From the ground up: growing herbs with altitude

High above the Jemma River,  three hours from Addis Ababa, we walk a rocky path between houses made of mud and young eucalypts. Gule, one of the founding members of the Etse Fewus ‘Healing Plants’ association is leading us off-road to the medicinal garden.

We pass resting donkeys and loops of white cotton, hung up to dry outside people’s homes. It feels closer to the sun in Fiche and at lunchtime, everything looks dusty and heat-struck.

Everything, except a group of  women coming up the path behind us, who are laughing into white gabis flicked over their heads against the heat. We realise it’s the Etse Fewus women and their children, and it’s big greetings and more laughter on the road. The Sunday market was packing up for the day and they’d left to find us on the ridge above town.

We walk together until our little path opens up to yellowed farmland where a family and their cows are threshing newly cut teff. Below them, neatly fenced, is the garden we’d started three years before. P1030068

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What we saw was a forest of bright herbs; many as high as our shoulders, others carpeting the earth with star-shaped yellow flowers.

This time, we’d come from Addis in a full car with Botanica Ethiopia’s local project manager Tessema Bekele, Dr Tesfaye Awas from the Ethiopia Institute of Biodiversity and Dr Zemede Asfaw, an ethnobotanist from Addis Ababa University.  Both Tesfaye and Zemede worked closely with Lizzie to research Fiche’s endemic medicinal plants, but for Zemede, it was the first time to see the garden.

At the gate, Gule tells us they have 69 different varieties of medicinal herbs growing and Dr Tesfaye, who has been working with Etse Fewus to identify them, says nearly all have been pressed and registered at Ethiopia’s Gene Seed Bank back in Addis. The garden is the largest collection of medicinal herbs in the country, we’re told. One of a kind.

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Feres zeng for headaches

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According to the World Health Organisation, 80 per cent of Ethiopians rely on traditional herbal medicine as their primary form of healthcare. The vast majority of the population live in rural areas, far from a hospital or health clinic, with few resources to buy western drugs.

But Ethiopia is another country rapidly losing good land to development and climate changes, and with that, some of its most precious natural resources.

“Forty years ago, 40 per cent of Ethiopia was covered by high forests,” says Dr Tesfaye, who heads up the Seed Bank – one of just 12 in the world – and is now leading a UN funded study into medicinal plants across Ethiopia. Today, only 4 per cent of the country has trees, he says “and many think it’s even less than that.”

“Medicinal plant diversity is being depleted with this and indigenous knowledge of the use of those plants is disappearing,” he says. “So it’s good to look at what’s there, and in danger of being lost – and to have this on record for the future.”

Tej sar (Lemongrass) and Ariti (Artemesia sp.) in the foreground

Ato Abe ‘Number 29’

As Dr Tesfaye takes out his camera, a farmer from an adjacent plot leans over the fence-wire to tell us there are always people, especially teenagers, stopping by to ask him about the different herbs. He knew all the plant names and their medicinal uses, and joined Gule, Shikerke and the other women in pointing them out to us on a tour through the garden.

We were quickly joined by more Etse Fewus men; Emayu and Workemelew among then, as well as Ato Abe, or number 29 as he’s called by the group after the number of children he’s fathered. It was Ato Abe, a respected elder and priest-herbalist, who was so instrumental in bringing the Association together three years ago.

“Of course, how can you carry a bundle of sticks without a tie?” he’d told the others, and Este Fewus united to register as an official organisation with the Kebele (local government), who subsequently gave them this land.

Bayu, one of the Kebele officers who have been so supportive of the project the last few years, had also come to meet us and soon we were more than 25 people, following Ato Abe as he picked the way with his walking stick between terraced rows and false bananas, tasting herbs as he went. Dr Zemede, quizzing the herbalists with his notebook in hand and Dr Tesfaye, with his camera, snapping more photos for the lab.

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Gule and Lizzie talking herbal medicine

In the space of a year, the garden has flourished with herbs that seem to be enjoying new permaculture methods the association has been using to improve the soil.

Last October, Botanica Ethiopia organised for Alex McCausland from the Strawberry Fields Eco Lodge to run a hands-on permaculture workshop with the Etse Fewus in Fiche.

We’d visited Alex at Konso in 2011 and had been inspired by what he’d done with over-grazed land which, he said, the locals had written off as Lokollota’ or ‘dead soil’.

His farm was an oasis of dripping fruit trees, vegetables and grains in a semi-desert landscape of thorny acacias. And it was created without the use of harmful chemical inputs or insecticides, ‘poisons’ the Etse Fewus group had told us they really didn’t want to use.

