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Notes from the New England Women’s Herbal Conference 2016

WHC 2016Last year I wrote, “I’ve only been to three years of this 28-year-old conference, but each year I’ve attended has been more nourishing, more inspiring, and also more fun than the last.”  Now I’ve made it to my fourth year at the WHC, and the trend has continued.  What really moved me this year was the conference’s commitment to both courage and compassion in facing the awfulness that has boiled up in the US over the last year or so (which is not to say it wasn’t there already, but that it’s become more evident).

Emily Ruff, who founded the Orlando Grief Care Project in response to the Pulse nightclub shooting, taught Herbalism in Action, in which she and Lupo Passero discussed their experiences running crisis-response herbal projects in Orlando and Sandy Hook, respectively.  This class was valuable both for its practical teachings – how we can respond to a crisis effectively and compassionately through herbalism – and as an opportunity to check in in person regarding these tragedies.  The news and social media can be overwhelming to the point of seeming abstract, but talking to real people who have been directly working with those affected by a tragedy is a reminder of how real these happenings are.

Sobande Moss Greer taught “Herbs, Slavery, and America.”  It’s easy, as herbalists, to think of ourselves as countercultural and so as not falling into the same mistakes that mainstream culture makes.  This class was an intriguing and important introduction to herbalism practiced by enslaved Africans in the US, and by their descendants – and to Western herbalism’s failure to engage with this school of healing.

Melissa Morrison taught on Medicine For the Warrior: Alternative Healing Therapies for Veterans, a detailed and practical class borne out of extensive personal experience (as was her Taking Care of the Caregiver class).  Both Melissa and Emily had valuable lessons about meeting people where they are: Flower essences or alcohol-based tinctures may not be up everyone’s alley, but there are a plethora of ways to deliver herbs that can make them more accessible, and it’s as important to respect the needs of the individual in delivery method as in choosing the herbs themselves.

In addition, there were donations being collected for Standing Rock; classes on compassionate herbalism based on Health Justice principles, on health freedom, on herbalists and the FDA, and on how to stock your apothecary via foraging and food stamps; an update on the Free Fire Cider campaign (as well as fire cider tastings and awards – congrats to the winners!); and, as part of ‘Saturday Night Live at the WHC,’ a piece on celebrating diversity.

There can sometimes be, in liberal circles, a lot of emphasis on what we say.  While I wholeheartedly agree that language is important, I appreciated the emphasis on practical, robust actions we can take to help support and to express respect for those whom our society has failed to properly respect or support.

I have to mention one last class, Tiffany Robbins’ Wild Food Cooking, which I took as a bit of indulgence among the other, more weighty, classes.  Tiffany – a persuasive advocate for including wild foods in your diet – was so generous with her samples that, after the class, I found I’d been so well nourished I wasn’t hungry for lunch!  There was wild rice salad with wonderfully weedy greens from the conference grounds, cocoa tulsi seed pudding, a beautiful and refreshing hibiscus seaweed drink, and lots more deliciousness.

The class was inspiring both in small ways (definitely making apple sugar this fall) and in big ones: This was a robust reminder of the abundance surrounding us.  Scarcity is so often of our own making, not necessarily as an individual, but as a culture.  If we can reroute our culture to value a basket of wild greens more than a bag of chips, gatherings with friends more than unlimited streaming, clean water flowing down a river more than oil flowing through a pipeline, exchange of ideas more than headlines that confirm our own biases, mindful changemaking more than politics as usual – and, importantly, make sure these things are accessible to everyone – we may still manage to live well in this world.

Herbalism & Birth Control:
A resource round-up

Herbalists talk a LOT about women’s health.  There are good reasons for this:  In my experience, attendees at many herbal events are overwhelmingly female.  Conventional medicine has a history of dismissing women’s health issues, leading many of those suffering to turn to herbalists to be heard.  Herbalism excels at addressing questions of imbalance, situations where the body needs to be supported and nudged, not bludgeoned by pharmaceuticals, and many women’s reproductive health issues are just such questions.  So, herbalists talk a lot about menstruation, hormones, conception, pregnancy, libido, and menopause.

But despite all this, for a while I didn’t hear much talk about contraception.  Maybe conversations about contraception were happening, and I just missed them.  Maybe contraception genuinely is something that more naturally falls under the domain of pharmaceuticals.  One way or another, I’ve continued to be curious about these questions:

  1. Are there herbs that can be used as reliable contraceptives?
  2. How would one look at pharmaceutical contraceptives from a holistic point of view?
    From an herbalist’s point of view, which pharmaceutical contraceptives are the healthiest choices?
    (Of course, this answer is likely to be different for different people.)
  3. In what ways can herbal medicine be used to support a body that is on contraceptives?  (E.g. to diminish symptoms, for long term health, etc.)

While I’ve yet to satisfy my curiosity, I’ve collected more and more bits and pieces – and I’ve been seeing more herbal information on contraception, from classes at the New England Women’s Herbal Conference to a display in a small herb shop in Phoenix, AZ, from Robin Rose Bennett’s The Gift of Healing Herbs to friends sharing links on Facebook.  I’m using this post as a place to log many of those resources.  I hope that, if you have additional resources to recommend, you’ll get in touch or comment below.

