Into the Woods

Friday, September 09, 2016

Over the past few years, I've been bumping into Chelsea of Black Iris Botanicals at local markets around town. Several of the products from her line have become staples on my bedside table. Because I loved the products so much, I was curious about her process of foraging and use of other local ingredients. We first got together for a little foraging adventure on a hot July morning. A few weeks later, we met up at Archetype Coffee where she shares a commercial kitchen and handles production for Black Iris Botanicals. At each visit I not only learned more about her process but also the evolution of her business, who helped inspire her love of plants, and the plan for a big move. 

Can you share a little about the start of the business and any challenges you faced? Black Iris Botanicals started as a partnership with my elementary school friend, Mallory Finch. Mallory and I reconnected in Omaha about five years ago after many years independently studying and exploring plants and wellness. I think we were surprised to see where our lives after high school had taken each of us and we immediately started sharing information and common interests. We both had experience with cultivated plants and backyard/front yard gardens, but we were also anxious to continue studying wild plant medicine. Growing up, Mallory and I enjoyed playing with makeup. I remember many sleepovers exploring different pigments, orange lipstick, and concealers we found in her mom's bathroom. We both graduated from using chemicals on our skin and found ‘natural’ products at places like Whole Foods and on the internet, and had a common desire for sustainable, simple ingredients.

Together, we combined our resources (Mallory’s smartphone and many used plant identification books), and hit the trails. It’s kind of a blur now, but somehow we starting making products together including the beloved Rose Toner, Kiss Stick, and Breast Massage Oil (now called Evergreen Oil). We donated our first batches of items in two CSA programs (Darlin' Reds & Big Muddy Urban Farm). We didn’t create a business plan at the beginning and it was mostly hobby and fun. Fast forward a few years, Black Iris became a local product line in many retail stores, featured in a few blogs and magazines and a hit at the Handmade Omaha Holiday Bazaar. Last year, Mallory found out she was pregnant and decided to step away from the business to focus on her family. It felt strange to approach the 2015 holiday season without her by my side. For sake of time and quality, I decided to cut out a bunch of items from the line that felt specific to Mallory’s creative touch including the solid perfume blends, certain lip pigments, and a few liquid herbal extracts. It took a while to find my own groove, but I feel more confident this year and past market season to express myself in the business and be okay being on my own. The workload has practically doubled without her, but I have found support from Mallory and other friends along the way.

Who inspired your interest in plants? My grandfather always kept a garden. He mostly grew tomatoes, but he appreciated the plants growing around his yard. He never called plants "weeds," but he wanted to name the wild ones in his yard even though he generally removed them. I remember collecting crab apples for jelly in his backyard as well as mulberries. We spent time pruning the many rose bushes around his property and laying down newspaper for mulch. I don’t know that my grandfather inspired my love of plants, but he helped me appreciate spending time outside and caring for them as living things. When I was a kid, I went to a summer camp in Wisconsin with a vegetable garden. I loved to hang out there and sneak tomatoes when I had the chance. At home, I remember drinking herbal teas like chamomile, but it was during my freshman year of college where my best friend introduced me to more medicinal plants than chamomile and mint. I remember she shared an herbal blend to help me sleep better and have vivid dreams. We explored mugwort and catnip. I loved dreaming, so I felt receptive to these ideas. We also harvested wild grapes and sometimes corn silk from nearby fields which we dried and smoked for fun. It felt like a safer alternative to tobacco which most college students were smoking at the time. Exploring plants and herbs around the campus, forest, and farm nearby became a great way to be outside, take a break from studying, and often eat! From there, my knowledge and exposure to plants just seemed to grow. I worked summers in Colorado where I visited a local apothecary in Boulder, collected used books, and tried to incorporate plants where I could into my life.

