Grown in a garden in Upstate New York, plants are lovingly made into natural dyes, medicinal salves, herbal teas, and soothing incense by collective Herban Cura. In the past few years the collective has created a space to share plant based knowledge and ways for urban dwellers to experience the benefits of medicine, makeup, and materials that are grown rather than manufactured. Located in New York City, Herban Cura hosts open community workshops from how to process cacao to making tinctures. Ana Ratner, one of the founders spoke with us about her personal journey and outlines the reasons why flora are so vital.
How can someone start introducing themselves to a more natural lifestyle?
I would say the most important thing would be to know your body, if you know what it feels like to be healthy you can identify when things are out of balance. This takes practice and tuning in to the smallest changes in mood, digestion, pain and personal rhythms. Once you really know what your body is communicating it's very difficult to not listen. Knowing your body is important as it takes the pressure off of being obsessively conscious with what is thought of as healthy, which in itself can cause stress on our bodies. As a practice I always suggest starting with an herbal tea in the morning. Think about what you struggle with and design your own tea blend based on what you need. Sit with your tea, watch the steam, and consciously taste each sip, noting any sensations that come up within you.
How have you found herbalism helpful to the everyday person?
Herbalism is universally beneficial. That's the amazing thing, of course there are contraindications for some herbs, or for herbs and specific conditions, but there is always some herb or food that can be beneficial. Very few herbs have side effects that are as scary as pharmaceuticals'. I have found herbs to be the most helpful for people to maintain daily health or while working with chronic illnesses to address long term symptoms or even beginning to heal the root of disease. When dealing with illness it's important to know when to rely on herbs and when to consider other options. There have been many times that I've been thankful for modern medicine.
What are some of the best herbs to use for skin conditions?
Some that are really popular right now are Calendula, Rose, Aloe, and Chamomile. These are all very soothing herbs that help with irritation or inflammation. There are also antibacterial herbs for spot treatment like Rosemary, Thyme, Hyssop, and Yarrow. To promote healing and lessen scarring, great herbs would be Lavender, Tea Tree, Rosehips, and Goldenrod. As an herbalist I always make a point of thinking about most skin conditions as external symptoms of internal disease. Besides a topical infection, things like eczema, red itchy spots, acne, and yeast spots are almost always related to a gut imbalance or other underlying cause. It's important to take care of your skin, but for persistent conditions finding the root cause is your best option.
What are some of the advantages of using plants over synthetics?
On an individual level, not using synthetic chemicals or petroleum-based products on your body will benefit you long-term, you may not notice an effect immediately, but our bodies work with plant medicine and they can grow together. Often synthetics create dependency and change the way our bodies and skin function naturally. Since our bodies recognize them as either invaders or synthetic versions of things we produce already, they throw off the balance of our systems, this is especially obvious within the endocrine (hormonal regulating) system since many body-care products contain synthetics that disrupt hormonal signaling. Besides individual health, we also have to think about the health of ecosystems, urban and wild. The waste and run-off of creating chemical compounds also disrupts the balance of bacteria, fungus, lichens, water, animals, and plants in a way that can mirror the negative effects they have on (eco)systems within our bodies. By using plant-based or natural products we can work with nature instead of creating products that throw entire ecosystems, internal or external, out of balance.
Is there a particular plant that you are using that you would recommend to others?
I use a ton of plant medicine to treat long-term health issues, that after years of antibiotics and invasive treatments, have worked wonders. When I think about the deficiencies created by capitalism and the history of violence in this country and how it affects us as a society, I want to recommend soothing plants, plants that make us feel strong enough to be kind to each other or fight back when necessary. For almost everyone, I would say a tea of oat straw, nettle, rose, and elderflower would be the way to go. Oat straw for soothing anxiety that keeps us from knowing ourselves, nettle for deep strength and nourishment that gives us the strength to sting when we need to, rose to open our hearts, bring sweetness but also thorns of protection, and elder to keep us healthy enough to be generous and not deplete ourselves through giving or resisting.
What are some of the trends you see in beauty and health?
There are some wonderful new products coming out that are heavily influenced by consumers making more health conscious decisions. People are educating themselves and reading labels, there are even apps that help you understand and rate the healthy content of beauty products. While the mainstay synthetic products are still going strong, new options are being created that allow people to choose what practices and products they want to support. Healthier options that contain less-harmful ingredients and more plant-based extracts are way more mainstream than they have been for years.
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