Article by Edward Guthmann on Ma Prem Savita and her work with and knowledge of medicinal plants. Published in SF Chronicle on May 14, 2012
Before she became an herbalist, Catherine Abby Rich worked as a New York City schoolteacher and a birth-control counselor. She grew up in Queens, N.Y., and spent five years in Germany and 4 1/2 years in India studying herbal medicine and meditation. Rich, 67, lives in an 1873 Victorian in Larkspur. Her website is catherineabbyrich.com
When I was 12 or 13, I went to summer camp. The first time that I slept on the earth, I had my first spiritual experience. Profound. I remember gathering the pine needles and making a pillow that I slept on for years.
When I was 28, I went to visit a best friend who had moved to Germany and settled on a farm. She was pregnant, and the midwife was also an herbalist.
The midwife showed us the plants that would make the delivery easier. The milkman’s wife showed us how to make Fruhlings Suppe, springtime soup with stinging nettles and fresh herbs. We were just delirious: two Jewish New Yorkers in Bavaria, learning what was all around us.
Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would be a career of more than 40 years.
I was just passing through Marin in 1985, when someone took me to this place called Tennessee Valley. I walked through it and saw so many medicinal plants I had known from Europe. I thought, “My friends are here.” My herb friends.
My house sits on a third of an acre, and I’ve planted most of it with medicinal herbs. Aloe, mugwort, valerian. Comfrey, which is famous for mending broken bones and a superior skin healer. Calendula is an antifungal, antibacterial. Lemon verbena seems to be a mood elevator. Just smell it – absolutely uplifting!
I use a basic folk-medicine extraction technique. I grow or wild-gather or buy the best, most alive specimens. Dried plants are easier to work with, but fresh can be used. I put water in a simple fry pan. A soup pot sits in the water and holds the organic oil of choice with the herbs. The herbs give up their power slowly over three to five hours at the lowest temperature. Strain through clean cotton cloth. Store in a dark glass.
I used this method for my Pain Release Oil, Wild Beauty Deep Moisture Cream, No Scar Cream. I make a cough syrup, female hormone balance cream, sleep tincture in brandy. I sell my products by mail and also at the Gathering Thyme herb shop in San Anselmo and Scarlet Sage in San Francisco.
You have to be creative with your skills. I teach herbal studies to all ages. I do herb walks: take people out to meet the medicinal herbs of their area. Medicine-making classes. I made a plan with an 11-year-old girl for an herbal birthday party.
About 10 years ago, I became interested in seaweeds, and almost every year I take people camping to the north Sonoma coast to gather them. Seaweed Safari. I teach them how to use seaweed medicinally and in their diet. Seaweed pulls out toxins of every kind from our bodies.
I always find that I’m simpatico with the people who come for herb studies. But with children, it’s delightful! When you’re out with kids, they’re not only noticing the botanical world but every ant, bug and little snake that I don’t have my eye on.
I always have everyone name their medicines when they’re done. One kid called his Phoenix Tears. He said in “Harry Potter” there’s a phoenix and when it cries, its tears flow onto the wound and heal it. I love that.