Healing with herbs

“Yes, Bonnie Bloom is my real name,” said Bonnie Bloom, a local herbalist. Sitting in her small greenhouse, she added, “When emigrating from Eastern Europe, my family was assigned the name “Bloom’ at Ellis Island, which suits me fine.”

An early April visit to her modest Gill home and gardens might lead one to think that not much is growing yet. But Bloom has a keen eye for nascent growth, and spots shoots and tendrils emerging from the soil.

“The first nettles,” she noted. A few yards away, she pointed to a pale nub next to a dried stick. “Here’s this year’s black cohosh, next to last year’s.”

Behind the home Bloom shares with her partner, Dan Sachs, piles of logs are stacked in crisscrossed fashion. “Shiitakes,” explained Bloom, referring to the mushroom known for healing properties and delicious flavor.

“Dan and I did this project together: drilling holes, preparing the substrate, inoculating with spores, plugging, and waxing. On our first try, we got four pounds from 10 logs. Now we have many more.”

Bloom and Sachs — an acupuncturist — operate Abundant Splendor, a healing center in Turners Falls. Much of Bloom’s work, however, is literally homegrown: she processes herbal extracts, tinctures and other products in the bottom floor of their split-level ranch house.

An herbal medicine practitioner for over two decades, Bloom founded Blue Crow Botanicals. Her home workspace is small, but tidy and organized: equipment, filters, tools for precise labeling and record-keeping, and hundreds of bottles and jars.

“I wanted Blue Crow to be a small, local business in order to preserve the personal relationship we have with the plants and the medicines we make, as well as with our clients and community,” Bloom said.

Both before and while serving as Blue Crow’s primary herbalist, Bloom worked with Sojourns Community Health Clinic in Westminster, Vermont for 17 years. Now, working from home and with additional growing space at Just Roots Farm in Greenfield, she devotes her skills and knowledge to helping people during a time when health issues have become increasingly uppermost in many peoples’ minds.

Herbalism might seem like a stretch for a girl who grew up in the Bronx, but Bloom’s summers in the Catskills inspired a deep love of the natural world. “As a teen, I loved reading ‘Stalking the Wild Asparagus’ by Euell Gibbons and then trying to find plants in the wild.”

Her main focus as a young person, though, was visual arts; she attended a New York City high school emphasizing music and art. “I loved being in the city,” Bloom said, “with so many bookstores, coffee shops, and things to see and do.”

Her first jobs were in visual arts and teaching high school English. She married a graphic designer, and the couple had four children.

Years later, following a divorce, Bloom found herself staring at a poster advertising a class about herbs. “The poster was an interesting size and well designed, so I signed up for the class, which I found fascinating.”

When the teacher of the class expanded her herbal extract business, Bloom was hired to manage the gardens and do graphic design work for the company. She stayed with Green Mountain Herbs for about five years.

“I learned so much from that first class, and later from working in the field. When I made my move to Sojourns in 2002, I’d found my calling,” said Bloom. She was able to build up the Sojourns apothecary, given that she’d gained herbal manufacturing skills in her previous work.

Entering the world of healing arts held special meaning for Bloom. “I grew up around a lot of cancer and saw relatives suffer from various illnesses after years of smoking and poor dietary habits. I wanted to alleviate suffering by learning about how people can live healthier lives.”

Bloom credits what seemed like a negative — the dissolution of her marriage — as leading to unforeseen positives. “Basically, my life fell apart and I discovered a whole new world. There have always been opportunities and angels in my life. That’s why I’m so hopeful.”

Helping people achieve greater health is, for Bloom, both an art and a science, and she dedicates herself to maintaining supreme quality in her work.

To ensure freshness and quality, Bloom grows many of the 150 plants she uses in her business. “I purchase some herbs from companies I consider reputable and excellent, and also do wildcrafting throughout our region,” she said, referring to the practice of harvesting in the wild with knowledgeable care.

After growing or obtaining plants picked at peak potency, Bloom and her assistants process them into extracts, oils and other products. “We process plants within 24 hours of harvesting to preserve active chemical constituents,” she said. Blue Crow uses organic cane alcohol in producing small batches and optimal concentrations.

“Working at home is convenient and allows for a simpler life,” said Bloom. Each week has cycles, with some days spent in the lab and others working outside in her rented space at the Just Roots farm, at home, or foraging.

Lab work includes pressing, processing, and manufacturing extracts. “There’s also a massive amount of paperwork and tracking, because the government controls all foods and substances. So I work under a tremendous number of regulations.” Lab time also includes filling orders.

In addition to lab and fieldwork, Bloom also sees clients, “over Zoom during the pandemic, but hopefully in person again soon. I love talking with my clients not only about which herbs might be beneficial, but also about nutrition, breathing and movement. I think it’s important to consider all of the healing tools.”

Bloom practices what she teaches, beginning each day with meditation and some form of movement. “I find that life is calmer and more centered when I take that time for myself.”

For Bloom, self-care is essential, not to be dismissed as extra. “We’re in a time of huge changes,” she noted. “It can feel like everything’s happening at once, and that can leave people feeling overwhelmed. COVID, climate crises, human rights abuses, environmental degradation.” Leaning back in her chair, she let out a long, slow breath, then continued: “The way I see it, hope is healthy and worry is unhealthy. Sadness and anger are understandable in this time, but should be fleeting emotions.”

In this, Bloom believes that “human history is fairly fraught, and we’re in a downturn cycle. But that will change if we work with it.”

Noting that “coronavirus is not a one-off,” Bloom added, “If we don’t stop our destructive habits, there will be other similar crises. Humans live in cycles, not in straight lines.”

Bloom’s awareness of the ways humans have created imbalances in nature goes far beyond the pandemic. “Look what we’ve done all over the world. We’re major players, dumping poisons into the soil, air, and water, clear-cutting, weed whacking. We just don’t know when to stop.”

Herbal habitat is shrinking, according to Bloom. “Thousands of mini-storage units and hotels cover areas that used to be habitat for many herbs, not to mention insects, birds and other forms of life.”

She added, “Don’t get me started on the weed whacker. That one tool, in the hands of people who may be well-meaning but are unaware, takes out a lot of medicinal plants growing on peripheries.”

Other problems result from the removal of trees, said Bloom. “When you take out cover, it invites the proliferation of invasives like multiflora rose, bittersweet, wild mustard and knotweed.” While some invasives can also have useful purposes, she noted, “It’s a question of balance.”

Bloom tries to deal with current crises “humbly, with love and attention. At the very least, I try to treat the earth, others, and myself as well as I can. On a practical level, I try to avoid buying or using plastics, because only 9 percent are recyclable. Actions can make a difference.”

Having four grandchildren inspires Bloom to feel positive about the future. “We have a 3-year-old and three newborn babies in our family.”

She understands why people feel depressed in this era, “but depression is a dead end. Instead, we must be generative. There’s always both darkness and light, and we have to choose.”

Bloom believes the planet is in transition. “This is a fragile time. I’d like to be a player in tilting the balance back toward health. I feel grateful that the work I do can help people feel less anxious and frustrated. A steady diet of the news and media will leave one feeling overwhelmed. But it’s important to remember that there’s always goodness and beauty and that the earth offers us healing.”

Eveline MacDougall is a local author, nature lover, and mom who welcomes feedback at eveline@amandlachorus.org.

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