Humans have been using specific herbs and plants to treat illness and improve health since prehistoric times. While ancient medicinal plants are often the basis for modern drugs, the knowledge of “folk medicine” and traditional healers has often been lost through generations. Desiree Thompson and Kelly McCarthy hope to make herbs and the knowledge of herbal medicine accessible and sustainable to the Black community in Philadelphia, and acknowledge the Lenape land the plants are grown on.
Thompson and McCarthy are herbalists who have created the initial stages of a project called the Philly Herb Hub, a community apothecary that distributes free herbs and herbal medicine to Black people.
Thompson and McCarthy met at a studio space they shared with other complementary health practitioners. They immediately connected over their shared interest in making resources on medicinal herbs more accessible to communites, especially to communities they were in relationship with– as Desiree says, “very Black, very brown, very queer, very trans.” They came up with the idea for Philly Herb Hub.
Their shared goal was to remove the most common barriers for those who are interested in using herbs – lack of knowledge about herbal properties, inability to find herbs, and expense. There is no cost for the Black community to order herbs from Philly Herb Hub and Thompson and McCarthy are working to remove the other challenges so that everyone feels the same invitation and access to the herbal world. They have relationships with people growing herbs for them in container gardens and window boxes, but also with herb farms close to Philadelphia. Whatever they can’t access locally they order online to supplement what people need.
“Seeing how generous the plants are really shows me that’s how we should be too, and the joy in that,” McCarthy says. She has studied herbalism since 2009, originally motivated by health problems, and interest in do-it-yourself culture. She runs her own herbal apothecary in West Philly.
Thompson, who is Black, says she did not initially learn about herbs through formalized training. “[For] Black folks in particular, I think there is often apprehension, like ‘I haven’t learned about this thing, I don’t grow things, I’m not a gardener,” Thompson says.
Thompson encourages the Black community to access that traditional wisdom around wellness and connection to the land. She says the knowledge of herbs has been passed down by senses and oral traditions and for Black Americans much of the knowledge of working with plants might be encompassed in this history.
“I wasn’t a gardener but my grandmother and my grandfather love to garden”, says Thompson. “The work and the knowledge about herbs definitely comes from a cultural inheritance, or a memory. Taking that extra step to be exposed to herbs is not only a practice for wellness, but a practice in being able to resource and make things yourself, but also a practice for autonomy and reclaiming birthright. Our connection to the land is something across the diaspora and you can’t separate it.”
Herbalism isn’t licensed in the United States and both Thompson and McCarthy stress that they are not offering medical diagnosis and the Herb Hub is not providing “cures”. They urge people to follow their intuition when thinking about plants and healing and listen to their bodies when trying herbs.
In the future, the project hopes to raise funds for a free clinic and a “mutual aid network of local growers, medicine makers, and herb enthusiasts”. They want to offer additional educational workshops and enlist more people to help with delivery and distribution.
You can order herbs and herbal medicine on the Philly Herb Hub website and pick up at locations in Germantown or West Philadelphia.
The Germantown Info Hub is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.