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 (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], 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.

Notes from the 2015 New England Women’s Herbal Conference

The New England Women’s Herbal Conference is, in many ways, a demulcent* conference.  Rosemary Gladstar spoke this year about how, from the beginning, she wanted the conference to be nourishing and have a sweetness to it.  It’s a replenishing event, and a soothing one – not in the sense of tranquilizing, but of healing.  The WHC is an inspiring weekend full of engaging teachers and classes, but being an attendee somehow also feels like wrapping oneself up in a nice soft blanket that smells of linden and marshmallow.

Betzy Bancroft showing off the sliminess of marshmallow.

Betzy Bancroft showing off the sliminess of marshmallow.

You might not be surprised to learn that one of the classes I attended this year was on demulcents, “the slimaceous herbs.”  It was taught by Betzy Bancroft of the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism and United Plant Savers.  I’ve gotten to take a few of Betzy’s botany classes in the past, and loved them.  This was even better.  Structuring the class around an herbal action was fascinating, and kept us focused on how these herbs work and the generous ways they can help us.  The big takeaways for me?  First, I should be taking demulcents.  Why haven’t I been taking demulcents lately?  Second, quoting from Betzy’s handout, “When we ingest [demulcents], the moistening and protective qualities…have a cooling and soothing effect on the surfaces of our GI tract, which is a huge area…  Considering also that there is an enormous amount of nervous and immune activity in the GI tract, these benefits can impact not only our gut but other systems as well.  I have particularly seen that soothing the gut will in turn soothe the nerves and hypersensitivities.”  This was an “ah ha!” moment for me.  Soothing the gut as a way to sooth the nerves.  Of course, considering all the nerves that give us “gut feelings” and “butterflies” in our stomachs.

Third, marshmallow apple sauce tastes really good.  I can’t speak highly enough of having samples to try in class.  I’ve always functioned well in lecture-style academia, but I take in more and find it easier to stay present in classes when there are herbs to taste, smell, touch.  From Betzy’s marshmallow apple sauce and chia pudding to Robin Rose Bennett’s rose-infused honey to Lupo Passero’s grounding spritzer and Jenn Allen’s chunk of pinon pine resin, there were so many good scents and tastes, even before entering the dining hall.

The view from my "home" at the WHC.

The view from my “home” at the WHC.

All that is not to mention getting to camp out in the New Hampshire woods in my sweet little two-person tent that goes up as easy as making your bed.  I camped right up against the trees, and in the mornings I woke up to acorns dropping down from above and rolling off the dome of my tent.

Even that’s not to mention the people:  Running into friends from previous “herb camps” and chatting with herbalists and students of herbalism from all over.  Learning from teachers’ experiences, insights, and stories.  Witnessing performances by folks like singer/songwriter Guadalupe Urbina (whose songs have been known to work their way into your dreams), drummer Mz. Imani (who will get you up out of your seat), and silk aerialist Amy Glasser (who has superpowers).

Gorgeous people and decor in the big tent at the WHC's closing circle.

Gorgeous people and decor in the big tent at the WHC’s closing circle.

And I’ve hardly touched on the variety of activities:  Walking the labyrinth at night.  Opportunities to learn about everything from insulin resistance to sacred beekeeping.  Hot cups of chai in the morning from Tulsi Tea and gorgeous artwork and herbwork in the emporium.  All this in a venue that is set up to protect you from the elements as necessary but is fundamentally outdoors.

I must mention the class that I was, perhaps, most excited about this year: Robin Rose Bennett’s talk on wild carrot.  As a woman who has made a conscious choice not to have children, birth control is near and dear to me.  At the same time, it can be a frustrating subject:  The options are limited and none of them are ideal…but that’s a whole other blog post.  I have sometimes thought that I’d love to hear more talk about birth control in herbal circles:  How could herbs be used to support one’s body when on hormonal birth control?  How can we look at birth control options from a wholistic perspective?  Are there any non-mainstream methods of birth control that are viable options?  And so on.  So, when I saw that Robin would be teaching a class on using wild carrot for birth control, I may have actually cheered, and it was the first class to go on my schedule.  I was impressed by Robin’s up front but generous manner in teaching this class, and in sharing the advantages as well as contraindications of this method, as well as by her obvious love for this plant.  (If this is something you’re interested in finding out more about, read Robin’s book The Gift of Healing Herbs.  There is a section specifically on wild carrot, but I’ll bet you end up reading the whole book.)

