The Alchemist’s Kitchen now carries two wonderful tinctures from 69herbs, made especially for when you are feeling sick, run down, or sluggish. 69herbs is a New York-based apothecary and design project by Jade Marks which focuses “on trans and queer health, accessibility, and harm reduction.” We felt very lucky to chat with Jade- an herbalist, farmer, and artist based in New York City- about their journey to plant-based healing.
How did you first come to herbalism? What called you to work with plants?
My background is in small-scale, organic farming. I was working with plants as a grower for a long time before I got into herbalism. I went to college in Vermont in the most agriculturally dense county in the state, and started farming as a way to support my mental health while at school. I got enticed into farmwork by one of my first mentors, Jay Leshinksy, in 2010, and have been doing food justice work and farming ever since. Most of my farming experience has been in New Orleans and here in New York, which deeply informs my herbalism too.
When my mom got sick and then died a few years ago, I turned to plant medicine to support me through the grief process. I started taking hawthorn, and was really struck by how incredible it was at reaching the subtleties of my emotional landscapes. I felt witnessed and held in my feelings, not numbed or rushed out of them, like a lot of pharmaceuticals do. That experience made me so curious to get to know plants more deeply by working them one on one. The following year I went to herbalism school at Wild Gather in the Hudson Valley, and I launched 69herbs the year after that.
How did you conceptualize 69herbs?
I dreamt up 69herbs when I was craving medicine that spoke to my experience and my communities’ experiences. We’re in this moment where CBD is blowing up, herbal products are becoming so minimalist and expensive, people are out here trying to trademark herbal formulas (see: Shire City Herbals + fire cider). I wanted to make blends that centered people who are trans and queer, disabled and sick, people struggling with mental health, sex workers, traumatized people, sober folks, drug users and people in recovery. That’s who my people are, and we’re also a people with an incredible collective knowledge about how to survive and heal together. Accessibility was really important to me, so I started with a deep sliding scale, and I also wanted to make all of my blends alcohol free, to make them available to people like my partner, who doesn’t drink alcohol. They’re sweet and can be taken straight on the tongue, which makes them easier to use on the fly. I had a lot of fun designing the labels, and wanted them to be super vibrant and beautiful. We are all just more likely to use something daily and bring it around with us if it looks cute! That’s accessibility, too.
You describe 69 herbs as, “69herbs aestheticizes a dream of collective healing by blending fantasy, faggotry, and folk herbalism. Our blends focus on trans and queer health, accessibility, and harm reduction.” I love this. Can you speak a little bit more to what this looks like for you?
I think a lot about one of my favorite books, The Faggots and their Friends Between Revolutions, which was first published in 1977. It’s about a gaggle of faggots who keep disrupting the “serious” revolutionary agenda with their frivolity and pleasure. I like to think of 69 as working in this tradition – like, yes we’re living in the end times, things are really rough. But instead of buckling down or falling into the trap of austerity, let’s dream, let’s fantasize about what else is possible, let’s play, let’s have joy, let’s make art, let’s have pleasure. To me 69 is an aesthetic project with a life of its own, and I love the aspects of it where I’m making harm reduction stickers, hosting nightlife parties, making custom blends for friends with Lisa Frank stickers all over them. I feel that in desperate times, more than ever we need the freaks, we need to be making beauty. It’s as my partner Tourmaline always says: “don’t let glamour be the first thing to go.”
I say that I practice folk herbalism because I am not a certified herbalist or practitioner, I’m working within traditions that have been passed on to me by elders, teachers, ancestors, plants. It’s magic and art, not science, so every batch of product that I make will be slightly different from the last.
How do you source the materials you use?
I manage a small farm in the lower Hudson Valley where I use a portion of the land to grow herbs for my product line. I dry herbs all season long to stretch them into the winter. After my supply runs out, I source from small, regional farms like Foster Farms Botanicals in Vermont. I also get bumper crops like milky oats and red clover from Whistle Down in Claverack, NY. As a last resort, I source from larger distributors like Mountain Rose + Starwest Botanicals. Next year I’m hoping to partner with a friend who farms in Vermont as well so she would grow a lot of the herbs I use. I am not big on wild-crafting because as herbalism has boomed in popularity, lots of wild plants are being over-harvested and misused. I source some of the essences I use from the amazing moonbymoon apothecary, and some I make myself.
How did you choose what blends to make?
I set out to make blends that would support the conditions I and the people around me are facing. The first two blends I made were Come Undone and Cum Over. The grief medicine led the way to freaky playful magical sexy formulas. They are in conversation, they are strung together. We as queer and trans people know all too well the inextricability between our grief and our pleasure, we do not need to separate them to feel either. I also chose to make formulas that I could brew with a lot of plants that I could grow or find locally. I was inspired by some of my friends and fellow herbalists, like Dori Midnight and Rachel Burgos of Snakeroot Apothecary, whose designs and themes are super vibrant and specific.
What advice would you give someone looking to get into herbalism?
Herbalism seems like it has this huge barrier to entry, but I always say if you ever make yourself a cup of tea or coffee, you’re already doing it ! My advice is to find the joy in the learning, because it’s this incredibly wonderful and expansive world, getting to go deep with plants. I say go slow, stay playful, experiment and give your medicine away. Get weird + wild with your ancestral + cultural traditions, be gentle with yourself in this process. Play with growing medicinal plants in a community garden plot, on your fire escape, on your windowsill – the mint and nightshade families are a great place to start. Work with weeds and invasive plants. Listen to the plants and where they want to take you.
What do you hope to see in herbalism in New York City in 2020?
I hope to see herbalism claimed back from the corporate entities that are popping up left and right in NYC. I hope to see more QTBIPOC herbalists lifted up, getting resources. I hope to see our communities building resiliency and spreading the medicine around. I hope to see more vacant lots taken over by plants; more herbs in harm reduction spaces, fashion spaces, nightlife spaces, art spaces. I hope to see the definitions of what counts as herbalism cracked open. Conditions in NYC are only getting harder with gentrification, climate collapse, a turn towards conservatism. And NYC is a city with huge amounts of skill, knowledge, and herbal resources – if you pop into any community garden you’ll find medicinal herbs growing there and someone who knows how to use them. That’s such a huge gift not to be taken for granted, and I hope that 2020 brings more gardens and fewer condos to our city.
Check out Jade’s amazing 69herbs here!