Heather Ellemor-Collins lives in The Channon, near Lismore in New South Wales, Australia. By British standards this is pretty remote, and the climate is subtropical. Her journey in herbal medicine since graduating from Southern Cross University is fascinating – some problems (and triumphs) are familiar territory, others are unique to this very different geographical and social environment.

The Past

When my first child, Miriam, was an infant, I set about establishing an herb garden and making my own tinctures.  I tried to do everything with the best quality ingredients I could source.  I bought organic alcohol from the sugar cane industry in Australia.  I made fresh plant tinctures, as per Stephen & Carol Church’s protocol, with herbs I could grow or wildcraft in large enough quantities. I made other tinctures with premium quality dried herbs from Tasmania.

I did much alone, and much with my friend and colleague Terri Nicholson, which was a wonderful experience.  We’d get together and press a series of macerated tinctures while our kids played together, and we could share our excitement as we saw our plants thrive, and our sadness or confusion as others perished.  We sampled and compared our tinctures, as sometimes we used different alcohol percentages to each other.  We waded through her dam to harvest an as-yet-unidentified Nymphea sp.  We freely drank the excess licorice tincture that wouldn’t fit in the bottles, and enjoyed its delicious flavour and its relaxing effects.  I would be much poorer as an herbalist without this companionship. The journey of the witch and scientist within is strange and wonderful, and sharing it with another of your own kind only makes it more so!

In total, I have so far grown about 70 herbs and made 70 tinctures.  I’m happy with that number so far.  Sometimes there are herbs I don’t have and want to put in a mix, and I buy them from town.  But you can do a lot with 70 good herbs.  I think knowing a moderate selection of herbs really intimately and depending less on access to a growing number of herbs, many of which are imported, is one of the keys to sustainable herbal medicine.  I certainly have a completely different relationship with herbs I have grown and loved and then made into medicines than herbs I know exclusively from information on paper and an industrial tincture. Using my own herbs, I feel like an herbalist. I give plants I know and love to people I care about.  Using foreign herbs from bottles, I feel a bit like a thief and a phytopharmaceuticalist.  How would I even know if the tincture really tastes like the plant or not?

I also assisted Sue Evans in the medicine manufacturing labs for the Bachelor of Naturopathy course at Southern Cross University.  I was happy to be able to inspire some of the students about the possibility of making one’s own medicines, and to be able to demonstrate the differences in quality between home made and industrial tinctures.  I recently bumped into one of these students three years later, and invited her to visit me to get some herb samples for her own new garden. It’s nice to see seeds of ideas start to sprout.

The Present

We built a new house on a different site in the community we live in, so I have largely abandoned my old garden and am very slowly establishing a new one, with cuttings from the old one.  I now know which herbs grow well in this subtropical environment, and which herbs I need to learn a lot more about to grow well.  As we have periods of extreme rain (sometimes a foot or so in 24 hours!) followed by tropical heat, many plants suffer or die from wet feet, so I am making good drainage a priority in my new garden design. Creating suitable bed structures and building good soil is taking time, especially as I have so little of it!  But we plan to be here for the long haul, so I’m hoping that one day I will have a beautiful and bountiful garden again, full of flowering hyssop and chamomile.

I use my tinctures a lot to treat my family and myself, and I think not enough can be said for having a home dispensary.  You can treat things immediately and much more liberally than if you were to pay retail prices for the same herbs.  Retail herbs are expensive in Australia: around $22-$25 for 100ml or $35-$40 for 200ml. (Editors note: one Australian $ = approx £0.60). So not many people can afford a long-term tonic. I like to select a few herbs intuitively for a ‘daily tonic’ from my home dispensary.  I like that the mix can vary day to day to match my feelings closely.  I add a little cold water, then some boiled water, to make a warm cup of “tea”.  This is much more palatable for me, evaporates off some of the alcohol, and feels more nourishing and tonic-like than the strong “shot” of tincture.