One of the most nourishing aspects of this conference is the teachers’ and participants’ willingness to speak so compassionately and passionately on such a range of issues, from prickly ones like contraception to the knock-you-down hard ones like grief, trauma, pain, to the things that mainstream society often dismisses as extracurricular, like fragrance, ritual, dance, drums, song.  Considering how safe and comforting this conference feels, it can be surprising to reflect on the ways in which it continues to gently but firmly push aside the status quo.  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.  Here’s to next year!


*“Demulcent” herbs are soothing, nourishing, and protecting, also mucilaginous, emollient, “slimy.”

T-Shirts for Sale!

Visiting Jamaica Cottage Shop in southern Vermont.

Sporting one of the new t-shirts on a visit to Jamaica Cottage Shop. (More on that later.)

What an extraordinarily enjoyable whirlwind of a summer, with some days feeling like I was at the edge of the whirlwind, traveling swiftly, and some days in the center, when time stood still.  I was fortunate enough to make it to three remarkable events this summer – the New England Women’s Herbal Conference, the International Herb Symposium, and the SCA’s Pennsic War – and I look forward to reporting back on each of them.  First, though, I want to introduce you to the “Plant Weeds: The ’s’ makes it legal.” t-shirts that are now for sale here at Vaguely Bohemian.

Since I’m a person who tends to research things ad nauseum, this was quite a process.  I researched different printers and methods of printing, different t-shirt manufacturers and materials, etc.  I discovered that t-shirts are pretty interesting.  I’d never given much thought to this basic garment, but the variations just within t-shirts are impressive.

I also learned that, even with an item as ubiquitous as t-shirts, the options are limited.  In an ideal world, I’d be printing on gorgeously crafted locally-made t-shirts made out of locally-grown hemp.  Slightly more realistically, I set out to find organic cotton or hemp t-shirts that were Union-made in the US, and that were also available in both the basic unisex fit and a nicely-styled and reasonably-sized women’s cut. My printers don’t have a source for a shirt like this, and my own research hasn’t been able to uncover one either. At first I found this frustrating, but ultimately I think it’s a sign of how important it is that consumers choose mindfully.  The more we choose to buy organic, sustainable shirts made with good labor practices, the more those will be offered.  My ideal t-shirt might not be on offer now, but so long as I choose the closest I can get, I’m encouraging the market to choose sustainable, ethical practices.

So what shirts did I end up with?  I chose to use Aurum Organic blanks.  These shirts are made abroad, but the company itself is based in Burlington, Vermont.  Although Aurum Organic is owned by a larger manufacturer, this is as local as I can get for t-shirt blanks, and supporting a strong local economy is important to me.  They’re also printed locally, by the brilliant people at Amalgamated Culture Works in Burlington.  It has been an absolute pleasure working with Amalgamated Culture Works, and I can’t recommend them highly enough.

The t-shirts are soft, well-made, and styled beautifully.  The colors are rich, and the women’s fit is perhaps the best fitting women’s t-shirt I’ve ever put on.  For me, this isn’t the most important thing in the world, but I think that it’s not a bad thing for clothing to be both sustainable and flattering.  I’m working on obtaining a size chart, but I’ve found that I take the same size in these that I take in most other brands, so I’d say they run true to size.  This was also important to me.  I tried on one national-brand t-shirt that ran at least a size and a half small in their women’s t-shirts, and I think that creates unrealistic expectations for women.

Most importantly, to me, the t-shirts are 100% organic.  Why was this my priority? The Rodale Institute reports that cotton growers use 16% of the world’s pesticides and that cotton is one of the top four GMO crops in the world.  (Whether or not you believe GMOs can be used for good, there are troubling issues around the patenting and corporate control over seeds.)  Organic cotton is GMO-free and grown without the use of synthetic pesticides.  Conventional methods of growing cotton aren’t good for the earth, the farm workers, or the consumer, so any cotton t-shirts I sourced absolutely had to be grown using organic methods.

While I was in the midst of all this research, it sometimes seemed like this would be a perpetually “in process” project, so it was pretty magical to send my design to Amalgamated Culture Works and, a few days later, pick up a box of crisply printed, gorgeous, real t-shirts that I could see and touch – and wear!  I’m pretty chuffed, and I hope you like them, too.  If you do, please consider placing an order and/or sharing a link to a VAGUELY BOHEMIAN shop: Witty weedy wares on the web:  You’ll be supporting my own local microbusiness Vaguely Bohemian, as well as a local independent printer, and organic practices of growing fiber for clothing.  Also, there are more designs and more options in the works, and your purchase will help make those a reality.  Thank you for your time and consideration!

