Story and photographs by Lisa M. O’Neill
Clouds fill the brilliant blue sky as I travel up the mountain with bioregional herbalist and bartender Vadi Arzu Erdal. The expanse of saguaros shifts to forests of conifers and sentinels made of stone. As the car climbs, we watch the barometer drop five, then ten, then twenty degrees, a reprieve from the persistent September sun.
Every few months, Erdal, 29, travels up Mount Lemmon just north of Tucson to gather herbs for the cocktails she designs for Exo bar. While most of the fruits and herbs used in the drink menu are grown by Exo’s owners or are foraged by Erdal in urban areas, she also supplements with wildcrafting.
The day I join her, she will gather sprigs of greens and berries to make bitters.
Erdal’s passion is integrating herbs into cocktails and mocktails that calm the nervous and digestive systems. “It’s sneaking medicine into people’s cocktails without them necessarily knowing,” she says. “That’s what all these liqueurs were for thousands of years. They were medicine. They were the original tinctures. They still are. People use them to digest food and relieve tension and pain. So it’s come full circle with cocktails.”
We turn off the road, park, and walk a short distance on a dirt path, where Erdal finds several squat, green bushes. Before she brings her clippers to the top branch of one California brickellbush, she pours water from a reusable bottle at its base. “An offering,” she says. She places the small clipping inside a flat circular basket.
While the idea of “harvest” may conjure images of baskets spilling over with flowers and greens, Erdal’s approach is to be as low-impact as possible.
“You can trim just the first top four or five leaves and that will grow back for the plant. When I come in here and take eight leaves total, that is going to add complex depth to the overall brew. But you know, she’s fine,” Erdal says, gesturing at the brickellbush. “She got a little haircut”
Near the trailhead parking lot, tree branches drip with berries in shades of crimson, goldenrod, and maroon. Eaten alone, the choke cherry is caustic, its bite lingering on the palate, but in a bitters mix, the berries work well, Erdal says. She trims one stem of a branch with a few berries and lays it in the basket.
Walking along a gravel path, she finds wild grapes and wild bergamot and then mullein, a large, light-green plant with furry leaves that has blossomed with the rain. “Hey, Mama,” she says, leaning down to touch it. “It’s so soft.”
Tiny rust-colored butterflies land on the branches of wild bergamot. Nearby is a pokeweed plant, with dark blue berries. Although dangerous in large doses, Erdal says the berries can be used sparingly for ailments like rheumatoid arthritis. She notes that taking the right doses of herbs medicinally is no different than taking appropriate doses of prescription drugs—too much is too much in either case. One frustration she finds as an herbalist is when people see Western medicine as science but categorize herbs as magic.
She says, “I notice this a lot with friends who ask for medicine [from me] and don’t take it timely and say it doesn’t work. If a doctor were to prescribe to take something two times a day for two weeks, would you stop? Would it work if you didn’t?”
Erdal laughs when she says she has always gotten along better with plants than people. She has been infatuated by the natural world since she was a child.
Her parents, who emigrated from Turkey, used homeopathy at home. Her mom was afraid of going to the doctor and Erdal inherited this qualm. “Being poor and uninsured and a hypochondriac, I was constantly feeling like: I need to know how to take care of myself,” she says. “I don’t like to go to the doctor—Western medical doctors—because I don’t think they treat the root cause.”
Erdal grew up in Southern California. She learned about plants as healers by reading and experimenting, particularly when she moved to Washington state in 2008 and was met with a completely new landscape. “Michael Moore’s Medicinal Plants of the Pacific Northwest was my first legitimate, heavy-duty book. I would read and do experimentation with taking different plants for different things,” she says.
Although Erdal dreamed of attending herb school, it was inaccessible financially, as it is for many aspiring herbalists. So she took botany courses in college, learning to identify plants through taxonomic science. Because of that experience, she was able to identify 90 percent of the plants within her first year in the Sonoran Desert.
“There is so much here [in the desert] that is edible and is overlooked,” she says.
Eating from the desert, she says, is one strategy for adaptation. “From a nutritionist and herbalist perspective, if I eat what is growing around me then I’ll be better adapted to my environment. This is a very harsh environment. So, using mesquite pods for instance when you are making a sweetener, that helps regulate your blood sugar which in turn helps regulate your hydration and that’s very important in the heat of the summer.”
Although she always goes to the mountain in search of certain plants, she is okay if she doesn’t get what she came for. On the mountain in September, for example, we can’t find the spruce tips and pine needles Erdal is after. Not enough wind, she says.
The spruce tips are used in her Campfire Cooler, an Exo cocktail inspired by campfires on Mount Lemmon. It’s made with mescal infused with spruce tips, along with lemon juice, honey, and bitters containing Lapsang Souchong tea and activated charcoal to simulate the ash of the fire.
Most of the drinks Erdal designs for Exo are made with mescal, which reflects the terroir of Southern Arizona and Mexico. “It’s so much about land-based relationships. So the folks growing and harvesting the agave and the way that spirit is made is telling a narrative of the place where it was grown. When you are drinking that spirit, you are tasting the place that it came from.” (For more on mescal, see our April 2018 feature.)
In Washington, Erdal ran an herb farm for seven years, growing over a hundred species of European and native plants. The farm was able to operate through a CSA, Community Supported Apothecary, where community members bought shares and, in turn, received seasonal wellness boxes with bioregional herbs and tinctures.
