Herbal Medicine and New Media

Story and Photographs by Joanna Parkman


 

A bee sting welcomed Ash Sierra into folk medicine when she was 9 years old. That, and the plantain leaf that eased its pain. On a Monday in May, Ash, now a practicing herbalist outside Weaverville, guides me through garden beds and down a wooded trail at her homestead. We are in search of medicinal plants. Thanks to the biodiversity hotspot that is the Southern Appalachians, the options are endless.

Soothing babbles from a nearby stream follow our steps, as does a feline companion. Ash pauses periodically to identify chickweed, cleavers, sochan, and Solomon’s seal, all freshly doused by the previous day’s downpour. The sweet scent of pineapple weed lingers in the air.

Before I know it, I’m swept away by my senses. I’m touching, smelling and tasting —  and it’s invigorating.  Historically, this is the way most people learned about nature and its healing powers — through physical, tactile interaction.

 
 Ash Sierra wanders her PROPERty in search of medicinal plants 

Ash Sierra wanders her PROPERty in search of medicinal plants 

 

But today, you might be more likely to first encounter herbal medicine on Instagram, one of most popular social media apps in the world.

The social media stars of Western North Carolina aren’t your run-of-the-mill celebrities or costumed pets. They are creative movers and shakers. It’s no surprise, really, when Asheville’s running joke is “you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting an artist, a busker, a massage therapist, a you-fill-in-the-blank.” The point is, there are a lot of people doing something here, and most are doing it online too. Yes, even the traditional skills folks.

Perhaps you’re familiar with Tara Jensen of Smoke Signals Bakery fame. Or Melissa Weiss' striking pottery formed from “wild clay.” How about the design studio Shelter Collective? They, and others featured on the contributor driven Instagram account Asheville Folk are the faces and curators of Asheville’s young ‘makers’ scene.

While hashtags might be the furthest thing away from, say, a living, photosynthesizing purple coneflower, there’s no doubt that a vibrant community of herbalists and wildcrafters, folks who gather herbs, flowers and mushrooms from where they grow naturally, has claimed the virtual space of Instagram as their own.

 


 

Ash, who operates Ritual Botanica, boasts nearly 5,000 Instagram followers. Her posts chronicle her daily activities, from tarot card readings and astrological musings, to hydrosol distillation and root harvesting. If you scroll through Ash’s feed, it feels genuine and welcoming — far from the marketing ploys common to many natural product businesses. She’s not peddling products, simply inviting the curious to observe her process.

Her followers seem to agree. Many regularly interact with her posts to inquire about equipment or share a personal experience with an essential oil. And Ash, like an old friend, responds.

She consciously crafts engaging captions for each photo, including a surprising amount of detail in each 2,200 character text box.

“People love information and connection!” says Ash. “Posts that have stories or information seem to get more interaction from your community, which is what I seek on Instagram.”

I certainly fall among those ranks. A mini-botany lesson to accompany my otherwise mindless “double-tapping”? Count me in.

Perhaps most compelling are the pictures of the real standouts — the herbs. The descriptions read like a trusty field guide, noting medicinal uses, harvest times, and physical characteristics.    

“If it's a plant that’s easy to ID, or grows abundantly in yards, I'll try to get a good photo and point out key attributes, encouraging people to try and identify one in their own backyard,” Ash explains.

It’s all about spreading the plant love.  

 
 Ash Sierra photographs one of her hydrosol sprays to post on Instagram

Ash Sierra photographs one of her hydrosol sprays to post on Instagram

 

Asia Suler of One Willow Apothecaries is even more “Instafamous” with a whopping 18,000+ followers. As an instructor for the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine — one of the field’s preeminent training institutions -- she’s pioneering a new frontier in herbalism. After more than two years of preparation, the school launched its Online Herbal Immersion Program this spring.

As I speak with Asia at her Marshall studio, a beautifully converted school building dappled with the day’s last light, she enthusiastically describes the vision behind the Online Herbal Immersion Program:

“We were interested in bringing an in-depth, plant-based approach to herbalism to a larger audience. Intensive programs are becoming fewer and fewer in the U.S., and unlike with an in-person class, all of that material — those magic moments of teaching — is accessible and shareable with countless people for many years to come!”

And the audience is certainly there. Over 1,000 students — from more than a dozen countries, no less — enrolled in the program within the first month it was offered.

Intrigued, I participated in the school’s free module, a mini-course entitled “Handcrafted Herbalism: Foraging, Botany, Medicine Making,” to experience online herbalism for myself.

A tour of plant body parts — complete with hand motions to aid in memorization — and an overview of herbal vinegars, teas, and tinctures demonstrates a clear commitment to helping students integrate plants into their daily lives.

Thoughtful description, gorgeous imagery, and a healthy dose of humor and enthusiasm only leave me feeling more connected to the herbs I see on my screen. And I’m already dreaming of what might make an appearance in my home garden — or medicine cabinet — next season.

 
 Asia Suler stands beside a stock of dried herbs 

Asia Suler stands beside a stock of dried herbs 

 Asia Suler relaxes in her studio on Blannahassett Island in Marshall, North Carolina

Asia Suler relaxes in her studio on Blannahassett Island in Marshall, North Carolina

 

While both Ash and Asia acknowledge that hands on training is invaluable — after all, they attended intensive training at the Blue Ridge School and Chestnut School, respectively — they’re quick to emphasize the benefits of exchanging knowledge online.

Convenience is one obvious selling point. Formal training or apprenticeship at nationally-recognized institutions isn’t accessible to everyone, whether due to geographic, financial, or temporal constraints. A commitment to in-person study often requires uprooting one’s life. But there are other virtues of web-based learning. Instagram, for instance, can become an ever-evolving plant guide. Search for the hashtag “dandelion” and you immediately have access to hundreds of thousands of pictures from various angles to aid in identification — not to mention, a community of fellow herb enthusiasts to consult.