Plush Uterus reads about birth control

Why yes, that is a plush uterus reading about birth control.

As always, please be sure to do your own research and make your own decisions.  I’m not a medical professional, and I’m sharing the information here in the spirit of giving us all more tools to take charge of our own health and sexual care.  Some of the links I’ve shared are purely anecdotal and some of them are inspiration for further research.  Others are closer to being fully-realized and practical resources, but you must use your own common sense in evaluating each source.

Finally, I want to give a shout-out to Jim MacDonald and highly recommend his master herbal article index, which is where I found more than one of these links.  I’ve come across others of these articles when they were shared on social networks, and I’m grateful for all of my wonderful herbal friends who share information and resources so generously!

Herbal Contraception

Including guidance on the decision to use herbal contraceptives/birth control.

  • Herbal Contraception” on sisterzeus.com.  This somewhat retro website is the most comprehensive resource I’ve found on herbal birth control.  I don’t know who the author is, but the site has been written thoughtfully and with a real dedication to the topic.  Definitely worth exploring.
  • The Prehistory of Sex, by Timothy Taylor, includes an interesting chapter on contraception.  The author argues that women did have access to contraception, using plants as well as through extended breastfeeding.  While the book doesn’t (understandably) contain practical information, the author’s arguments at least present some hope that useful plant-based contraception exists.

Wild Carrot
Wild carrot, or Queen Anne’s Lace, is the herb I’ve heard the most about as a potentially practical method of preventing contraception.

Granted, neem doesn’t have the most alluring odor.  Still, I’ve heard a lot of secondhand (thirdhand? fifthand?) info about neem being an effective contraceptive as a spermicide or as a male birth control pill. I have yet to find a really good write-up about it, but here’s the best I’ve got:

Wild Yam
This seems to be a controversial one!

A variety of other herbs
Bits and pieces, as well as historical sources.

Notes on Herbal Abortions

Okay, these aren’t herbal…
Non-hormonal, non or minimally invasive methods of birth control.

  • Toni Weschler’s book Take Charge of Your Fertility should be required reading.  This book on the Fertility Awareness Method (NOT the same as the rhythm method) teaches you how to use physiological cues to learn more about your cycle – and be able to work within your cycle to avoid conception.  This could be helpful for women using wild carrot.  Also an invaluable resource for those looking to conceive or just to understand more about their body and cycle.
  • Just gotta put in a good word for the Burlington, Vermont-based Sustain, which sells sustainable, fair trade condoms and organic lubricants.  Glyde and Sir Richard’s are also worth checking out.


Herbalists’ Perspectives on Pharmaceutical Contraceptives

So far, I haven’t come up with much in this category.  Here’s what I’ve found:

  • In this interview, Susun Weed speaks passionately about pharmaceutical birth control pills at around the six minute mark.  It’s indicated just before that that she’s commented on birth control in one of her books (Down There?)


Herbalists’ Thoughts on Supporting the Body while on Pharmaceutical Contraceptives

While pharmaceutical contraceptives seem to be pretty safe, they’re still often systemic and may be used for decades of a woman’s life.  Are there specific ways we can support our bodies while on contraceptives?  So far, I haven’t seen anything on this.

I’ve seen various vaguely medical websites proclaim that there’s a long list of herbs that shouldn’t be taken with hormonal birth control, for fear of interactions.  The one or two herbalists I’ve asked about this have said that it’s not an issue.  When I asked a nurse who had studied herbalism about possible interactions with the Mirena IUD, she said that she wouldn’t worry; the only herb she might avoid is St. John’s Wort.

I have come across some helpful information for women coming off of hormonal birth control, who might have trouble normalizing their cycles:


From prehistory to the pill.

From prehistory to the pill.

Et Cetera

I’ve often found myself frustrated by how birth control seems to be treated as a women’s issue since, after all, it takes two.  Why are the only options for male birth control withdrawal (remarkably ineffective), condoms (definitely useful, but hardly perfect) and vasectomies (admirable in men who know what they want – and don’t want – but a choice many men seem wary of)?  It turns out that, in part, we can blame a woman.  Of course, she had her reasons.

The Birth of the Pill, a pageturner of a pharmaceutical history book by Jonathan Eig, begins with the story of how Margaret Sanger (the founder of Planned Parenthood) approached biologist Gregory Pincus to develop a birth control pill.  Sanger had worked in poor and crowded tenements in New York in the 1910s, where many women died from the strain of too many pregnancies or self-administered abortions – and where abusive relationships and marital rape were commonplace.  These experiences convinced Sanger that women must have access to a birth control pill which, unlike abstinence, withdrawal, or condoms, does not rely on male cooperation.

While there’s still a long way to go, this book is a reminder, sometimes sobering, of how far we’ve come in the last hundred years.  It’s a fascinating read, and I recommend it for anyone who’s tempted to take birth control for granted.  For all their flaws, the protagonists of this book possessed audacity and will.  Rather than resting on their laurels, let’s create pressure for even better birth control.  Do we do that through the pharmaceutical industry, or will we find that better option on our shelves of herbs?  I don’t know the answer to that question – and honestly I’m not sure how to influence the pharmaceutical industry, behemoth that it is – but I’d love to hear what you think about this.  Please don’t hesitate to comment below!