Talk a little about your process in general, especially foraging. What is foraged locally? How time consuming is this process? What other local businesses do you partner with for ingredients?  There is always something to do in this business because I choose to do a lot myself. Between growing, foraging, processing herbs, ordering bottles, or updating the Instagram account, I have an ongoing to do list. Foraging takes much less time than it used to, because Mallory and I discovered a few regular places to visit. For example, last week I went to a specific spot to pick elderberries, because I knew they would be ripe and ready for the picking! I left with a full load. It’s rare that I go somewhere brand new to forage, unless it’s completely for fun. As you discovered, Kathleen, when I go blindly into a space, I often come out empty handed. I have a few rules for harvesting from the wild, because I don’t want to devastate an area. I choose to harvest abundant plants that ‘grow like weeds’ including dandelion, red clover blossoms, mullein, violet leaves, stinging nettle, etc. verses plants that are more scarce or threatened species like Echinacea or compass plant. After I harvest the plants in the wild, I usually dry them first unless they’re going into a fresh infusion like the liquid extracts. After they’re dried, I contain them in glass jars for a later date. Some immediately go into oils sourced organic (Extra Virgin Olive Oil) and local sunflower oil from Ord, Nebraska. Other items I purchase locally include beeswax from Grateful Gardens in Missouri Valley, Iowa and pork fat from TD Niche in Elk Creek, Nebraska. I purchase some flowers and herbs from local growers, because I can’t always grow or find what I need to keep up with the demand for products. In my garden I grow calendula, roses, comfrey, lemon balm, mint, elderberry and yarrow to name a few. I grow a handful of other herbs and flowers that make their way into the elixirs and smoking blends including monarda, holy basil, feverfew, sage, coriander, thyme, hops, red raspberry leaf, and more! My yard is pretty wild and spectacular. I know it’s unrealistic from a business perspective to do so much on my own, but I really love each step of the process. Being part of each step is really important to me, because I believe I am adding to each product with my own personal touch. I think about the people who will use my product while I make the product, set intentions for healing and happiness, and have certainly been accused of practicing green magic, but I’m not ashamed.

What are a couple of your most popular products? Can I mention three? The Rose {Facial Toner} is the hottest item during the summer months. It’s a cooling face mist that’s perfect for men and women. Men seem to use it as an aftershave because it’s astringent, but I know a few bearded folks who use it on their skin as an after-sun spritz. Most women use is for its cooling and clarifying effects on the skin, too. There is aloe vera gel in the product, so it’s ideal for sun-kissed skin. The product is safe for kids and ideal for aging skin; full of vitamin C. I don’t believe I have a favorite flower, but my middle name is Rose, so I’m a little biased and not surprised the rose-infused products are so popular. Working Hands {healing salve}comes pretty close to the Rose Toner. It’s scented with lavender essential oil and loaded with emollient calendula flowers, so it’s one of the best and most popular items for men and women. LUST {Herbal Smoking Blend}, which also contains rose petals, is my newest item and the best seller this summer at the weekly market, because it’s different and screams FUN! People love to try something new, and for smokers, it’s an okay alternative to tobacco. The smoking blend reminds me of my freshman year at college when I was curious, starry-eyed, and bold. While I certainly want to encourage healthy habits, I like indulging in something a little naughty or out of character in order to find balance and feel less serious.

Are there some new product ideas that you would like to experiment with? Incidentally, I made my first rose infused oil this summer for a workshop. When you came into the kitchen I had some leftover, so I made it into a balm and I love it! I want to explore using more rose petals for a deeper fragrance. I am trying to eliminate all essential oils from the Black Iris Botanicals product line, but I know people still want a scent sometimes, so a rose or other flower balm might be in my future. I want to craft the subtle herbal scents in my items. My goal by 2017 is to be free of essential oils, which should be easy except it’ll be a change for those customers who love the Working Hands {healing salve}. Black Iris Botanicals has a mission to use simple ingredients, be locally sourced, and sustainably harvested. In short, the more I learn about production of essential oils, I have decided they don’t fit the mission any longer. Aside from products, I am hoping to finish a plant identification and wildcrafting guide this summer! This has been a work in progress for about a year and I couldn't be more excited to share some basic information to empower others to do what I do.

Can you talk about your future plans with school and continuing to run the business? I am finally pursuing a more formal education around plant medicine and ethnobotany. Starting at the end of September I will be attending Bastyr University for the next two years where I’ll be studying Herbal Science. I will continue to create some products, but will not be around for markets and holiday sales this year. Everyone can still purchase items at local retailers in Omaha as well as on my website. While I’m in school, I will learn how to refine my medicine making skills and I hope to continue sharing with the Omaha community. At this time, I plan to return to Omaha in the summer of 2018. I want to be able to offer more workshops and classes when I return and be a resource to Omaha. There are other herbalists in the area, so I hope to coordinate with them when I get back and see where I can fit to support a healthy community. As I continue evolving the Black Iris Botanicals' brand to find my own voice without Mallory, I plan to re-brand the packaging to include some more illustrations and color. Follow the updates on my Instagram account.



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