The Medicine Trail

In 2013 Boulder County was hit by one of the worst floods in recent history.  It’s been determined that it was a 500-year flood, meaning it doesn’t flood like that except once in 500 years.  Our little farm is tucked along the banks of the Coal Creek, a little river that flows from the Continental Divide down the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, until it hits our little farm about 10 miles east.  By the time it reaches us, the creek is normally a gently flowing, 10-foot-wide creek.  Usually, it’s perfect for the horses to play in, or kids to hunt for tadpoles or crawfish.
But in 2013, our little creek flooded, and it covered almost all of our small 10-acre farm.  The “wild” areas that we use for our herbal medicine classes were completely submerged under madly rushing water, and when the water finally receded, we were honestly unsure of what would be left.  How could any plants survive the violence of that kind of natural disaster?

We turned to the United Plant Savers to help us with a grant. Their generosity allowed us to help re-establish some of the native medicinal plants that we have growing in our area, and to rebuild our Medicine Trail, which is one of our most important teaching tools at Three Leaf Farm.

Now that it’s been almost five years since the flood, it’s amazing to see the regenerative power of nature, but also the lasting changes that a natural disaster like this can bring.

Perhaps the most significant change are the new areas of wetlands that now exist at Three Leaf Farm.  Being in a flood plain, some of the areas have been holding water since the flood and don’t seem likely to dry out anytime soon.  We’ve seen a completely new kind of ecosystem, bringing with it new kinds of plants and wildlife to the area.

These wetlands are unusual in the dry climate of Colorado, making up only about 2% of the landscape of the state. It’s a great opportunity for us to learn, observe and teach about the plants.  These diverse ecosystems provide many functions: they help to recharge the groundwater supply and help in nutrient cycling and sediment transport.  They help to provide clean water as the wetland vegetation filters sediment that may contain heavy metals, pesticides, or fertilizers.  This vegetation can also provide a buffer zone in flood areas and provide a quality wildlife habitat. Many animals at our farm depend on these wetlands, including ducks, cranes, hawks, eagles, owls, as well as mammals like racoons, coyotes, skunks, weasels, mice, and foxes.

The plants that are commonly found in wetlands are commonly called hydrophytes (plants that grows in water).  They’ve adapted to their environment in a number of ways, including forming complex rooting systems, floating leaves, or long, hollow stalks that help to conduct air to the roots.  We now see an amazing array of new plants, including cattails, (Typha spp), rushes (Juncus spp), sedges (Carex spp) duckweeds, and watercress.  Trees, like willows and cottonwoods, are also common as their shallow root systems obtain a large amount of their water from the groundwater and are now thriving at the farm.

The other areas of the property have shown remarkable recovery from the damage of the floodwaters.  After amending our soil in the cultivated areas, we’re back into full production of the produce that we grow, including greens, beets, radishes, carrots, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and squashes.   The medicine trail itself has reestablished itself through both natural means and our encouragement with the seeds purchased by the UpS grant.  We have healthy populations of yarrow, valerian, motherwort, goldenrod, cleavers, catnip, vervain, St. John’s wort, and more.

The grasses have returned to our classroom meadow, and last spring we held a workshop called “Sacred Circles: Universal Symbolism of Our Relationship to Earth” in which we partnered with local naturalist, Martin Ogle, for a program that explored how sacred circles have been used by universally by people and seem to transcend both geography and culture.  The workshop explored how these ancient motifs – and the creation of our own symbols – can help us appreciate modern-day relationships between families, communities and Earth’s living systems.
Participants in the workshop helped to create a Sacred Circle Medicine Garden in the area that had been damaged by the flood.  This garden is 16 feet in diameter, with a walking border and an equal armed cross through the center.  Each quadrant of the circle is carefully aligned to the four directions, and designed to be planted with medicinal plants that correspond to that direction, and season.  For the first season of the garden, the workshop participants created the hardscape; digging out the circle, measuring the geometry, placing rocks and setting different colored mulches.   Initial plants and seeds were planted by the group, and we’ll continue to fill in the plants this season as we host the second year of this workshop.
In the north, season of winter, we planted a miniature pine, junipers, sage, and Oregon grape.  These plants are often symbolic of winter and can be useful to alleviate ailments like colds and flu or respiratory infections.  In the east, we planted plants of the spring.  A miniature lilac is planned to bloom early with the fragrance of new beginnings.  We added St. John’s wort, which is traditionally harvested right at the end of spring, on the first day of summer at the Summer Solstice.  We added some springtime bulbs of tulips and daffodils and tucked along the edge is a border of thyme.   In the south, direction of fire and the summer, we plan a miniature hawthorn and a variety of roses.  English lavender, echincea, and yarrow will all bloom and be at their most vital during the summer months.   And finally, in the West, direction of the autumn, we will have an elderberry bush, sunflowers, California poppies, and calendula; all plants who thrive in Colorado’s warm, sunny autumn days.

We hope that over the years as this garden fills in, it will be one of the highlights of the medicine walk at Three Leaf Farm. People can walk around the exterior or move to the center to sit on a small bench and contemplate the cyclical nature of life.

Thanks to the support from United Plant Savers, our mission at Three Leaf Farm to be an educational center for medicinal plants has been able to survive the devastating damage of the floods.  Not only did the grant offer us the ability to reestablish our native medicinal populations, but we now have new, unique ecosystems to explore.  We are offering more workshops and classes than ever before, as well as hosting the amazing event, Botanica! A Celebration of Plants, a weekend long event in June that explores the way that plants impact human lives through food, medicine, art, and religion.