Where we shop matters.
Please support indies.

To all of my friends, but especially to herbalist friends,

I follow a lot of herbalist-authors and book lovers, and much of the time, when you post about books online, you link to Amazon.  I’m writing to ask you to rethink that, because of the same priorities that make you as dedicated to herbalism as you are.  Amazon is easy and cheap, but for people who are trying to make mindful choices about how we impact the world, I want to propose other options.


We know that healthy ecosystems house a variety of species.  We also know that monoculture is a dangerous and unhealthy practice.  Amazon has, more and more over the last several years, been entering the realm of a monopoly, an economic monoculture.  And Amazon is not a benevolent dictatorShopping at Amazon results in a net job loss, and Amazon has a history of workplace abuses.   Amazon has not scrupled to strong-arm publishers with unfair negotiation tactics, nor to accept tax breaks while doing its best to avoid collecting sales tax.  In short, Amazon’s actions demonstrate a failure to value employees or community, and it doesn’t even seem to genuinely value the books it sells.  The way I see it, Amazon is the Monsanto of ideas.  I don’t want Monsanto to have control of our seeds and our food supply, and I don’t want Amazon to have control over the way we share information, ideas, and stories.

Please also take into consideration that Amazon is in direct competition with local retailers, including not just independent bookstores but kitchen shops, grocery stores, toy stores, outdoor gear stores, garden stores, and more.

dock+and+nettleWhat I do want is a world full of strong local economies that house diverse businesses.  These businesses are the wildflowers of Main Street.  The ornery baker who bakes the best bread you’ve ever tasted.  The farmer who hand-delivers CSA shares to each and every home after he gets snowed in and can’t bring them to the farmer’s market.  The bookseller who can help you find a story that changes your life, or a thoughtful gift for your daughter, or an herbal book you didn’t even know existed.  These are the nettles and the dandelions and the mullein of our economies.  These are the businesses that will hire people for meaningful jobs, the business owners who see the results of their decisions and will, over time, help heal our broken economy and society.  These are the people I want to have influence: many people in each community, not one CEO who has power over the fate of thousands.

Cultivating Wildflowers

dandelion+and+thymeThere are other ways:

When you link to a book you’ve written or one you want to recommend, consider using an IndieBound link.  IndieBound, a network of independent bookstores, even has an affiliate program.  When you buy a book, please buy local.  (Find your local bookstore here.)  Even if the herbal book you’re looking for isn’t on the shelf, indie bookstores can often order it in quickly.

If you are self-publishing a book, please consider the many alternatives to CreateSpace.  CreateSpace is fully owned by Amazon.  Because of this – and because of objections to the way Amazon does business – many indie bookstores won’t carry books published or printed by CreateSpace.  Lightning Source is one excellent option.  Even better, there might be a company local to you that you can work with.  (Remember to ask where their books are printed.  Unless you’re working directly with a local printer, there’s a chance that the publisher is actually using CreateSpace as a printer.)

If you run a nonprofit, please just say “no” to Amazon Smile.  This post by bookstore consultants Paz & Associates asks how indie bookstore contributions compare to Amazon Smile.  The upshot is that, for every $10,000 in purchases, Amazon Smile will donate only $50.  An indie bookstore is likely to donate $1000-2000 out of that $10,000 to schools and nonprofits.

I know that, by asking you to buy local, I’m (in many cases) asking you to spend more money.  But you get what you pay for:  If you want a world where Amazon controls the publishing industry, than only pay what they’re asking.  If you want a world full of diverse voices and strong local/independent businesses, you need to invest in that world.

Anna Lappe said, “Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want.”  Please cast your votes for a world full of wildflowers, a world full of healthy ecosystems and healthy local economies, a world where no one organization has too much control, but rather where we acknowledge and honor that we exist in a web of interdependence.


The Dream We Dream Together: Bringing Pennsic Home

I was told, early on, that I would either love Pennsic or I’d hate it.  Not true.  I love this event – the biggest yearly festival put on by the Society for Creative Anachronism – to distraction, but I have a laundry list of things that trouble me, turn me off, or just plain tick me off.  And yet…

They say that once you start going to this event, you’ll spend the rest of the year looking around (at camping equipment, pottery, projects, fabric) and thinking, “That would be great at Pennsic!”  I find that it’s the other way around:  Pennsic is an inspiration for the rest of the year.

IMG_1153My first Pennsic was my first time camping.  I’d spent plenty of time outdoors, but never spent several days without being indoors.  My little orange tent, the swaying trees, the walls of the pavilions, the sheetwalls, and the ubiquitous tapestries and draperies all made quite an impression.  That fall, I hung my walls with scarves and other hangings, which, in my attic-level apartment, swayed from the angled walls and rippled in the breeze from an open window.

