where basil is treated with honor spiritually and medicinally. Pre-packaged “Tulsi tea” is touted lately in the health-food store, but I see that I can grow its ingredients and suspect it’s a whole other level of goodness to do so. How do you grow and use it?

Tulsi_Ocimum_sanctumA. I agree that the herbs grown in our own gardens and by our own hands have a special healing influence. Tulsi is such a great herb–a tasty adaptogen [a substance that helps the body offset damage from stress and promotes healthy functioning]. I personally drink a strong Tulsi tea every morning before I put anything else into my body, and it keeps me feeling good all day long.  I rarely get sick, and I think Tulsi has a lot to do with my wellness.

This plant is really rather different from standard garden basil (like sweet lettuce leaf, or Genovese, or what have you), due to the healing influence of its chemistry, but Tulsi or holy basil [note: that’s the purple Krishna Ocimum sanctum, above inset] can be cultivated pretty much like standard basil.

We received our first Tulsi cultivar from a collector in India in 1997, and have been growing and promoting the herb ever since.  We have tried many different varieties, and every year grow four main types (Krishna, Rama, Vana and Kapoor) in seclusion for the purpose of seed production, and we also plant many for nursery plant sales.

If you take the “cimu” out of “Ocimum” you get “om.”  Invoking Tulsi is a great way to start any venture.  Holy basil was Horizon Herbs’ lot Number 1.

Tulsi is planted at the doorstep of many homes and ashrams in India, as it purifies the local environment and brings good luck.  You can pick the leaves off of the plant any time during the growing cycle.  Amma [the spiritual leader] says to eat one fresh leaf daily.  The leaves can be made into fresh leaf tea (pretty good this way, actually) or dried and made into a more concentrated tea.  Fresh leaves are also excellent in stir-fry and Thai soups, best added as the last ingredient so that their volatile oils may be better appreciated by those that partake of the food.

Q. The song refrain says, “parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,” but if Richo Cech could get us growing four less-familiar herbs in our gardens, what would they be?

A.  “Arnica, Angelica, Ashitaba and Ashwagandha,” to mention only a few of the “A’s.”  Arnica is a standard of European herbalism and an ingredient in the most well-known and useful externally applied anti-inflammatory compounds, Trauma Compound (Arnica, Saint John’s wort and calendula).

Angelica brings an angelic influence to the garden, and differentiates the ho-hummer from the high-hoer.

Ashitaba_350_hands_ringsAshitaba (left, Angelica keiskei koidzumi) is probably the most significant herb for fighting the new diseases of excess that ravage our western world–obesity, cancer, rheumatism, chronic fatigue, heart disease, stroke, drug-resistant staph. Ashitaba can have a positive influence in all these disease states.

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is good for treating low energy and sexual exhaustion.

Q. I was also struck in the catalog how many “herbs” that you list are the stars of my Northeastern early season woodland garden—Caulophyllum (blue cohosh), Hydrastis (goldenseal), Jeffersonia (twinleaf), Sanguinaria (bloodroot), Podophyllum (mayapple) and Stylophorum (celandine poppy) to name a few. Generally speaking, did the colonists take their cue from Native Americans about the utility of these plants?

A.   Generally speaking, yes.  Goldenseal, ginseng, black and blue cohosh [photo below, in Margaret’s garden in spring]–these herbs are the foundation of American herbal medicine, and they were used extensively by Native American people.

caulophyllum blue cohoshA great ethnographic compendium of references to the Native American use of herbs is Daniel Moerman’s “Medicinal Plants of Native America,” University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology Technical Reports, Number 19. This resource gives a short synopsis of medicinal uses arranged by Latin name of the herb and Native American tribe [note from Margaret: a searchable database by Moerman is online here].

Populations of most of these forest-dependent medicinal herbs (such as goldenseal, wild yam, bloodroot, black cohosh and blue cohosh, ginseng, etc.) is shrinking, due to loss of habitat and digging for the herb trade.  We try to support gardeners to return these beauties to shade garden and forest.

We offer certified organic seed and nursery-grown plants.  In the fall, we offer live roots.  The best way to propagate spring ephemerals is to plant the live roots in the fall, so that they can send out feeder roots and get established before sending up their flowers in the spring.

There’s something magical about returning bloodroot flowers to a midland garden where the plant has been missing for some time.  You go out in the early spring, and where there used to be nothing but leaf mulch, now you see carpets of brilliant white flowers.  This was one of the first flowers that attracted me to herbalism.  Something about the sanctity of the forest.  Quiet, like a mind scrubbed of discursive thought, calm, clear.  Like a woodland stream in the spring.  Makes you want to go there.

shop now, or order a catalog

enter to win a gift certificate

I WILL BE SENDING three lucky readers $15 gift certificates to Horizon Herbs, and all you have to do to enter to win is answer this question in the comments below (NOTE: The giveaway is closed, though your comments are always welcome):

What plant in your garden is the most useful of all—which is really what “herb” means, anyhow, that we use the plant in some manner, not that it’s literally an “herb-garden” favorite such as thyme. So: which one?

If you have no answer, or just feel shy, that’s fine; just say “count me in” or some such, and I will.

I’ll select three winners after entries close at midnight on Sunday, January 27, 2013. Good luck to all! See you again when I return from somewhere over the Horizon, tee hee.

(All photos courtesy of Horizon Herbs, except blue cohosh by Margaret Roach. And from the Horizon site, this guidance: “Although all cultures on earth use plant-derived medicaments, we cannot recommend self-medication with plant products. Rather, we offer medicinal information in the context of historical usage and from personal experience, augmented by our studies of current research.  Please seek the care and advice of a qualified healthcare practitioner for all medical problems.”)

  1. Anne Eby says:

    I have lots of favorites, but use the most basil. My own home dried herbs are soooo much more flavorful than store bought. It’s not hard to smell the difference!

  2. Michele says:

    I have to say Basil, to snip it for sauces and sandwiches, drying it and freezing it to last the whole year long, love it!

  3. kate says:

    I can’t choose 1. It’d be like singling out a favorite child. I love all the mints for tea. I grow 6 varieties. Thyme sage rosemary basil parsley cilantro scented geraniums – who can do without oregano. How about chives. Ever put borage flowers in salad or tea? Nasturtiums in salad-leaves & flowers. I used to nibble phlox flowers.when I was a girl- so sweet at their base. Lemon verbena-/smells stronger of lemon than the Meyers lemons I grow. So.many more. & summer is coming. Time to explore more-such fun!

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