Alicia Allison  I  Clover & Timothy

Herbalist, Herbal Artisan, Wildcrafter & Educator

"I believe the more we can sense and understand our physical bodies the better we can come to know ourselves and be present. When you work with the body you get out of your head and are better able to access your heart and core."

 

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Trenton NJ in a small neighborhood called Chambersburg where many working class families and first and second generation Italians lived. Picture two family homes, ladies sitting on porches through the night, kids playing in the streets, small bakeries and big street festivals. It was a real neighborhood; everyone seemed to know each other. When I was an adolescent we moved to the suburbs.

What were you like as a child? What did you want to do when you grew up?

My mother says I was happy-go-lucky and joyful. That I liked to talked to people and had a vivid imagination.

I was an only child raised by a single mother. We spent a lot of time with my grandmothers and extended family. I spent most days with my two boy cousins so I while I loved dolls and crafts, I was also really physically active. Whether we were in the city or the suburbs were always outside riding bikes, skateboarding, playing baseball and exploring local creeks. I remember playing with a lot of worms and building a lot of forts.

When I was 5, I wanted to be a professional ice skater. I was obsessed with Katarina Wit.

When did you first leave home? Where did you go?

I left home to go to college when I was 18, to New York City. I knew from a very young age that I wanted to move to the city.

When did you come New York City? Was there a particular reason you wanted to come here?

I craved the creative energy of the city and the non-stop. I wanted to know this place of legend; the streets, the lights, the pavement and the possibility. I think I even craved the subway! I wanted to meet people from other cultures and to meet fellow artists.

Is there something about NYC that inspires you?

The diversity and the people that live here. I love that I can walk down my street and hear ten different languages being spoken.  New Yorkers are daring, creative, motivated and incredibly hard working people. While I sometimes don’t like to admit it, I also love that it is a tough city to exist in. I like a good challenge. New York makes you strong; it makes you strive and be clever and do things you never imagined you could do.  

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How would you describe what you do to someone who didn’t know you?

Usually I skate around that question and say I’m a Renaissance woman.  At present, I think I’d let them taste one of my teas.  

How did you get into herbalism? Was there a particular moment when you knew it was what you wanted to pursue?

I was in my early twenties and working at a Malaysian Restaurant on the Upper West Side. Two of the women who I worked with taught yoga and one of my best friends had recently returned from living in India.  My lifestyle was incredibly unhealthy and I was struggling with chronic health issues.   I woke up one morning with a sore throat that was so painful I immediately began crying.   I went to a clinic and was getting blood drawn for another round of tests when suddenly I felt light and knew that they would find nothing wrong with me.  

That week I started practicing yoga and my life completely changed. I started to study nutrition and Ayurveda. I quickly gave up my morning bagel with coffee and evening gin habit for fresh juices and kitchari. Up until that time in my life I relied heavily on over the counter pain medications as well as prescription painkillers for management of chronic pain.  I started to look into alternatives to the pharmaceuticals I used regularly.  That’s when I found herbs.  

The plants taught me that I was living in a constant state of stress. I worked a lot with chamomile at first. Then I did a cleanse for the first time and threw my last bottle of Fiorinal down the toilet. Fiorinal is a prescription painkiller that I had taken for migraines since I was twelve.  I felt empowered. That moment had a huge impact. After that I moved to southeast Asia to teach English. When I returned I began formal studies in yoga and herbalism.

Where did you do your herbalism training? 

I completed advanced trainings at Third Root Community Health Center with herbalists Jacoby Ballard and Karen Rose and also studied with Peeka Trenkle.  Third Root is a social justice oriented workers’ cooperative.  I completed their progressive herbal education program and apprenticed in their apothecary.  At that time I began working on their Community Supported Herbalism program, one of the first of its kind, and started to handcraft my own remedies. I also worked at an Ayurvedic clinic in Manhattan for a while.  I continue to study on my own and with other master herbalists and will do so for the rest of my life.

Have you always felt a strong connection to nature? Do you feel your work as an herbalist is influenced by where you are from or how you grew up?

I loved nature as a young girl. I would regularly watch my great grandmother feed city birds in the winter and would go on nature walks with my grandmother.  We’d collect leaves and flowers and acorns.  My grandmother has this story she loves to tell.  One day she and I were walking through a suburb of Trenton and I stopped, pointed at a lawn and said, “Oh Nanny, those people most be so rich, look at all the flowers they have.” The flowers were dandelions and the lawn was the only lawn on the block not perfectly manicured and treated with pesticides. This story always makes me smile. Dandelions are amazing plants. They help us clean our bodies. I think I understood this even as a young girl.  

As a teenager I worked in a greenhouse at a plant nursery where my Aunt worked. I loved watering the young plants and repotting flowers with her.  All the women that played a role in raising me possess a deep love of plants. Starting to study herbalism was in many ways a coming home.


Do you have favorite herbs to work with? 

I love working with local wild plants. Wild plants are incredibly vital and I love the idea that the plants that we need most surround us.


