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Getting back to the Garden: Cedar Key herbalist Nysie Watson

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By Jenna McKenna

Nysie Watson was born to be an herbalist, it seems.

"All my life I've been aware of an alternate way of healing," she says. "We used to pick mushrooms - shiitake, chantarelles - my mother could name the names of almost all the plants we'd find in the Pacific Northwest."

She got her degree in Ag. Horticulture from the University of Oregon, but that's not what made her an herbalist.

No, it took two devastating back injuries and a bout with lymphoma to make Watson an herbalist. The lessons she learned fighting back injuries and cancer made a lifelong impression on her.

Now she tries to help other people find ease and relief.

"I find the most important thing is to have a good attitude," Watson says. "You do whatever you can in this world, and healing is something I can do."

Once upon a time, she wanted to be a landscaper. Not the designer who plots out the yards with drafting software.

"I wanted to get my hands in the dirt and care for the plants."

Her first vocation is part of what got her, indirectly, into her second. Watson was working in the garden shop of a major discount department store. Her job required her to do a lot of heavy loading and lifting, and she severely damaged her fourth and fifth lumbar discs. After that injury, in the mid-1980s, Watson would never again wrangle big plants or bags of potting soil for a living. She still loved green things, though.

In 1997, Watson was diagnosed with lymphoma. Her husband Wayne, whom she married in 1979 after a whirlwind romance, wanted her to pursue alternative medicine right from the start. She wasn't so sure.

"I wanted to use the allopathic (conventional, the opposite of homeopathic) medicines, but I was also worried the chemo might kill me," Watson recalls. "So I started researching. That's when I found essiac - four herbs that kill cancer."

The name essiac is an anagram of the last name of Rene Caisse, a nurse who discovered four herbs - Burdock Root, Slippery Elm Inner Bark, Sheep Sorrel and Indian Rhubarb Root - that are believed to help fight cancer.

Watson scoured the Internet, health food stores and herb shops to find and learn about essiac, and used it to support the conventional methods endorsed by her very understanding oncologist. She threw herself into the treatments and lifestyle changes that would help her survive lymphoma.

"I used essiac with chemo and changed my diet," she says. "I cut caffeine and quit cigarettes."

Watson beat lymphoma, and the experience made her want to learn all she could about herbs so she could help other people. While investigating essiac herbs, she found the Herb Corner and Learning Center, owned by Kathleen Gould, in Melbourne. For three years Watson worked in the store with Gould. She also attended classes at Herb Corner and earned a certificate in Herbal Studies.

When Gould sold the store and founded the Southeastern Center for Herbal Studies in Lake City, Watson completed her Herbalist Apprenticeship there. She stayed on at Herb Corner for most of another year, assisting new owner Cecelia Avitabile in the transition.

Since her cancer went into remission 10 years ago, Watson has dedicated herself to putting her horticultural knowledge to work in herbs, taking what she knows about growing and finding plants and striving to understand how plant essentials work in the human body to support the immune system and fight illness.

She has several herbal recipes and compounds that she mixes and sells locally, including a Brown Salve that helps heal superficial wounds, a Pain-Be-Gone tincture that eases muscle, joint and nerve pain, and a hormone balancing tonic formulated to relieve the symptoms of menopause.

Not surprisingly, Watson and other phytotherapists encounter constant resistance from a variety of sources. Although some conventional medical doctors are aware of the healing properties of herbs, many are dismissive. Mandates from the federal government also limit the availability of some herbs, due to concerns over the harm they can cause if used improperly.

Watson says that's the case with some very valuable plants such as bloodroot and kava kava. Bloodroot is a plant that produces a caustic, tissue-destroying sap, used in some traditional medicines to remove surface cancers. Its use by doctors may now be subject to prosecution.

Kava kava is a plant whose root extract is used as a mild tranquilizer or an intoxicant for spiritual ceremonies. Its use is being discouraged because improper use may cause liver damage.

Despite setbacks such as these, Watson and her fellow phytotherapists persevere. Watson's herbal compounds are sold at several area stores, and she herself can be found at most community gatherings, ready to hear a story of pain and illness, prepared to suggest a plan for better health and improved living.

"I love to educate the public," she says. "If this is just a fad, as some people say, it's a fad that goes back 60,000 years."