Leverett woman bringing Eastern herb treatments to Greenfield
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Mary Ryan of Blue Dragon Apothecary in Greenfield uses a dropper bottle with a tincture of relaxing herbs. Purchase photo reprints »
Mary Ryan of Blue Dragon Apothecary in Greenfield with fresh peppermint. Purchase photo reprints »
Mary Ryan of Blue Dragon Apothecary in Greenfield with an herb called Helichrysum. Purchase photo reprints »
There’s more than a bit of magic as you enter Blue Dragon Apothecary.
As unlikely as it might be to find it in a Victorian house on Highland Avenue, the wooden-accented first-floor space adds to what can only be called the enchantment of shelves of glass canisters lined up containing an array of dried herbs: prickly ash, blessed thistle, oat tops, comfrey root and on and on.
The apothecary, which moved to Greenfield last month from Amherst, can be a fairly busy place on Thursdays, when Leela Whitcomb-Hewitt, trained in Tibetan medicine, offers walk-in Ku Nye massage therapy. Or on Fridays, when owner Mary Ryan and herbalist Jade Alicandro Mace provide low-cost, walk-in herbal medicine consultations.
But day in and day out, people with appointments show up for roughly 300 herbal remedies, in the form of tinctures as well as dried herbs and powders — many of those clients following Ryan and her team from Amherst, where Blue Dragon operated for more than a year at the Nacul Center for Ecological Architecture. Many of the herbs, themselves, come from around the region — from Ryan’s or Mace’s home gardens in Leverett, from the Nacul center garden or from other herb growers.
It’s all a long way from Dharamsala, where Ryan did her field studies while earning her doctorate in medical anthropology from Oxford University, where she also earned her master’s in biological anthropologya. But it’s there that Ryan, who grew up in Newton and began her studies at the University of Massachusetts, compared traditional Tibetan medical approaches with the Tibetan refugees arriving in that northern Indian city back in 1991.
She looked at how arthritis and the Tibetan diagnosis known as loong — the combination of stress and anxiety exhibited by many of the refugees who have recently escaped into India, many of them malnourished.
With access to a center offering traditional Tibetan medicine as well as a Western hospital there, she researched how randomly divided patients did with aspirin versus traditional Tibetan medicine — first, sorting through the difficult questions of which viewpoint to use in diagnosing and measuring results.
“We sought out people with swollen, painful joints that were red to the touch,” says Ryan, who gave patients a self-reporting questionnaire and used a physical therapy protocol to score pain, range of motion and strength over weeks. She also looked at how the refugees were doing in their daily life.
Her research found slightly more improvement in range of motion and strength with the Tibetan medicine, along with “quite a pronounced improvement” with how they lived their day-to2-day functions.
But when it came to pain, the Western medicine group “did off-the-charts better,” admits Ryan, who also did research for the University of Copenhagen on mental health needs of Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala, and who later was a visiting professor at Harvard University’s School of Public Health.
“There are no big cure-alls in herbal medicine. Tibetan medicine addresses diet, behavior, for detoxification of fluid around the joints, so that inflammation goes down — aspects of health that would improve daily living. The Western medicine group was addressing pain, because we’re very uncomfortable around pain.”
That may be changing, Ryan found when she returned to Dharamsala, as recently as last fall. Motrin, Advil and painkillers were plentiful.
“There’s sort of a blending of cultures now, a blurring of what symptoms mean to people,” she says.
Yet in Amherst, as part of what Ryan calls a diverse client mix, the apothecary saw “a few Puerto Rican, older and middle-age women” who came for valerian and Jamaican dogwood, traditional remedies that had been handed down from their grandparents. And although she sees a greater acceptance of herbal medicine among a younger population, there’s also part of the customer base that consists of older Asian-Americans.
Ryan, who is also licensed to practice acupuncture in Europe, says she decided to move the apothecary from Amherst, where there’s a more affluent customer base, to serve a larger low-income clientele in Greenfield and in the hilltowns.
Blue Dragon also sells herbs at Greenfield Farmers Market.
“Our interest is in serving the poor and working poor,” says Ryan. She also makes house calls in communities from Belchertown to Easthampton and Conway.
“I find that with poorer, hard-working clients who can’t pay, their compliance is very high, and they’re very enthusiastic because it creates great change in their lives. That’s very rewarding, to serve that population.”
Ryan said her plan is to seek non-profit status for the apothecary so that she can offer to low-income populations, including veterans, consultations and educational programs on growing and using herbs, for example.
Among her clients are “single mothers with distressed teens,” who might need an anxiety remedy for the teen, and for the mother, maybe “an energy tonic that has a lot of sustenance in it to keep her going, because maybe she’s working three jobs.”
Ryan, who moved back to this country in 1998 after working as an herbalist and acupuncturist in Denmark, sees herself as working to cultivate our own Western herbal medical tradition, using plants that are grown either locally or domestically.
“Something I really love,” she says while dispensing a sleep tonic to a client with insomnia, “is that you have bacopa from Vedic medicine, but it grew in Conway, and Astralagus root, from the Chinese tradition, but we have it from New Hampshire, so there’s Chinese, Vedic, and Western, and I can combine herbs together that are grown locally but come from different traditions.”
It’s the same kind of “cross-fertilization” between medical traditions that Ryan found when she traveled to northern India last October.
Each of the herbs in Blue Dragon’s jars have their strengths — the passion flower and California poppy, which are relaxants; the dandelion leaf, used as a diuretic to cleanse the digestive system; the tulsi, used in the Vedic tradition as a tea to simultaneously relax and awaken; the helichrysum, which can be applied as a compress on sprains and sore muscles.
“I try to explain these not effusively, bursting out with cures and miracles with herbal medicine,” Ryan says. “It’s more an education about how your body works. And what works for you.”
On the Web: www.bluedragonapothecary.com