One day this year, a campmate walked into camp spinning on a drop spindle.  It reminded me of contact juggling.  I used to walk from class to class on my college campus doing simple contact juggling moves until they became second nature.  Here was someone practicing a form of object manipulation that not only was mesmerizing, but made a practical and enjoyable product.  She was kind enough to answer my somewhat manically excited questions and give me a demo, showing me how you could spin and ply yarn by hand, even without a spindle.  Of course, I had known that people managed to spin and weave and sew before factories were around, and I’d done a bit of the latter two myself, but the moment when I saw her ply the yarn, the moment when it went from wool to yarn in my eyes, I admit was a realization.  “Who needs the industrial revolution?” I asked.  Granted, technology makes things easier, and makes greater production possible, but it’s powerful to realize that you can take fiber all the way from sheep to shirt, just as it’s powerful to realize that food grows on trees and medicine can be dug out of the earth.

IMG_1695I visited the vendor Minerva’s Spindle, and brought home a lovely, modestly priced spindle with a rectangular whorl, as well as a couple ounces each of several different fibers to experiment with.  I’m a baby beginner, but I love practicing spinning, and find it as meditative as contact juggling.  My big realization so far was to discover that I could really thin out the wool and, not only would the spun yarn not break, but my spindle actually hit its stride.

I was as grateful as ever for my time at Pennsic this year, but—since it fell on the heels of a death in the family and some other challenging news—I found that the things that trouble me about the event stood out in even greater relief:  Pennsic, like Game of Thrones or World of Warcraft, can cross the line from good-natured recreation into consuming escapism.  Pennsic seems to become more and more commercial, with more and more factory-made kitsch alongside the classic SCA handcrafters.  It often suffers from the “Christmas must be perfect” syndrome, which happens when a holiday has been anticipated as being so wonderful that any disappointment feels mammoth.  The event cultivates (melo)drama as scads of no-matter-how-awesome people get dehydrated and depleted in this indulgent, outdoor environment.  With more and more smartphones in use, it’s is not the escape from glowing screens that it used to be.

S5003367And yet…

At Pennsic, 10,000 people, mostly adults, gather to wear strange garb, practice skills that are regarded as having been made redundant, and spend most of their time talking face to face with each other.  While crunchy bohos like myself are represented, this is not, predominantly, an “airy fairy” group.  There are lots of attendees with military backgrounds, people who work at box stores, doctors and lawyers, desk jockeys, truck drivers, academics, restaurant owners, and more.  And they all gather, once a year, to pretend the world is different than it is.

That fact is remarkable:  Here, 10,000 people gather each year and pretend the world is different – and they succeed.  They make that different world appear for two weeks.  There is suspension of disbelief involved, but mostly the world is created by showing up, digging ditches, building walls and villas, crafting garb, and sharing meals.  This strikes me as deeply hopeful.  We all want the world to be better.  As Yoko Ono said, “A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.”  Pennsic is an example of just how concrete, how tangible, how real that dream can be, if we can only commit to actively pretend, actively imagine, build, and craft that dream into being.  We don’t have to limit that to just two weeks a year.  What shall we dream together?

Weedier Than Ever: Hemp t-shirts, youth sizes, and better shipping

I’ve wanted to print the PLANT WEEDS: THE “S” MAKES IT LEGAL design on hemp from the beginning, so I’m psyched that I now have hemp shirts over at the shop.  Hemp is pretty amazing:  It breathes well, is antimicrobial, and is more durable than cotton.  It also grows like a weed, so doesn’t need all the babysitting (e.g. herbicides or pesticides used by conventional growers) that cotton needs.  It’s a pretty awesome textile, plus these shirts are soft and cozy.  I love that ONNO, the Colorado-based company that makes these, only sells shirts made from sustainable materials (hemp, bamboo, and organic cotton).  That shows a level of commitment to sustainability that most mainstream/designer brands don’t demonstrate.  ONNO has also taken important steps to ensure that the production of these shirts is fair and humane.

You’ll find charcoal and ice blue in the unisex cut and earth green and dusty purple in the women’s cut.  The women’s cut, by the way, is a really nice one:  the sleeve shape and tailoring is flattering, but rather than being skin-tight, the t-shirt shows off the fabric’s beautiful drape.  That gorgeous drape also makes the unisex shirts flattering on all sorts of shapes:  They don’t, for example, look boxy in the shoulders on me the way most unisex shirts do.  Click here for hemp t-shirts.

After multiple, enthusiastic requests for youth PLANT WEEDS t-shirts, I’ve had some printed up on USA-grown and made organic cotton shirts.  These have a satisfying, comfy feel that will get softer with wear and washing, just like your favorite pair of jeans.  Plus, the garment-dyed colors are gorgeous.  Click here for youth shirts.

I recently came across this info, in Pietra Rivoli’s The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy:

There are a handful of creative and contrary farmers growing organic cotton in west Texas, but they account for less than 1/3 of 1 percent of the cotton produced.  (“It rounds up to zero,” one conventional grower sniffed.)

While I’m not sure where the boundaries of west Texas are, I’m pleased to be sourcing from some of those “creative and contrary” farmers, SOS from Texas.  Here’s to using our buying power to create demand for organic practices and nudge that percentage higher.  Here’s a video by SOS, showing the journey a t-shirt takes from their farms onward.  I was interested to see that – unlike conventional cotton growers, who spray defoliants before harvesting – SOS waits for a frost, which, of course, defoliates naturally.

