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Herbalist and author Rosemary Gladstar is well-known as the “godmother of modern herbalism.” She founded the oldest herbal medicine school in the US, the California School of Herbal Studies, and has written several bestselling books on herbalism. But even those who are familiar with her work may not know that Gladstar co-founded Traditional Medicinals, a company that produces medicinal herbal teas sold in stores across the country.
In the 1960s, Gladstar had a little shop in Sebastopol, CA, called Rosemary’s Garden. Here, she sold herbs and herbal remedies, many of which were based on Eastern European formulas passed down from her grandmother. (The shop still exists today, under new management.)
Today, most states have programs for teaching herbal and Chinese medicine, but when Gladstar opened her store, few people knew about the benefits of medicinal plants, says Josef Brinckmann, former Traditional Medicinals vice president of sustainability. He is currently a Research Fellow at the company.
“Now you can buy herbal medicine products in any grocery or drug store, but in the mid-seventies, you could only buy them in food co-ops and tiny health food shops,” he says.
As word spread about Rosemary’s Garden, hundreds of people, including Brinckmann himself, came there to purchase Gladstar’s herbal teas. Then, one day, community activist and environmentalist Drake Sadler walked in, and he and Gladstar discovered they shared a vision for spreading the word about the healing power of food and herbs.
“Drake observed that there was interest and a need for that type of home herbal remedy,” says Brinckmann.
Gladstar and Sadler’s friendship eventually evolved into a partnership, out of which Traditional Medicinals was formed in 1974. Under Sadler’s leadership in particular, the company brought medicinal herbal teas to a nationwide market using a deep-green business model. Committed to educating the public on the benefits of herbal medicine, it aimed to function as the country’s “community herbalist.”
Today, Traditional Medicinals offers over 50 herbal teas that it categorizes into nine “wellness collections,” including teas containing herbs known to help the body detox, aid digestion, or promote relaxation. Other categories include green teas, herbal teas, seasonal, and teas for children and women.
While Gladstar is no longer active in the company, Traditional Medicinals still sells some of her original herbal tea formulas with her blessing, including Throat Coat®, a tea made with slippery elm, licorice, and marshmallow root to support throat health, and Mother’s Milk®, a tea for breastfeeding mothers made with fennel, coriander, fenugreek, and anise to promote healthy lactation. Sadler remains on as the board chair and “chief visionary officer.”
As the company forged a national market for herbal medicine, it also pioneered a deep-green business model.
“We’ve always been proponents of organic,” says Brinckmann. The company initially purchased its herbs from wildcrafted and sustainably cultivated suppliers, and when organic certification became available, Traditional Medicinals “jumped” at the opportunity to obtain certified organic herbs. Today, 98.9% of the herbs the company buys are certified organic.
More than a third of the teas are also Fair Trade Certified™, meaning workers growing ingredients abroad earn a living wage and work under healthy and fair conditions.
In addition, the company continues to work toward making its packaging as sustainable as possible. “I remember our first meetings with packaging companies where we said, ‘We want 100 percent recycled board.’ I think they thought we had landed from another planet,” says Brinckmann.
The company persevered, and today, the boxes are 100 percent recycled cardboard, and the tea bags are made from abacá (Manila hemp), wood pulp, cotton, and paper—no plastic.
Traditional Medicinals uses many wild-collected herbs in its teas. According to Brinckmann, there are about 3,000 herbs in international commerce, and approximately two-thirds of all plant species in use are collected in the wild. Since wild herbs that are over-harvested can become endangered, Traditional Medicinals goes the extra mile to protect native plant species and biodiversity. Consequently, 16.4% of its products contain FairWild certified ingredients. FairWild ensures that wild-collected plants are harvested in an ecologically sound manner. In addition, nearly 100% of Traditional Medicinal’s wild-collected herbs are certified organic in compliance with the USDA wild-crop harvesting practice standard, which ensures that the plants are harvested “in a manner that maintains or improves the natural resources of the area.”
While Traditional Medicinals has been a leader in sustainable business practices, Brinkmann says the company is constantly trying to improve. In 2012, company managers had all Traditional Medicinals teas verified as non-GMO (genetically modified organisms) by the NonGMO Project.
If you have health issues, Brinckmann recommends first consulting a doctor or a naturopath before consuming a new-to-you herb. But if you have experience with a particular herb, he recommends trying it in a Traditional Medicinals tea.
With its teas available in grocery stores, natural food stores, and drug stores across the country, Traditional Medicinals has expanded far beyond Gladstar’s local herb shop, but Brinckmann says it’s still true to its roots and original mission: “My view today, 41 years later, is that this company continues to be function as the community herbalist, not just in one county, but in the whole country, by providing effective formulations people can use to take care of simple things at home.”
FDA disclaimer: Health-related statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Traditional Medicinals products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.