“People have evolved with plants for thousands of years,” Hannah Jacobson-Hardy of Sweet Birch Herbals in Ashfield reminds us. “And herbal medicine is still the most used healing practice in the world.”
Through Sweet Birch Herbals, Jacobson-Hardy aims to keep her community rooted to the teaching, healing and all-around well-being that local plants and herbs can provide.
“I grow medicinal herbs and make products from them,” she explained, “and I teach classes about gardening, foraging, and making herbal products so you can have your own apothecary.”
Jacobson-Hardy is also the woman behind another local product, Full Moon Ghee, a line of different varieties of ghee (clarified butter) she makes with grass-fed milk from local cows.
For Sweet Birch Herbals, the center of activity is Jacobson-Hardy’s homestead and farm on Creamery Road in Ashfield.
“My property is about 3 acres, so it’s small, but plenty of space for growing herbs,” she said. “Right by the road there’s a little barn with a farm store and animals, a greenhouse where I’ll grow ginger and turmeric next year, and then a big field planted with elderberries, flowers and garlic.”
Up the hill are more gardens, well mulched and fertilized with manure from her animals to build healthy soil without tilling.
“The apothecary (where herbs and products are stored) is in the basement of the house where it’s cooler,” she said, “and we have a little kitchen down there for making products.”
Teas and tinctures, creams and salves, syrups and ciders — these are most of what Sweet Birch Herbals makes and sells. The potency of fresh herbs is fleeting, but preserving an herb in one of these forms captures its essence and usefulness in something that’s shelf-stable.
“I try to grow everything I can here for making these,” Jacobson-Hardy said, “but sometimes that’s not possible. Like this year I bought ginger and turmeric from Old Friends Farm in Amherst. I love connecting with and buy a lot from other local farms.”
On the education side, Sweet Birch Herbals’ core offering is a yearlong apprenticeship led by Jacobson-Hardy. Participants join either a beginning, intermediate or advanced cohort of 10 others to deepen their knowledge of herbs and uses.
“We meet once a month for a full day, March through November,” Jacobson-Hardy explained. “It’s a lot of hands-on learning — harvesting from the gardens and forest, cooking things, making ferments, making your own herbal medicines.”
While apprenticeships are full for next year, Jacobson-Hardy also teaches one-day workshops throughout the year, at the farm in Ashfield and by request at other locations across the region.
Jacobson-Hardy’s own journey in herbal education draws broadly from her past. She credits her parents and grandparents, who taught her to grow, find, cook and preserve food and herbs from a young age, for instilling an understanding that “health comes from what we put in our bodies.” Later, a degree in plant and soil science from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and time studying with other local herbalists helped tune her awareness of how plants help people.
Yet ultimately, Jacobson-Hardy said it’s the plants themselves that are the greatest teachers, as people have just scratched the surface in understanding their range of characteristics, properties and uses.
“There’s a level of humility that comes from working with plants and herbalism,” she said, “because no person is truly a master. There’s always more to learn.”
The idea that everyone’s a novice to some degree can make exploring herbalism for the first time less intimidating. “A great way to integrate herbs into your daily life is through your regular cooking routine,” Jacobson-Hardy said. Plenty of culinary herbs have medicinal benefits, such as aiding digestion or being antibacterial.
She also suggests familiarizing yourself with herbal teas to understand the effects of different plants. (Always consult a medical professional before experimenting with more potent herbal medicines.)
For those who’d rather use herbs in pre-made products like tinctures, teas, oils and so on, Sweet Birch Herbals is one of several area businesses making them with local ingredients.
“Elderberry syrups are one of the most popular things this time of year,” Jacobson-Hardy said. “They boost the immune system, are antiviral, and taste really good mixed into seltzer water or tea. We also make a rose cream and a lavender cream, both of which are great for hydrating the skin as the air dries out. And teas are always popular.”
For those looking ahead to the holidays, they also have gift boxes that combine a handful of products. And from Full Moon Ghee, “chocolate and maple ghee are really popular stocking stuffers,” Jacobson-Hardy said.
“Plus I just made a batch of balsam fir essential oil with balsam boughs from Pieropan Christmas Tree Farm here in Ashfield,” she said, “and it’s so nice. It makes the whole house smell like the holidays.”
Sweet Birch Herbals has a self-serve farm stand open from dawn to dusk on site in Ashfield. It also sells online, in person at the Northampton Winter Farmers Market, and through several local retailers (their website, sweetbirchherbals.com, has a full list).
Many people use herbal medicine as part of a routine of self-care. Jacobson-Hardy sees a true understanding as encompassing that, as well as care for things much greater.
“Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve loved nature,” she said. “It’s my happy place, where I feel whole and safe. Seeing it degraded, I felt the way I could leave the Earth a better place was through education. Connecting people to the Earth, nature and plants, and teaching that we are not separate. Then it’s harder to hurt the Earth, because we see it’s part of us.”
Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). For more ideas about locally grown and made gifts this holiday season, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.