Healing garden: How Debbie's herbs cured her Covid-19Tuesday May 16 2023
Nairobi Physic Garden is a work of art built on passion. Its spiral-like design gives its layers of different plants.
An aerial view of the garden shows the four spiral layers of the garden. I meet Debbie Coulson on a cold and chilly afternoon in the garden at her Karen home.
It had rained that day, so the garden was muddy. However, that does not deter us and our mission to explore this beautifully crafted garden.
Bees are having a field day snacking on nectar from the flowers blooming courtesy of the recent rains.
With nearly 400 species of herbal plants and over 1,000 plants in the garden, Debbie has grown it into her own beautiful mess, which exudes serenity, healing, and calmness.
“I like them growing out, not for them to be too formal. I do not want them to invade each other’s spaces, so I prune them, but if they’re going to fall down the spiral wall, I allow it. I like them to remain natural. I love for them to maintain their wildness,” says Debbie adding, “Physic is a Greek word that means to heal. It is a Nairobi healing garden.”
We have half of the plants being indigenous plants and half of them exotic plants (Mzungu Plants), which she says are mainly from Europe and America,” she says.
Having been trained as a gardener in England many years ago, Debbie came back to Kenya and did designs for influential people in society.
“With time, I started getting interested in medicinal plants. The first garden I did was an indigenous plants garden at my home, and no one appreciated that, so I gave up on it and built a house there. I then did a traditional herb garden at the National Museum 17 years ago, which is still there. Seven years ago, I started this garden. I came up with the design and built it from scratch. I would never have started if I had known how big this garden would become. I would have been intimidated. But I started it as a hobby, and it has slowly grown with time. I like building, I like to design, and I love colour, and it just happened, and it is going to grow even more.”
As a cancer survivor, Ms Coulson says that the herbs benefit her health.
Each bed has green and grey labels. The grey signs show the theme of the bed while the green signs tell the health benefits of every plant.”
The one-eighth-acre garden is arranged in five different beds. Each has very many different plant species.
Daisy family bed
The Daisy family bed is at the entrance to the garden. It is named Daisy because most of the plants look like daisies.
It has the Dandelion Plant. “It used to be considered a weed. My grandmother would make me pick this from her lawn in England. It was considered pure ‘takataka’ but now it can be used in salads, and coffee and is perfect for blood purification and arthritis,” Ms Coulson says, adding “I do not like using the roots of the plants because then you are left with no plants. So I prefer to use the leaves.”
The Daisy family bed also has milk thistle that is very good for the liver and helps prevent a hangover before a night out.
“Milk thistles are instrumental in treating Parkinson’s disease,” says Ms Coulson.
Also on the bed are daisies which are very good for the healing of wounds. “And these roses? Do you know what roses are good for? The heart. We all love roses because they are pretty and smell good,” a clearly-excited Debbies tells BDLife.
Mint family bed
To the right of the garden is the Mint family bed. Which comprises mainly plants that belong to the same group as the mint.
Among these is the Artemisia plant, used in malaria treatment and Covid-19. She gives us a few leaves to squeeze in our hands. It smells like chewing gum.
Mint is very good for the tummy. “Have it in your cup of water to help with digestion. We also have Comfrey, which used to be known as knit bones in the old days; it used to be grown to knit back broken bones,” says Debbie.
By diseases or conditions bed
Here every plant is labelled according to the different parts of the body that it heals. Each plant has its own mini bed within the bed such that they do not override one another.
“There is a part for diseases that help in the skin, the head or the brain, treatment of cancer, the heart and boosting the immune system. I have some Kikuyu eye drops here, which, if you squeeze, will give you some drops that treat eye problems."
Inside the head or brain bed space is the sage plant, which is very good for the brain and prevents memory loss.
“I make a memory tincture using the sage, which my friends come and take. The only reason I know who has taken it is because they are the only ones who remember to send me the money for the tincture,” jokes Ms Coulson.
