The Not-So-Slow Herbal Economy
The herbal economy is vital. Viable. Brisk even. “Herbal” seems too positive a word to stick next to “economy,” given the latter’s tarnished associations. Yet, the existence of a thriving “right economy” enables people to freely pursue jobs they enjoy; that sustain them; that don’t take a hard toll on body, mind, and soul; that contribute to resilient communities. We want people who do herby things to thrive economically because it’s an indicator—a bellwether—that the rest of us may also thrive without resorting to work that makes us, or the planet, sick.
Perhaps, then, we might look at the East Bay’s busy herbal economy as a sign of economic health. Here, we have many diverse sages, teachers, and mentors, as well as adoring students who pay tuition while developing their careers. We are blessed with a plethora of practitioners and the grateful clients who seek them out. The medicine makers—from tiny entrepreneurs to large manufacturers—create a demand such that farmers are busy in the field with the most beneficent plants on earth. Brokers sell the farmers’ herbs to innovative chefs, health food stores, and hip boutiques, while market gardeners barter herbs for the full bounty of homestead products. And nurseries are challenged to sell an ever more extensive selection of herbs, which are very popular with home gardeners.
And the consumers? It means more choices in how we look out for our health and well-being.
Plant medicine is no longer just for hippies. People from every class, culture, political affiliation, and neighborhood are seeking out traditional Chinese medicine, ayurveda, and other modalities. Herbalists frequently spend quality time with clients, and plant medicines can be effective yet gentle. Quite a contrast to allopathic medicine’s 15-minute doctor visits and expensive drugs with dangerous side effects.
“The edge is becoming the center,” says Pam Fischer, RH (AHG), who founded Berkeley’s Ohlone Herbal Center in 1995 and serves as its executive director. “The doctors are having to pay attention and learn about what other therapies are available for their patients. There is much more recognition in the medical community that ‘This may work.’ Twenty years ago the public did not know how to say echinacea. Now, everyone knows how to pronounce it. That’s a profound thing.”
In the Western Herbalism tradition, Ohlone offers a rigorous, classical course of study in botany, physiology, diagnostics, and medicine making. Advanced students intern at the school’s low-cost community clinic, treating conditions as varied as arthritis, autoimmune disorders, hypothyroidism, and depression. They graduate prepared to open a successful practice, start herbal product lines, or both.
“We’re huge detectives,” says Fischer. “It’s like a mystery, and we’re seeking all the clues to solve it. Did a symptom or disease start at seven years old, or at the end of a divorce? We have to look at their whole life and their stories, as well as their physiology and symptoms. How can we reset people back to harmony? This tells us how to work with plant allies.”
Western Herbalism teaches students to work in harmony with the ecology. It emphasizes native species: Students go on botanical field trips to different bioregions—from forests to deserts—to get close-up and personal with the plants. It also has an interest in how immigrants have brought useful herbs here from around the globe throughout history, broadening the notion of what is Western.
On interviewing Fischer, I asked her to name her top three favorite medicinal plants?” With a laugh she answered, “That changes all the time!” Then she named her four favorite plants du jour:
Tulsi, a Tibetan and Indian herb, “gets negativity out of the [body] temple.”
Cleavers removes all the toxins. “You pee everything out.” It also adds green energy to smoothies.
An aromatic, melissa (lemon balm) cools the thyroid. It is a happy plant that helps with melancholy.
Devil’s club, from Oregon and Washington, stabilizes blood sugar and offers psychic protection “so that we can endure hardships with grace.”
If this sounds “woo woo,” reconsider: It is no myth that pharmaceutical companies mine indigenous peoples’ lands for therapeutic plants (“bioprospecting”), put the plants through the industrial-chemical wringer (sometimes genetically modifying them in the process), and then market the patented medicines, which are a gazillion times more expensive and inaccessible to many. This is called “biopiracy”: the exploitative appropriation of indigenous knowledge on the medicinal plants of their homelands. Today it is even possible for multinationals to decode a plant’s DNA and patent the plant itself. This is decidedly not woo woo.
