In a barn outside Ridgway, with the sweet, dusty aroma of dried herbs around us, Sheila Manzagol explains how she “optimizes” the purified water she mixes into all of Shining Mountain’s medicinal herb blends. “I stir to the left until there’s a vortex, and then to the right until it appears again,” she explains. “It changes the water’s structure.” While she does this, she says the words “unconditional love.”
“That is the realm where all healing takes place,” she says, barely audible over the monsoonal rain drumming on the roof.
I am here to learn about a particular herb: Ligusticum porteri, commonly known as Osha. More specifically, I want to understand how Tim and Sheila Manzagol, the owners and farmers-in-chief of Shining Mountain Herb Farm, have managed to grow the notoriously difficult wild perennial.
Osha is native to the San Juans. It is also called “bear root” because the dark, stringy appendages of its root resemble a bear’s claws. In addition, native tribes are said to have observed bears digging and eating the roots after emerging from hibernation. Osha stimulates the respiratory, immune, and digestive systems, all of which might be sluggish after a long winter’s nap. In modern herbology, it is prized for its anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties, as well as its ability to fight a wide variety of respiratory ailments.
Like many alpine perennials, Osha takes several years just to establish itself. In its first year, it grows no more than a few inches tall. While it needs intense high-altitude sun, Osha is a very poor competitor with other plants. In their shade, it shrivels and disappears.
Once established, Osha can live for a hundred years. Few specimens in the wild reach that age anymore. United Plant Savers, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving North America’s native medicinal plants, lists Osha among our region’s threatened species. This may be because some wildcrafters aim for volume. One Forest Service official recalled a case in which an individual took more than fifteen thousand pounds of Osha from the San Juans in a single year. Wildcrafting Osha is now illegal in much of our region.
“The other problem with trying to wildcraft Osha,” notes Sheila, “is that, like many medicinal plants, it has a non-medicinal look-alike. But in the case of Osha, the look-alike is one of the most deadly plants known to humans.” Sheila is referring to Poison Hemlock.
So, the Manzagols decided to cultivate Osha themselves.
It is hard to overstate the audacity of that decision. University of Maryland botanists tried and failed to develop domestic stands from 2002-2007, recommending that herbalists “support wild stands.” Prominent herbalists Nancy and Michael Phillips claim that Osha is impossible to cultivate. It is unlikely that Tim and Sheila Manzagol were unfamiliar with these professional opinions. As scientists at the apex of their professions, it was their business to know the research.
Sheila recalls her years as a biologist in the biotech labs at Stanford University, “I was one of the first people to look at the blood of individuals with what would later be called the AIDS virus.” Meanwhile, Tim was a geological engineer, working with the energy industry. If anyone could crack the “code” of Osha cultivation, it might be this pair. As Tim recalls, they wanted to do even better. “We were looking to grow ‘pharmaceutical grade’ Osha, meaning that each crop would have the same potency as the crop before it.”
Their small farm in the Uncompaghre River valley outside of Ridgway seemed like the place to do it. Its high altitude and geological diversity leads to a huge variety of soil types within the acreage.
“But we were wrong,” Tim says cheerfully. Fluctuations in rainfall, seasonally-revoked irrigation rights, and Osha’s refusal to grow in the merest shadow of a weed were all factors that doomed the Manzagols’ first efforts. There were unanswered questions at every stage: what plant parts yielded the most vigorous offspring? At what time of year was it best to plant and to harvest? Which plant parts should be harvested? And, knowing that Osha has the capacity to be a centenarian, at what age?
This litany of unknowns is likely the cause of plant experts’ claims that Osha cannot be cultivated. But Tim and Sheila, in addition to being scientists, are also wine lovers.
“I considered the concept of terroir,” says Tim. In the realm of wine, “terroir” encapsulates the particularity of flavor among varietals, harvests, and locations. “It would be terrible if all wine tasted the same. The concept of terroir echoes the principle of biodiversity in nature. Insects and animals, facing the scarcity of one plant in a particular year, might choose another with similarities that offers different nutrition.” Changes in climate year over year, and changes in plants, Tim observes, “are the core drivers of evolutionary change.”
The Manzagols wondered if medicinal herbs, just like wine grapes, might have terroir – a set of variable potencies that are specific to their location, climate, and year of harvest. “Nature creates diversity,” says Tim, “so it makes sense to think that diversity in medicinal plants could be positive.” For this reason, the Manzagols grow a wide variety of medicinal plants, in addition to Osha, and diversify their medicinal formulas.
Through a potent blend of optimism and determination, they began to have successful Osha crops, tempered by the natural variations that each year’s conditions created.
Which brings us, in a roundabout way, back to unconditional love. These words are printed on every label at Shining Mountain Herbs and were also the inspiration for Tim and Sheila’s migration from full-time scientists to experimental cultivators of medicinal herbs.
In the late eighties, their infant daughter had a stubborn illness. Their pediatrician proposed dosing her with steroids, indefinitely. “I knew there had to be a better way,” says Sheila. “Eventually that search for a better way led us to where we are now.”
And this fall, Sheila plans to sell Osha seedlings so that you and I can grow it too. a