The Sonoran Desert
Ash Ritter is an American herbalist based in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, who graciously allowed me to interview her about her work. This post is part of a series focusing on sustainable sourcing in the beauty industry. To read more, check out these articles on a sustainable lavender farm in upstate Maryland and an up-and-coming luxury beauty brand based in Alabama. 
1. Tell us about yourself – how do you describe what you do?
Greetings! I’m Ash Ritter, an herbalist by practice, ethnobotanist by study, and botanical cook by trade! My work in the world and joy in the world are one in the same, and completely revolve around my curiosity about the relationship between plants, fungi, and people. Everything I do, whether teaching, private wellness consulting, or plant-based treat making, is founded upon a desire to get folks excited about & empowered by their relationship with and as nature.

 

Ash Ritter, an herbalist, at work in the Southwest desert
Ash in her gorgeous natural environment.

 

2. What was your journey like to discover your connection to plants and working with your natural environment? 
As a little girl, I remember eating sour grass (oxalis) out of my front yard, and even feeding it to my sisters. No one ever taught me this! This deep curiosity has stayed with me since youth. Honestly, I could write a book about my journey into a conscious study with plants… In a nutshell, as a teenager, I became very interested in understanding my place in the world, and how different cultures approached creation mythologies, rights of passage, and initiation- which almost always involved the ritual use of plants!

 

Over time, I became more and more interested, not just in the historical and esoteric applications of plants, but the practical day-to-day… How to maintain and improve my own health, and support the people around me to find freedom to do the same… but also how to maintain continuity in reverent relationships between people and plants in an increasingly mechanized and synthetic world. That’s when I realized my Grandma had been doing this all along. She infused so much love into her cooking, and only made things with (mostly) unprocessed foods from scratch!! This is the spirit of herbalism that runs through me. My training has been almost completely via one-on-one mentorships. I can’t speak highly enough of this type of education!

 

Ash Ritter, an herbalist, at work in the Southwest desert
Ash in her native habitat with some of her incredible plants!
3. Can you tell us about the plants that you work with? What are some of your favorites? 
I love working with so many different plants, but gravitate towards those I can grow myself, or are abundant in the bioregion where I live. From that baseline, I will often barter with friends who do the same! That makes for a fun, bountiful, and sustainable route for variety.

 

Choosing my favorite plant is like choosing a favorite child! Haha… I do tend to have rotating favorites each season. Of course, I absolutely love cacti. My home is surrounded by Nopal cactus (a.k.a. Prickly Pear/Opuntia). The “leaf” of the cactus makes for yummy, and highly medicinal food… Not to mention, the gorgeous magenta fruits that come out late summer. You can eat the fruits (also known as tunas here in Tucson) raw, dehydrate them and add to tea, macerate them to make tinctures or cordials, or my favorite- press the fresh fruit and freeze into ice cubes for refreshing hot pink drinks!! I have a whole 2 hour class in my archives where you can listen to me ramble about the medicine of this cactus, but it’s probably most famously a great blood sugar balancer. I also use the inner gel of the pads as hair conditioner, for wound care, etc, etc!
4. I love that you find interesting ways of sharing plant ingredients, like the candy of the month club! What inspires you to discover and share new ways of interacting with plants?
I used to think that effective medicine had to be rough, raw, bitter, and strange tasting. As a young herbalist, I noticed that people often wouldn’t quite follow along with their regimens when the practice wasn’t fun. I was working as a cook part time, and started experimenting with adding medicinal herbs into the daily soups… people loved it! That’s when I realized, when something tastes yummy, people will come back for more!! I ended up becoming a personal chef for several years, incorporating custom herbal formulas into people’s meals. Herbal Candy of the Month Club is an extension of that realization… and even further – a way to remind ourselves that healing doesn’t always have to be harsh. Medicine can be sweet, fun, and delicious. Curiosity is truly my spice of life, and I am constantly exploring how to weave in seasonal herbs and fruits with nostalgic flavors, and high-quality ingredients.

 

The Sonoran Desert
A sunset over the Sonoran Desert.
5. You have such a wealth of knowledge about the American southwest – what do you find particularly special about this region? What sets it apart from other places you’ve been?

The southwest is extraordinary, and quite diverse. The land itself is a whirlwind of living history, and the movement of the people throughout the area is directly tithed with the movement and diversity of medicinal and edible plants.

Unlike the urban textures of a big, fast paced city, Southern Arizona – where I’m currently based – is vast, expansive, and very raw and real. Our summertime temps can reach almost 120F, and conjure a sort of grit and resilience in both plant and people alike that leaves no room for fluff… At the same time, the Sonoran Desert is – to many people’s surprise- subtropical! When the rains come, the terrain blossoms into joyous, bird-singing, nectarous opulence.
6. What surprised you the most when you started working with plants?
I like to think that I’ve been working with plants since growing inside my Mother’s womb! When she was pregnant, she lived in a home with several orange trees in the backyard, and always tells me how much she craved fresh squeezed OJ! A big surprise early on in my conscious study of plants was how much I actually loved learning about history. As a youth in school, you would never hear me say such a thing!!! Plants gave me a living gateway into tracing the movement of the people… into mythology, into the exchange of information that happened as people traveled or were displaced, etc. Plants continue to deepen my relationship with my own ancestry, and punctuate my respect for the people & plants of the land I grew up on, and the land I live on now.
7. You’ve gotten a shoutout from one of the best plant-based beauty brands out there – Laurel Organics. What is it like collaborating and working with other conscious brands? Do you find consumers starting to resonate more with your approach?
I am so grateful to work with Laurel Organics!! Shoutout to my sister Cortney Herrera, founder of Wildcare, for connecting us. Honestly, I’m just a humble steward of the land, much like a dandelion busting out of concrete, and it is a joy to bring that spirit through to people creating beautiful products. Ultimately my work is to inspire anyone & everyone to find that spark of wildness in their own inner nature, and let it bridge them to the living green world around them. When we can truly love ourselves & love the land, we will be much better caretakers of life itself!
Ash Ritter, an herbalist, at work in the Southwest desert
That’s one impressive cactus!
8. What work are you excited about pursuing in the future? Are there new plants or techniques you want to explore? 
Even though I have been studying and working with plants for 2 decades now, the joy of the natural sciences is that there is always more to learn! As heady as I can be, my joy is the hands-on stuff, whether it be making formulas for my clients, or herbal treats for my Herbal Candy Club members. Lately, I am truly fired up to be channeling all of this passion into a book! This has been a long time coming, but a new avenue for sure.

 

As much as I love exploring new relationships with plants, as one of my mentors says, “You don’t need to know 100 plants… you just need to know 10 plants and the 100 things they offer..” Yes – I am a nerd and can ramble all day about hundreds of plants! But my focus as of late is deepening my current relations with the plants on the 90-acre ranch where I live.

 

Thank you Ash for sharing your love of herbalism and the American Southwest! I hope you enjoyed learning about Ash’s work as an herbalist (among her many other talents). If you want to dive in even more, you can find Ash on Instagram (@black.sage.botanicals) and her website for Black Sage Botanicals, and you can support her work on Patreon!

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