Last but not least, I’ve also started using EcoEnclose’s 100% recycled mailers, which are recyclable and even reusable, thanks to a nifty second sticky strip.  Lightweight and durable, and made in the USA, this is an awesome mailer.  Full disclosure:  Depending on the size of your order, it may be shipped in a reused box of good quality, a Priority Mail flat rate container (also recycled and recyclable), or a smaller, 88% recycled poly mailer (because I goofed and ordered one package that was 88% instead of 100%).  The customer service at this Colorado-based company has been great, and there was even a note with a little drawing of a plant on the packing list.  Ordering packing supplies might not sound exciting, but it kind of is when it’s obvious that you’re dealing with real, live people that care about the environment.


Fighting for Herbalism: Urban Moonshine, the FDA, and RAILYARD Apothecary

Last week, I shared some reflections from my time at the 2015 IHS, mostly around regulatory hurdles facing herbalists.  Speak of the devil:  This week, the local alternative paper Seven Days published a story on Urban Moonshine’s struggles with FDA regulations.  The piece details how:

[Urban Moonshine founder Jovial] King and her employees put in countless hours and spent tens of thousands of dollars to fix the issues. She hired lawyers and consultants to help her parse the legalese. Her herbs underwent a battery of chemical tests at professional labs. She signed a 10-year lease on a much larger, more suitable production space.

Yet, the latest inspection still failed to satisfy the FDA, and Jovial has made the difficult decision to outsource to a larger manufacturer.

I’ve been buying Urban Moonshine products for the last five years, and during that time I’ve gotten to know the company well, through picking up orders (in person, since they’re based about half an hour from my home) and through attending classes with Jovial and with Guido Masé, the company’s chief herbalist.  Through my herbal studies, I’ve also gotten to visit Zack Woods Herb Farm, where Urban Moonshine sources many of their ingredients.  It’s been such a joy to see this company grow so successfully while still staying local and constantly demonstrating their commitment to incredibly high quality products.  The company is staffed with smart, experienced, mindful and heartful herbalists, and I’ve always been completely confident of the quality of Urban Moonshine’s products.

Jovial and the other folks at the company have incredibly high standards, and I’m confident that Urban Moonshine will continue to put out products that meet those standards even as the actual manufacture is outsourced.  I’ll certainly continue keeping my shelves well-stocked.  But it’s also heartbreaking that the company has been forced into this situation:  Urban Moonshine was already making products of a superior quality, right here in Burlington, Vermont.  This is a company that was keeping it local, and it’s a crime that they’ve been forced to outsource because of arbitrary technicalities.

This outcome is also frightening because, as Jovial put it, Urban Moonshine is the “canary in the coal mine.”  There is no exemption from the FDA’s “Good Manufacturing Practices” for small herbal businesses, or even for micro-businesses.  While all the wonderful home-based herbal start-ups that can be found at farmer’s markets are less likely to be targeted by FDA inspections, they could be at any time.  If a company as well-run as Urban Moonshine can’t make it past the FDA regulations without outsourcing production, how can a one-person start-up have a hope of doing so?  There is a very real potential for the enforcement of these regulations to make it impossible to start an herbal business, unless you already have significant financial backing.  Herbal medicine is kitchen medicine, so this makes about as much sense as making it impossible to start a home bakery.  The way the FDA is enforcing GMPs is showing itself to be hostile to small and medium-sized businesses – and so also hostile to nurturing strong local economies.

What’s the good news?  The folks at Urban Moonshine are resilient and resourceful.  In the face of all of this, they’ve launched a new project, RAILYARD Apothecary – a crowd-funded project that will make herbal medicine more accessible to the local community and create a place for herbalists to organize on a national level.  Both of these are vitally important if we want to educate the community and the government about herbs and organize to keep the government from legislating herbal products in ways that favor mass-production and mediocrity.

I really, really want RAILYARD to happen.  I’ve already donated to the Kickstarter campaign, and I hope that – if you can, and you care about herbal medicine, education, health, and strong local economies – you will too.  Please watch the video below to learn more, and then click here to donate and to check out the brilliant rewards being offered to backers.

Notes from the 2015 International Herb Symposium

Wheaton College’s beautiful campus during the International Herb Symposium.

I arrived at the International Herb Symposium somewhat flustered and awkwardly carrying my luggage in my arms since the handle on my suitcase had broken.  Not for the first time in my life, I thought that I ought to have packed lighter.  Nevertheless, I couldn’t fail to notice how lovely the setting was:  Wheaton College, with its beautiful quad, reminded my of my own time at college and made me feel right at home, as did the folks who welcomed me in at registration.  I was pretty psyched to be there, as this was my first time attending the IHS, and the list of teachers and classes made me wish for Hermione Granger’s Time Turner:  Should I take “Stress Resiliency with Plants” with Mindy Green, “Medicinal Mushrooms” with Christopher Hobbs, or “Herbal Treasures of Morocco” with Chris Kilham?  “All of them” would have been my preferred answer! Having settled my gear into the sweet little dorm room that was my home base for the weekend, I set about taking all the classes I could.

