I meet Lauren Pignatello in her new shop, Swallowtail Cottage Apothecary, located in a small brick room in the Bayside Building that also houses a few other businesses, like the Urban Farm Fermentory. Her voice is chipper, sweet, and patient. It’s two in the afternoon, but it’s already been a long day for Lauren: She took care of her six homeschooled children (her seventh is due in July), made sure their small farm and dairy was on course for the day, held a meeting for the winter farmers market group, and made some elixirs for her shop. She’s a homesteader at heart: Caring, intuitive, strong. She was built to create and to nurture.
HOW DID YOU DISCOVER HERBS?
I’m from New York City, but I’ve lived in Maine for 20 years. As an older teen, I lived in the Village or SoHo. There were two apothecary shops that I used to go to, one in the West Village and one in the East Village. I just spent a lot of time there. I loved to read and I read tons and tons about plants. I always had my own apartment and no health insurance, so I just started taking care of myself with herbs. This one place in the East Village was an old root cellar and looked a lot like this shop, but darker. It had lots of jars with funny looking roots in them. When something would come up, I would start experimenting on myself and my dogs with herbs. I moved to Maine and married my husband. We met on a blind date in New York. We met in October and I moved to Maine to be with him in November and we’ve lived here ever since. People have always called or showed up on my doorstep asking for help with herbs. Especially having lots of children and doing home births, it opens you up to that natural parenting community, so word got out and I’ve done that for about 20 years.
TELL ME ABOUT SOME OF THE EXPERIENCES YOU’VE SEEN WITH HERBS
I work with children and adults. I’ve helped people with their teeth. One teenager fell on the ice and his front teeth were all loose, so I gave him something for the nerve pain and an astringent that kept the gums taut around the teeth. I’ve definitely helped women wanting to have babies. Everyone is different and I wouldn’t always give people the same formula, but there are a lot of herbs that work with fertility. Only one time it didn’t work, and that was for a woman already in her 50s and a bit overweight. We naturally lose our fertility with age. Oh, and I’ve certainly helped with things like colds and flus.
DO YOU HAVE FAVORITE HERBS TO WORK WITH?
I do have favorites! One of my favorites is bee balm – it’s two different species of a garden flower. There’s a fuchsia one and a lavender one, and a lot of Maine gardens have it already. There’s a lot of volatile oils in it, so I take the whole plant and try it and leave it in the kitchen all winter. It’s good for burns, it works like a charm. I take a leaf, a fresh leaf in the summertime and a dried leaf in the wintertime, and I put it in my mouth and chew it up and apply it to the burn and it works instantly. If you use that, you won’t even get a blister.
I’M IMAGINING YOUR HOUSE FILLED WITH PLANTS AND HOMEMADE THINGS
Yes! That’s how it is. It smells good, too. Our kitchen actually looks like this room, it’s all old wood. I like old things like old tools. I love cooking, too.
IS THERE AN ELEMENT OF MAGIC WITH THIS WORK?
Definitely! There’s an element of intention. When I mix something up or when I harvest or wild gather, I always say thank you to the plants. I will ask permission. It’s that kind of thoughtfulness. There’s a kind of spirituality through plants and they have so much to offer. When I go out on big gatherings on sunny days after the dew has dried, I’ll sometimes take offerings. The Native Americans used to leave tobacco when they gathered. I’ll leave a rock, or if I have nothing, I’ll leave a strand of my hair. One time I went gathering and I happened to have an egg in my pocket. So one time I left a little egg. It was a Bantam egg, because we have a lot of chickens and barn animals. I also make amulets for a lot of people, helping with different issues. Some people are very sensitive to supernatural things and other energies. There are specific herbs that are good for repelling bad energies or attracting good energies. I have some herbs that hang outside my door that are good for repelling negative energies. Oh, like with Valentine’s, I mixed up some special Valentine’s Day elixirs for love. There are certain herbs that will open your heart of lift your spirits. Rose is an amazing herb for little love spells and potions. When I was a little girl, I loved to bake. Even up until I met my husband, I would bake something everyday. I would use rosewater in my recipes as a little addition instead of vanilla. I was so young, and I collected vintage tins and baked cookies and gave the tin to the boys I had my eye on.
WHAT KIND OF STORIES DO YOU HAVE ABOUT WORKING IN THE SUPERNATURAL WORLD?
I do get a lot of parents who have me make amulets for their children. I use homeopathy, too. There are certain homeopathic recipes that help in fevers. During high fevers in children, they will often hallucinate and go to a different place. In the remedies, they will often be the “poison” recipes, they will be made from mineral plant or even animals and diluted so much. The ones that are often made from the poisonous substances and greatly diluted are the ones that are usually most effective. I have made a lot of amulets for children who see ghosts. Or some kids who have nightmares or can’t sleep or hear voices, and the amulets work. Whether it’s the actual plant or the intention that goes into it, or the parent and child’s ability to believe in that feeling of safety, they work. I’m one who often imagines wrapping white light around myself or my kids. Or lights or rainbows. It sounds crazy, but some of us are really sensitive, especially children who come into the world like an open vessel. It does help! Even with religion, they used to use the evil eye or crosses or crystals. We live in a really old house, and we had a problem where the cellar had to be dug up after an oil spill. We had always had nice energies in our house, and it was lovely, lovely energy. After the problem in the cellar, we had really negative energy. I think it brought back who lived there before. A lot of our elderly neighbors were able to tell us a lot of history on the place: It had been a doctor’s home and the person who built it was an angry man. But after the cellar got dug up it got so bad that one of my children and his friend, who are both very sensitive, couldn’t have sleepovers anymore, it was just too much. I was scared just getting up in the night to go to the bathroom. So we smudged the cellar with sage – the smoke cleanses and purifies. We put crystals on the corners of the cellar floor and they covered it with cement and it got better. Crystals reflect energies and give out light. We keep bees and the bees liked the crystals, so I keep them on the hives. Most of this is in history, it goes way back. All of it is just little ways to make your day easier.
