Rediscovering the Wisdom of Nature
Philly’s herbalists are leading a movement to revive age-old knowledge that can strengthen our bodies, calm our minds, and support our communities. Picture a warm spring day at Bartram’s Garden, with the sun glistening over the Schuylkill River. Instead of reveling in the scenery, a group of eager students comb the grounds, diligently searching for the long, striated leaves of plantain and plucking sprigs of mugwort. These individuals are part of a course called Building Your Home Apothecary, designed to teach the art of using medicinal plants to promote wellness.
Led by clinical herbalist Kelly McCarthy and gardener Mandy Katz, the course offers hands-on lessons on growing, harvesting, and utilizing powerful plant allies. Each month, students explore the effects, energetics, histories, and indications of different plants, learning how to make teas, salves, oils, and tinctures. But this movement extends far beyond a classroom experience; it’s about transforming our relationship with nature, building stronger communities, and fostering a more equitable world.
A New Approach to Plant Medicine
Gone are the days of rushing to buy the latest superfood or participating in pyramid schemes to sell essential oils. McCarthy and Katz aim to dismantle these commercialized notions and instead show people from all walks of life how to form a genuine connection with plants. Their lessons go beyond the practicalities; they educate through an anti-colonialist, anti-capitalist, and justice-oriented lens.
With a focus on community and solidarity, McCarthy and Katz have organized donations of plant medicine to places like Puerto Rico, where resources are scarce post-Hurricane Maria, and areas along the US-Mexico border, where Central American families seek asylum. They encourage their students to share what they’ve learned freely, rather than participating in the commodification of plant medicine that often characterizes mainstream culture.
Healing Holistically: Mind, Body, and Earth
This movement challenges the capitalist notion of compartmentalizing life into products and embraces a more holistic approach to healing. For McCarthy and Katz, it’s about recognizing the generous spirit of plants and their ability to heal not just our bodies, but our culture and the earth as well. By cultivating a stronger connection with nature, we can tap into a wellspring of wisdom that has sustained generations across the globe.
The hands-on approach of Building Your Home Apothecary also addresses one of the most significant barriers to using plant medicines: cost. By teaching individuals how to grow, harvest, process, and use plants, McCarthy and Katz offer a more affordable alternative to retail purchases. This empowers people to take charge of their own health and well-being, fostering a sense of agency often lacking in the convoluted and inaccessible healthcare system.
Cultivating Wellness for All
In a world where healthcare has become increasingly expensive and inaccessible, it’s no wonder wellness has become a thriving industry. From Instagram influencers flaunting superfood-packed smoothie bowls to an array of products infused with wild-foraged medicinal mushrooms, the pursuit of health is ubiquitous. Yet, amidst the mixed messages and rising costs, traditional plant-based remedies offer a beacon of hope.
Throughout history, people worldwide have relied on traditional knowledge of healing plants to maintain their well-being. While some caution must be exercised when using medicinal plants, many commonly grown and used herbs have been recognized as safe and beneficial for millennia. European cultures, in particular, have embraced herbal medicines, backed by extensive studies that attest to their efficacy. However, skepticism is unnecessary when personal experiences confirm the healing power of nature.
Alyssa Schimmel, an herbalist and educator, stumbled upon the world of herbal medicine when her own health issues led her to alternative remedies. After developing a persistent rash, conventional medical tests yielded no conclusive answers. It was only when she listened to the call of oregano that her condition improved. Today, she uses her knowledge to educate others, particularly in schools and community centers, about the transformative potential of medicinal plants.
Wellness with a Cultural Connection
The healing power of plants is not limited to one’s physical well-being; it has the potential to nurture cultural traditions and reconnect individuals with ancestral knowledge. Taylor Johnson-Gordon, a Philly-based herbalist, focuses her practice on addressing the wellness needs of Black women. Through consultations and workshops, she seeks to empower her clients with affordable and practical wellness tools.
Johnson-Gordon passionately reminds her community of the vital role African-American culture played in preserving herbal traditions throughout centuries of oppression. By passing down food and healing practices, Black women have kept these traditions alive. By embracing plant-based nutrition and herbal medicine, Johnson-Gordon helps her clients build resilience and navigate the challenges they face daily.
Healing the Community, One Herb at a Time
Building Your Home Apothecary goes beyond personal wellness journeys; it equips students to give back to their communities. Kate Barut and Tania Rios, two course participants, use their newfound herbal knowledge to support undocumented immigrants in Philadelphia. In collaboration with New Sanctuary, they assembled care packages containing healing herbs and remedies, providing these families with much-needed support.
While tea blends and salves may seem modest, their impact extends beyond physical relief. These care packages offer a tangible demonstration of care and solidarity, fostering a sense of belonging and well-being in an inhospitable environment. By sharing the healing power of plants, Barut and Rios create a connection to the recipients’ cultural roots, reminding them of the traditions that have sustained their ancestors.
Embrace Nature’s Bounty
The power of plant medicine lies not only in its ability to heal our bodies but also in its capacity to forge connections, nurture communities, and promote equity. By embracing these ancestral traditions, we reclaim our relationship with nature, cultivating a deeper appreciation for its wisdom. Building Your Home Apothecary represents a growing movement that seeks to revolutionize how we approach health and well-being, one herb at a time.
To learn more about the world of herbal medicine and discover the healing potential of plants, visit Ames Farm Center.