I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived at Sage Mountain, herbal retreat and home of famous herbalist Rosemary Gladstar.
I had traveled eight hours by myself from southern Pennsylvania to the mountains of Northern Vermont, following an inner voice that simply said I needed to go. Before I left, my husband asked me if I knew how to set up our tent as I was to camp out all week at Sage Mountain. I looked at him as if he’d lost his mind and told him of course I knew how to set up the tent, slightly offended.
I had signed up for Rosemary’s Apprentice program, aka herbal boot camp, in the spring and could hardly believe I was finally here, at the home of this phenomenal herbalist and healer who speaks to the plants. The week was to consist of herbal classes, field trips, 3 delicious vegetarian meals cooked for us each day, a Jacuzzi, available at any time of the day or night, and a cedar sauna that was to be fired up one night. Not to mention full access to Rosemary’s comprehensive, personal library of books and videos in our spare time. Of course, who am I kidding, there really wasn’t any spare time!
Once at the Mountain, I picked a sloped (yes, I said sloped) spot in the meadow on which to set up my tent. I hadn’t thought about the fact that the sloped ground would make me feel like I was rolling off of my air mattress every night. As I attempted to set up my tent, I somehow ended up with a crooked shaped structure and a lot of extra poles. Luckily a woman camping next to me, who already had two chairs, a small coffee table, and a clothesline right outside of her tent, offered to help. “Tell your husband it went up just fine,” my new friend said with a wink. And so began my friendship with an amazing group of women I was to meet on the mountain.
Rosemary didn’t waste any time getting started. The week began with the United Plant Saver’s slide show of Endangered Plants. From the very beginning her passion for the green and her relationships with the plants was clear. She often spoke of talking with the plants and referred to “meeting them”, as though they were people. Over the course of the week I began to understand her gentle teachings and believe I may have even heard some whispers from the plants myself!
Drinking tea is one of Rosemary’s favorite ways to administer herbs. Her advice for preparing teas is to make a whole quart canning jar at a time. She prefers this method for several reasons: it is more practical than making individual cups, it can be carried around all day, using a lid to seal in the essential oils of the tea, and a quart canning jar is also the appropriate dose of tea for one day if you are using it medicinally. Rosemary served us a special Kava chai with coconut milk that she had begun brewing the day before. It was slightly sweet, smelling of cinnamon and cloves. The warm drink went straight to my belly, filling me up with joy. I think it may have been the most delicious, magical drink I have ever had.
We talked about making Lunar and Solar teas. Each member of the class was given the assignment to take some time to go and listen to the plants, pick one that called to them, and then add it to a gorgeous crystal bowl. The rainbow of flowers floating in the crystal bowl was like an exquisite piece of artwork. We let the mixture infuse in the Vermont sun all day and then enjoyed this magical solar tea.
Rosemary taught us how the act of making tea is an art form; the intention behind the particular batch of tea, the heating of the water, the mixing of the actual blend. Every tea that we sampled was “so beautiful” and “so delicious” to her. It was amazing to watch Rosemary, who after all these years of working with herbs, can still be awed by the beauty and taste of a simple cup of fresh chamomile tea. I could write a whole article just on the tea making class, but alas, there were 6 more days of this herb heaven!
Our oils and salves class was a blast. I actually got to work in Rosemary’s personal kitchen. (The beeswax we used came from Tasha Tudor. For those of you who might know who she is, I’m sure you can appreciate that!). My group made a lovely cream that we called 8th Wonder Muscle Rub with warming herbs such as Ginger and Birch Bark, among other things.
Rosemary taught us how to make tinctures using the simpler’s way and then brought in a guest speaker to demonstrate how to make tinctures using the percolation method. The percolation method is a great way to make a tincture when you need it quickly and don’t have several weeks to wait for it to be ready. That being said, looking at all of the tubes, beakers, and funnels used in the process, I felt like I was back in Chemistry class in high school. I decided I’ll just stick to the old-fashioned way of dumping it all in a jar and letting it sit.
Needless to say, cordials class was a lively night! A beautiful table full of mysterious bottles of all shapes, sizes, and colors, sparkling like jewels, was set up on display and we had the opportunity to sample each one. We also got tons of delicious recipes to take home such as Orange Cream Liqueur, Chocolate Cherry Liquor, Peach Cordial, and Damiana Chocolate Love Liquor. An interesting class to have right after our lesson on herbs for the liver!
Flower Essences were discussed and I developed a new appreciation for these tiny treasures. I got to experiment with tons of flower essence kits. I highly recommend two absolutely lovely kits. The first is Rose Chakra Flower Essences by Luna Fina. This is a charming kit of 7 rose flower essences one for each Chakra, packaged in a beautiful hand illustrated gift box. The other kit I loved was the At Risk Flower Essences, which are all ethically handcrafted by Kate Gilday from Woodland Essences. This kit includes rare flower essences such as Lady’s Slipper, Trillium, and Ginseng.