How much more practical to use the plant in its authentic form. Often locally sourced, it is likely to be free or affordable and wholesomely processed if processed at all, just the way we want our food. Wholesome food is not woo woo. Ditto for wholesome medicine.
Carminatives help to metabolize nutrients in the body so they don’t stagnate; they help with digestion. Some examples: cardamom, cinnamon, orange peel, goldenrod, angelica, coriander.
Tonic herbs help restore, tone, and invigorate systems in the body, or support overall wellness. Some examples of tonic herbs are dandelion, licorice, tumeric, and chicory.
A nervine is a plant remedy that has a beneficial effect upon the nervous system. Some examples of nervines are skullcap, milky oat tops, catnip, and chamomile.
A decoction is the liquid that results from boiling plant material to extract its chemical compounds.
An infusion is the liquid that results from steeping plant material in hot water to extract its chemical compounds.
Tinctures are concentrated liquid extracts of herbs, usually, but not always, in alcohol.
The Grower/Seller Scene
“It’s an exciting time for herb farmers,” says Barbara Jean Avery, managing director of Sonoma County Herb Exchange (SCHE), a nonprofit clearinghouse or hub that helps meet growing market demand. Medicinal herbs are no longer on the margins of consciousness: People are savvier about what they put into their bodies.
Founded in 1999, the SCHE connects approximately 15 small-scale ecological farmers with medicine makers around the nation. In the East Bay, customers include Ohlone Herbal Center, Ancestral Apothecary, Homestead Apothecary, Five Flavors, and many other practitioners and makers. All appreciate that the herbs are of the highest quality, hand-harvested fresh, and generally delivered within 24 hours after picking to ensure high vitality and potency. Dried herbs are also in the inventory.
When you talk to Avery, you hear a real love for the farmers. “Farms have to be financially sustainable. Because agriculture is such a thin dime, we’re trying to help farmers stay on their land and stay away from wine grapes, which have saturated the land. Don’t get me wrong. I like wine, but people need food and good quality medicinal herbs.” And herbs can be a good cash crop.
“We’re always selling out,” says Avery, who encourages farmers to grow diverse herb crops. For example, their best-selling herb is skullcap, a nervine that relieves anxiety and insomnia. “We pay a good price.” Another bestseller is calendula, used for skin care. “It is beloved by pollinators and part of the medicine is the beauty it gives you in the garden,” says Avery. Echinacea is also popular, and right now “elderberry is hot.”
“It really is an extension of the ‘know your farmer’ food movement. Knowing your herb farmer makes good sense.” She points out that there are many young farmers growing herbs today: “It’s not just a bunch of old hippies!”
A case in point, Strong Arm Farm grows diversified crops on 1.5 acres in Healdsburg, including produce, cut flowers, and herbs. SCHE is the primary buyer for their herbs, and they also have a contract to grow for Homestead Apothecary’s in-store brand .
Co-owner Heidi Herrmann, a sustainable agriculture instructor at Santa Rosa Junior College, saw the lucrative potential. “I use herbs myself, and I really like the people at the Exchange. So I asked which are in short supply, and went from there.” Of those, she decided to grow her favorites: skullcap, tulsi, angelica, raspberry leaf, elderberries, clover, artichoke leaf, and marshmallow. She also forages for nettles, elderberries, and seaweeds, strictly following ethical and legal protocols.
Recently, Herrmann stumbled upon a lucrative new market: the Farmers Exchange of Earthly Delights, also known as FEED Sonoma, which buys produce from local farmers and sells to stores and restaurants. Strong Arm had too much angelica, elderberries, and nettles. So, FEED Sonoma put her herbs on their bi-weekly availability list. The result? Chefs in San Francisco bought “a ton” of the herbs, and a buyer at FEED asked her, “What else do you got?”
