Cassandra Elizabeth Sears is a clinically trained herbalist, an apothecary bartender, an organic farmer, a nanny, a self-proclaimed science nerd, and a really cool person to talk to about plants.
At the 14th Annual International Herb Symposium this year, the Shapleigh resident created an herbal mocktail to serve to the 500 attendees. It was called The Empress, and was made with herbs and preparations she had grown herself, or foraged in the wild, or created from scratch. The drink contained hibiscus and ginger, beach rose and lemon balm, schisandra bitters, hawthorn, and dandelion. She rimmed each of the 500 glasses with cardamom and sea salt, and delivered a toast to the crowd and to the healing power of plants.
Cocktails receive the same meticulous treatment in Sears’ hands. If people are going to drink alcohol, she says, why not transform cocktail hour into a nourishing ritual? She’ll mix you a cocktail with herbs to calm your nervous system, with herbs to protect your heart, and even one with no herbal taste at all.
A love affair with the natural world began for Sears in infancy, when, as a colicky baby, her mother set her up outdoors as a way to interrupt the crying. It was the only thing that worked.
By age 7 or 8, as an only child, she became fully engaged with creating things outside in the natural environment. And during high school in Kennebunk at the New School, which teaches holistic education, possibilities for a career connected to the environment seemed exciting and attainable. While there, she learned to design and build a medicinal herb garden. Lucky for her, she says, she “fell in love with labor [physical work].” She decided she would be a farmer, and pursued that goal for the ensuing 10 years.
Now, at age 29, Sears’ plan is to buy a farm where she will grow medicinal herbs, establish an on-site apothecary, and perform individual herbal consultations. She’s almost there. “Once I’ve landed,” she says, “I can do this from my home and build a practice rather than rent space.” In the meantime, she’s accumulating some pretty impressive bona fides.
Sears learned a lot running an herbal CSA. She did a 60-hour-per-week MOFGA (Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association) apprenticeship. While bartending at two bars in Vermont, working back-to-back jobs, she learned about craft cocktails and began experimenting with creating herbal cocktails and mocktails for clients and customers.
“Herbs have never left the bar,” she says. To wit, observe the recent popularity surge of amari and other botanically based liqueurs. “What’s missing,” she says, “is the knowledge. An herbalist’s mission is to reclaim this knowledge.”
With the income from bartending jobs, Sears put herself through rigorous training at the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism, attaining the level of Professional Clinical Herbalist. The school provides one of the nation’s most extensive clinical training programs in herbal medicine. There, she learned how the herbalist acts as a bridge between nature-based primary care and conventional medicine. Students of the school learn to formulate safe, effective, and well-balanced remedies to treat many common illnesses. They also study plant chemistry.
“The science [at the school] is pretty intense,” she says. But she loved it. Her favorite text was Principles and Practices of Phytotherapy.“I love it when plants that have been used forever get backed by science.”
Lately, Sears has been teaching classes in making herbal cocktails and mocktails. As part of those classes, students also learn how to identify plants and what it means to forage ethically.
She additionally leads herb walks in Arundel. “My whole purpose in doing this work is to help show people that there are all these resources around us to help us with our mental health and physical health. Many are growing right outside and are free and belong to everyone.”
Sears stresses that herbs need to be taken in measured doses, over time, to exhibit their health effects. Dosing and regularity are important—“otherwise, herbs don’t work,” she says. She wants people to know that you can’t take little amounts once or twice and expect to see results. Herbs need to be used as a tonic for their slow, cumulative effect.
There’s a huge herbal revival in Maine, says Sears, and medicinal herb usage has become big business. Part of the appeal is herbal medicines’ low cost compared to conventional drugs—good news for Sears and her fellow herbalists. But the flip side is the accelerating loss of species, both plant and animal, worldwide.
It has been reported that about 15,000 medicinal plant species may be threatened with extinction, making the study and conservation of medicinal plants increasingly urgent. Responsible practitioners like Sears, who spread the word about the value of medicinal plants and the need for their stewardship, provide some hope, and also a good reason to spend your next happy hour with an herb.
To contact Cassandra Elizabeth, visit thegardensprite.wixsite.com/apothecarybartender or follow her on Instagram @thegardensprite. Search for Sears’ recipe for the perfect holiday aperitif, “The Enchanted Forest,” on ediblemaine.com.
Rosie DeQuattro is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Edible Maine and, formerly, to Edible Boston. She loves to tell the stories of the dedicated and passionate men and women of Maine who produce our food, and about what it takes to get it to our plates.