“The situation in Ethiopia, like many places, is that the top soil has been depleted due to deforestation, ploughing, repeated grain cropping and subsequent erosion,” says Alex. In Fiche, we needed to add nutrients and ‘invigorate the soil life’ for the herbs to survive.

“We needed to produce a soil culture, just as we use a culture to make good yoghurt, cheese or leet for injera (Ethiopian flat bread),” said Alex, who worked with the Association to make compost and bio-fertiliser from weeds, bone, basalt, molasses and manure.

“We assured them the compost heap would be hot enough to heat a shower within a day or two, but I don’t think they really believed us … at the time!” he said.

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Making compost with Alex during the rainy season.

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Grinding up bones, basalt and pumice to make bioliquid fertiliser. This was mixed with wood ash, a cow’s stomach, fresh dung and milk.

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Building the heap: Alex McCausland from Strawberry Fields Eco Lodge making compost that could heat a shower!

The group learnt about balancing carbon, nitrogen content and water in the soil – and how to store precious seeds for future harvests or a rainy day.

They learnt how to companion-plant herbs like Artemesia and Marigold to keep insects at bay; Fennel, Dill and Sunflowers to attract wasps and hover flies, which in turn will eat the caterpillars and aphids; to build ponds to entice lizards and frogs which will devour the larger pests; and to plant sweet flowers to attract bees which will help pollinate the herbs.

And they built a chicken tractor: An enclosure which can be wheeled around the garden for happy chickens to distribute precious poo!

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Making the chicken tractor in Fiche.

We saw that the bushy Koso trees, planted as seedlings for tapeworm and for shade, were now tall enough to perform their role protecting the smaller herbs from the plateau sun. Feres zeng and Miseraj were buzzing with bees. There was Damakasse for colds, Hulegeb leaves for tonsillitis, Wonde Cheret for ear infections and Tenadam for stomach upsets. They had bushes of Rosemary and Lemongrass, Mekmeko for diabetes and hypertension and sweet smelling Ariti for parasites. It was a true living pharmacy!

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Blooming Kese, useful for upset stomachs

Shikerke told us they’ve started giving herbs to others in the community for various ailments when needed and they’re encouraging neighbours to plant medicinal gardens of their own at home. They’ve also started selling vegetables – tomatoes, garlic and kale – at the local market in the rainy season.

The Association had a mountain of ideas for their herbs but it was soon time for us to leave the garden. The women had prepared a beautiful late lunch for us back at Gule’s house and everyone wanted to talk ‘what’s next’ plans before it got too dark for us to make the drive back to Addis.

Those plans, for the next blog post very soon. Stay tuned …

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Gule and Lizzie between the Koso trees

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Tenadam is often sipped with coffee in Ethiopia, a popular remedy for stomach upsets

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Marigold pop!

Mekmeko, used for diabetes and hypertension

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Two t-shirts full of cherry tomatoes!

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The Etse Fewus Association with Dr Zemede Asfaw (bottom right), Michael and Lizzie, Tessema Bekele and Dr Tesfaye Awas(right)

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Heading home

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7 Comments on “From the ground up: growing herbs with altitude

  1. It is great BOTANICA ETHIOPIA is a pioneer in the development of herbs for medical use in the modern way. A lot can be done in this regard ,creating awareness to the society , more research on the herbs , and it is time the world is looking for such alternatives starting form simple common cold up to the dreadful disease , cancer.
    Thank you

    • Thank you for your support Fisseha – it’s true and a lot is being done particularly within Ethiopia by skilled and passionate people, both within Universities, at the Ethiopian Institute of Biodiversity, and certainly all the farmers and householders who hold this knowledge

  2. Good to see how valued the herb garden is in this community, and how the knowledge is being shared and recorded.

  3. Wow Just wow You guys are doing a great job in Ethiopia. Keep up! If there is anything that I can contribute to what you guys doing let me know…I would love to see meet you guys or visit someday!

  4. Thank You Lizzie!! I would love to see this place when I come to Ethiopia. I would be so happy to buy herbs from farmers and plant them in my garden. Sure, We should promote the use of Ethiopian herbal medicine like Western and Chinese Herb in major cities.
    Is it possible to grow them in cities like Addis, can I buy from growers ? thank you

  5. Hi Mahlet – thank you for your comment. I hope you will be able to visit the garden and see the great work they have done there. You would be able to grow many of the herbs in Addis and there are many markets which sell them – at Mercato and at smaller markets. Fiche holds a medicinal herb market once per year.

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