Fire Cider: Let’s Call it What it Is

fc_recipeIf the Chick-fil-A lawsuit over “Eat More Kale” got your goat, this should too: A while back, the national company Shire City Herbals trademarked “fire cider,” a term that has long been used as a traditional/generic name for a spicy, warming, apple cider vinegar-based herbal remedy popularized by Rosemary Gladstar. Now, this company is suing three herbalists over this trademark.

As puts it, “A trademark or service mark includes any word, name, symbol, device, or any combination, used or intended to be used to identify and distinguish the goods/services of one seller or provider from those of others, and to indicate the source of the goods/services.” This is different from a patent, which protects the production of the item itself. It is possible to patent a recipe, but it has to be a pretty newfangled and unusual recipe. So, (while I’m no legal expert), what this seems to boil down to is that the trademark doesn’t prevent people from making fire cider, it does prevent people from using the phrase commercially.

Trademarking can be a legitimate way to protect a business’ investment/reputation. So what’s the problem?

“Fire cider” has been used as a generic term for decades. It was popularized by Rosemary Gladstar beginning in the 1970s, and she has shared both the recipe and the name freely. On the other hand, Shire City’s “about us” page states that one of the co-owners “began making early versions of Fire Cider in the 1990’s” and first sold the remedy in 2010. I began my first program at Rosemary Gladstar’s Sage Mountain Herbal Education Center in 2010, and fire cider was one of the remedies we learned to make. It was a popular one and already well-known amongst my fellow students, through Rosemary’s work. It’s also included in Rosemary’s books, which came out well before then.  The term “fire cider” was in widespread usage before Shire City even started selling their product.

Trademarking “fire cider” is akin to someone trademarking the phrase “chicken noodle soup.” Limiting the use of a generic name like this compromises our ability to communicate effectively. In this case, it makes it more difficult for consumers to navigate herbal remedies, and stifles fair competition. If someone goes to the co-op to pick up some fire cider – the warming remedy that they heard about from a friend or in Rosemary’s books – they should be able to see clearly which items on the shelf are fire cider, because they’re labeled as such. By preventing that, this trademark seeks to force other companies to use substitute names and descriptors, which just makes things confusing. Remember, this isn’t as though Pfizer was trying to keep other companies from using the word “Advil,” but as though they were saying they had the exclusive right to the generic term “ibuprofen.” It’s as though Smucker’s had trademarked the term “jelly” or Merriam-Webster claimed it had the exclusive right to call a book a “dictionary.”

Stifling the use of a traditional/generic term like “fire cider” (by reserving that use for a single company) is unacceptable. In order to have power over our own health, we must be able to communicate clearly about which remedy is which. In addition to making our own fire cider, it’s our prerogative to purchase fire cider from the many and varied small companies run with intention by skilled herbalists. Those companies must have the right to communicate effectively with consumers, and consumers have the same right to clearly understand the product they’re buying.

This is an issue that strikes home for herbalists – but its ramifications aren’t limited to those of us practicing herbalism.  If you’re a consumer of herbal products, and you want to make sure those products are labeled so that they’re easy to find and compare, this affects you.  If you care about strong local economies based on thriving independent businesses (like the herbal businesses affected by this trademark and lawsuit) this affects you.  If you simply believe that it’s our right to communicate effectively and clearly, that corporations must not be allowed to own traditional terms in our language, this affects you.

Please, take action.  What can you do? Check out the video below and visit to find out.



PS:  Don’t forget to mix up some of your own!

Rob Stewart’s REVOLUTION

I have a confession to make: I don’t watch environmental films.  After all, I know what they’re going to tell me, right? And I’m doing my best, right? Do I really want to listen to someone tell me how bad things are when I already know? But flattery will get you lots of places, and when I was offered the chance to screen and review Rob Stewart’s new film Revolution, I said yes.  (For the record, I didn’t have to promise the review would be good, and I don’t get any kick-backs based on click-throughs.)

Flamboyant Cuttlefish.  Production still courtesy of REVOLUTION.

Flamboyant Cuttlefish. Image courtesy of REVOLUTION.

