Soothing Balm from the Desert
By Donna Clayton Lawder
To read the eloquent and passionately worded brochure for Desert Woman Botanicals' product line is to get a feel for the sense of mission Monica Rude has for the healing products she creates out of plants raised in the scorching sun of her high desert herb farm.
Giving a tour of the straw-bale greenhouse she built in 1997, the fields where perennials are leafing out and tender transplants are taking hold, Rude rattles off the botanical names of everything under the hot afternoon sun, their benefits and healing properties, the difficulty or ease with which each one grows. Some need shade from the sun, which she provides with unique, homemade natural structures.
And she waxes philosophical about the "huge and exciting development" of the growing popularity of integrative medicine, which incorporates ancient healing traditions, such as herbalism, into modern Western medical practice.
Rude, master herbalist and founder-owner of Desert Woman Botanicals in Gila, compares the many aspects of herbalism to the petals of the daisy-like Yerba Mansa flower. An exclusively southwestern herb, the plant was used by Native Americans as an all-heal, a remedy for many ailments; modern local herbalists prize it for its anti-viral, -bacterial and -fungal qualities, among other things. A modern herbalist needs to keep many things in mind these days, Rude says, not just the remedies—like the many petals of the Yerba Mansa.
Petal one: "There are the legislative issues, what the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) is up to. An herbalist today needs to keep abreast of what's going on legislatively, to protect his or her practice," she says. The local Herb Guild helps in this regard, informing both the public and the pros.
Another "petal" is that of ethical wildcrafting, the responsible harvesting of wild plants for use in herbal concoctions—tinctures to be taken internally, ointments, salves and creams to be applied to the skin, dried herbs to be steeped as teas or pulverized and placed in capsules for consumption.
Teaching is another petal on Rude's theoretical flower. Far from the "Take two and call me in the morning" approach of yesteryear's family doctor, treatment with herbs is more effective, Rude says, "when the client is aware of the relationship between health and diet and lifestyle choices, the expected results of the herbal medicines in the body, and participates in treatment in an educated and thoughtful manner."
Rude also helps those interested in growing their own herbs by teaching classes through series offered by the Silver City Herb Guild. Her most recent topic was "Springtime in the Desert," in which participants learned backyard gardening techniques for the special growing conditions in the high desert.
"I was very focused," she says with a laugh. "I knew I wanted to be a nurse since I was in the fifth grade. I never went through that crisis about 'direction' that many young people face. I always knew."
A particular passion for her was continuing education for nurses. Rude spearheaded efforts to increase nursing professionalism, serving as director of education for several nursing organizations where she coordinated educational programs for nurses.
She's been in Gila for 16 years now, working her herb farm and developing her line of natural products. She focused at first on producing bulk herbs, but soon realized that "huge acreage was required to produce enough to compete in the bulk herb market." While still producing bulk herbs for Bear Creek Herbs locally, she has now shifted her focus to her natural-products line, incorporating her herbs into tinctures and tea blends, salves and creams.
If it seems a leap from the allopathic world of hardcore nursing to harvesting plants for natural teas and soothing balms, Rude connects the dots. "I quit nursing and got into organic gardening in a big way," she says. She moved westward and worked for five years for the Santa Fe-based Seeds of Change, a prime mover in the organic and heirloom seed business. There she learned all aspects of growing, from germinating seeds, nursing plants through the growing season, to the harvesting of seeds. She also studied with Michael Moore, the renowned southwest herbal guru. From there it was a logical step to start her own business, involving all aspects of "messing with herbs."
In addition to the bulk herbs she sells to Bear Creek Herbs, Rude sells products through her website (www.desertwoman.net), as well as through Messiah's Health Foods, the Silver City Food Coop, and the weekly Farmers' Market in Silver City. In all, she sells her natural products through 18 retail outlets, including Tucson, Flagstaff and Tempe in Arizona, Austin, Texas, and a spa in Salt Lake City. A health food store in Cape Cod even carries her Fire Cider.
"I got testimonials that touched my heart," she says. People told her that just a dose or two staved off the nasty colds and flus others all around them were suffering. The acclaim was deafening, and she struggled to keep up with the demand. Fire Cider continues to be a best seller for her.
Fab Foot Cream was another one that hit it out of the park. "People wrote me these amazing letters, telling me how a single application changed the condition of their dry, cracked feet. It was just so rewarding," she says.
Since then, there have been other herbal stars, like the newly developed Lemon Supreme line, made with organic Meyer lemon peel and other soothing ingredients. Another new product is the Lavender Light Lotion, a quickly absorbed moisturizer with a delightful aromatherapeutic punch.
Rude has developed her line of products according to her customers' needs. "My remedies have all been field tested," she explains. "I come up with a new product in response to a customer's needs and have then expanded production of that item."
"Right now, outside work is really big," she says. Preparing soil, seeding and then tending to the "starts," getting ready to transplant, are the orders of the day in spring. A small, slight woman, Rude says she relies on her apprentices, students of herbalism who come to work with her to various degrees and through individual arrangements, to accomplish the sheer volume of physical work the farm requires.
"I simply couldn't do it without my apprentices," she confesses.
The bulk of summer is filled, as any gardener knows, with the constant labor of tending plants, making sure they are watered, the soil weeded.
Later in the season, the workday will shift to the lab, where Rude brews up her concoctions in a space reminiscent of a natural foods kitchen, with stainless steel bowls, a big old-fashioned stove and canning jars lining the window shelves.
It is a peaceful workspace, to be sure. On the same wall where a gourd goddess presides over an assortment of bottles and bins, Rude points out her oil press, a strangely friendly looking, almost robotic device. As Rude screws in the handle and gives a demonstration, the instrument clicks and clanks, and it's easy to imagine the flow of rich infused oils dribbling out the metal spout in the front.
Blending organic plants into healing products, incorporating her modern nurse's mind into an ancient tradition of healing, have brought Rude a satisfying new direction for her life's work, and a new sense of groundedness.
"The garden is my force, my inspiration," she says of not only what she does, but how she lives these days. "It's not just where I get my herbs, but my centering."
Contact Monica Rude, Desert Woman Botanicals, at PO Box 263, Gila, NM 88038, 535-2860, www.desertwoman.net.