How do you empower people to use herbs in their daily life for self-care? Do people find the switch from more "mainstream" ways intimidating?

People are either afraid to use herbs or think herbs don’t taste good. This is in part what inspired me to craft teas. Drinking a hot cup of herbal tea is one of the simplest and safest forms of self-care. Hot beverages kindle our digestive fire and well-grown herbs are vitamin and mineral rich. People are beverage obsessed in this country so I thought I’d offer a beverage that is both good for their overall health, interesting and tasty. There’s way too much straight chamomile and mint in the commercial world and most of that is covered in pesticides and sold in bleached tea bags. There are so many wonderful and interesting plants to enjoy and explore.  I only use organic herbs and spices in my herbs and teach people how to brew herbs properly.  

When I’m doing consulting work I run into other issues, primarily that people want and have gotten used to quick fixes. Quick fixes don’t address the whole body and usually don’t get to the root of the issue. A huge part of what I do is to teach others to be patient with their bodies and committed to self-care.

What’s your favorite part about working with herbs? 

Being a city dweller I don’t get to put my feet in the grass everyday. Working with herbs connects me to nature and grounds me.

I also feel I am doing my part to preserve traditional plant knowledge. Much of this knowledge is getting lost in our present day so I am working to counter that.  That feels good.

You seem to have a strong connection to the human body, especially with your work as a yoga teacher and doula. Can you tell us a little more about this connection and share what inspires this kind of work?

Every time I learn a new function of an organ or where a muscle attaches I am amazed by the order of the human body. The body is an exquisitely sophisticated and beautifully designed system; it possesses an intelligence that is beyond our rational understanding.   

When I work with women before and after birth I am in constant awe. I believe the more we can sense and understand our physical bodies the better we can come to know ourselves and be present. When you work with the body you get out of your head and are better able to access your heart and core.

You've also had your own business as an interior designer. Can you talk a bit more about this??

I was working as an Interior Designer, first with a small firm then on my own.  I was regularly overseeing massive gut renovations in Manhattan.  I was working long stressful days and studying herbalism and teaching yoga in the evenings and on the weekends. I like design work a great deal but felt a calling to work with plants. I still work on interiors but the projects I take on now usually explore the intersection of design, sustainability and wellness.   

What are your biggest challenges? Do you have an Achilles heel?

I tend to look at things differently. I choose to focus on my strengths. If I spend time focusing on the challenges I won’t get anywhere.

What lessons have you learned along the way?

To not waste time believing that you can’t do what you love and to always take time to slow down, breathe and just be.

What motivates you to do what you do?

Mugwort, tulsi, mullein, raspberry, dandelion, borage and black cohosh.  Willow, oak, hawthorn and magnolia.  Durians, mushroom, passionflowers and cereus plants.  Local, organic and biodynamic farmers and food activists.  Vandana Shiva, Ina May Gaskin and Maya Tiwari.  My herb community, my students and my mother, the sacrifices she made for me and her belief in me.

What does a typical day look like for you? 

There’s really no such thing for me as at present. In fact there’s no such thing as a typical hour. I take inspiration as it comes and then get really organized and work my tail off to bring ideas into fruition.  

I like it this way; it keeps me moving and keeps things interesting.  

photo by Alicia Allison of Clover and Timothy

photo by Alicia Allison of Clover and Timothy

Do you have any advice for someone who wants to do what you do? Or for anyone who wants to live a more creative life?

To someone interested in herbalism, I’d tell them to study and spend time working with plants. Learn to make your own plant medicines and then use them and share them with others. In general I think creative people need to share their art and creativity with others; don’t keep it locked up in a box where no one can see it. I never really imagined I’d sell my teas, but everyone I’d make a cup of tea for started telling me to sell them.  I listened to them and my life has since been so much the richer.

Have you had any mentors along the way?

My yoga teacher, Genny Kapuler.

What does the word authentic mean to you? 

It implies living consciously, cultivating presence and speaking your truth.  

Do you have any morning rituals to get you ready for the day?

Might sound strange, but the very first thing I do when I rise is scrape and look at my tongue. This is part of the morning rituals of Dinacharya in Ayurveda and for me this simple act provides a wealth of information on where I’m at, how I digested the foodstuffs and emotions of the previous day and helps me feel clear and ready for the new day. Then I put on the kettle and make an herbal infusion. Sometimes I light some Palo Santo. Then comes breakfast.

Any badass women you love, dead or alive? 

At the moment it would be Jeanne Baret, a French lay herbalist turned botanist who discovered Bougainvillea flowers and many other botanical species during the 1700s.  She was the first woman to circumnavigate the globe and she did so dressed as a man on a small ship with over a hundred men.  She endured a tremendous amount of hardship to follow her love of plants around the world.  Because she was a woman she never got any credit for her work; today not one of the botanical species she discovered bears her name.  I would cook dinner for her.

Love tea? Check out Alicia's online shop.

Want to learn more about tea? Check out our next gathering with Alicia:
By Way Of Gatherings: Herbal Tonics for Women with Clover and Timothy