Occasionally, other members of my community ask for tinctures, and I am so happy to be able to offer these medicines I made with love to people I love, at a really affordable price: $8 for 100ml and $15 for 200ml.  So far I have not become the “community herbalist” as much as I had hoped, (although this week 3 out of the 25 community members bought a mix: cough season).  I sometimes see a tincture bought from town (at the much higher price) on people’s benches. There are a few reasons for this, I think.  Firstly, I have been very inconsistent in my availability.  When house building was too busy, or I was too exhausted with my babies, I “closed shop” altogether for stretches of time.  At other times I have said, “yes, I can make that for you, but not till tomorrow”.  This is not the kind of instant service people can expect in a retail outlet.  Secondly, some people prefer to consult practitioners who are not family or friends, and I totally understand that.  Thirdly, if someone is in town doing their shopping, it can be easier to drop into the apothecary and get a quick mix than to come home and then call me up and see if I have time to make a mix.  Even in the bush, people are pushed for time, and so convenience is a big seller.  It will be interesting to see how my role as the herbalist on this community pans out over time.  I am not dissatisfied with how it is now.

A few months ago, after almost 2 years on “maternity leave”, I went back to work.  My new job is as the naturopath in a pharmacy, 3 days a fortnight.  It is very far from my dream job: it is in a fluorescent-lit shopping mall and every day I sell dozens of mediocre quality herbal medicines and supplements in plastic bottles.  I know little about where these herbs have come from.  It’s very far from sustainable medicine.  I took the job because three days a fortnight is a perfect balance for my other job as a mother of a young child.  And it’s a relief to be paid by someone else and not self-employed right now.  I don’t yet have the headspace or the time to resume private practice. I have surprised myself by enjoying the job a lot more that I expected to.  It is stimulating serving a stream of people all day.  And I really enjoy helping people who would never end up in a private practice setting.  The pharmacy setting increases exposure of a wide cross-section of society to herbal and natural medicine.  So I’m happy there in the short term.

At the other end of the sustainability spectrum though, I am starting a couple of projects at my daughter’s primary school.  I took each class on a herb walk last week, as a starting point for educating the next generation about medicines which grow all around them.  I picked samples of 20 herbs I found growing in the school grounds and gave each pair of students one sample to go and find.  When they returned, I secretly told each pair about the use of the herb.  Then they sat and drew it.  Then each pair told the rest of the group what they had learned about their herb. I think many kids got excited by the idea that the ground they usually run all over and pay no attention to might contain medicinal jewels.  I told them that I had to go to university to learn about ribwort, which is silly.  Everyone should be able to identify and use ribwort, even kids. The next day while eating lunch, one 7 yo student exclaimed, “I’m eating parsley. It’s medicine!” The principal of this little school is quite open to parents offering their skills, so I feel excited about doing more with these kids.

I have also started a program called Green Eggs and Ham (after the Dr Seuss book) in which every few weeks, one class of kids cooks lunch for the whole school.  I design the menu around vegetables they are growing in the small school garden, and other seasonal produce.  The focus of this program is to teach kids about healthy eating through experience in the garden, in the kitchen, and with their tongues!  Expanding kids’ palates at a young age, so they can enjoy a lifetime of varied and delicious vegetables, seems like great health insurance.  Kitchen gardening is also obviously one of the most important aspects of sustainability. This is based on a highly successful kitchen garden program started by Australian chef Stephanie Alexander, and schools all over Australia are following suit. While this is not strictly herbal medicine, I think using herbs in cooking familiarizes people with these plants, and medicinal uses can then more readily be understood.   One parent helper was still unsure whether she could identify rosemary.  I don’t think any of the school kids would have this trouble.

The Future

Along the same lines as the school projects, I’d love to run some workshops for the local community. Perhaps they could form part of the Transition Towns movement, which is starting up in our local village of The Channon.  A New Zealand herbalist called Isla Burgess, whom I met at a recent herbalist conference, told me that for years she has been running a “10 herbs you can grow easily, which you can use for a broad range of common health complaints” workshop.  People love it, she says.  I’d love to do something similar in The Channon.

I also still dream of attending to my “local weeds project”, where I learn more about the medicinal uses of local weeds which are currently not part of our core material medica.  One day.  When Jeremy is at school, perhaps, I will have enough time for this.

Of course, I still dream of a really viable private practice using my own herbs.

So I guess those are my aims:  to use increasingly local medicines and to educate the public about herbal remedies they can use at home.