Online repositories of information also enable a slower, more intentional manner of learning. Asia remembers the challenge of absorbing the vast amount of information she encountered during her 7-hour classes at Chestnut. Alternatively, Internet study lends itself well to self-pacing, or “digesting in nibbles, like gathering small handfuls of chickweed and violet leaves every day for your salad.”

But above all, social media can act as the catalyst to get newcomers outside, learning and growing. Ash views Instagram as simply another tool to spread ideas that will eventually be put into practice.

She says, "While we’re losing some of the physical connection to our phone and laptops, were gaining more global connection via social media. Photos make these activities more attainable and bring new ideas to the viewer. When you can see that a person is creating something, not a factory, it places a little spark in the mind that maybe you can do it too. ‘Old World’ has been pushed out with all the new technology, [but] now it’s using the platforms to regain popularity."

With a constant influx of new content, Instagram also functions to keep creatives from growing weary. “There are so many people on that little app that I love. People whose accounts enrich my life, inspire new visions, and ennoble me to be braver, kinder more open to sharing tenderness & insight,” Asia adds.  “No matter how ‘big’ or ‘small’ you are, your photo, your words, your thoughts have an equal voice in this gallery we create together.”

It wouldn’t be too far of a jump, then, to suggest that the Internet has bonded the herbal community in recent years.

 
 A copper distiller in Ash Sierra's home

A copper distiller in Ash Sierra's home

 Asia Suler, of One Willow Apothecaries, holds the day's wildcrafted multiflora rose.

Asia Suler, of One Willow Apothecaries, holds the day's wildcrafted multiflora rose.

 
 

But what about the downfalls of these pixelated portals into the world of herbalism?
 
Like most of us, even herbalists struggle with spending too much time online. “As an herbalist most people assume I spend most of my day out of doors. But the reality is that it is more typical for me to be working upwards of 10-12 hour days on the computer!” Asia concedes.
 
“But this is why I enjoy Instagram. I can scroll a bit when I need a breather but can’t actually step away from the computer. Each image is like a small bit of toffee, sweet inspiration that I can take wee nips of throughout my day.”
 
There’s also a dangerous tendency towards unhealthy comparison. When virtually surrounded by the perfectly curated lives of others, it can require superhuman effort to avoid spiraling into a fit of jealousy. To combat this pressure, Asia has come to view Instagram as a “sacred mirror” of sorts.
 
"It’s easy to be absolutely blown away by the beauty, elegant, voluptuousness or excitement of someone else’s life, but it can be so much harder to turn that same adoring gaze on your own existence, your own self. I think the greatest lesson Instagram has to offer is how to be in awe of those you follow, and to see and understand that you deserve such awe as well," she says. 
 
And without caution, the platform can slowly become one’s entire identity. Asia emphasizes the importance of maintaining a separate sense of self from her business and its online presence. Daily, she must navigate a tricky boundary between inciting wonder amongst her community of followers, while simultaneously protecting her privacy.
 
But clearly, the main fault with studying herbal medicine online is the absence of plants. Arguably, it’s impossible to develop a complex relationship with herbs without perceiving them in person.
 
Michael Pollan makes a similar observation about modern food culture in his latest book Cooked:
 
"There are now millions of people who spend more time watching food being cooked on television than they spend actually cooking it themselves. I don’t need to point out that the food you watch being cooked on television is not food you get to eat."
 
Call it a voyeuristic conundrum, if you will.

 
 A Steam Distiller filled with plantain leaf 

A Steam Distiller filled with plantain leaf 

 

If you happened to attend Photo + Craft in Asheville this spring, you likely heard Namita Gupta Wiggers’ thoughts on the matter. The director of Critical Craft Forum begged a question of the audience: “Can an image implant experience without memory or tactility?”
 
It’s an important one to ponder.
 
In Ash’s words, virtual learning often prevents an understanding of “the minutiae, the whys and hows, the energetics and combinations — the stuff that makes it really fun.”
 
But the craft community has certainly latched tightly onto online means of expression. One reason, as Wiggers also points out, may be that Instagram — and other platforms — acts as a currency. Especially for those involved in the “makers’ movement,” overt marketing would compromise a sense of authenticity. Thus, the craftsperson turns to social media to gain access to special events and workshops or to seek future speaking engagements.
 
In creative industries, the business model is not only contingent on selling product; it relies heavily on language that describes process and images that convey a particular lifestyle. And Instagram grants unparalleled agency for self-representation.
 
There’s no coincidence that herbalists are masters of the platform. “The people partaking in traditional practices and crafts typically have a great canvas to work with; plants, fibers, ceramics and foods are full of texture and color, patterns and depth,” Ash explains.
 
I ask Asia why there’s such an attraction to visual depictions of traditional practices.  
 
She says, "I think it stokes the fire of our blood memory. There is an ancient part of us that remembers what it is to stir grain mash or harvest plants with our hands. As a culture we are realizing that to hand-make one’s life isn’t just a privilege, it is an act of creation as old as humankind. There is an aspect of our beings that ache to be reunited with the ritual acts of tending one’s lives." 
 
Can Instagram be the key to that revival?

 
 

There’s little use in labeling social media as either imperative or threatening to modern herbalism. As Asia maintains, “Herbs will heal no matter what. But when we have relationships to the medicine, we become so much more skillful conduits of healing.”
 
So here’s to letting those hashtags lead you away from the screen from time to time. The plants of Western North Carolina await your arrival.