The roses were blooming, their fragrant pink petals opening to the June sun. The lavender was just behind, their tiny purple buds starting to unfurl. At Blessed Maine Herb Farm in Athens, it was time to harvest both plants so they could be made into medicinal teas, elixirs and balms.
“We do a lot with roses,” said the farm’s founder and owner Gail Faith Edwards, 69, as she steered around bumblebees to pluck delicate petals from a rosa rugosa bush.
She popped a petal into her mouth and chewed it as she worked, dropping the rest of the petals into a wide basket propped on her hip.
On her ridgetop farm in central Maine, Edwards tends herb gardens that contain more than 100 medicinal plants and sprawls over about four acres. She also gathers a wide variety of wild plants that naturally grow in the property’s forests and fields, such as red clover and hemlock needles.
“Anywhere you look in nature there’s usually something medicinal or nourishing,” Edwards said. “So many native plants are food, and then we have plants like plantain, dandelion and burdock that came from Europe with early settlers but have become foundation plants here that even the Native Americans revere.”
With these plants, both cultivated and wild, Edwards has worked over the past 30 years to develop an extensive line of products that include tinctures, loose-leaf teas, incense, vinegars, oils, resins and skin creams. She’s also authored a number of books on traditional herbal medicine, and in a one-room schoolhouse her son built at the farm, she hosts workshops and retreats on the topic.
For Edwards, being an herbalist is both an intellectual and spiritual journey.
“[Herbalists] have to read voraciously. We’re always learning. But at a certain point, the real deep understanding comes from this place here,” she said, placing her hands over her heart.
As Edwards walked a meandering path through her gardens on a recent morning, she pointed out the various herbs and their uses.
The tall plant with the lacey white flowers was valerian, she said. Its roots were used for stress relief and to induce sleep.
And there were rows of rich, green hyssop, a low-lying plant on the verge of developing blue-purple blossoms.
“It’s a very important herb,” Edwards said. “Since the biblical days, it’s been used as a cleanser in smudges and internal medicines. It says in the Bible, ‘Purify me with hyssop and I shall be clean.’”
On she walked, maintaining balance with a cane, her tendrils of her long curly hair stirring in the warm breeze. Magnolia, lemon balm, echinacea, calendula, mugwort, astragalus and comfrey — she spoke of them all as old friends.
“A lot of people who come to learn from me say it’s overwhelming,” she said. “‘Where do we start?’ [they say.] ‘There are so many herbs to learn.’ But I say, ‘No. Forget that. Never in a million years are you going to learn all the herbs. Just learn one a year. Focus on one plant, herb, tree — whatever that calls to your heart — and then learn about that.’”
“That’s what I strive for,” she added. “Of course, I’ve been at this since I was 20, so I’ve had a chance to get to know some plants really, really well.”
Edwards grew up in Hoboken, New Jersey, and moved to Maine with her boyfriend in 1973 as a part of the back-to-the-land movement, an unorganized migration in the United States of people moving from urban environments to rural communities, where they planned to live simpler, more sustainable lives.
She purchased the farm in 1977, and soon after, her boyfriend left. But she remained, building gardens and living off-the-grid for many years.
“All four of my children were born right here on this land in my original little house,” she said. “This land has been very very good to us.”
Edwards purchased the property and began developing gardens there in 1977, but it wasn’t until 1989, after she’d given birth to her four children, that she drew up a business plan and started selling her herbal products and leading workshops.
In 1989, with four young children underfoot, Edwards founded Blessed Maine Herb Farm and began selling her herbal medicines. The small family business has grown steadily ever since.
Today, two of her daughters continue to aid her in her business, though they both have separate full-time jobs of their own, one running her own catering business and the other teaching at a local school. Edwards also employs a full-time intern and another part-time employee. The farm is certified by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, and the building in which they produce all their products was built to meet industry standards and be compliant with U.S. Food and Drug Administration rules and regulations.
Some of Edwards’ most popular products include her Fertility Formula and 13 Sisters Restorative Elixir, which she formulated to help with the symptoms of menopause. She’s also known for her medicines containing Baltic amber, which is fossilized resin that is millions of years old and has historically been used in medicine for pain relief and general wellness.
“Everything has lot numbers every step of the way,” Edwards said. “Our goal is to track every bottle, jar or box back to the seed placed in the ground and plant harvested.”
The farm continues to grow. This spring, they planted 140 fruit-bearing trees. This summer, they’ll continue work on the farm’s new mile-long Food and Medicine Trail, an interpretive path to be used for workshops and farm tours. And this fall, they’re working with the National Resources Council of Maine and state bee biologists to create a new, 1-acre meadow of wildflowers for pollinators.
And Edwards will continue to pass on her knowledge to her family, community and those who attend her workshops and purchase her books.
“At first, everything is a field of green, but the more you learn to identify and connect with individual plants, they start to stick out to you,” Edwards said. “You say, ‘Oh, there are the roses. There’s the plantain.’ It’s not just a field of green anymore.”
To learn more about Blessed Maine Herb Farm, visit www.blessedmaineherbs.com.
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