Emily Ruff is the Executive Director of the Florida School of Holistic Living and a community herbalist. Her studies have taken her around three continents where she has studied under many traditions. Emily’s dedication to preserving bioregional plant traditions and ecosystems led her to serve as a Board Member of United Plant Savers. Inspired by a need for greater connection among her regional community, she founded the Florida Herbal Conference event in 2012, an event which continues to sell out annually.
1. How did the plants find you? Can you recall the moment you realized that herbalism was your calling?
Plants first spoke to something deep within me as a child. I learned the botanical name for Camphor (Cinnamomum camphora) from my father when I was about three years old. Crushing its leaf and inhaling deeply lit a spark in my being that continues to burn brightly. At age 18, living in Guatemala, my perspective on health radically changed as I was first exposed to a non-Western system of care that was deeply interwoven with the natural environment.
A few years later, I faced a personal health crises and turned to the plants. They ushered my body gently and gracefully back to wellness, but more importantly, they befriended me and brought me great comfort in a time of deep emotional pain. It was then that they tapped on my heart and called me into this work. As Rosemary Gladstar often says, there are few taskmasters like the plants, but once they call upon you, you have little choice but to give yourself to them!
2. Mentors are so important in guiding us through the learning process - especially when seeking traditional knowledge and skills. Tell us about your teachers along this path.
My first plant teacher was my father, a botany professor. In my early years, we would spend afternoons walking in the woods behind our house, and he would stop and teach me a Latin name of a plant, or how to identify the arrangement of leaves or ovary position of a flower. As a young child, I was not always able to grasp the depth of his teaching cognitively, but something in my heart understood, as if the relationship with the plants was not a new learning but a remembering of something deep within. Every bit of the plant world fascinated me, and drew me into a deep enchantment with the kingdom of green.
As an adult, I've been blessed with a myriad of teachers from all regions and walks of life. A simple, traditional doctor who worked only with local plants in a small village on the shore of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala first sparked my interest in medicinal herbs when I was 18 years old. A wise urban herbalist in Orlando named George D'Arcy founded the Florida School of Holistic Living and was the first herbalist under whom I sat in clinical apprenticeship, and from whom I inherited my current role as director of the school. Carolyn Whitford, the founder of our local apothecary Leaves & Roots, was far too humble to ever claim the title of herbalist, but I learned from her for years as hundreds, nay thousands of community members received her wisdom and healing as customers of that store, often relying on her simple remedies as their primary form of medicine when they could afford nothing else. Kathleen Maier, Phyllis Light, Margi Flint, Dr. Jody Noe, Rosita Arvigo, Rocio Alarcon, Susun Weed are among the many strong, wise women whose teachings and friendship have influenced my work as an herbalist.
My most important mentor by far has been herbalist Rosemary Gladstar. I have been fortunate to apprentice under her tutelage for over a decade, sitting at her feet learning the wisdom of the plants and how to inspire others to develop a deeper relationship with them. In truth, Rosemary not only instilled in me vast knowledge of herbs but more importantly empowered me to learn directly from the plants, not just about their wellbeing value, but how they can teach us to live on this planet in deeper authenticity and gratitude. Her example inspires me to be a better human being, appreciating the depth and richness of the natural world around us, both the plant people and also our human and animal brothers and sisters. The way she lives her life with such selflessness woven with radiant joy is humbling, and I hope that I can express even an ounce of the grace she carries into the world through my own life and work. She is a true testament to what wisdom we can receive when we humble ourselves to live in honor of and right relationship with the earth.
3. How does living in Florida influence your approach to herbalism and can you tell us more about how the community is blossoming there?
I live in the central region of Florida and work in Orlando. This is a subtropical bioregion, meaning I can cultivate or wildcraft temperate species in cooler months, and in warmer months, tropical species thrive. It's the best of both botanical worlds, and I'm blessed to be able to grow and harvest plants all year round. The ecology and plant species of this region more closely resemble those of Central or South America in many ways than other parts of the southeast, which gives this region a very unique energy.
It also encourages me to use plant species that may not be commonplace in most herbal books and resources. The endemic plants here form a melting pot materia medica - many of our native or naturalized herbs represent Asia, Central & South America, and Africa. The work feels pioneering, both in reestablishing our local plant creations in common practice, and also in building network and community among Florida herbalists.
When I first began my work here, it seemed that Florida was a desert for herbalism. Especially in Orlando, I felt fairly isolated in the work I was doing. But over the years, I came to recognize that throughout our state, we boast an abundance of practitioners, teachers, students, and clinicians doing good plant work - we just didn't know of each other yet! In the five years that we have organized programs like the Florida Herbal Conference, we've been able to weave a web among these herbalists, and are both proud and grateful today to have a strong and vibrant herbal community here in the Sunshine State.
4. What has been the most influential herbal book or online resource you've discovered and why?
As an admitted bibliophile, this is a difficult question to answer!
I have a deep respect and admiration for the online works of Michael Moore and Jim Duke, both so freely and generously shared with our herbal community. It feels like one could study these two sites alone for their entire career and still not digest all of the resources they offer!
Rosemary Gladstar's Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health (formerly Family Herbal) remains one of my most admired herbal books, for the way she makes the philosophy and practice of this work so accessible and inspiring to newcomers and seasoned herbalists alike.