Says Herrmann, “We both discovered that the chefs are interested in cooking with new flavors, and plants with medicinal qualities. Even mixologists want herbal toppings for their drinks. My tulsi is popular with bartenders.” It was a neat experiment and now FEED Sonoma is partnering frequently with SCHE.
Northern California is a backyard-medicinal-herb-growing heaven. Plus, medicinal plants often “stack functions.” Most double as culinary or ornamental plants: The mints and the thymes have pretty pink or purple flowers. Oregano is a powerful antiviral and antifungal. Parsley sweetens the breath. Elderberry is a pretty shrub producing berries that make a good wine or pie and help fight cold and flu. Comfrey, which builds soil, has many medicinal uses. Calendula, borage, poppies, and love-in-a-mist freely self-sow for abundant color.
Native-plant enthusiasts love to learn that their favorites have medicinal properties, too. For example, ceanothus is a lymphatic stimulant. Mugwort promotes lucid dreaming. Sticky monkeyflower is a mood lifter. Yarrow is an amazing first-aid plant. White and Cleveland sage are air purifiers—think smudge sticks—and are a great alternative to synthetic air and fabric fresheners.
Some nurseries have found that offering medicinal plants is good business. One is Spiral Gardens, a mission-driven nursery in South Berkeley. As part of their work to create resilient communities, they grow and sell useful plants including edibles; habitat supporting plants; plants for fiber, dye, and cleaning products; and a large and ever-changing stock of medicinal herbs.
“We’ll grow any herb that can grow here if it’s worth growing,” says Spiral Gardens’ Executive Director Daniel Miller. Among the medicinal herbs they sell are mullein, motherwort, comfrey, feverfew, ashwagandha, German chamomile, rue, mugwort, skullcap, self-heal, borage, calendula, agrimony, echinacea, wormwood, aloe, hot peppers, angelica, epazote, lemon verbena, and various mint, thyme, and oregano varieties.
For a lush and abundant selection, it’s worth driving to Morningsun Herb Farm near Vacaville. Owner Rose Loveall, a tea-maker and a master gardener, grows over 50 different medicinal plants. This includes 54 varieties of lavender: At any one time there are about 30 varieties in stock. Online, they sell an Essential Medicine Collection with echinacea, valerian, tansy, and rue, and an Ultimate Medicine Collection that also includes yarrow, lavender, white sage, yerba buena, and plantain.
“Many plants with medicinal properties are drought tolerant,” says Loveall. “People are looking for lawn substitutes, and plants they can put in the garden that do more than one thing, that are useful yet pretty. For example, some of the California sages need no summer water, yet they’re beautiful and the pollinators love them, and they have medicinal uses.”
Medicinal plants are also found in urban nooks and crannies, such as in Oakland’s Temescal Alley, where Homestead Apothecary proprietor Nic Weinstein offers plants like lemon balm, vitex, blue hyssop, and elderberry at the front of the store (and much more inside).
Retail Therapy and the Apothecary Movement
Historically, an apothecary was a skilled professional who formulated and dispensed material medica to doctors and patients. Operating through storefronts, they sold herbs and other ingredients for medicines, patented formulations, and sundries. They also offered health advice and services. But as the medical professions took on their current institutional form, apothecaries went into decline and the CVSs and Walgreens of the world replaced them. Up went pharmaceuticals, down went herbs.
But the olde neighborhood healing shoppe is wending its way back into the East Bay’s social economy. With plants as our allies, we can take responsibility for our health at the ground level, avoiding toxic substances. And we can find the materials at the local apothecaries that are sprouting up. Each has its own personality and style.
For example, Five Flavors, in Oakland (on 40th Street near Broadway) operates in the spirit of a traditional apothecary with a twist, committed as it is to modern integrative health. Opened in 2013, it is owned and run by a husband and wife team. Benjamin Zappin has L.Ac, RH (AHG) after his name, and Ingrid Bauer, M.S., will graduate with her M.D. from UCSF in 2015. Other acupuncturists and herbalists are on staff, as well as a naturopathic doctor.