What I’d been forgetting is that films don’t just tell, they show.  Revolution is, firstly, stunning.  It’s filled with shots of creatures that make you think, “Wait, that’s a real live living thing?  That’s so crazy and cool and gorgeous and just plain weird!”  In the narration of the film, Stewart says, after describing his first experience with a shark, “…sharks were like dragons or dinosaurs, but they were real.”  This film is filled with images that remind you of how fantastic and unlikely and breathtaking this world is.  Just for that, it’s worth watching.  Just for the sheer joy of remembering that we’re on the same planet as creatures like cuttlefish and baobab trees.

Of course, it isn’t all happiness and joy.  There are darker images:  Ruined coral reefs.  The Alberta tar sands.  Huge plastic bags full of dead seahorses, caught for consumption.  The impact of these images lies in the fact that they’re not shoved in your face the way Game of Thrones loves to spatter blood around.  Instead, they’re presented almost gently.  As in, huh, bags full of something brown.  And then you recognize that they’re seahorses, small ones, so there must be thousands in those bags.  And then you think of the way seahorses move, because you’ve been watching gorgeous images of sea creatures.  And perhaps, if you’re like me, you think of how seahorses have always been one of those animals that seem to be out of a fairy tale, one of the creatures in this world that really seems to argue for the reality of magic, or something even better.  And seeing them there, body after body piled into clear plastic bags, so obviously a commodity speaks for itself.

Production still courtesy of REVOLUTION.

Rob Stewart and young activists in Saipan. Image courtesy of REVOLUTION.

It’s this gentle, almost meditative quality that really drew me into the film.  Told almost conversationally, in the format of a memoir, Revolution follows Stewart’s own experiences: learning about animals as a kid, making the film Sharkwater, and realizing that it’s not just sharks that need saving, it’s the oceans, the forests, the atmosphere, and us.  While Stewart does call his audience to action, he’s not shoving an agenda at the viewer, and this film is refreshingly lacking in pontification.  Stewart acknowledges both the crushing frustration of watching politicians do nothing again and again – but also offers evidence that hope is merited, that people really do care enough to make changes.  He encourages personal action and personal responsibility, while acknowledging his own outsized debt to the environment incurred in the making of the film. Perhaps the best thing about this film is Stewart’s talent for sharing his own contagious affection for the creatures filmed, for the natural world as a whole, and for the young activists striving to make things right.

Sifaka. Image courtesy of REVOLUTION.

Sifaka. Image courtesy of REVOLUTION.

Conversations about the environment so often only happen among those who already agree with each other.  The liberals talk about how scary global warming is, while the conservatives, I imagine, talk about how crazy those conservationists are.  This is a film that I think might be able to cross those boundaries, because you just can’t help but be delighted by shots of leaping sifakas (a type of lemur)  and pygmy seahorses, because it’s a first-person narrative (“I did this” instead of “you should do this”), and because this is a story told in an openhearted way.  I know no one wants family fights over climate change, but this is a film that just might start a conversation instead.

I was ready, when I hit play, for the harrowing statistics, the overarching problems.  They’re problems that I already fight to contribute to as little as I can, that I already obsess over, that, frankly, I usually do my best to avoid hearing more about.  What I wasn’t ready for was Stewart’s modest way of presenting our generous and exuberant world – the world we’re fighting for.  As he asks, “What if we had a world to fight for instead of fighting against our problems?  What kind of world could we create if we designed it to be beautiful for us and all species?”  It’s worth finding out, and if you want to share with friends why we’re fighting for that world, or if you could use a refresher yourself, watch this:

On Raw Milk, and current regulations in Vermont

Vermont’s legislature is currently debating the regulations around the availability of raw milk, and earlier this spring I spoke to the House Committee on Agriculture and Forest Products as a raw milk consumer.  (This post is an adapted version of what I said there.) You can find all the House Ag Committee documents related to this bill (including testimony from myself and other witnesses) on their website, and you can follow the Farm Fresh Milk Campaign at Rural Vermont.  The current situation is that it is legal for farmers to sell raw milk in the state of Vermont, but there are some very strict (bordering on prohibitive) regulations that make it difficult for farmers to reach consumers.  An effort is being made to mitigate those regulations, giving consumers easier access to the extremely high quality (and safe) raw milk that is being produced in the state of Vermont.

