Hi Paula, it looks like you have traveled the long-and-winding road from England to Santa Cruz (one of our favorite places!). Can you tell us a little about yourself?
Looking back, I can trace my love of plants to childhood. My mother and grandmother were keen gardeners who grew many vegetables, flowers, and herbs as well as appreciating and understanding what grew in the fields and hedgerows around where I grew up. I have fond memories of wildcrafting dandelion flowers with them to make dandelion wine at this time of year. As an adult I moved to London and through a long succession of rented apartments and houses I always had a little garden, or at least a window box, but my day-to-day life was far away from nature, working for many years in the corporate world. It was quite a “road-to- Damascus” moment when I very suddenly realized my calling was to be an herbalist. I was fortunate to get a place in a great herbal course at university in London and I didn’t look back. After college I started a practice, which a few years later led to my starting my own apothecary and clinic in Camden, North London called Lemon Balm. I worked with wonderful people and so enjoyed the way we quickly became a go-to for natural medicine for people from all over London.
It all changed in 2010 while my husband, son and I were on vacation in California. We had only planned to spend two days in Santa Cruz, but by a stroke of fate, the Icelandic volcano with an unpronounceable name erupted, halting all flights across the Atlantic. We ended up staying in Santa Cruz for two weeks and simply fell in love with the place. Its natural beauty and laid-back vibe were so appealing after many years in the big city. Our son was only five at the time and we realized this would be an amazing place to raise him. So, once flights resumed we went home and made plans to close Lemon Balm, relocate my practice, and work out how we could move here. We were lucky in that my husband (Michael Marshall Smith) is a novelist, so he can work anywhere and was able to apply for a creative visa. By August 2011 we had packed a couple of suitcases, a guitar, all my son’s legos and some herbs and were living in our dream town. A year later we decided to make the move permanent, so we sold up in London and bought a house here.
I love that without a bricks-and-mortar clinic location I can teach and write as well as practice here. And I get the best of both worlds, as I continue to see my clients in the UK via Skype and when I travel back a couple of times each year.
In what ways is the study of herbalism different in England than it is here?
It’s more formalized in the UK. Herbalists study at University — in person or via long distance learning. I studied at The University of Westminster in London, where Herbal Medicine comes under the health sciences faculty. My degree is in Health Science: Herbal Medicine. We were given a solid grounding in conventional medicine, which included diagnostic skills, physiology, and biological chemistry as well as lots of materia medica and hands-on experience with the herbs. Every student completes 500 hours of clinical practice in the University polyclinic, which really helps you to build skills and confidence. The faculty included teachers with a wide range of approaches and I loved that the more energetic aspects of herbal medicine were also covered. By the time I graduated I felt I had the skills to start taking clients almost immediately, which, of course, is the start of your real learning as an herbalist.
You just co-authored a book with Karen Sullivan, Infuse: Herbal teas to cleanse, nourish and heal. Can you tell us a little bit about the book?
Writing Infuse was such a joy. I’m a pretty active person who loves to be doing things, so it took every bit of my self-discipline to sit down and write when there were herbs to be tended, harvested, and prepared. But I did lots of testing and tasting to get the blends just right, so there was much more to it than just sitting at my laptop. The book has over 70 recipes for herbal teas and I tried to strike a balance between the more specifically medicinal teas and blends which help balance mood and well-being. I also included a few fun recipes such as spiced hot raw cacao and a delicious herb sorbet.
I was aware that many readers would not be familiar with some of the more medicinal herbs, so I wrote a Herbpedia to give an insight into each herb’s properties and we included a resources section so that people can buy small and affordable quantities of the herbs online.
I have been so excited by Infuse’s gorgeous design and photography. The publisher, Octopus, really pulled out the stops, commissioning a top London photographer and food stylist to make it really beautiful. My hope is that people will pick it up because it is so pretty, but find genuinely helpful and useable recipes inside which will encourage them to explore the health-giving qualities of plants. My dream, and my aim in my writing and teaching, is that everyone has the knowledge and confidence to use herbs to support their health.
You are a member of the National Institute of Herbalists in the UK. In what ways have you benefitted from its professional development program?
The National Institute of Medical Herbalists (NIMH) has been the largest professional body for Medical Herbalists in the UK since 1864. As well as lobbying to protect our rights (the UK is one of the only countries in the world where herbalists can legally diagnose and prescribe) they worked with the universities to accredit herbal degree courses and they run an ongoing professional development program. Before moving to the US, I was able to attend seminars in person, and I still do whenever I am back in the UK, but now that I’m here in the US I participate in their online forum, which enables herbalists to share their experience and knowledge. They also have a group for international members, which has been helpful in getting established here in the US.
You offer wellness consultations and tailored classes as a part of your practice? Can you give us an example of what you provide?
Practicing is a little different here as western herbalists in California aren’t allowed to diagnose or prescribe. But my consultations are essentially the same as in England — I spend time with clients trying to help them discover the underlying causes of their condition and sharing about combinations of herbs which are used to help as well as nutritional and lifestyle strategies.
I’m having so much fun with my classes. I teach all kinds of people: from sharing knowledge with established herbalists to garden apothecary classes where beginners learn how to grow and understand the medicinal qualities of herbs. I also run workshops on how to make natural skincare, as I’m a passionate believer that what we put on our bodies matters as much as what we put in them. People are always amazed at how easily they can create really wonderful balms, lotions, and creams, which are totally organic and preservative-free and for a fraction of the cost of store-bought versions. I love working with kids and I teach a middle school herbal elective at a local school, as well as offering children’s herbal birthday parties and holiday gift-making classes for all ages. I do baby showers, herb walks… there are just so many ways to share about herbs.
We seem to be witnessing the second greening of America. Any thoughts on this trend?
It is so exciting! I have only been here for 5 years but have witnessed the rise of interest in natural medicine. In addition to teaching, I produce a small line of handmade herbal skincare and teas and I have been amazed at how well they have been received. I think people are just becoming so much more conscious that the small choices we make have an enormous impact on our bodies and our planet. I feel so honored to be able to play even the tiniest part in the empowerment that comes from appreciating the power of the plants which grow all around us.
What is your favorite herb and why?
This is such a hard question: it’s like having to choose a favorite child! But if you’re forcing me to choose just one, I do have a special relationship with Lemon Balm. I chose the name for my apothecary in London and I just love how it lifts the spirits; it’s the ultimate “cheer-up” herb. It’s easy to grow, deliciously fragrant, and it has some less well-known qualities such as being an excellent anti-viral, normalizing an over-active thyroid gland, and possibly even supporting memory function in older people.
Paula Grainger is a highly regarded British Medical Herbalist. After graduating with first class honors from The University Of Westminster, she created Lemon Balm, a popular Herbal Apothecary and Clinic in London’s Camden Town. She has worked with people of all ages using herbs to enhance their health and wellness and has a wealth of experience in communicating the power of plants through her workshops and writing. In 2011 she moved with her husband (the novelist Michael Marshall Smith) and their young son to Santa Cruz, California where, when she is not growing herbs or making herbal preparations, she continues to share her love and expertise of plant medicine with people on both sides of the Atlantic. Her first book INFUSE (co-written with Karen Sullivan) was published in Spring 2016.