In our Natural Cosmetics Class we learned to make all sorts of treats for the body such as bath salts, body powder, spritzers and floral waters, scrubs, salt glows, and massage oils. We even got to watch Rosemary make a batch of her famous face cream. All of these delights were then saved for a lovely afternoon in the garden, but more about that later!
For all of our classes we had access to Rosemary’s apothecary. Where do I begin? What a magical room! Tucked away in a corner of the basement, a little door sat with a small sign hanging from it, simply labeled “apothecary”. The door opened into a narrow, dimly lit room, lined on each side with shelves full of jars and nests of baskets sitting here and there. It was so amazing, looking at all of the jars of mysterious herbs lined up along the shelves, each carefully labeled and placed in alphabetical order. There was every herb imaginable, from agrimony to yarrow, in every form and type, from dried or powdered, to roots, seeds, leaves or flowers. Truly an herbalist’s dream.
The night before we were scheduled to go on our field trip, Rosemary made some of her famous zoom balls for us. Zoom balls are so amazing! Rosemary developed the formula many years ago. The recipe includes nut butter, honey, and powdered herbs such as ginseng, guarana, kola, astragalus, and fo-ti. Chocolate chips, nuts, and dried berries can also be added. The ingredients are stirred into a cookie dough-like consistency. The mixture is then shaped into little bite-sized balls which are rolled in coconut, coco powder, or chopped nuts. They look like little chocolate candies. You can eat one or two instead of drinking coffee when you need extra energy. They are so delicious that it is hard to believe they are not dessert and it is hard to stop at just one or two! The next morning we had scrumptious zoom balls to get us herbally charged for a day of traveling.
I was lucky enough to get to ride in Rosemary’s car the next day on the way to our field trip and got a chance to enjoy a lovely drive through the Vermont country side with her. It was so much fun being able to ride with Rosemary as she pointed out landmarks, telling stories, and identifying wild plants as we drove. Our first stop was a place I had been wanting to visit for years, Perennial Pleasures Nursery and Tea Room. We got a tour of their gardens, had a lovely English tea in the gardens, and then on to their gift shop, full of unique one of a kind gifts, antiques, scarves, jewelry, and old hats. I bought a mystery peony, price reduced, because as the name implies, the color is a mystery. Next year when she blooms and reveals her colors, my peony will remind me of my trip.
On our way home we stopped at a sacred ceremonial site called Owl’s Head. We arrived just as the sun was beginning to set over the mountains. Owl’s Head is a beautiful vista overlooking the mountains, where Native Americans used to hold ancient ceremonies. Many centuries ago, four glaciers came together in this spot. They created the shape of a cross on the rocks, representing the earth energy of the north, south, east, and west. We sang and beat drums while the sun set over Owl’s head.
Friday we got to reap the benefits of our natural cosmetics class. We sat in Rosemary’s beautiful gardens and gave each other massages, herbal footbaths, facials with herbal steams and clay masks using the products we had made earlier in the week. The pampering felt luxurious after camping out all week. (Although in truth, I got tired of feeling like I was rolling off of my mattress and moved to sleeping on the floor of the yurt which also doubled as our classroom.) To complete the pampering effect, Penny, one of the teaching assistants, came around offering us cordials and chocolates while classical music played in background. That evening we walked up on the mountain to participate in a true Native American Sweat Lodge. There is nothing like coming out of a steaming hot sweat lodge and jumping into an ice cold tub of spring water under the moonlight. What a refreshing and purifying day!
We also had fabulous classes on creating an herbal first aid kit and travel kit, medicinal formulation, and herbs for the nervous system. We made herbal dream pillows, and went on wild plant identification walks. Even with ten to twelve hour days I’m not sure how Rosemary found time to fit everything in. I felt like I was on the mountain for at least a month. The sky was so clear and the stars brighter. I saw the Milky Way for the first time. I felt as if I had entered into another world. Although I was practically speechless the entire week, trying to soak everything in, I still managed to bond with the most incredible tribe of women I have ever met. Being a part of Rosemary Gladstar’s apprentice program is such an amazing gift. I feel truly blessed!
P.S. Mental note for next year: set up the tent on FLAT ground. Yes, the best part is I get to go back next year for another week. Look forward to part two of Rosemary’s “herb heaven” next year.
Betsy May is a Certified Holistic Health Practitioner and Yoga Instructor with a love of all things herbal. She can be reached at betsy.may @ hotmail . com.