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The Plant Whisperer of Riley Avenue

Feb. 5—PLATTSBURGH — Herbalist Jane Desotelle of Underwood Herbs has more 400 plant species in her half-acre Plattsburgh Botanical Sanctuary, 61 Riley Avenue in the city.

In season, there is a mass of plants, and a grape arbor perfect for a spot to write letters or read a book, or watch a robin teach its babies how to eat.

In the slow season, Desotelle is available to do PowerPoint lectures on "Plattsburgh Botanical Sanctuary: My Backyard," "Pain Relief Garden," "Wild Edible Fruits," "Adirondack Medicinal Teas," "Wild Edible Mushrooms of the Adirondack Region," "An Adirondack Tea Garden," and "Dealing with cancer and recovering from treatments."

'PLANT WHISPERER'

The residence was her childhood home she returned to to take care of her mother, Marcia, after living off-the-grid in the boonies for most of her life.

"I had to start moving my plants down here to keep my business going," she said.

"I stopped wholesale and just switched to retail. While I was doing that, I made connections with the college with environmental studies students mostly and they also have a botany minor. They invited me to speak up at the college. They had a ballroom packed full of kids."

Walking up to the Angell College Center, she noticed the exterior electronic sign.

"The thing said 'Plant Whisperer speaks tonight,'" she said.

"I said, oh my god, are they talking about me? It was packed, and the people who close up the building had to shoo us out. Students came up with questions afterwards and stuff. I started working with college kids, and I said you know this really is an educational garden."

Many of the students are urbanites straight out of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island or The Bronx.

"They've never used a rake or hoe or anything," she said.

"I have to teach them how to use the tools and how to move plants and why I plant things in certain places and not other places and the medicinal value and the wild food value, edible value of plants. Yeah, as I am getting older I want to do more of that. Packaging herbs is not one of my joys in life."

A MINT OF MINTS

The sanctuary features 18 kinds of mint, which includes orange mint, mountain mint, spearmint, peppermint, chocolate mint and lavender mint.

Valerian is a big medicinal plant.

"There's a couple that are on the watch list," she said.

"May apple is native to the area. They are becoming too hard to find. I think the trees are taking them over, and they do not like shade. They like full sun. So, I am giving away May apple plants to anybody who wants to come and give them a good home. They are an edible fruit. The roots are medicinal. So anything with medicinal roots becomes popular and ends up on the watch list often. Things like ginseng and goldenseal I have here, too. It is happy here."

Her garden contains everything on the watch list except three or four plants, which don't grow up in this zone because it's too cold.

"Some things I bring in like white sage," she said.

"I have to bring it in the wintertime. Aloe has to come in in the wintertime. Lemon grass has to come in in the wintertime."

EARTH DAY OPENER

Blackberries, black and red raspberries and high bush cranberries (cramp bark) are dual purpose as it is edible and medicinal.

The sanctuary has a lot seating where people can observe the plants, rabbits, and birds flit in and out of birdhouses.

"I have a lot of seating out there, so people can just sit and hang out if they want and get to experience that," she said.

"When you get groups of 10 people through, they kind of scare everything off."

Workshops are held under a gazebo. Usually, the sanctuary officially opens on Earth Day, but this year she's thinking about solar eclipse programming on April 8.

"Some Earth Days we've had snow," she said.

'Some Earth Days we've had so much rain you couldn't even walk out of there."

Desotelle drinks more than 100 different teas.

"Some I drink just for flavor," she said.

herbal teas

"I strongly believe in drinking a variety of herb teas because they all bring up different vitamins and minerals from the soil. Even if you have one problem like say you got fatty liver or just sluggish liver or gallbladder, dandelion root is really good for that and chicory root. There are other plants, too, you know, so I switch them up. I drink one for three or four weeks and drink another for three or four weeks. Sometimes you drinking something because you like the flavor of it."

During the COVID-19 pandemic shut down, Desotelle took classes on ayurvedic medicine.

"We studied all over the world really, but mostly Indian and Chinese ways of diagnosing and herb teas for healing and diet, too," she said.

"I want to get the word out. I'm in my 70s. I don't want to die with all this knowledge. People are more interested in it now there ever, so it's good. There's a lot of people who want to learn about medicinal plants. I tell you, it's hotter than ever. People are getting sick and tired of taking prescription drugs and then getting sick from the prescription drugs.

"A lot of people are looking for a more natural way of healing themselves and avoiding problems to begin with. That's what I try to do. Keep myself healthy. Knock on wood, I made it through all that COVID business without getting anything, so my immune system must be pretty good. We all have different body types we're born with and things we have to deal with in our genes."

