La Botanica, folk healers on wheels: A Triumvirate of botanical power growsroots in East Austin
You might say the three women behind La Botanica, an herbal folk healing trailer tucked away in East Austin, came together under quite serendipitous circumstances.
When Carla Vargas-Frank met Olivia Pepper while working at Wheatsville Co-op, the two rode bikes and entertained the idea of one day having a gypsy trailer where they would sell perfume, read tarot cards and perform herbal treatments.
Pepper soon met Tamara Becerra Valdez at a dinner party and the two immediately bonded over their love of storytelling. Says Pepper, “I think I just threw out this whimsical, ‘We should have this place where people can just bring us a question, and we’ll give them a magical thing and tell them the story about it,’ which is kind of what we do now."
But the trailer concept really came to fruition two years ago when Vargas-Frank drove from Austin to New Mexico to attend the Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference. She daydreamed about having a trailer she could use to process plants and create products that she'd then sell in order to fund a yearly trip across the country to harvest more wild plants. Returning to Austin after the conference, she acquired a Nomad RV from the 1960s topped with a chicken coop that was quite the fixer-upper. "It was a piece of work,” remembers Vargas-Frank.
Two years and “many trips to Home Depot” later, the Nomad was transformed into the adorable vintage space that now houses La Botanica. Plants encircle the apothecary-on-wheels, which is forest green with hand-painted floral signage.
Inside, the shelves are filled with carefully placed relics and curiosities: a glass box of worry dolls, a tiny mortar and pestle, intricately handcrafted tarot cards, veladoras, gilded antlers. Delicate, handcrafted dreamcatchers, medicine bags and necklaces turn in the sunlight while drawers and cabinets open to display jars, droppers, tins and bottles of the herbal and botanical products they are peddling — quite literally.
All three women graduated from the Community Herbalist Program at Austin's Wildflower School of Botanical Medicine, where they studied under director Nicole Telkes, an authority on herbalism in Texas for over a decade now. Their experiences within the program gave them an all-encompassing foundation in outdoor herbalism, plant identification, body systems, clinical skills and medicinal preparations.
“Nicole likes to say that there should be an herbalist on every street corner and I agree with her,” says Pepper. “Her saying that was what made me want to study with her. That made me want to join her.”
Carla Vargas-Frank, Nomadica Apothecary
Vargas-Frank, Valdez and Pepper all produce and retail their own line of products and carry several other locally made lines, as well as a few from out of state. Nomadica Apothecary, Vargas-Frank’s line, focuses on natural alternatives for household items, such as dry shampoos and solid perfumes.
“My passion really is medicine making. I really enjoy the investigative process of sitting down with someone and really looking at their situation and making custom formulas.”
“[However] my passion really is medicine making,” says Vargas-Frank. “I really enjoy the investigative process of sitting down with someone and really looking at their situation and making custom formulas.”
Hailing from Arizona, she admits to “an obsessive love affair with the plants of the Sonoran desert,” but here in Texas, she finds herself working most often with holy basil, yerba santa, mint, sage, monarda (bee balm), passion flower, yarrow, cleavers, juniper and nettles.
“Most of the herbs I use are either of a garden variety, which means that I can grow them in my own backyard, or weeds that are regular to our specific bio region of Central Texas,” explains Vargas-Frank. “One of the best ways to maintain ecological sustainability and to encourage a relationship and a familiarity with the plants that we use is to use plants that naturally grow in great abundance around us.”
She also stresses the importance of foraging with great care and respect for the earth around us. “When I do harvest, it is often plants that I or friends of mine have spread ourselves or plants that are prolific enough that my picking them will not make any sort of negative impact.”
Tamara Becerra Valdez, Botanicals Folklorica
Valdez grew up in South Texas with four strong, spiritual women (her great grandmother, grandmother, mother and aunt) who had a major impact on her path to natural medicine. She began her line, Botanicals Folklorica, while enrolled at the Wildflower School as a means of bridging folklore and medicine. But it was even before that, while working at the Center for Folk Life in Washington, D.C., that she became interested in collecting stories. She sees the two closely linked in her work at La Botanica.
“I’m really fascinated by how medicine can re-tell different stories, and I feel like that’s what I do. I’m just re-telling a story that’s already been told. I just tell it differently, trying to keep the integrity of the spirit and of the tradition."
“I’m really fascinated by how medicine can re-tell different stories,” says Valdez, “and I feel like that’s what I do. I’m just re-telling a story that’s already been told. I just tell it differently, trying to keep the integrity of the spirit and of the tradition. I love talking to people about what ails them, what’s concerning them. I think that’s such a big first step in healing, just sharing and being able to tell and share it because so often we hold it back. “
Her Fire Cider cold remedy is a best seller at the trailer — Valdez buries the jar underground on a new moon and removes it on a full moon, after the herbs have fermented. “It’s always different, but always effective!” she assures.
She has also developed three different herbal smoke blends which serve as an aide in easing tobacco addictions. Instead, smokers enjoy the benefits of herbs like damiana, sage, lemon balm, mugwort, lobelia, mullein and catnip. Most recently, she's experimented with infusing honeys using feral honey rescued from the Central Texas Bee Rescue, as well as Round Rock Honey.
“Honey is an amazing medicine. The way I extract constituents from plants through the honey is phenomenal. Honey often gets thought of as a sweetener, so we don’t have too much of it, but really it’s a food. It has minerals, vitamins, antioxidants — it’s great.”
Olivia Pepper, Lunaria Tarot and Mystic Oddment
Pepper describes her background in herbal medicine as “interwoven with every aspect of my life and my growing up. My parents are — they were, when I was born — back-to-the-landers. My father has American Indian ancestry which inspired him to take to this woodland life of harvesting and gathering his own food and building his own house out of trees that he chopped down. My mom came from a very traditional, conventional, Midwestern family, and she left it all behind for political and emotional reasons and became inspired by all these alternative modes of living. Among them, [were] organic gardening, herbalism and unconventional schooling.”
"I really feel like my work overall has to do more with the spiritual and emotional nature of the body and the soul and how it relates to the struggles of contemporary culture.”
Home-schooled throughout her life, Pepper absorbed everything her parents taught her. Plant healing came, well, naturally in her family. She recalls healing a friend’s bee sting by chewing up a plantain leaf and placing it on her hand, and inhaling essential oils and steam to soothe her own asthmatic episodes, rather than reaching for an inhaler.
However, Pepper describes her line, Lunaria Tarot and Mystic Oddment, as “more intended for the spiritual, emotional or subtle energetic bodies. I do, of course, enjoy treating bee stings and coughs and sprained ankles, but I really feel like my work overall has to do more with the spiritual and emotional nature of the body and the soul and how it relates to the struggles of contemporary culture.”
She creates wands and energetic attunement tools using found and sentimental objects, and the anointing oils she bottles are as beautiful to look at as they are soothing to inhale. She has been reading tarot cards for over 20 years and will soon have an inviting space at the trailer for readings, energetic life coaching and dream interpretation.
It doesn’t take a mystic, however, to see that these three are currently living out their dreams in the community healing space they have created in East Austin, where La Botanica is tucked away behind Tillery Street Plant Company.
“There’s something that’s truly so powerful about doing what you love that attracts other people who are doing what they love and even just witnessing it,” explains Pepper. “I think that it changes people on some subtle energetic level. I think it even helps people to engage in a healing process of their own.”
Visit La Botanica’s website for information on future events, such as the upcoming workshop bridging astrology, herbalism and alchemy. Individualized herbal consultations are always available by appointment.