While these sales supported buying seed, soil amendments, oils and alcohols, and labels, the operation wasn’t sustainable since the farmers weren’t paying themselves. Erdal says that earning money working with materials from the natural world is complicated.
When she farmed, she spent time replanting indigenous species. Now, she doesn’t feel comfortable gathering herbs in the wild unless she does so in low-impact ways. Entitlement to the natural world is unacceptable to her.
“That’s the colonial mindset. I’m more concerned with decolonizing medicine than I am with making a name for myself as an herbalist,” she says. “So I’d rather never profit from this than profit in a way that doesn’t feel right.”
Around the same time our trip up the mountain, the cosmetic company Sephora announced a “Starter Witch Kit,” which included perfume, a tarot deck, a piece of rose quartz and small bundle of white sage. The kit was pulled because of massive online outcry, largely from indigenous social media influencers and their allies. Erdal posted her own dissent on her Instagram account, where she often speaks out about social justice and power and privilege in herbalism.
“When I hear indigenous healers and herbalists say, ‘Don’t harvest white sage, it’s not your medicine and it’s now been so overharvested that its now an endangered species, and we can’t even access it as our own medicine,’ there is no part of me that says, ‘Well, whatever.’”
She continues, “I heard that and that is the end of the conversation. You can grow it, it’s easy to grow, just grow some and bundle it—and even better, if you are not using that plant as an ancestral medicine that is relevant to you, why not take this as an opportunity to connect to your own ancestor’s medicine? Bundle and burn rosemary or culinary sage.”
In Erdal’s eyes, one major problem in herbalism is this attraction to the exotic. “The Queen of England wanted oranges,” she says. “So everyone went to town building her greenhouses and bringing oranges from around the world so she could have her oranges and this is how this all begins.”
But Erdal wants to people to understand the power of everyday, non-exotic herbs. “That’s part of it: readjusting your idea of how you feel entitled to exotic things versus making basil sexy in your mind,” she says. “Thyme can be used to sterilize, to help with fungus and mold, to kill bacteria, and temper the gut. Lavender is a low-impact essential oil. Lemon balm is even being used on MRSA, you can use it for HPV topically.”
Exotification also happens in the aromatherapy industry, one Erdal calls “devastating” because of the large amount of biomass required to make small amounts of oil and the appropriation of sacred plants. “When you go to the store and Rose Absolute is $30 dollars for a little dram, that’s because it required a truck-bed full of rose petals.”
Additionally, she has observed that many people use pure essential oil topically without a carrier oil, which can be dangerous, resulting in ailments, she says, because that is the most concentrated chemicals plants produce. “They use that to kill bugs that are munching on them,” Erdal says. “Trees will use essential oils to tell each other that a fire is coming, or a drought. They use them for a myriad of communications that we can’t even understand as humans.”
All of this underlines Erdal’s point that using plant-based products without fully understanding them can be harmful.
She believes everyone should have access to ways of caring for themselves and their families, but she worries about the influx of “Instagram herbalists” who might not have studied herbalism and its roots extensively. Erdal notes that in many traditions, herbalism was passed down to someone specifically chosen for that path. “If you don’t have that basis of knowledge around it, if you’re misusing medicine, it can get really dangerous and harmful,” she says. “And culturally harmful if perpetuating that continual erasure and colonization.”
And while some might view the sharing of herbalism and plant remedies as appreciation rather than appropriation, Erdal says the difference is in “who is profiting and at what cost to the person whose culture is being referenced.”
Part of the antidote to appropriation of land and of cultures, she says, is for people to research their own lineages and the herbalism rooted within them.
She has friends who teach European herbal traditions to people seeking this reconnection.. “Clearly there is a desire to reconnect with the natural world, our ancestors, our inner part, animals. We are of this,” she says. “[We can learn] how to connect to it in ways that are safer, applying harm reduction to the environment and to other cultures that have experienced erasure.”
Healing the Disconnect
Before we head down the mountain, Erdal adds sprigs of mugwort to her basket. “Good for dreaming and for menstrual cramps—you can infuse it into an oil and rub it on your belly,” she says.
She looks up and pauses to watch a large hawk circle above head.
Today’s harvest—the small sprigs of mugwort and brickellbush, a dozen chokeberries and wild grapes—will be transformed into a quart-sized bitters mixture that will last an entire year.
“I have always been interested in being in and around nature and trying to heal the disconnect between human and natural world,” she says.
While she loves coming up the mountain, Erdal emphasizes that we forget that nature is all around us all the time. “The narrative is that nature is a place you go to—it’s not the dandelion growing out of a crack in the pavement. But that is the natural world. We can pave over it and spray weed killer and do the things that make us feel like we’re not a part of it. But we are and it will always be there. I think it is just mirroring the parallels between that and marginalized peoples and the struggle for resilience.”
Lisa M. O’Neill is a Tucson-based writer whose work operates at the intersection of popular culture, politics, place, and social justice issues. Of Cajun, Irish, and German descent herself, she’s passionate about learning about the many cultures and traditions of the Southwest and beyond. Her writing has appeared in Bitch, Edible Baja Arizona, Everyday Feminism, GOOD, Good Housekeeping, Salon, and The Washington Post among others.
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Sonoran Desert Food Plants: Edible Uses for the Desert’s Wild Bounty by Charles W. Kane
Herbal Medicine of the American Southwest by Charles W. Cane
United Plant Savers: Medicinal Plant Conservation
Native SEEDS/Search blog: Edible Weeds
Desert Harvesters’ Plant Food Guides
Milk & Honey Herbs blog