All About the Plants: Interview with Herbalist Sheelagh Mackenzie
Sheelagh Mackenzie knows plants. She knows the wild plants of the Denman forests and the Vancouver Island mountains. She knows herbs and flowers, leaves and roots. She knows how to forage for food, how to harvest sustainably, and how to brew potions, lotions and salves. She also has an eye for beauty and a love of adornment.
She brings all this to her stall at the Denman Island Farmers Market. Although Sheelagh is a new face at the market, she has decades of experience as a herbalist.
Delving into plant medicine
Sheelagh grew up in tiny Mill Bay on Vancouver Island, spending her days in the forest, collecting wild berries and making friends with the trees. Her interest in plants, and in the way humans can use them beneficially, bloomed while she was attending university.
“I studied environmental ecology as well as anthropology, and this included looking at people’s use of traditional remedies. I was so intrigued.”
After graduating with a degree in Environmental Studies, she delved into the world of plant medicine.
At the time, the field was in its infancy in the North American mainstream. Studying herbalism meant self-curating a program based on courses and workshops from a wide variety of teachers, and finding and reading books. “There was no Google back then,” says Sheelagh. “I assembled a huge library.”
When Sheelagh moved to Denman Island in 1994, local women asked her to share her knowledge.
“It was the women of Denman who started me teaching classes. We went out and spent tons of time in the wilds together, collecting remedies and making medicines. It was such a beautiful experience.”
Sheelagh became a widely respected teacher. Her courses and retreats drew women from all over North America, and she had a large clientele for her herbal remedies.
In 2004, for a mix of personal and professional reasons, Sheelagh moved into other lines of work, keeping herbalism as a hobby. Now that Sheelagh has reached retirement age, she has returned to her roots and her passion.
“I’m so excited that I can now spend my time communing with the plants again and bringing plant medicine to the people,” says Sheelagh. It’s also exciting, she says, to see how much more knowledge and interest there is in herbalism and wild foods. “When I started doing this, people didn’t know anything. Now they are way more educated.”
Arnica ‘stellar remedy’
One of Sheelagh’s most enduringly popular products is her Arnica Salve.
“Every year my most wonderful trip is going to the mountains. There are lots of herbs there but the one I feel is so, so special to bring back down is the arnica. It’s a stellar remedy.”
She recommends the salve for bruises, strains, sprains and for the pain and inflammation of arthritis.
Wild foods celebrate local flavours
Sheelagh also has a wild foods product line, celebrating the flavours of the natural world around us. Her spruce tip jelly captures the flavour of the forest, and her ginger, lemon, and hawthorn jelly mingles local with global.
Jewelry, altar items, and decorations
Sheelagh’s love of plants also expresses itself visually. She’s created a collection of adornments made from dried seeds and nuts, which she calls sacred seeds. Enhanced with carvings, beads and fabric, these tiny tactile treasures are earthy and colourful. They can be used as jewelry, altar items, and decorations. Look for these alongside her healing and edible plant products at the farmers market.
“The sacred seeds, the herbal medicine, the wild foods—everything is about the plants,” says Sheelagh. “It’s about bringing more plant energy into our lives, and celebrating our relationship with the plant world.”
The Denman Farmers Market is a great way to invite others deeper into that relationship, says Sheelagh.
“I’ve fallen in love with the market. The element of gathering is so powerful and wonderful.”
Visit Sheelagh and other vendors at the Denman Island Farmers Market, Saturdays, 9:30 – 12:30, at the Old School field. COVID precautions are in place.
Written by Laura Busheikin
Published in The Islands Grapevine, May 20, 2021