An Herbalist Interview:
Brandon Ruiz of the Charlotte Herbal Accessibility Project
Interviewed by Meghan Gemma
Photographed by Brandon Ruiz
What a delight to interview Brandon Ruiz of the Charlotte, North Carolina-based Herbal Accessibility Project—a community-inspired network of food and medicine gardens that reflect and reconnect local relationships with ancestral plants. To find out more about Brandon and the project, see the bio at the end of the article.
Brandon, what first inspired you to mingle herbal medicine with herbal history and herb cultivation?
To me, they’re all intrinsically connected. If we’re working with plants, shouldn’t we truly get to know them? Shouldn’t we know what it’s like to smell them when we walk by, watch how they grow, see how they interact with their environment? The packaging and commoditization of herbal medicine is a relatively new concept on the timeline of plant medicine around the world.
Humans have traditionally related to plants on this level of closeness, so I feel that if we truly want to develop intimate and meaningful relationships with the plants we know and love, knowledge of their cultivation and history is vital in making that connection.
Part of your work is to grow plants that are culturally significant to communities in Charlotte, NC. Can you explain how this helps people connect with their ancestral medicine traditions and build relationships with herbs?
We usually have one of two things happen when it comes to growing these culturally significant plants: either the person is familiar with a plant and hasn’t had access to it since childhood or since moving to a different place, or the person has not had experience or knowledge of a plant that holds a connection to their culture.
So, we have some people who are already connected to these plants, and seeing them again is a homecoming of sorts—an ability to remember special experiences and places that they may have become physically disconnected from. For those learning about a new plant, say somebody with ancestry in Peru meeting huacatay (Tagetes minuta) for the first time, the experience can be like meeting a family member they didn’t know they had.
Nowadays many of us are striving to look at our history, trying to dive deeper into our identities and find out who we are, and plants hold a perfect medium to do so given our extensive and intimate history with them. Personally, I feel that my body has an easier time processing and healing with plants that come from my ancestral homelands. These plants have evolved with and nourished my ancestors, and they tend to do the same for me in the present. There’s no doubt that we can still lead healthy lifestyles consuming and working with plants that don’t have this significance, but when we switch out lettuce and kale for callaloo (Amaranthus spp.) or potatoes for cassava (Manihot esculenta), we can recognize our identity and familiarize ourselves with our cultural background.
What cultural legacies are botanically represented at the garden, and what are some of the stand-out plants?
In our garden in East Charlotte, we grow many plants from all over over—Central America, modern-day Laos, Japan, Polynesia, India, and more. People love seeing the Hmong yellow cucumbers (Cucumis sativus) that are about 3 lbs. each and bright yellow. We grew them on an overhead trellis earlier in the year so you could pick them from above and beside you. Taro (Colocasia esculenta) is another that gets a lot of attention—people know about taro chips, so seeing the plant is exciting for them. Another one would be tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum). People absolutely love the smell and flavor of the Kapoor variety and many participants fall in love with it!
In West Charlotte, we have a smaller garden space that’s dedicated to growing mostly Afro-Caribbean plants. Almost all of the plants there are native to the Caribbean or Central America. You can find plants like African oregano (Plectranthus amboinicus), poleo (Lippia alba), and molokhia (Corchorus olitorius), all with Afro-Caribbean histories.
We grow about 30 different plants on the west side, and over 100 in the garden on the east side of town! We’re always encouraging people to suggest what to grow and connect with us to preserve a piece of their culture in one of the gardens.
Can you tell us about your own cultural heritage and which plants are especially dear to you?
Yo soy Boricua, pa’que tu lo sepa! I’m Puerto Rican! We are a blend of Indigenous Taino, African, and Spaniard, and it shows in all aspects of our culture, from food to music. I am of the diaspora and was born in Florida but my heart is on the island. I love the exploration of my culture, eating traditional foods, working with traditional medicines, and our music. A few plants that I hold close that we grow here in Charlotte are recao (Eryngium foetidum), aji dulce (Capsicum chinense), and poleo (Lippia alba). Recao is a popular spice used to make many traditional dishes, including sofrito, a traditional Puerto Rican spice mix, and is a great medicine for digestive issues. It smells like a stronger cilantro with a bit of thyme. Aji dulce is a type of pepper that isn’t spicy, but it has a crispy consistency and tastes almost like citrus when totally ripe. I use this in sofrito and anything in need of peppers as well. Poleo is a bushy herb used on the island for everything from colds and flu to digestive ailments and insomnia. It has a lemon-lavender aroma to it and the tea tastes the same.