I’ve been a customer of Huard Family Farm for the last year and a half or so. Frank Huard delivers raw goat’s milk to my home about once a week, and sometimes we’re also able to pick it up from him at the Burlington Farmers’ Market. The milk from Frank’s farm is absolutely delicious, with a flavor much more subtle than anything off the grocery store shelf. I would drink it just for the taste, but I also drink it because most milk really upsets my digestion if I drink much of it. The milk from Frank’s farm never bothers my digestion. I don’t know for sure if this is because it’s raw or because it’s goat’s milk, or a combination of the two, but I do know that I can drink it by the glass and feel good and nourished.  I can say positively that (to me, and many others) raw milk tastes better and more distinctive than pasteurized milk, and I would venture to say that raw milk lets those of us who drink by the glass enjoy the local terroir in a way that pasteurized milk just can’t.

Frank has always been gracious about delivering to our door, but I’ve often wondered how he could possibly meet expenses when he has to drive all over the place to deliver milk to customers: Gas is expensive, and it has to take him a lot of time to drive to each individual customer. If Frank could sell his milk via retail stores, it would be convenient for me, but what’s more important is that it would be sustainable for him. We used to get raw goat’s milk from Trillium Hill Farm in Hinesburg, but they stopped selling milk after the 2012 season because that part of their business had proven to be unsustainable. I wonder if this would have been different if there weren’t so many restrictions around the sale of raw milk. I find the present restrictions frustrating personally, but the biggest concern to me is that these restrictions make it so difficult for farmers to reach customers. It goes without saying that a business must be able to reach customers to survive.

I recognize and appreciate that the intent of the present labeling language is to protect the consumer, but I wish that our legislators would give more credit – and more responsibility – to consumers: In my experience, what pasteurization is and does is general knowledge. I think it’s enough to state that the milk is raw/unpasteurized. So long as I’m clearly told what the product is, it’s up to me to determine whether it’s healthy for me. Please show that you respect me and other consumers by trusting us to do that.

In addition to speaking as a consumer, I’d like to say a few words just as a resident of Vermont: I don’t think it’s possible to emphasize too much how important small farms like Frank’s are. They feed us, keeping us nourished and healthy and giving us a much-needed alternative to mass-produced, trucked-in food. They keep money in the local economy. They give Vermont the distinctive sense of place that makes this state a destination. They’re vital to our sense of community: A teacher of mine used to say, “we all exist in a web of interdependence,” and eating food grown or produced by someone in your community reinforces how much we all depend on one another.

The farmers I know are the hardest working people I know, and I think it’s safe to say that, as a group, farmers are the hardest working people in Vermont. While some regulation is reasonable, the present requirements place unnecessary obstacles between the farmer and the customer. H. 426 won’t change that farming is a difficult job, but it’ll do a lot to make this work economically feasible for the farmers affected.

Anna Lappe said, “Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want.” I want to vote for a state full of thriving family farms, by buying this good, wholesome product from a local farmer. Please make it easier for me to do that, and give Frank and other farmers a real chance to thrive by supporting H. 426.

Flowers for Breakfast:
Calendula-Blueberry Pancakes

Blueberry-calendula pancake.

Calendula petals and blueberries set each other off nicely in these pancakes.

Calendula flowers seem to be filled with sunshine, and since back in the depths of winter this year, these pancakes been my favorite breakfast.  I cook up a batch at a time, put the extra pancakes in the fridge (after letting them cool) and toast them in a toaster oven for breakfast for the next couple of days.  With not just calendula, but blueberries and nettle, these pancakes are packed full of goodness. The bright amber calendula petals and purpley-blue berries compliment each other nicely.

You’ll need:

  • 1 c. buckwheat flour
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • a couple of handfuls of calendula petals (not the whole flowers!)
  • a handful of dried nettle leaf
  • 1 c. milk (or milk substitute)
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tbls. coconut or olive oil
  • 1 c. wild blueberries

In my yard, nettles were the first plants to pop out of the ground this spring.  Dried nettle leaf adds even more nourishment to these pancakes.


  1. Mix the dry ingredients well.  The calendula petals have a tendency to sit on top, but don’t worry:  They’ll blend  in to the other ingredients once you add the liquids.
  2. Add milk, eggs, and oil.  Mix.
  3. Add blueberries, and mix in.
  4. I use a 1/3 measuring cup to portion the batter out and cook on the stove top just like any other pancake.  I end up with 7-8 pancakes, depending on how generously I measure.
  5. Add your toppings of choice and enjoy!