What’s in a name? “The idea is that the therapeutic possibilities to heal all suffering are encompassed within the Five Flavors,” says Zappin. “The Five Flavors—sweet, bitter, sour, acrid or spicy, and salty—are a concept from Asian herbal medicine and dietary therapy that refers to the actions that a medicinal substance exerts on the body…”.
The store sells high-quality Chinese herbs and extracts in powder form, Western herbs, a broad selection of teas and tinctures in bulk, proprietary blends, and medicine-making supplies. It also hosts workshops.
Five Flavors wholeheartedly supports the freedom to learn about herbs and care for one’s self. They have ties to the women’s health community, especially birthing and fertility support groups, and to the mental health community. And many parents bring their kids in. Some customers are even medical doctors from nearby Pill Hill.
Zappin and Bauer practice their craft with rigor. At the back of the shop is an herbal compounding pharmacy where they prepare custom formulas for outside practitioners’ patients. The lab is a registered facility of the USDA.
Yet Zappin also gets outside. He has been wildcrafting and making extracts over 20 years. California natives are a favorite ingredient in many of his formulas. “Bringing the wild back into the urban cacophony as a balm is a big part of our agenda,” he says.
Two other storefront apothecaries in the East Bay have their unique personalities. While herbal medicine is still foundational, these proprietors are consciously creating community spaces and helping herbalism infiltrate other areas of consumer culture.
Nic Weinstein, proprietor of Homestead Apothecary, is a Certified Community Herbalist. He never intended to treat people. Rather, his goal has been to create a space where folks can gather for frequent workshops, low-cost clinics, and an annual herbal medicine fair. He also buys herbs directly from local farmers. It could easily have been a nonprofit or a co-op, he says, instead of a store.
However, as a store it is a sweet and focused boutique. Weinstein sells bulk herbs and his own and other local medicine makers’ tinctures and teas. East Oakland resident Renata Tervalon, for example, drinks his Flashdance Tea daily. It has mugwort, vitex, lemon balm, nettles, motherwort, sage, and horsetail. And yes, it helps with hot flashes.
But herbal medicine doesn’t just treat symptoms. It is also preventative, and Homestead is one of the few brick-and-mortar outlets that sells a wide selection of small-batch, handcrafted, nontoxic brands of personal care products. These can safely flow into greywater systems and out to the garden. Tragically, this cannot be said about nearly all products found at health food stores. (You can check your favorite products at the Environmental Working Group’s cosmeticsdatabase.com.) Who knows what havoc these toxic products wreak on our bodies?
Says Weinstein, “Rachel Budde, the magic behind Fat and the Moon, a popular brand I carry, once described the skin as a million tiny little mouths eating up everything you put on it.” Indeed, the skin is the body’s largest organ. “When you think about it like that you start to think to yourself, would I put this in my mouth? If not, why would I put it on my skin? It’s a transformative way of thinking about the outside of ourselves.”
Alembique Apothecary, which opened just this summer at the corner of Hearst and Seventh in West Berkeley, is what you might call “activist retail.” Its busy roster of events—pop-up meals, get-togethers, and workshops—supports a homespun, handmade super-DIY lifestyle in community. Like Homestead, this shop seeks to push the herbal agenda beyond medicine into personal care. But there is also an emphasis on nutrition, which is meaningful because, surprisingly, herbal cuisine is sorely missing from the East Bay’s culinary landscape.
Says owner Babak Nahid, “The apothecary is becoming a kitchen laboratory where people play-learn and handcraft all-natural alternatives to the super-processed, synthetic, green-washed petrochemical products that are relentlessly pushed on consumers, even in so-called natural stores.” Classes are free, donation-based, or sliding scale, and have titles like Botanical Facial Spa Day & Workshop, Healing Herbs for Winter Cooking, and Organic Family Tea Party. (See page 7 in Edible Events.) Teachers come from all over the region.