One highlight was the panel on Good Manufacturing Practices and other FDA regulations around manufacturing herbal products.  Mary Blue of Farmacy Herbs was the excellent moderator while Jovial King and Guido Mase of Urban Moonshine, Deb Soule and another herbalist from Avena Botanicals, and Cris Amarillas and Zoë Gardner of Traditional Medicinals discussed their experiences with the FDA.  All involved were generous in their discussions, and were doing their best to help and not dissuade herbal entrepreneurs.  Still, I was struck by how onerous the FDA’s requirements are for small- and medium-sized businesses and how nonsensical some of those requirements are.

This is one of multiple legal/regulatory issues in herbalism, since herbal supplements have become big business and are attracting more regulations.  One of the first things I did at the IHS was to enter into the raffle being held as a fundraiser for the Fire Cider Three, a trio of herbalists bravely facing up to a company that has trademarked the generic term “fire cider.”  Saturday evening at the IHS, Diane Miller of the National Health Freedom Coalition spoke persuasively on the importance of health freedom.  Among other things, she talked about one of her first cases as an attorney, when she defended a farmer who had been accused of practicing medicine without a license.  (There’s more about that in this interview with Diane, and here’s the website for the NHFC.)

One of my takeaways from this conference was that there are, as I see it, three or four main legal issues facing the herbal community.  (Disclaimer:  The following is my understanding of the issues.  I’m no legal expert, and you should talk to one – and do your own research – if you’re directly affected by any of these.)

  1. FDA Regulations
    Good Manufacturing Practices
    It goes without saying that quality control is essential, but the testing requirements on many herbal products are a heavy burden on small and medium-sized herbal companies.  The cost of these tests encourages large batches and mass production (and, it arguably follows, mediocrity).  It sounds like the FDA is essentially assuming everyone is guilty (of neglect or deceit) until tests prove the product is actually what they say it is – even if common sense could have proven that without expensive lab tests.  While lots of companies in this country care more about the bottom line than about quality and even safety, it’s shameful and counterproductive to hobble those manufacturers who are genuinely trying to make the best product possible.
    All herbal product companies – no matter how tiny – are subject to these requirements.  Compare this to food production companies which, in the state of Vermont, don’t need to get a health & safety inspection if they’re bringing in under $10,000 gross per year.  Herbal products are regulated comparably to pharmaceuticals, when they’re overwhelmingly closer to food than to drugs, and many herbs are food.  While companies do need to be held responsible for the quality of their products, regulations should be clear and reasonable.
    Structure/Function Claims
    Language on the labels, websites, etc. of a company producing herbal products may only describe the way in which a product supports normal health as defined by the FDA – and must not say that the product treats a given condition.  Companies are, in many cases, forced to talk around the actual effects of the herbs.  For an example, check out Traditional Medicinals’ description of Throat Coat tea.  It’s a great description, but nowhere do they say that this tea relieves a sore throat and – in my experience – it does, in a jiffy.  I haven’t talked to Traditional Medicinals about this, but I’m betting that the reason they dance around the phrase “relieves a sore throat” is that they’re not allowed to say that.  If so, this is a great example of this FDA regulation hindering clear language.  For more information on structure/function claims and how insidiously they effect clear communication, I recommend this talk by David Hoffmann.
  2. Trademarking and Patent Issues
    There’s a real danger of large companies trademarking the names of and even patenting the recipes for traditional herbal remedies.
    A while back, a company called Shire City Herbals trademarked the name “Fire Cider”.  What’s wrong with that?  Rosemary Gladstar has been sharing this remedy widely under the name fire cider since the 1970s, and the use of the name prior to Shire City’s trademark is well-documented.  Herbalists, therefore, regard “fire cider” as a generic/traditional term.  It’s as though someone tried to trademark the term “chicken noodle soup”.  You can find out more about the campaign to Free Fire Cider hereTrademarking generic terms limits other producers’ ability to communicate clearly with customers in an industry that is already severely limited in the language that’s allowed on labels.
    Recently, the New Yorker reported on the patenting of traditional recipes.  While a trademark reserves the use of marketing language, the patent-holder actually “owns” the recipe itself.  Accordingly, patents are only meant to be issued for genuinely unique recipes.  The fact that patents have been issued for traditional recipes is, frankly, pretty scary, since it costs a lot to fight those patents.
  3. Not Practicing Medicine without a License
    While it’s legal for herbalists to educate clients about the use of herbs, the language a clinical herbalist can use is limited due to restrictions on practicing medicine without a license.  Herbalists must strictly avoid diagnosing, treating, or preventing diseases or prescribing remedies.  This is, in many ways, just fine:  Conventional medicine has brilliant diagnostic tools available.  Generally herbalists don’t want to “treat” people so much as they want to empower people to care for themselves.  But sometimes this issue comes down to semantics and hinders clarity.  There are plenty of herbs that will, essentially, cure (read: give your body the tools it needs to heal from) plenty of conditions, and herbs can treat all kinds of symptoms.  We should be able to talk about that without worrying that a slip of the tongue will render us vulnerable to prosecution.
    While it’s imperative that each and every health practitioner be completely transparent about his or her training and experience, I think it’s important to question why conventional medicine is given such a privileged position.  Self care is a personal responsibility and individuals should be able to consult with whomever we think is best qualified to help us.  There are ongoing efforts to give individuals to choose their health practitioners.  You can find out more at the NHFC website.