HOW DID YOU LEARN ABOUT ALL OF THIS?
I tend to be more self-taught. I did study with Matthew Wood, who is an herbalist in Minnesota. I studied with him about 15 years ago, and he was wonderful. I studied myself as a teenager, and I did an internship with Corinne Martin in Bridgton, Maine before Matthew Wood came and taught an intensive here for a year. He’d come every month and we’d go and spend the weekend and learn. With him, he gave me a key to unlock the world of herbal knowledge and way I could think about herbs and access that information really easily. My bend is western herbalism, focusing on what grows here with an emphasis on homeopathy. I use diagnoses from Chinese medicine like pulses and tongue diagnosis and face and complexion diagnosis with a little bit of Ayurveda and Eclectic medicine from the 1700s. That really speaks to me. I love, oh my goodness, I love to read. The way my brain works, I have a very good memory for the written word. I love old medical journals. I find them fascinating. I’m kind of a nerd!
WHAT QUALITIES HAVE YOU LEARNED FROM WORKING WITH HERBS?
Oh, definitely open-mindedness. And great observation skills! Every plant is so different, there are all the different families and species and genus. Which ones are related to each other and why and how – you can tell by looking at a plant and how the plants relate to the organ systems and the doctrine of signatures. Some plants, you dig up the roots and they look like bones. And they are good for your bones. Like the mandrake, it’s an old medicinal plant and the root looks like a man! Some stems and leaves wrap around the stock and it’s significant to the way the bones come into a tendon. You can look at a plant and know what body system it’s good for and why.
WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED FROM HAVING SIX, GOING ON SEVEN, CHILDREN?
Yeah. Yeah, it’s a lot! Certainly patience. Tons and tons and tons of patience. I’ve pretty much taught myself everything because I have so many children. I’m a homesteader at heart, so I like to make everything myself. Having that many children really opens it up. You can do all the cooking, you can do all the baking, you can make all the medicine, you can make all the toiletries. Soap, felting, working with wool, painting. I love to make things. I’ve pretty much dabbled in every creative domestic art. Oh my goodness, my children have taught me more about herbs and plants and body systems and health. Each one of my children is so different. Like one is a dandelion, he really needs dandelion. One needs pulsatilla. One just needs to be left alone. I’ve tried everything in terms of ways of healing on my children and animals and learned how the human body just wants to heal and be healthy. And it’s easy! It’s easy to do that given the right food and environment. A little bit of medicine can be nutrition. In children it can come in the form of elderberry or tea or chicken broth. Because I don’t use antibiotics and I don’t use Tylenol, I let their body tell me about what their bodies need to get back to that state of health. When you get back to that point, you feel so much better. Illness does serve a purpose for different stages of life, and it’s not all bad.
WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU?
My children. My family.
WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST STRUGGLE?
The struggle might be time management. I have a lot going on. I wish I could be in more places are more times. I’m a really busy person. It’s nothing that major. We are very blessed and even though we struggle financially or emotionally at times – it’s not easy having that many children – we try really hard to keep positive and be really thankful everyday for things like good health and love.
WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST GIFT OR BLESSING?
My husband and my children. Without them, I wouldn’t be who I am. He has allowed me to be who I am and to be free and to explore. He will do anything for me – like having the dairy and the cheese and this shop. I am a fountain of ideas. Like the yogurt, I didn’t mean to make yogurt, but I bought a cow to make dairy and yogurt for the children, and people started knocking on my door. Now, it’s how we make most of our money. We make it through our Swallowtail Farm and Creamery.
WHAT IS A LESSON YOU ARE LEARNING RIGHT NOW OR HAVE LEARNED RECENTLY?
Oh, to let go. And to let things pass and know that things will feel different tomorrow, and that things change. Even this, the apothecary shop, it’s all an experiment. It’s all part of the process. It is just to see where it takes me and where it takes my family. I’m getting older now, I’m 42. I didn’t have that when I was younger. I couldn’t see that then, I couldn’t let go. Everything seemed to have much more dire circumstances. And now, having so many children really does constantly remind you that it’s really not all that important and that it will pass. You can’t make everyone happy, but you can try to be a good person.
WHAT’S THE BEST MOMENT OF AN AVERAGE DAY?
It’s probably just being with my husband. We are really lucky because we get to be together everyday. I drive him crazy, but we get to be together. He is no longer a carpenter, so we both work from home. We take turns taking care of the kids because we homeschool and take turns with the creamery. It’s probably those quiet moments hanging out in the kitchen having coffee and tea and getting to talk. It’s pretty simple.