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Plant People: Folk Herbalist Rosemary Gladstar

Rosemary plant with purple flowers
Updated on April 29, 2020
Originally Posted in Community on

If the 19th century had Johnny Appleseed, our era has Rosemary Gladstar, “The Godmother of American Herbalism.” Like Johnny scattered seeds, Rosemary has created fertile ground throughout North America, where herbalism has thrived. In the late 1960s, Rosemary reignited herbalism in America and helped us tap into ancient notions of wellness. She’s written 12 best-selling herbal books, taught generations of herbalists, started non-profits, two herb stores and a school, and she co-founded Traditional Medicinals (TM). Given so many of her ventures have blossomed and endured, it’s clear she has the magic touch.

Image of American herbalist and Traditional Medicinals co-founder, Rosemary Gladstar as a teenager

Rosemary in the 1970s

Image of American herbalist and Traditional Medicinals co-founder, Rosemary Gladstar holding a rosemary plant

Rosemary today, holding rosemary

Her easy charm and warmth make her teachings on plant medicine seem approachable and intuitive. But don’t let her girlish giggles and smiling eyes fool you. When it comes to herbalism and plant conservation, she’s a wise, passionate, and articulate voice. At her core is a desire to connect people and plants.

After a lifetime of service to both plants and people, Rosemary is starting to think about retirement, although it’s hard to imagine her ever slowing down. And while she is preparing for a quieter chapter of what has been a very public life, she laughs, “Herbalists never really retire from herbalism.” Recently, we were lucky to chat over a cup of Tulsi with Ginger tea—one of her new TM favorites—to talk about her life, legacy, and the future of herbalism.

Connecting People with Plants

As a folk herbalist, Rosemary doesn’t have the professional certifications of a doctor, naturopath or a clinical herbalist, although Oregon’s University of Naturopathic Medicine did recently award her an honorary doctorate. Her craft is one that’s been handed down to her through the generations—she’s a medicine woman in the truly ancient sense.

Rosemary Gladstar's Mother

Jasmine, Rosemary’s mother

rosemary's grandaughter

Rosemary with her granddaughter, Lily

Her vocation came from her Armenian grandmother, Mary Egithanoff, a survivor of the Armenian Genocide. Feeding her family and keeping them well with plants and herbs when food was scarce, Mary knew how to live off the land. In the folk herbalist tradition, she shared her knowledge with Rosemary, teaching her about herbs and how to collect and use them.

As a child of Seventh Day Adventist dairy farmers in Sonoma County, California, Rosemary also learned the importance of kindness, self-reliance and social justice. Undoubtedly influenced by those ethics, the scope of her work has revolved around healing, education, and advocacy.

On a trip by horseback from Northern California to the Oregon border in her 20s, Rosemary lived entirely off the land. When she returned, she grew more interested in practicing herbalism and giving back to her community. Soon after, she joined with community activist Drake Sadler. Watching Rosemary care for people out of her own home, often exchanging services for produce or eggs, Drake and other friends encouraged her to open an herb store. So in 1972, she founded Rosemary’s Garden, an herbal apothecary that remains a Sonoma County cornerstone to this day.

In the store’s early years, Rosemary urged customers to engage in their own healing and herbal education. “People would come into the herb shop and talk about their physical issues, and she would hand them an herb book and have them look it up themselves to see what resonated,” Drake says. “She really encouraged people to take responsibility for their own health.”

As the back-to-the-land movement of the 60s and 70s was catching on, so did popular interest in natural remedies. In her shop, Rosemary began creating herbal medicine to meet the demand. The widespread appeal of her herbal teas led Rosemary and Drake to create Traditional Medicinals in 1974. Rosemary’s best-selling formulas, including Throat Coat®, Mother’s Milk®, Smooth Move®, Nighty Night® and Easy Now (now called Cup of Calm®), remain among TM’s most beloved teas. “I remember thinking, ‘These teas are magical!’” she laughs.

A few of TM’s herbalists with “The Godmother”

In addition to her role as TM’s chief formulator, Rosemary continued organizing herbal conferences and retreats. With this increasing interest in herbal education, she started the California School of Herbal Studies (CSHS), the first of its kind in the United States and the benchmark by which other American herb schools are measured today. She eventually moved the school to the beautiful Emerald Valley, a nature sanctuary close to Traditional Medicinals and Rosemary’s Garden. The student base has expanded considerably since then, and CSHS alumni wear her legacy as a badge of honor, whether they studied directly under her or not.

A Voice for the Plants

In 1987, Rosemary was ready for change. When an opportunity to move to Vermont presented itself, she jumped despite never having been. Within four months’ time she had sold the store and handed the school over to new stewards to run. It was the leap of faith that would shift the scope of her work from selling and teaching to plant advocacy.

Finding herself on 500 acres of wilderness in a log cabin on a mountainside in Vermont, away from all that was familiar, Rosemary was able to communicate with plants at a deeper level than ever before. While she mostly hears them energetically, she’s also actually heard them speak. Walking around the forest one day, she wondered why so many medicinal plants had disappeared:

“So I started contemplating, ‘What has our love of plants done? Are we loving the plants to death?’ That’s when I heard the forest speak out—it came in a clear voice—‘Plant us. Bring us back to the woodlands.’ And that was really the beginning of the idea to form a non-profit focusing entirely on plant conservation… I think it was the wilderness that really woke me up to the next aspect of my herbal work.”

Rosemary decided to protect her new home, Sage Mountain, by turning it into an herbal retreat center and botanical sanctuary. In her 30 years there, Rosemary has continued to teach, but plant conservation and advocacy for herbalism have become her primary focus. She organized the first International Herb Symposium, as well as The New England Women’s Herbal Conference, two conferences that honor the eclectic nature of American herbalism and its many traditions. In 1994, she also started United Plant Savers, a rare non-profit dedicated entirely to the conservation and cultivation of native medicinal plants.

“When I think of all the work I’ve done in herbalism, creating United Plant Savers is one of the things I’m most proud of,” Rosemary explains. “It encompasses so many aspects that are at the heart and core of herbalism: land stewardship, plant consciousness and their relationship to their own ecosystems, and awareness of our responsibility.”

Passing the Torch

Looking at her legacy, one can’t help but marvel at the wonderful things that have taken root from the seeds she’s planted and how long her ventures have endured and thrived—a few, like Traditional Medicinals, for decades. Rosemary is grateful: “I’m in awe of Traditional Medicinals. It’s far exceeded my vision, and it’s kept its integrity and its heart core.”

Co-founders Drake Sadler and Rosemary Gladstar with TM’s Goodwill Ambassador Nioma Sadler (center)