During the last class period of the conference, David Hoffmann taught “Veriditas, the Green Man, and Herb Hugging.” This was a moving but not warm and fuzzy talk that I wish you all could have joined me at, because I don’t feel like I could do it justice with a quick explanation.  I’m just going to pull out a couple of quotes here.  I should say that these are, obviously, pulled from a larger context.

“I think product issues are the door through which capitalism is trying to take over herbalism.”

“Luckily they’re not burning us any more.  They’re just bankrupting us.  And in a capitalist culture that’s almost as bad.”

I’d like to just take a moment to emphasize that last one, in light of the above issues:

bankrupting ws

I am deeply grateful to the folks who are, despite the frustrations and challenges, fighting the good fight to keep high quality herbs accessible.  I especially admire herbal companies that provide opportunities for education:  You know that people aren’t just in it for profit when they sell bitters – and also teach people to make their own bitters.  It’s vitally important to keep teaching people to make their own herbal products, to make herbal products so ubiquitous that it’s as impossible to legislate them into inaccessibility as it is to legislate chicken soup.  Herbalists absolutely deserve fair compensation for the time, effort, and energy (as well as expenses) that go into crafting herbal products and making them available for purchase.  On the other hand, we mustn’t forget that, if we’re willing to put in our own time, effort, and energy, the plants will gift us with the rest.  Herbalism can exist outside of capitalism.

On an herb walk. You can see Edna Lou in the background.

That’s easy to say and nice to think about, but even better to experience:  A year or two ago, I came across a post about a bus named Edna Lou.  Edna Lou and Guisepi of the Free Tea Party travel around serving free tea to people at festivals, farmers’ markets, city streets, and so on.  I was, of course, intrigued – and I was pretty psyched when I saw that the tea bus would be at the IHS.  Despite this, my New England reserve reared its head, and I didn’t head straight to the tea bus:  My topsy turvy logic was that I didn’t want to bother the folks on the bus by asking for tea.  (A more sensical thought might have been that, if people have traveled so far to gift tea, they’re probably excited to share it.)  It wasn’t until Saturday night when – after a lovely time over at the Herbalist’s Ball and some excellent conversations – I was wandering back to my dorm room, perfectly satisfied to be heading to bed.  And yet, as I walked past the tea bus, I felt myself sort of leaning toward it, pulled in by the lovely thought of folks having tea.  “There’s free tea,” one of the people who was wise enough to be already hanging out at the tea bus said, and that was all I needed:  I spent the rest of the evening and some time between classes on Sunday sitting on cushions outside the tea bus, enjoying brilliant company and delicious tea courtesy of the wonderful people who had brought Edna Lou to the IHS.  Afterwards, I wished I had another week at the IHS – not necessarily to take more classes, because my brain was already bursting – but to drink tea at the tea bus, sitting on cushions and discussing classes and unpacking them with other attendees.  You can bet that – whenever, wherever – I next spot Edna Lou, I’ll make a beeline for that tea bus, because that little space of free tea and awesome people was a huge part of what I loved about attending the IHS.

Heading home both smarter and wiser, I made three trips to the car with my luggage:  One with the troublesome suitcase, one with most everything else, and one with my arms full of seedlings to plant in my garden.

Free tea! Hospitality at its best.


The view from the tea bus’s outdoor seating area.


Closing circle at the International Herb Symposium.

It’s a Giveaway!

giveaway graphic 10-2015One of my favorite holidays is just around the corner, and, to celebrate, I’ve put together a giveaway!  This will end at midnight on Halloween, and one winner (picked at random from the comments below) will get these treats:

  • a PLANT WEEDS: THE “S” MAKES IT LEGAL t-shirt.  It’s a unisex size XL in a nice dark chocolate brown.
  • a copy of Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide
  • three travel-sized spray bottles of Urban Moonshine bitters (one each of their maple, original, and chamomile bitters)

I’m pretty excited about this little package:

UM spraysUrban Moonshine bitters – in addition to being delicious – are ideal to have around during the approaching holiday season.  You can read here all about how bitters help curb sugar cravings, balance the appetite, soothe gas and bloating, and relieve upset stomach.  There are always more sweets around than usual through November and December and – whether I want to pass on having an extra cookie at work or alleviate the effects of indulging at a family party – I find it’s a huge help to have bitters close to hand.  These little spray bottles are convenient and also just fun.  Urban Moonshine’s maple bitters are a delicious choice for the bitters newbie (or anyone who’s mad about maple).  Their original bitters are yummy and complex, and the chamomile bitters are beautifully aromatic and soothing.  I’m a big fan of dandelions (as you can tell from the seed featured on the “Plant Weeds” t-shirts), and all three of these contain organic dandelion root and leaf.

RG Med HerbsRosemary Gladstar‘s Medicinal Herbs is a perfect introduction to herbalism for the beginner, but also has tons of material and recipes for more experienced herbalists.  This is the book I like to keep on hand to give to people who you can tell really want to try herbalism but just haven’t taken that first step yet.  The photography is gorgeous and – like most, probably all, of Storey Publishing‘s books – the design and layout are inviting and easy to use.  Rosemary’s style of writing is personable and rich, and her instructions are accessible and practical.  This book features sections on 33 easy to obtain plants, including culinary herbs like basil and turmeric as well as wild and weedy species like dandelion and plantain.  There are plenty of recipes in this book for enjoying during winter months, but it’ll also have you planning your garden and forays into foraging come spring.  You might even decide to set aside some space in your garden for weeds!

