Whether you frequent Bartell’s or beat a path to Ballard’s Dandelion Botanicals, most of their cures originally derive from nature. Apothecaries like Dandelion, however, dispense medicinal plants in relatively raw form—dried as tea or concentrated as tincture—often alongside spiritual trinkets. Seattle herbalists largely concoct these remedies themselves and know their efficacy. But the immediate benefit of visiting one of the city’s many apothecaries isn’t necessarily the cure. Plant medicine is both ancient and common, passed down orally like stories. In keeping with that tradition, most of Seattle’s herbalists are as interested in sharing knowledge as they are moving product.
Kate Poole, who owns Essential Apothecary Alchemist in Ballard, aims to empower people to ask questions like, What is this and what do you use it for? How would that help me? For Karyn Schwartz of SugarPill, “It’s really important that there’s places that have their doors open that you can just walk into, that you’re part of a neighborhood.” Herbalists offer a potent dose of information and care, and the origin of their knowledge is part of its value.
Poole recalls gathering and eating plants to soothe her stomach at five years old. At age nine, Sunny Savina Bertollini of the former Pioneer Square apothecary, The Hidden Alchemist, started her first herb garden. “It’s not something that I ever learned to do specifically so much as it was something that I’ve always done,” she says.
Bertollini finds the question of education in a modern, degree-granting sense somewhat problematic. An herbalist’s study is lifelong, moving from apprentice to advanced practitioner to master herbalist—someone able to formulate new, effective remedies. The Seattle alternative medicine college, Bastyr University, has offered a two-year, fast-track BS Herbal Sciences program since 2001. You’ll find young alumni behind the counter at many local apothecaries, but in the 1980s and ’90s, when the city’s established herbalists were getting their start, “Bastyr did not exist. Bastyr was actually built on a park I used to walk through,” Bertollini says.
Still, despite the solitude of the traditional herbalist, most are preternaturally open. Like therapists, they field personal concerns. A good herbalist pursues the root of these concerns with empathetic, scholarly curiosity. Their shared interest in educating and building communities is a reminder that several once worked together in the city’s oldest apothecary, Tenzing Momo. Schwartz, Mary Kachi of Dandelion, and Tierney Salter of The Herbalist all got their start at the Pike Place Market institution.
Each of the women later branched off into her own style of apothecary, laying the framework for a city of herb shops for every inclination. The ambiances range from vitamin store to boutique to good witch’s coven, but there’s a thread of commonality: holistic wellness. Seattle is rich with natural wellness alternatives, and trying out a medicinal tea or a vial of lavender essential oil represents an easy point of entry. Go with questions; they’ll likely have a few remedies—medicinal, spiritual, and pragmatic—up their sleeves.
“Go anywhere in the world and you are going to find just people quietly taking care of their communities,” says Schwartz. “Actual human connection... That’s the most important medicine of all.”