Born in Iran and raised in Europe and the United Kingdom, Nahid invented the store’s name from the Arabic word alembic, an ancient still that is believed to help extract magic out of plants. The store sells herbs, oils, minerals, extracts, tinctures, and a few rare and exotic botanical ingredients that, says Nahid, are sustainably sourced. To mitigate plastic waste, they offer a bulk refill station for some products.
Alembique’s grassroots ethos echoes the storefront’s almost magical history. Berkeley historians say it was owned by a Spanish-American fishmonger in 1874, became an Italian cured meats store at the turn of the century, and sometime in the 1930s, turned into a Mexican-American grocery that fed hungry people during the Great Depression. Dona Rosa, the proprietor in the 1970s and 80s, was famous for her tortillas and tamales. She raised a big family in the back and still lives two houses down from the store. Rosa has lots of stories to tell about the space. Nahid says they are planning an event to honor her, and apparently, she’s going to do the cooking.
The Herbal Zeitgeist
Circa 2014, the story of herbs in the East Bay is not a mystery. Scratch the surface and you’ll find that interest in herbs is everywhere with a groundswell of people intent on caring for themselves in the most ancient way. I practically could not write this story without new resources coming to light that just had to be mentioned. And surely we’ll hear that I missed some, because the East Bay is fervid and alive with herbal activity. Word.
As the world is increasingly paved over, plants seem more and more precious, and their value stands out in relief. This awareness has spread beyond an inner circle such that echinacea is no longer code for “marginal freak.” Whether for better or for worse—and probably for better in this time and place of history—if plants have the power to drive economy, even a small if growing sector of it, then they will have an edge to help determine their, and our, fate. Power to the plants! Perhaps they will culture us, as we culture them.
FREE AND LOCAL CLINICS
People with healthy budgets are encouraged to pay the full cost of sessions with practitioners in order to support free and low-cost services for low-income people.
Ohlone Herbal Center in Berkeley operates a by-donation clinic on Mondays and the first Saturday of the month (9am–5pm). Student clinicians are supervised by a senior practitioner. No one is turned away for lack of funds. ohlonecenter.org
Homestead Apothecary offers sliding scale sessions with practitioners from Ancestral Apothecary, Sister Spinster Apothecary,
Taproot Medicine, and others. Check the website for dates and times. homesteadapothecary.com/sessions
The state-licensed Charlotte Maxwell Complementary Clinic in Oakland and San Francisco has served low income women with cancer since 1991. Annually, over 350 experienced volunteer practitioners serve around 750 patients. charlottemaxwell.org
Curanderas sin Fronteras is a mobile grassroots women’s health collective that services Bay Area Latino and other communities by offering herbal medicine and curanderismo, reclaiming ancestral and indigenous healing modalities. facebook.com/curanderassinfronteras
The Women’s Healing Collective offers free full-day events in low-income neighborhoods like East Oakland and Richmond. Attendees enjoy sessions with herbalists, curanderas, massage therapists, nutritionists, and others, as well as classes and workshops, and free childcare. One of the event organizers says, “It’s like the county hospital. You sit and wait your turn and then they call you.” Unlike the county hospital, the women sip tea together and enjoy snacks, and the wait is shorter. (There are also events for men.) healingcliniccollective.wordpress.com
Since 1996, Karyn Sanders, founder of the Blue Otter School of Herbal Medicine, has hosted and produced the Herbal Highway on KPFA 94.1. Give a listen at 1pm on Thursdays.
United Plant Savers protects native medicinal plants and their habitats, and includes a Botanical Sanctuary Network and many other top-notch resources. unitedplantsavers.org
Llasa Karnak has been selling herbs since 1970 and has two shops in Berkeley. herb-inc.com
Ethnobotanist Richard Koenig grows medicinal plants at Healing Spirit Plants, his nursery in Berkeley. He sells them on Saturday mornings at Oakland’s Grand Lake Farmers’ Market. healingspiritplants.com
The Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm outside of Petaluma grows over 260 Chinese herbs. chinesemedicinalherbfarm.com