Chillies are already flourishing in the bed, exhibiting their beautiful red colour. St John’s Wort is another indigenous herbal plant. “I found it in the Aberdares. St John’s wort helps with depression,” Ms Coulson tells us.
“When I had Covid-19, I took tea made with Thyme, and I could feel my lungs loosen as I took the tea. It is good for the lungs.”
The centre of the garden hosts the calm bed. “People get stressed out and get sick. This bed’s plants include roses, chamomile, lavender, and fennel. Lavender helps with relaxation and calming the body,” says Ms Coulson.
Preparing chamomile tea has been proven to help deal with sleep problems, improve your sleep quality, and also aid in calming those coping with anxiety disorder.
Indigenous plants bed
The three beds at the garden’s edge comprise indigenous plants she has gathered from around Kenya. The bed has blackjack (a common weed) trying to recover from the heavy rains.
“We call it the wait a minute since when it catches on to your clothes, you must stop and take some time to remove them. It is a little sad right now because this rain messed it up. Some plants love the rain, and others get wounded by it.”
Other indigenous plants in the garden include the Polygonaceae, a remedy for asthma and sore throat. The Ribwort Plantain is also very present in the bed and helps heal wounds.
Stinging nettle that leaves you with a burning sensation if you touch it with bare hands is also growing in lush the garden. Debbie shows us the cakes that she makes from the stinging nettle.
On the outer part of the bed, Ms Coulson has a nursery where she puts plants that people come and purchase.
All the plants go for Sh300. Debbie says, “You can grow herbs anywhere, even on your balcony and kitchen window.”
Processing the Herbs
At her home, Ms Coulson has converted one of her houses into her own apothecary, where she makes her ‘potions and lotions.
“We make organically homegrown products using the herbs from the garden. I am trying to get Kebs certification to start selling in shops. For now, I only sell privately.”
After attending herbal training classes at St Odilia’s, Ms Coulson got the necessary skills to process her herbs.
Debbie uses herbal plants to make ointments and tinctures. “The ointments cost between Sh600 and Sh1,000.
Tinctures have alcohol in them. A tincture is a plant dropped in alcohol for a month and then taken in drops. Ointments are in more demand as many people are reluctant to take alcohol,” says Debbie.
“You soak the herbal plants from the garden in olive oil for a month. If you want to fasten the process, you can put the plants in olive oil and heat them to enable the olive oil to be infused into the plants. Once you have the oil with the plant in it, you sieve the product and throw away the remains of the plant. Then you put beeswax and shea butter into the olive oil. This will make the scent disappear. You can put in some perfumes to give some smell to the ointment. The next step is to melt the product and then pour the product into empty tins. Once it is settled, we close the tins and put the labels on.”
The ones with a scent are in higher demand compared to the unscented ointments. “People want to smell delicious and spoil,” adds Ms Coulson.
For the future, Ms Coulson says, “I want to create another bed. For this one, I want to do a sacred bed. I want to put traditional plants from the Bible used by people in the upcountry. A lot of plants have a lot of stories around them,” Debbie says.
“During the dry season, I used water from my borehole. The plants did not die, but they did not look as fat and fluffy as now with the rainwater,” Debby tells us of her irrigation solutions.
Caring for them
“We make compost from the spoilt leaves that we pick out. This is what we use as fertilizer for our plants. Everything here is organic. We also use Lantana, an invasive plant, to make our own pesticide (dudu dawa). It is completely organic and made out of other plants.” The Lantana is soaked in water for a week and then sprayed to eliminate all pests.
Other future plans for Ms Coulson are to write a book about her garden and open up the garden to students for their learning.
“The point is to get the word out about these herbs’ importance to the body. I want to show people the importance of nature through plants. Other people do it through stones and trees; mine is herbs.”
The herbal plants in the garden have a healing element. If you consume the plants, you can heal, but also sitting and resting in the middle of all these plants can also heal and calm your mind.
Herbs heal and contain a fantastic smell that will leave your home smelling good and your meals and drinks very tasty.