DIAMOND LAKE – There’s no aspirin, antacids, cold pills or Neosporin in Lois Robertson’s medicine cabinet. Instead, there are glass jars of potions, salves, tinctures, oils, syrups and tea mixes most of them from herbs and medicinals collected directly from the land tucked up north between the Canadian and Idaho borders in Pend Oreille County.
Robertson is a community herbalist, also known as a folk or village herbalist, where she uses native and local plants – and often weeds to the unknowing gardener – to help improve the health of her neighbors. Perhaps most importantly, Robertson is an educator.
From her property above Diamond Lake, Robertson teaches classes and workshops from her Cedar Mountain Wellness Center. This summer, she offered courses on lavender, remaking your medicine cabinet herbs for natural beauty and the basics of essential oils.
Students in the medicine cabinet makeover class learned how to treat heartburn, insomnia, headaches, flu and colds in more natural ways than the common over-the-counter pharmaceuticals.
“People need to know that their health is actually in their hands,” Robertson said. “There’s more we can do for ourselves to support our health, and it’s right around us.”
She said people are tired of the side effects – and expense – of prescription drugs and pain medicines.
Robertson isn’t against Western medicine and is actually very involved as a commissioner of Newport Hospital and Health Services since 2011 where she oversees the medical staff. She believes in synergy between the two disciplines.
“It’s very important to have both in life,” she said. “It’s not one or the other, they aren’t fighting each other. They work together.”
Besides an herbalist, Robertson also is a licensed massage therapist. She believes there are many opportunities for people to heal and find relief, but they must lead their own path.
“I’ve found people are hungry for this information,” she said.
Judy Upton of Newport has an insatiable appetite, taking most every class Robertson offers – from women’s health and making her own skin care products to body butters and scrubs.
Upton and her husband retired to northeastern Washington a few years ago from Southern California, looking for a simpler and healthier lifestyle.
“I’ve learned it’s not only what you put in your body, but what you put on your body,” Upton said.
She views Robertson as a goddess with her wisdom in sharing simple and natural ways to health. Now she sees her spice cabinet and the woods and river outside her door in a new way.
With Robertson’s help, Upton has lowered her high cholesterol by 80 points, and her skin has never looked better – an attribute noticed by friends every time she visits them and relatives in California.
In the winter, she takes tinctures of echinacea and a shot of fire-cider. Sometimes the taste is off-putting but well worth the benefits.
“If it keeps me well and out of the doctor’s office, I’m doing it,” Upton said.
Herbalism goes back to the beginning of man. De Materia Medica, the five-volume pharmacopoeia of medicinal plants and medicines, was written between A.D. 50 and 70 by Pedanius Dioscorides, a Greek physician in the Roman army.
It covers about 600 plants. A faint sent of lavender was detected when Tutankhamun’s tomb was opened in 1923, about 3,000 years after the young pharaoh’s death.
Robertson got hooked as a teenager while in a professional dance company, and a fellow dancer – an “old woman in her 40s” (Robertson now laughs at her youthful misgauge) – introduced her to plantain.
The green broadleaf weed grows in lawns and is a historical “heal all” because of its versatility. From then on, she carried a copy of the classic guide to herbal medicine and remedies “Back to Eden” by Jethro Kloss like a Bible.
This summer when a bee stung Robertson’s husband in the crease of his eye, Robertson picked a plantain leaf, chewed it to release the healing properties, and then put the poultice on the sting. The bite, swelling and pain was undetectable that evening.
Robertson learned most of her plant skills by attending one of the first schools of Rosemary Gladstar, a rock star of modern herbalism, in the early 1980s.
Life and children happened, and through it all, Robertson always used medicinals. A friend of her twin boys got a stomachache during a sleepover.
The child asked for the “pink stuff” to help with his discomfort. Robertson’s boys hadn’t ever heard of Pepto Bismol. Instead, Roberston made the boy peppermint tea.
One of Robertson’s poultices – a concoction of honey, castor oil, bentonite clay, turmeric and essential oils – is famous in Spokane Hoopfest folklore. Her identical twin boys, Nick and Evan, along with their two classmates have the Hoopfest distinction of playing the longest stint as one complete team.
The Rim Rippers started in 1994. Robertson’s poultice preserved that playing streak about 10 years ago when Nick rolled his ankle two weeks before that year’s tournament.
He applied the poultice every 12 hours, wrapping it in plastic wrap, a bandage and a sock and repeating for three days. The potion worked, and the Rim Rippers competed together as a complete team.
In 2014, Robertson reconnected with Gladstone on a medicinal plant journey to Costa Rica. Robertson knew it was her time to immerse herself in plants, especially plants local to northeastern Washington.
She returned to Diamond Lake and three years ago established the Cedar Mountain Wellness Center. Inside her house, just off the kitchen is a wooden door with an elaborate stained-glass window.
It leads to Robertson’s apothecary lined with glass jars of dried herbs in a rainbow of colors like the saffron orange of freshly picked calendula, the pink of rosebuds, green of mugwort leaves and silvery glint of white sage.
This is where she mixes her concoctions and develops her recipes, including her ever-popular elderberry syrup. Outside her house and down the road to her wellness center are wild and local plants and of course her gardens where she plants her favorite herbs.
Her property is a designated botanical sanctuary to help endangered plants. “It’s never-ending and a lifelong of learning,” she said of herbalism. “There’s just so much to know.” And Robertson is thrilled to share her knowledge.
She suggests people start by finding an herbalist in their community. Then take a class or access online resources, such as herbmentor.com. Locally is the Four Seasons Herbal Guild that has monthly meetings across the Inland Northwest. Robertson also is a member of the American Herbalist Guild.
Most important is just walking in nature and looking at plants. Yes, Robertson talks to the plants and absorbs their energy. She said it’s important to positively identify plants and know the basics of ethical harvesting.
Here are some of Robertson’s favorite local plants and a look at their healing properties:
Plantain - Soothes insect bites and bee stings.
Mullan - Relieves back pain and ear infections and provides respiratory support.
Yarrow - Good for respiratory support.
Dandelion - A diuretic and good for digestion. Delicious on salads.
Nettles - Nourishing spring herb.
Comfrey - Anti-inflammatory that heals sprains, swelling and bruises.
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