Shannon Algiere learned a hard but important lesson in her teens: Pollution and environmental destruction are rampant and everyone pays the cost. In light of this she has dedicated herself to “living in the beauty way.” Since 2003 that way has taken place at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, where she serves as the Flower and Herb Manager. She deeply believes in the healing potency of her beloved plants and shares some of her insights with us.
You grew up working in strawberry fields and peach orchards. Can you share some of your fondest memories of these times?
My family spent a lot of time with some of our very close friends on their Connecticut farm. When I was a young child, my mother worked the market table at their pick-your-own strawberry operation. I have fond memories of roaming the strawberry patch and feeding grass to the sweet cow just over the stone wall. One summer night, when our friends hosted a hayride through their peach orchard, I remember spreading the milkweed pods we grabbed as the wagon puttered by and the satisfying juiciness of biting into a fresh-picked peach.
How did these experiences influence your journey toward becoming the Flower and Herb Manager at Stone Barns?
They cracked open and fledged a deep yearning to embrace a continuum of connection with the land. Running and pausing barefoot on mossy rocks in the orchard sparked a sense of wonder that held a thread for me to follow while making choices and structuring my value system. I loved working with and around the vitality of nature. I grew up watching my aunt raise goats, my grandmother plant in greenhouses and my mother craft and sew. I helped my father in the garden and cared for my rabbits. I also felt the warmth of community while visiting the farm, which resonates strongly with the sense of community found here at Stone Barns.
Is there anything you learned from your time as a volunteer ranger in the Costa Rican National Park Service that you are putting to use now?
My eyes were opened to the absolute beauty and wildness of the tropics, which attuned me even more deeply to what may be called “living in the beauty way,” an indigenous philosophy that values and honors our planet. The Costa Rican government knows the ecosystem is an important component in their quality of life; through their conservation efforts, they have become leaders in sustainability measures and eco-tourism. This cultural tone had a positive impact on me as I learned about the concepts of Gaia, the planet as a living organism. Sadly, I also learned that there is a lot of destruction and pollution in the world, particularly seeing the plastic washing up on their shores. We spent a lot of time working to clear the beaches of debris. At eighteen years old, I took this in and grieved the global injustice around accountability in this type of mess. I knew then I needed to commit to making a positive impact in however I chose to work with the environment.
So many of us have lost touch with the healing powers of herbs. What are some of your favorite healing herbs and why?
My favorite herbs are stinging nettle, because of its deeply nourishing, tonic properties, and dandelion root and leaf, known for good cleansing and its digestive, stimulating qualities of its bitter taste. I also love rose petals for a calm, caressing effect that invokes the feminine.
How about culinary herbs? Any that you just can¹t live without, or particularly enjoy growing?
Basil is my favorite culinary, though I also brew it as a tisane. There is so much vitality and vigor to it and so many delicious cultivars; cinnamon basil is my favorite. The first plant I ever bought for myself when I went away to college was a Thai basil plant. I loved that it was a plant I was familiar with, yet an exotic cultivar that expressed nuanced individuality.
Flowers can also be quite healing by both the virtue of their beauty and smell, and by their potency as tinctures, remedies, and food. Is this anything you can speak to?
Flowers are the peak expression in the gesture of the plant. They evoke beauty and an elevated sense of complex form and color. When spending so much time in the garden with flowers, I am experiencing something more than mere design appreciation. I began to make my own flower essences as I became more attuned to patterns and messages in the plants. I also believe that including edible flowers in a meal not only adds beauty, but stimulates our inner healing properties as a response to the vibrant colors ingested.
What role do flowers and herbs play within the ecosystem of a farm?
Flowers can be an incredibly important crop in a productive farm system. They are a successful market crop sold simply as bouquets or by the stem as well as a value added marketing opportunity for weddings or other events; and dried flower crafts can be used for season-extension marketing opportunities. Flowers also increase plant and wildlife biodiversity. Many can show clear measurements of ecosystem health: flower patches and swath plantings attract high levels of diverse insects, promoting increased ecological balance in disturbed places. Flowers also promote health and an elevated sense of well-being to farm visitors and farmers alike in the mere aesthetic delight of their presence. Certain flowers are also helpful in keeping insects at bay that may be detrimental to the health of other cultivated crops.
The flower industry depends on imports that travel very far distances; flowers are grown using chemicals and pesticides and by workers who aren’t paid or treated well. By supporting locally grown flowers and the farmers who grow then, we can help change the overall small-farms agricultural movement in positive ways.
Any tips on how to grow a flourishing herb and flower garden?
Grow a flourishing flower garden focused on soil health! Use compost and amendments. Herbs require so many different environments, depending on their constitutions, so my advice is to get to know each individual herb’s growing habitats and cater to that environment. For example, thyme and lavender are from the Mediterranean climates so they love dry, rocky, sandy/gravel mix for a soil medium.
Does your work life influence your home life, and vice versa? If so, how?
Farming is an absolute lifestyle as much as it is a career. The devotion to the rhythm of the seasons, to health, spirituality, wellbeing and economics is a seamless practice both outwardly and inwardly.
What would you most like people to understand about herbs and flowers?
The more that people can take the time to open to each individual plant and the sensory experience each one provokes, the more they will be open to the healing they impart.
Can you recommend any of your favorite books on flowers, herbs and healing? Also: any trusted seed companies?
For growing tips:
The Flower Farmer by Lynn Byczinski
Specialty Cut Flowers by Judy Lauschman and Allan Ermitage
The Organic Medicinal Herb Farmer by Jeff and Melanie Carpenter
The Herbalist’s Way by Nancy and Michael Phillips
For learning about the healing qualities of herbs, start with Rosemary