“I love plants,” says herbalist Atava Garcia Swiecicki, “but for me it’s also really political. [Herbal medicine] is about reclaiming our power to take care of ourselves in a way that’s really inexpensive.” Swieckicki is not alone in this view.
Oakland is home to many herbalists working to practice a method of health treatment that restores the synergistic relationship between personal health and ecological health. Swiecicki gives holistic consultations and sells her tinctures and teas out of Ancestral Apothecary on Grand Ave. She also teaches classes on how to forage for and make herbal remedies at home.
“I could go on a whole political rant,” she laughs, “but there have been very intentional campaigns to dismantle healing modalities that are somehow a threat to the biomedical industry for hundreds of years.” Swieicki has been practicing for 20 years in Oakland, harvesting the city’s rosemary, white sage, passion flower, willow bark and California poppy, to name a few. She has arrangements with farms but also harvests much of her herbs from the Bay Area’s diverse wilds. (She doesn’t advise us all to go out ‘wild crafting,’ however, there’s an ethic around avoiding over-harvesting.)
“I always tell my students, 75% of the world still practices herbal medicine, it’s only ‘alternative’ in this country,” says Swiecicki.
Ingrid Bauer, owner of Five Flavors Herbs, similarly points out that like all medical systems around the world, plant medicines were the mainstay of European and American pharmacopaeas up until the early 20th century and the advent of using more toxic ingredients like mercury.
She explains that herbalists employ whole plant medicines because “plants contain hundreds of thousands of different chemical compounds that work synergistically in the body” and therefore do not produce the side-effects and even toxicity seen in treatments of isolated “active compounds”.
Bauer and her husband Benjamin Zappin opened their herb shop and acupuncture office on 40th and Broadway a little over a year ago and report that business is healthy.
“We use a lot of ancient Chinese formulas and practices but there are modifications because we’re using California native flora,” says Bauer. “That doesn’t mean we’re running with the latest best thing you can put in your body discovery—there’s a couple-hundred year old established naturopathic tradition in the West.”
“One of our top sellers is an anxiety formula we call Tranquility,” said Bauer, “It’s not something that stands in for psychiatric medication but people find it really soothing in moments of acute pressure or on a low-dosage sort of chronic basis.” Tranquility is made from Kava-kava—a leafy shrub, the roots of which have long been used by Polynesians as a psychoactive—and skull cap—a mint-family herb.
“It can be hard to reconcile [the Western industrial practices with the naturopathic Chinese and South American traditions], but that’s the idea, to take all the resources we can into consideration to figure out the best treatment for each case,” she says.
A number of Oakland residents who are Chinese-American or Latino use traditional whole plant naturopathic remedies as one aspect of their preferred method of health care. Milagros de Mexico in Fruitvale, Draline Tong Herbs in Chinatown and Lhasa Karnak in Berkeley are three of the long-standing favorites locals mentioned—though all these shops import their herbs (because they don’t grow domestically)and don’t grow them locally.
Five Flavors and Ancestral Apothecary as well as Homestead Apothecary, profiled by OL in 2013, all work intimately with their local agricultural sources. “Traces of heavy metals or pesticides in the herbs can really defeat the purpose they serve,” says Bauer. “We harvest a lot of our own plants, others we get from the Sonoma County Herb Exchange and other farms nearby,” so that contamination is not a concern, she said, and neither is energy-intensive international transport.
Our health care system continues to subsidize pharmaceuticals and promote an insurance system that often doesn’t recognize naturopathic treatments, laments Bauer. All of these apothecaries take different corrective measures to widen accessibility to their treatments. Some offer donation-based and sliding-scale classes, and some host benefits for community clinics and community kitchens on a regular basis.
“I want to empower people to be able to treat themselves,” says Wiecicki. Especially when it comes to preventive medicine and pain relief, what we know to be weeds are actually cures offering themselves up to us. Often times they’re all we need, she says.
These apothecaries are just a few more Oakland-grown establishments working to reclaim manufacturing from mass industrialization in order to recuperate a healthy and sustainable economy, ecology and community.
This is the second in a series of articles highlighting entrepreneurs who are bringing manufacturing back down to a local and sustainable scale. #MakeItLocal.