Being a qualified landscape gardener, Debbie Coulson has designed gardens all over Kenya for years.
But when she decided to start her own ‘Physic’ Garden in mid-2017, her plan was not just to beautify her home with colourful flowers and shrubs or even to grow herbs and spices to enhance her recipes.
“Every plant in my garden has medicinal powers,” says Debbie who has been growing green things since childhood in Brazil. She now has over 200 medicinal plants, both exotic and indigenous, in her exquisitely designed set of garden beds.
Grown in a set of three concentric circles, she calls the centre circle her ‘Calm Bed’. That is because the plants grown there specifically relieve stress, depression and a host of other maladies. The plants include angelica, chamomile, lavender, lemon balm, rose, sage and passion fruit to name a few.
The next concentric circle has a wide range of healing plants that treat everything from skin cancer, digestion problems and malaria to arthritis, measles and respiratory problems.
She even grows plants to heal migraines. There are also a number that are anti-fungal, antiviral and antibacterial.
“I mainly collect the indigenous plants myself. That’s what I do when I travel around the country,” says Debbie who has also travelled to various places outside Kenya.
“But categorically, I can say that nowhere begins to compare to Kenya!”
Nonetheless, her medicinal garden also has lots of exotic plants that have come from places like South, Central and North America as well as Europe, China and Africa, from Cape to Cairo.
With all of these plants carefully labelled (including the maladies they can treat), Debbie delights in the fact that modern science has finally researched and confirmed the healing powers of plants which have been known for millennia among the Mayans, Incans, Indians, Chinese, Egyptians and Aboriginals.
As an example, she says a plant like the marigold has been considered sacred for centuries in all those civilisations. Among its medicinal uses are the treatment of eye inflammation, skin problems and it even serves as a bug repellent.
The Artemisia Annua or Mugwort is another plant that she says has been well researched and recognised in the treatment of everything from malaria and bladder infection to cancer although the research and testing is still ongoing. “But I am not claiming anything,” says Debbie who was initially introduced to medicinal plants in India where she had gone to learn about Ayurvedic philosophy but ended up being introduced to Ayurvedic medicinal gardens.
Thereafter, she studied landscape design at the Inchbald School of Interior and Garden Design in London and herbalism at the Scottish School of Herbal Medicine and the Dilston Physic Garden in Northumberland.
And even though she is careful not to claim that she is a homeopath, leave alone an alchemist, she does love meeting Kenyans who have knowledge of the healing power of indigenous plants. Unfortunately, many of those local experts are dying out, which is one reason why she feels so passionate about sharing what she has learned with individuals and groups starting to come to see her medicinal garden.
“The Kenya Horticulture Society was invited to come one day recently and I expected maybe 10 to show up. When 60 arrived, I was amazed but they were all eager to learn about the garden,” she says.
Debbie has also been visited by international botanists who are especially interested in the third concentric circle that she devotes to growing indigenous plants.
“The indigenous plants of Kenya have until now been under-researched”, she says. But she is happy to share what she knows.
“I want people to learn the importance of nature through plants,” she says, noting how much she appreciates Prof. Wangari Maathai’s view that “We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds.”
Even so, she prefers to teach people about conservation through plants rather than trees. One reason, she says is because a tree takes three years to grow while a plant can only take three weeks.
“One thing I occasionally do with visitors is to take them to my kitchen and show them how to make everything from tea to tinctures.” In addition, her kitchen is where she also makes ointments, oils, balms, pestos, vinegar and even smudge sticks for cleansing rooms of germs.
“Ultimately I want to teach people to love nature by appreciating the amazing power of plants.”