The Healing Power of Plants, According to an Herbalist
The Greek word pharmakon, the paradoxical root of many medicine-related English words, is sometimes roughly translated as “drug,” in the sense of both “remedy” and “poison.” This duality illuminates much of the contemporary pursuit of bodily and mental health, in which treatments such as psychedelic therapy and alternative medicine are increasingly common in lieu of, or to supplement, a purely medication-based approach to healing and well-being. In a way, the word pharmakon opens the door to a question: To what extent do any healing practices, ingredients, and compounds actually affect us?
Herbalist Rachelle Robinett has long been working toward an answer. As the founder of Pharmakon Supernatural, a New York–based company dedicated to sharing accessible, plant-based remedies for the body, mind, and everything in-between. Alongside products in the venture’s apothecary and online shop (which includes a line of herbal gummies called HRBLS) are on-demand classes, hosted by Robinett, that draw on her knowledge of plants, science, traditional medicine, and current health insights with strategies for reclaiming our health. Pharmakon Supernatural’s website also features myriad articles that offer further information on subjects such as adaptogenic herbs, how to improve gut health, and ingredients for making a soul-warming herbal cocktail at home.
We recently spoke with Robinett to learn more about her perspective on wellness, herbalism, and natural remedies. She reveals that her work’s primary motivating factor transcends data, traditions, and trends, and is rooted in something deeply personal.
Have you always had a close relationship with plants?
I grew up on a farm in the Pacific Northwest. My dad comes from a family of ranchers in Wyoming, and wanted to instill in us the importance of being in nature, getting dirty, working with animals, growing our own food, and falling asleep listening to the silence and to frogs and coyotes. I spent a ton of time by myself, working outdoors. By listening to the wind, paying attention to the weeds, playing with snakes, and climbing around in mossy forests, I learned a lot of things about plants that I didn’t realize I knew until later. It affects the way I move in the world every day.
How do you think about living in alignment with the Earth and other species?
On the most macro level, I feel compelled to help people understand that we’re all part of this living organism: the planet. Usually in my work, that means helping people learn how to live in a healthy relationship within their own organism, the body-mind system. In order to do that, you have to be attached to the natural world as well. You have to be aware of the cycles that we’re part of on a daily basis, on a seasonal basis, and on and on. Being connected to this living organism as a whole is essential for our health, and for its health, which is really the same thing.
You’re a registered herbalist, a designation you earned through the American Herbalists Guild. What does the term “herbalist” mean for you?
I’ve been doing this work for years for myself, but I know how difficult it can be to give it a label. People hear the word and wonder: Are you a nutritionist? Are you working with doctors? What people really need and want is all of the above, and more.
I’ve gone deep into plant work, but my approach has always been very holistic. When I have individual sessions with people or teach classes or any of these things I do, it sometimes feels like we’re in a therapy session together. Sometimes people ask for plant medicine or resources, and sometimes we talk about things like time management, journaling, food, and gut health. So it’s all there. That’s been really important for me from the beginning: that even if I am called an herbalist, or a holistic health coach, or whatever, my work is ultimately about complete well-being.
Given your years in the field, you have a particularly compelling vantage point into the wellness industry, and have been frank about how it’s evolved into something exclusive, and sometimes, out of reach for many. What is your take on the industry now?
I started out right as wellness was becoming very trendy in New York. There was a sense of novelty … like a little gold rush. Some people were doing work that has lasted, but it was a bit of a circus. The combination of that environment settling and the pandemic has, as with any trend, run its course now, and the work is currently broadening and reaching a sustainable plateau. The likelihood of encountering charlatans is still there, but lower than before. There’s much more awareness of a lot of these practices, and that’s great. Overall, it’s helping people to have a more holistic take on their own health and to realize how many options are out there when pursuing health-related or medical support.
Why do you think so many people are interested in natural remedies?
There’s increasing awareness of the importance of caring for ourselves in the same way that we would care for the environment—and recognizing that, in order to do so, natural and preventative approaches are very powerful. You could say that they are necessary, and also more accessible, when you’re looking at the longevity of these things. Herbalism was, and still is, the primary form of health care for most of the world.
A lot of industries are raising awareness about the relationship between our bodies and nature. The alternative-meat space, for example, relates to conversations about the climate crisis. It’s not considered wellness necessarily, but when you hear about the value of being plant-based in three or four different spaces every day, that has a cumulative effect, which I think is responsible for pushing us in the direction of progress, as opposed to just swinging the pendulum.
If wellness had become trendy on its own without these other contexts, I don’t think it would have sustained its momentum in ways that it has—but that’s not to say it doesn’t have its critics. It’s very clear from data, too, that people are looking for alternatives to medication, natural alternatives to drugs. The good news is that they can be used together. You also see greater health awareness in younger generations, who are very influential, especially considering their size.
The ways you think about your work, and 2020 book, Bigger Than the World and the Universe, suggest there’s something beyond data and public demand behind your passionate interest in wellness.
The book is by far the most intimate thing I’ve ever done publicly. I wrote it because my dad died, and the experience was mind-blowing and life-changing. The reason I’m doing any of this stuff—holistic work, writing, creating, anything—is because, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated with the human experience and what exactly it is. How does what we take in through our senses affect our perception of reality? What is consciousness? What is all this, really? When somebody like a parent dies, it alters that experience around reality so dramatically.
At some point it became clear that I wanted to capture that experience, and memorialize it. I didn’t make it to get a book deal. It’s a piece of art. If nobody bought it, it wouldn’t matter, because I had to make it. And I’m currently working on another one. To be honest, that’s all I want to do right now. It’s life-giving. It feels very important to expand beyond the social media world that contains a lot of the work and conversations that I’ve been having, and I’m yearning to work in a different format. In the coming months, I’ll be launching some things that are focused on longer-form conversations: dialogues, and writing, and just space to breathe.