Image-2The PLANT WEEDS – THE “S” MAKES IT LEGAL shirt is my own design, and is locally printed by Amalgamated Culture Works.  It’s made of super soft organic cotton.  You can read more about these t-shirts here, and if you can’t wait until November to find out if you’ve won, you can order one here.

How can you enter to win these goodies?  I’m glad you asked!  You can enter up to four times.  When you log in to leave a comment, make sure to enter a correct and valid email address, so I’ll be able to get in touch with you.  Leave a comment for each individual entry:

  1. What’s one of your favorite weeds?  Do you harvest it?  Have you planted it?  Tell me in the comments of this post.
  2. Visit a Vaguely Bohemian shop.  Poke around a little.  Come back and – in a comment on this post – tell me what’s most important to you about these shirts (that they’re organic? that they’re printed locally?) or something you’d like to see (e.g. a different color or fabric).
  3. Follow Vaguely Bohemian via your method of choice, e.g. email (sign up in the righthand sidebar, under “Stay in the Know”) or  twitter (@vaguelybohemian).  Comment and tell me you’ve done this.  Are you already following Vaguely Bohemian?  Comment and tell me so.
    PLEASE NOTE:  You can also find Vaguely Bohemian on Facebook, but following on Facebook is excluded from this method of entry, due to Facebook’s terms.
  4. Share this giveaway, or a Vaguely Bohemian shop, via your method of choice.  This might be word of mouth, on your own blog, on twitter, etc.  Comment on this post and tell me you’ve done this.
    PLEASE NOTE:  Sharing on Facebook is excluded from this method of entry, due to Facebook’s terms.

Good luck!  The entry period ends at midnight EST on 10/31/15, and the winner will be drawn on 11/1.

Giveaway ends 10/31/15 at midnight EST. Open to residents of the US only.  (Shipping address must be in the US.)   Winner will be selected randomly and be notified by email. Winner will have 48 hours to respond before a new winner is selected. Vaguely Bohemian will send the prize to the  winner directly. The products offered for the giveaway are free of charge, no purchase necessary. This giveaway is administered by Vaguely Bohemian only, and Facebook and Twitter are in no way associated with this giveaway.  If you have any additional questions – feel free to send us an email!

I put parental controls on my own devices: Here’s why (and how)

Polylerus at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Does being online sometimes make you feel like one big busy head? There’s an app for that. (Image is “The Wikipedian” by Polylerus)

 Screens are ever so shiny, and I’ve always been something of a magpie.  No matter how much I know – in my brain and bones and even my toes – that I’ll be happier spending the day gardening outside, the screen is still alluring.  It’s even more captivating at night, when I can ensconce myself in a comfy chair and the pale glow of the monitor.  Inside that screen, there is so much internet.  So many thoughts on so many subjects, lots of which are genuinely important.  I confess, I’ve spent too many hours researching and exploring late into the night.  Worse, when I finally do lie down and turn out the light, my brain stays busy, insists on continuing to click away at various subjects and to-dos.  I have yet to wake particularly enlightened for my evenings of seemingly important ether-surfing, nor do those sessions help me wake up well-rested or cheerful.

I’ve decided that computers might as well help me with the solution as well as the problem:  I’m retraining my inner screen-junkie with what are essentially parental controls for grown-ups.

On my pocket oracle (aka an ipod touch), I use Moment, an app that allows you to set limits on the amount of time you spend plugged in each day.  I have it set to send me a gentle notification after every half hour spent on-screen –  a good reminder that the day is passing by outdoors as well as on the clock in the corner of the screen – and to kick me off after a few hours of accumulated screen time.  The more important feature for me, though, is that it lets you set screen-free hours.  I use this to keep myself off this tiny-but-addicting screen from 9:30pm until the morning.

When working past 9:30, I use my laptop, which has the genius program f.lux installed.  While this program doesn’t actually kick me off the computer, it changes the overall tone of the monitor’s display throughout the evening, getting more and more amber starting at sunset.  What’s the point? While light of any kind can suppress melatonin (and so interfere with sleep), blue light, like that from your computer screen, does so more powerfully.  Since I started using f.lux, I find that I’m more likely to turn the computer off as soon as I’m done the work I genuinely want to do, and I’m much less likely to get distracted and click this link and that link and always one more link.  Even better, when I do go to bed, my mind is quieter.  I no longer feel like I’m click-click-clicking at whatever thoughts rise up, but instead can let them float off and take care of themselves for the evening.  If you ever work on a computer after dark, this program is a boon to your sleeping self.

It’s been said that one of the most important skills these days is knowing what questions to ask Google, or your search engine of choice.  But it’s still even more important to ask yourself the right questions.  “Do I really want to be online right now?” and “Is it really productive/creative/useful for me to be online right now?” are two questions in my daily repertoire, and I’m all for any tools that help me remember to ask them.  There is, after all, so much world outside of the screen.