5. What do you consider to be the most important aspect of making plant medicine?
I think this can be best answered in one word - intention. Intention to honor the health of ecosystems, wildlife, and plant communities by harvesting only those species who are abundant. Intention to respect the plants themselves by harvesting with gratitude, mindful action, and with an offering of reciprocity - be it a song, a bit of tobacco, or a strand of hair. Intention to prepare the herbs with good energy and prayerfulness, so that they carry not just the beneficial biochemistry of the plants but also the energy of the maker. Approaching our plant practice with mindful intention ensures we are making our preparations in a way that honors the plants themselves, the traditions from which our lineage comes, and the people in our community whom we serve.
6. Which herbs do you work with regularly within your practice or personally?
I am loyal to a bioregional practice of herbalism in this season of my career, so while I love allies like Oatstraw or Red Clover dearly, they simply don't grow in my climate. I focus on the herbs of my backyard, both native ones like Spanish Needle (Bidens alba), Teaweed (Sida acuta & S. rhombifolia), Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) and Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria) and also tropical species we can cultivate in Florida, like Moringa (Moringa oleifera), Neem (Azadirachta indica), and the Zingiber family.
7. With all of the social, environmental, and ethical concerns surrounding healthcare today, what are your hopes for the future of herbalism?
It is inspiring, and encouraging, to see the grassroots herbal movement embracing the notion of stewardship of plant communities and historical traditions. We can't be herbalists without the plants, and the plants can't survive if we don't protect their ecosystems. United Plant Savers has been a wonderful model for good ways to do this plant work that honor the health of critically important herbal species.
We also couldn't do this work were it not for those who blazed the trail before us, and oftentimes, those trails were carved by traditions and communities that we ourselves did not come from. I'm inspired when I see the herbal community identify the propensity for cultural appropriation in our work in the past, and move intentionally towards honoring the traditions we have borrowed from with greater respect and reciprocity. It also gives me great hope to see local herbal communities - be they formally organized, or simply a gathering of herb mamas in a suburban neighborhood - joining forces to care for one another, filling the gaps that institutional healthcare leaves wide open.
We are the ones we've been waiting for, and it is up to no one but us to build the models of healthcare within which we wish to participate. As we continue to face planetary and personal health crises, I see more people awakening to the call of the plants and embracing the traditions of our ancestors. I'm encouraged that this awakening will continue, slowly and in its own good time, just like the plants themselves blossom when the sun calls them open. The seeds we are planting today as an herbal community will be the blossoms of a future generation, and I'm heartened to see so many herbalists approaching this work from a place of authenticity, humility, integrity, and respect for the plants and our ancestors.
8. Can you tell us about the Florida Herbal Conference happening in 2016? We are so happy to sponsor this important regional gathering again!
We are so elated to have you joining us again for our fifth year, and so grateful for your support! We have been gathering herbalists in Florida since 2012 for this weekend event, which highlights some of the finest herbalists in the region. The weekend offers over forty classes on herbal topics from gardening to clinical practice, ranging from beginner to advanced level, and the herbal education alone is enough to make this a unique event not to be missed.
However, I feel it's the inspiration and connection we find in herbal community at this gathering that really leaves its mark in our hearts. We share songs, drums, regional networking, and time in nature getting to know our neighbors. Our event will be held in Lake Wales this year, on the beautiful Tiger Lake, featuring keynote speakers Kathleen Maier and Paul Stamets. We will leave feeling inspired, empowered, nourished in heart and energized into action. We hope you all can join us! You can learn more and register here.
9. Are there other exciting projects on the horizon for you?
Our school has been located in the heart of downtown Orlando for the last decade, and we are now actively in planning stages to expand into a wilderness education and retreat environment in 2016. We feel blessed to awaken people's awareness to the gifts of nature that surrounds us even in urban places, but we have been hearing the call to move our work out of the city so that our students can immerse themselves in the greatest teacher of all, nature herself. This is an ambitious but inspiring expansion for our regional herbal community, and we are excited not just to host classes in a wild setting, but also to have lots of space to cultivate and farm medicinal herbs of our bioregion.
10. Do you have any tips or advice to share with budding herbalists?
The study of healing plants is a lifelong journey. Allow your initial steps be slow and with intention. You don't have to learn 150 Materia Medica in a year to be a good student. In many traditions, students will sit with one plant alone for months or even years before they move on to learn from another. Emphasize quality over quantity in your relationship with herbs; deep and lasting friendships with a few plants will enrich your life and health more than shallow acquaintances with many.
And by all means, remember that the plants are our true teachers.
In this modern age, we are so blessed with such an abundance of educational resources - schools, teachers, books, websites, webinars - and it is easy to lose sight of our primary teachers, the plants themselves. Take a class, enroll in a program, stock your bookshelves, enjoy a webinar, but don't let these take the place of spending time in your garden or out in the wild with these allies. Look to the teachings of herbalists like Pam Montgomery or Stephen Buhner to guide you into a deep hearted relationship with the plants, and open yourselves to receiving their wisdom in all the many ways they communicate. As so eloquently stated by United Plant Savers - If you listen, they will teach you!
11. Is there one plant that you feel especially connected to in this moment?
Teaweed, Broomweed, or Sida - Sida acuta or S. rhombifolia.
It is endemic to my region, but it is being used around the US. It has a soft and delicate leaf and flower, but the stems and roots are tenacious - it is called Broomweed because the stalks were tied into brooms, and it is called a variety of four-letter-words by local ranchers when it gets caught in their combines. Its deep roots require a sincere effort to harvest, but I think it reflects beautifully for us humans how we can be both firmly rooted and still give of ourselves in gentle and humble ways. (You can learn more about this plant's uses in Buhner's Herbal Antibiotics book.)