I screamed louder than I meant to but I couldn’t contain my excitement.
“There’s an empty lot for sale in West Philly, Babe!”
My husband, having cycled through this with me multiple times, simply smiled and nodded. He’s kind that way. He entertains my dreams even if he doesn’t quite know what to do with them or understand where they come from. My desire to open a public garden space is exactly one of those dreams. Rows of collard greens and beefsteak tomatoes and containers of sweet potatoes, garlic, and ginger line the perimeter of my inner visions as I think about how a garden could offer so much relief to communities that too often find themselves living under food apartheid or victims of food redlining.
I first started gardening in 2008. Newly married and trying to figure out what life would look like going forward for me, I sought an outlet in the 2 x 3 square patch of grass in the back of the traditional Philly row home we rented. In hindsight, it was nothing more than a tiny “victory” garden with tomatoes that had a serious attitude—growing when and if they felt like it. Nevertheless, it was mine. There was a seed of something growing in me that connected me to that garden. I felt called to it in the same ways I felt called to write or teach. When I needed to calm down, the soil soothed me. When I needed to feel accomplished, the sprouts showed me that yes, some labor could bear fruit.
While no one in my immediate family growing up were active gardeners, my great grandmother would often regale us kids with tales of growing up in rural Alabama in the early 20th century whenever we’d visit for Sunday dinner. Tending land was part of my legacy whether I knew it or not. In fact, I would submit that this is true for most Black folks. Growing plants and using herbal remedies is an ancestral legacy for Black women, in particular; one that continues to be passed down.
The United States has become the nation with the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide—surpassing China and Italy. With government stay-at-home orders activated, it will likely become increasingly more important for Black people in general, and Black women specifically, to return to our roots—literally. Growing food and herbs for both nutrition and medicine will help serve our physical and mental health while possibly releasing us from a capitalist system that makes accessibility of care taxing for marginalized populations. It’s time to stop ignoring the significance of plant-based medicines in the healing and prevention of various illnesses; a fact that is reluctantly corroborated by science and some medical doctors.
Growing plants and using herbal remedies is an ancestral legacy for Black women, in particular; one that continues to be passed down.
Vanessa Mason, a gardener in New Kent, Virginia, tells ESSENCE, “I grew up in the country. We always had a garden and my Granny had what many would consider a farm.” Mason is determined, particularly in light of the current state of the country, to be self-sufficient and live off the land. “My great granny was a root worker woman,” she continues. “I didn’t learn from her but hearing stories of how she would go in the woods and pick ‘random’ leaves and grass to heal family has always stuck with me. I’ve been learning on my own and will begin making tinctures and teas. [During this coronavirus pandemic], I will be working with herbs to calm the nerves, lower blood sugar and cholesterol, and other ailments that are prevalent in my family.”
In 2010, we’d finally purchased a home with a small backyard and I decided to take my ever-greening thumb to the next level. For six years, I grew everything from tomatoes to zucchini. But it wasn’t until 2016, when I began intensive therapy for PTSD, that I figured out that my love of all things green wasn’t just a hobby I picked up or some aberration. It was cathartic, and in fact, healing. Sarah Rayner of Psychology Today confirms that working in nature releases happy hormones like serotonin and dopamine and that “gardening can act as a gentle reminder to us that we are not the center of the universe…focusing on the great outdoors – even in the pared-down form of a patio – can encourage us to be less insular.”
Master Gardener Rashonda Bartney of Urbansoulfarmer.org in Los Angeles agrees: “My mother always had an urban garden. Later I found out my father and grandparents in Louisiana and Oklahoma grew food for the community,” Bartney tells ESSENCE. “I started gardening as an adult when I suffered from chronic illness and depression. Gardening in the sun made me feel better. We are indigenous and I feel growing medicinal plants like sage, sumac, and yarrow connects us to our ancestors. If there were more resources and access to land, [I’m certain] there would be more people interested.”
In mid-2019, I experienced a significant health crisis that not only sent me to my garden for healthy fruits and veggies but had me learning about plants as medicine. I spent my entire six months of medical leave researching ways to help my body heal naturally. Especially when the doctors seemed to be confused about what was wrong and how to help me. And until this day, herbal remedies have been the most effective at helping me either manage or eliminate symptoms—whether I’m using them solely or in partnership with traditional medicine.
Nia Barrett of Nanna’s Homestead in Hemet, California, had her own experience with the healing power of the land.
“I was introduced by my great-grandmother and grandmother. My great-grandmother is from Sierra Leone,” Barrett tells ESSENCE. “My granny taught me how to work the earth. And use everything. Nothing goes to waste. There’s veggies, herbs, and flowers for any ailment and everything. [But] I had forgotten. Until I was diagnosed with cancer. With my 3rd battle, I felt like giving up. [But then] I took my children’s advice and alongside chemo, I began to grow my own. There’s [always] a ROOT to cure, you just have to plant it.”
I’d been curious as to whether this was actually a thing. Like many, I’d heard ridiculous things like “Black folks stopped gardening back in slavery” or “Black folks in the city don’t farm.” Friends would chuckle and laugh when I’d talk about my garden. Yet more and more I was finding evidence to the contrary. And it was also during this down time that I hit the jackpot. By then, I considered myself an avid gardener and a budding herbalist; so, I was thrilled to stumble upon a Facebook community called Black Girls with Gardens (BGWG). BGWG, founded by entrepreneur Jasmine Jefferson, is “a digital resource for women of color to find support, inspiration, education, and representation in gardening.” This social community is filled with over 6,000 Black women who have everything from small, urban, container gardens, to suburban greenhouses to full out farms. Scrolling through the posts, I was overwhelmed at first—and low-key filled with pure glee—that there were, and still are, so many of us growing plants and herbs and using them for wellness and medicine.
Princess Cole, an herbalist and yogi in Southaven, Mississippi, and an active member of the BGWG community, is one of those women.
“I grow a number of medicinal herbs including valerian, mugwort, marshmallow root, Ashwagandha, and more,” Cole tells ESSENCE. “With what’s going on today, I’m glad I’m able to provide my family with natural remedies. It’s important because access to western medicine is not within arms-reach or cheap. And it has way too many side effects that cause other issues.”
So as Spring has arrived, many more sisters are wielding their shovels and seed packets like the machetes of ancient warriors in order to ward off the symptoms and effects of the global nemesis, COVID-19. As Black farmer, Ras Kofi, says, “farming is fundamental to [Black] liberation.”
And whether it’s in containers on apartment balconies or on farm land passed down to them by family, Black women are clearly taking the lead in helping to protect and build the immune systems of our own families and the communities around us.
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