For this installment in our Mystical Careers series, Horoscope.com’s Jesse Sposato speaks with herbalist Denise DeSpirito about the lure and magic of plants, and some of her favorite de-stressing, stomach-soothing and heart-healing tinctures.
Denise DeSpirito’s love of herbs goes back to her childhood. “We had these bushes with red berries,” says Denise. “I remember taking them and smashing them up and mixing that with water and grass clippings, and being like, I’ll give this to the cows to help them.” Nevermind that there were no cows—Denise grew up in suburban Long Island.
A little-kid curiosity turned into a witchy phase in high school—she would take the train from Long Island to Flower Power, an herb shop in New York City’s East Village, and dream of all the potions she could make. As a young adult, she took herbalism classes at the Open Center in Manhattan. In one class, the teacher shared information about an internship at a plant sanctuary in rural Rutland, Ohio—not exactly where dreams are typically made, but it was there that Denise’s world soon opened up. She learned how to wildcraft, or harvest wild herbs, and how to cultivate her own plants. Eventually, she left her non-profit job and worked and apprenticed at places like Farmacy Herbs in Rhode Island, Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture in upstate New York, and Avena Botanicals in Maine. Denise now works at a Maine nature center called Merry Spring.
Jesse: What is an herbalist?
Denise: For me, an herbalist is someone who is a lover of the plants, and really listens to them and works with them as medicine.
Jesse: What does your work life look like now?
Denise: I do some teaching at Merry Spring, and I also tend the gardens there. And then I grow herbs and dry them and then use them for myself and for friends.
Last summer, I started doing herbal consulting for some farms to develop herbal CSA, [Community Supported Agriculture,] shares, as well as herbal garden consulting to help people pick herb plants to grow for their own apothecary needs. I also work at an art gallery that’s attached to the Maine Farmland Trust.
Jesse: What is herbal garden consulting like?
Denise: Generally there’s a set of questions I use that we call an intake form, and I’ll suggest some herbs that would be helpful as a way to start supporting whatever ailment they’re trying to work with.
I even like to know about people’s dreams because it’s so much deeper than just, “I have this lower back ache.” It’s like, “Well, what else?” There’s a lot to it, and that’s why I think the role of an herbalist is to be outside of it and hear all these parts and put them together.
What I picture more for the future, though, is meeting with people in the garden, having them meet the plants that they’ll be using.
Jesse: What kind of plants do you work with, and do you have any favorites?
Denise: It’s so hard to choose! But there are some that come up over and over again. Up here, there’s a plant called rosa rugosa, and it’s a really beautiful rose. So I often collect those rose petals and dry them, or sometimes I’ll make them into an elixir, which is like making a tincture, but it’s using brandy and honey, also. They’re really good medicine for the heart, and so helpful for anxiety and stress, so calming.
Another one that I really love is hops. I feel like everyone knows hops because of beer, and hops themselves are such a bitter plant. They make a really bitter tea, but it is really calming and good for nervous stomachs. They have this strobile, which is like the flower, and you harvest it to make into a tincture.
Jesse: Are there any healing practices that combine well with herbalism?
Denise: For me, there is a more spiritual component with herbs; the plant spirit is a living being. For me to connect with that plant I need to do certain things—like, I meditate with the plants or I spend time with them. It’s not just collecting the herb and then using it.
Also, something I often combine with herbs is astrology. I ask people to see their chart or if they know their moon, rising; and Venus, Chiron and North Node. I think about how those all relate to what they could be going through or how they view the world. I also use a tarot deck, mainly for myself, but have used it with other people. I like this one in particular; I may [give a client] some of the herb that is on a card pulled for them—to take, or even use as a talisman.
Jesse: If someone wanted to become an herbalist, where should they start? Do you need a certificate?
Denise: In the U.S., there isn’t an actual certification. There is the American Herbalists Guild, which does give professional accreditation, but we’re not a country that does it like that.
Being an herbalist, you’re never really treating someone’s medical condition; you’re really just trying to support their health. And it’s this tricky ground. Herbalism is still this fringe thing in some ways, and it’s great that it’s not regulated for a lot of reasons, but it also has other problems.
From when I started studying herbs till now, it’s amazing what you can find on the Internet. I don’t think that people should just read any blog and think they can go do this, but there are some really great online resources. There’s one called the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine; and there’s a website called Herb Mentor.
Herbalism is the people’s medicine, and especially the way things are now, it’s really important for people to have an understanding of what they can do to take care of their own health.
[The plants] are such great teachers, and if people have the opportunity even to grow a little window garden or something, it’s a really wonderful thing; or even to drink a cup of herbal tea—any way you can interact with the plants is really amazing and important.
Above: Denise DeSpirito in the garden.