HERITAGE GARDEN

Underwood Herbs products such as teas, jellies, lavender pillows and sachets, balsam pillows and bags, essential oils and catnip toys are available at the Antique and Variety Mall 2 located at 315 Cornelia St., in Plattsburgh. During Farmers Market season, she makes regular appearances in Plattsburgh and Keene.

"My mother left it to me," Desotelle said.

"She wanted to keep it green because people were buying up properties and making big apartment buildings and stuff. It was her garden, but all of us kids moved away. She couldn't keep it up and her garden got smaller and smaller. She didn't need that much. I was just her."

The property got overgrown with trees and bushes, and it's gone through a lot of changes.

"The butternut trees have taken over, but the butternut trees are fine but they do put out toxins, the roots," she said.

"A lot of other things won't grow with them. Then they got this disease that's killing them all. That's what happened here. I had to cut out about 25 butternut trees because they're all dying. My practically total shade garden ended up being almost a total sun garden. It doesn't seem to bother the black walnut trees."

Squirrels bury a lot of black walnuts, and they come up everywhere.

"My mom's favorite fudge was black walnut fudge, and her favorite cake was hickory nut cake," she said.

"We have two hickory trees that she planted here. Hickory has more of the flavor of the walnuts we're used to, the English walnuts. The black walnut has a much stronger flavor. If you have a recipe for English walnuts, you would use less of them. They're a hard nut to crack. You can dye clothing with the outside hulls."

FULL CIRCLE

Growing up with her two younger brothers on Riley, the had to work in the garden.

"When I was teenager if somebody told me, 'Oh, I've seen your future. You're going to be a herbalist and you're going to be into wild foods and all this stuff,' I would have said you're crazy," Desotelle said.

"I'm done with gardening."

At SUNY Plattsburgh, she majored in philosophy. One day while working in the library, she was shelf reading, making sure all the books were in the right order, when she noticed books on the medieval ages after the books on philosophy.

"If nobody's looking, you pull open a book and check it out," she said.

"I'm looking at these recipes for witches, flying potions and stuff like that. I'm going oh my God, I know these weeds. I did learn my weeds. My mom taught me my weeds because you have to know your weeds to know what to pull. I go, wow, I know these plants and saw medicinal uses for different things and I go, I had no idea."

It was the '70s era of back-to-the-land movement. Her and her boyfriend secured land in the Churubusco area.

Woodstock

"We didn't know this when we bought it, but we ended up buying the property where they where going to have the next Woodstock," she said.

"They were going to have a big festival up there, the same promoters and stuff, and the town shut it down. They wouldn't allow it. The farmer who used to own the land gave us the whole story. He said, 'I almost got tarred and feathered because the farmers didn't want it. But if they had been offered the money for their farm like I was, they would've taken it in the heartbeat.'"

On the 100 acres, Desotelle vowed to learn all the plants.

"There were a couple of streams going through, so a little biodiversity going on," she said.

"That got me started. Then I got divorced. There were no jobs back then. I tell these kids now when they come of college and they don't know what to do, I said at least you can always find a job now. Every store, every restaurant, everybody is looking for help."

It was the opposite when Desotelle graduated in January 1973.

"Then, there were no jobs," she said.

"I went into the employment office in Malone for Franklin County, and they laughed at me. You think you're going to get a job? I go well, ain't that why you're here? The unemployment rate is 20%. It's not going to happen."

President Jimmy Carter launched a program that gave grants to non-profit organizations such as Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, mental health groups, etc.

"Ballard Mill in Malone got a grant for renovations for arts-and-craft studios and stuff," she said.

Grant funding

"They were 18-month grants. So I'm on my third grant, and I go this isn't going to last forever. So I decided to make my own. I was working at the Crisis Center in Plattsburgh, and this woman I worked with was hemorrhaging every month when she had her period. I said you know I've not had this problem personally, and I've only read that this helps, but I've not heard anything negative about taking this plant (plantain). I said why don't your try it and see what happens.

"She said, oh my God, I only have to drink two or three cups and it's like a normal period. It's astringent. It doesn't taste much different than green tea."

People can jazz up the tea with cinnamon, a clove bud or lemon.

The woman was happy with the results. But, her supply was running low. Desotelle offered to show her how to identify the plant that was probably growing in the woman's yard.

"She said 'I'm not going to go pick it," she said.

Paying for weeds

"I'll pay you for it. You go out and pick it and dry it, and I'll pay your for it.' I'm going, you're going to pay me for a weed that just grows anywhere? I'm like, can I really make a living doing this? That's how I got started."

The woman, an artist, couldn't make a living with her artwork.

"She designed my logo," Desotelle said.

"She said pick a name. Underwood is a family name, and I'm like under the woods all the time, so it seemed appropriate. I go, okay, Underwood Herbs. She drew my logo, and I still use it today. It was 1978 when I got my DBA.

Email: rcaudell@pressrepublican.com

Twitter@RobinCaudell