Of course, if I was able to grow in a climate like the island, I would say guanabana (Anonna spp.), noni (Morinda citrifolia), and guayaba (Psidium guajava).
One of the goals of the Project is to provide education on crafting herbal medicine from the garden. Can you share some stories about how locally grown medicine is impacting the community?
Definitely! Our most recent medicine-making class was making sofrito. The creation of something from scratch that many people only see labeled on a store shelf shifts their ability to connect with food. To see what these herbs look like fresh from the garden, how they smell as you process them, and how it all comes together is something special in any circumstance.
We make tinctures with many different nervines from the garden—among them tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum) and skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora)—and these medicines are super valuable for participants who are busy college students or working corporate jobs in the city here.
Another funny story was when I needed my car towed after I was having some problems with it. The tow truck driver, Mohamed, and I began talking about food on the way to the shop, and he told me all about cooking in his homeland of Tunisia. It turns out he frequently ate molohkia (Corchorus olitorius) as a child, which we grow in the gardens! So now we stay in touch and he gets molohkia from us from time to time!
What do you envision for the future of the Charlotte Herbal Accessibility Project?
We will be expanding to a larger growing space for the 2020 season! We’ll be growing culturally significant crops to provide a sliding-scale CSA for various communities around town, while teaching immersive courses and classes on the entire process, from seed to harvest. As we expand into a bigger space, we hope to keep utilizing the smaller gardens we occupy now, to keep improving our impact in those communities. We hope for more frequent educational experiences, herbal and farming courses, and to collaborate with more local projects to help ensure access to herbal medicine and quality food. Moving forward, we also want to establish more gardens around the city where management and specific decision-making is left to the members of the community. Creating garden spaces with the resources we have and providing assistance if needed, we hope to create a network of gardens around town that the communities themselves can run to have sovereignty over their food and medicine.
What opportunities exist for folks to get involved with or support the project?
Right now, most of the opportunities are for those in Charlotte. You can come out and get a tour of the garden, come during a workday where we talk about regenerative farming techniques and are planting, harvesting, tending to plants in general, or come to a class! Our classes are donation-based, and talk about a range of subjects from Afro-Caribbean herbalism, herbalism for mental health, seed starting, medicine making, and more.
Sometimes we have days just for people to come hang out at one of the gardens. We may make some food or drinks, start a fire and play some music and relax, creating a safe space to decompress and be. We have also been selling at farmer’s markets around town, and recently created a weekly CSA with food from the garden! There’s a blend of fruits, veggies, and herbal teas and tinctures in each week’s box, all grown in the gardens.
Any words of advice for others wanting to start up an herbal history garden or cultural community herbalism project?
I would definitely say to get involved in your community and know the people you live among and interact with. See if it’s something the community is open to, and look at yourself and your history and culture. This evolved into what it is because I wanted to connect with parts of myself that, at first glance, seemed impossible to do without living on the island. So, asking yourself which plants mean a lot to you and what reminds you of home is important, and once you’ve established that and build a vision for what you want to see happen, help others achieve it too.
It’s also a good idea to look at already established projects and resources—of course they don’t have to be doing the same thing, but if they’re related in any way (culture, community space, gardening, cooking) you can find a way to connect from there. If there aren’t any around, you’ll be the first to create something like this which can be difficult but powerful. I think there are a million possibilities for what could happen from there; sometimes I feel overwhelmed with all of the ideas for things we can do. But what comes organically and resonates with the people involved is usually what’s best!
BRANDON RUIZ is a community herbalist and urban farmer living in Charlotte, NC. He owns Atabey Choreto Medicinals and directs the CLT Herbal Accessibility Project and spends his time working in urban gardens, making medicine and working with his community. Brandon works mainly with plants of the tropics, specifically from the Caribbean and in Borikén (Puerto Rico), his ancestral homeland.