Plant Lover Explores Ancient Art Of Healing


The often perceived but seldom proven art of life juxtaposes science with its beautiful uncertainty. The scientific process of experimenting with one's intuitions until they become predictable enough to quote as fact distinguishes man from say, an ape.

But science can stray so far from art that instinct is buried, leaving one obliged to the end and ignorant about the means.


Leilah Breitler takes a sniff of one of the herbs she grows in her garden. She attempts to blend art and science.

Herbalist Leilah Breitler blends art and science, intuition and learning, faith and curiosity. The means are herbs, growing them, meditating by them, smelling them. The end is healing.

Breitler's backyard herb garden -- solely for personal use, though she owns The Herb Stop on Highway 87 -- showcases what Breitler calls, "God's pharmacy."

One of man's pharmacies is located next door to The Herb Stop. Breitler said some of her customers view conventional pharmacies as the enemy, but modern and herbal medicines complement one another.

"Here we call herbs, reiki and massage alternative. In Europe, it is not alternative -- just medicine," Breitler, who is from Switzerland, said. "Sometimes you need the antibiotics or you may die."

Much of modern medicine derives from plants. Each herb has hundreds of constituents, or derivatives that exhibit certain properties, many of which remain unknown. Breitler says that's because you can't patent a plant.

"If I discover everything in this plant, who's going to pay me?" In modern medicine, pharmaceutical companies often test plants to find useful properties, then synthesize and patent them to recoup the millions spent on research. The name aspirin, for instance, is derived from aspen, according to Breitler.

She told the story of a deer who nibbled on the aspen in her yard. She wondered why until she saw that the deer was injured, and apparently sought pain relief. The deer knew intuitively to eat the plant. Humans need a little more effort.

"A lot of people are getting into the herbs now," she said. The politics of medicine are luring some people to seek alternatives.

Breitler told another story of a woman who traveled to see a renowned healer. As the woman walked up to his house, the healer looked for signs that she was worthy of his wisdom. Then two plants bowed before her, their leaves bending. The healer had his sign.

"Scientifically, how can you explain that?" Breitler asked. One could say the plants moved from a breeze, but people usually see what lies within their realm of experience. Native Americans did not see European ships in the sea because they did not know about ships. Plants can teach a broader view, Breitler said.

One studies the science of plants to learn how to grow them, what they are, what sort of properties they contain.

After building a rudimentary understanding of the facts, one begins to experiment with the art. Breitler likened the process to a painter understanding that blue and yellow make green. "It's what you do after that," she said.

Breitler's fascination with herbs developed while growing up in Switzerland. Perhaps passed down instinctually, Breitler's grandmother also practiced herbalism.

Herbs eventually saved Breitler's life. She was diagnosed with leukemia and doctors said she had six months to live. "I was on the death ward, basically ready to die."

Her grandmother took Breitler out of the hospital, and cared for her. When Breitler did not want to eat, her grandmother was patient but persistent.

"She would just sit there and talk to me, tell me stories until I was hungry." The grandmother figured that Breitler needed more red blood cells, so she dressed Breitler in red clothing, made the bed with red sheets, gave her red wine to drink. "Everybody was laughing at her, but she followed her path."

Breitler was cured and has been clear of illness since 1967. She went on to study herbs at a school in Switzerland, and eventually moved to the United States -- New York City -- in 1974. She moved to Phoenix in 1989.

"I lived in a small town in Switzerland and I wanted to see the world," she said. Breitler has lived in Canada and Halifax, traveled to South America, South Africa and Russia. She moved to Payson from Phoenix in 2002.

The acreage surrounding Breitler's six-sided round house reminds her of home.

Yarrow grows in Breitler's back yard. It's used to stop bleeding. Mullein is furry and helps respiratory problems. Slippery elm is said to heal everything. She grows chives because "nobody can have a garden without chives." (They're too delicious.)

Dandelion flowers can be made into wine; Breitler says their leaves are delicious in salad. But aren't they weeds?

"A weed is a plant whose virtues have not been discovered yet," Breitler said.

And indeed, herbs grow like weeds in Breitler's garden. When asked how much maintenance her garden requires, she said, "maybe an hour in the morning, mostly for meditation."

Her plants need little water. She chooses what works for this climate. Ferns or other tropically-inclined plants who adore humidity will not work in Arizona.

She throws seeds in the ground, and herbs grow, seemingly effortlessly. A walnut tree somehow started growing out of a juniper tree. A strange plant she has yet to identify sprouted near her echinacea. "The seed must have been carried in," she said.

To turn a flesh-colored thumb green, Breitler says focus is non-negotiable.

"In everything you do, you have to pay attention. You have to

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