It looks like magic. Passers-by stand and watch the slow drip-drip-drip of the tinctures being made. The glass assemblages called 'enfleurage' are the most striking feature of The Hidden Alchemist in Seattle’s historic Pioneer Square. It looks like something out of a movie, but it’s a lot more than that. The apparatus is singularly pre-industrial, with the grace of a pre-Enlightenment chemistry lab. Behind it are bottles containing dried herbs and teas on amber-lit shelving, while smaller tincture bottles and ointment jars adorn the various tables and shelves.
The Hidden Alchemist is an atypical business, but it is exactly the kind of place one might expect to find in the byzantine basements of the Grand Central Arcade in Downtown Seattle. Intermixed with the herbs, tinctures, salves and remedies are stacks of literature informing the reason and purposes for each article of flora used to sustain human health and well-being.
The store is owned and operated by Sunny Savina Bertollini. She employs a cold enfleurage extraction method, often using multiple herbs in concert together. She tells me that her remedies have successfully treated burns, scars, eczema, weak metabolisms, hormonal imbalances, the common cold and the side effects of chemotherapy. As Sunny shares, The Hidden Alchemist itself was paid for almost entirely by a woman who Sunny successfully helped during a bout with cancer. Sunny would never, however, turn away from Western medicine for ideological reasons. She is the first to admit, “Herbalism is not the only way to tackle a problem, but it is the basis for modern medicine. We need to keep herbalism part of everyday life.”
She started her first herb garden when she was nine. In those formative years she was frequently displaced, but always had a garden, even if it was only a single pot with chamomile in it. “As a child, I always had ugliness around me, but there was beauty in herbs and plants. I would make teas mostly. I did that until I was in my early 20s, when I learned to make tinctures, which was quite the revelation,” she recalls. Her upcoming book series with Chatwin will be a guide for anyone who wants to learn how to use multiple herbs together to treat common ailments; This technique is known as “compounding herbalism.”
It was over 20 years ago that Sunny was approached by a little old lady in a bookstore, who took her arm and announced they were going to be the best of friends. “At first I thought she was senile,” Sunny remarked. “But she insisted, ‘No, really, let’s go have tea.’”
This was the beginning of a seven year apprenticeship with Marianne Sarella. Sarella primarily worked out of books passed down through the matriline of her family, extending back some 500 years. As Sunny tells it, Sarella told her that these books (and the women who wrote them) managed to avoid being burned for witchcraft during the Inquisition. Each generation of women would write a new book, adding their native knowledge, and the oldest of these is illegible. Sarella never let Sunny take notes, insisting that she learn the recipes by heart.
“The one recipe she did give me was Thieves Oil,” Sunny admits. She goes on to explain that Thieves Oil is an anti-microbial oil innovated for grave robbing and plague pillaging during the Middle Ages, and that thieves would cover themselves in it to protect against the “humors” (smells) of diseases associated with the dead and dying.
Just over a century ago, apothecaries and herbalists were everywhere. Now it is a rare opportunity to be able to visit one. An apothecary was the first line of defense against ailments, prescribing herbal compounds that are the foundation of modern pharmacology. These herbs are not patented, nor do they have fancy names, pretty models or commercial spots on television suggesting you speak to your doctor about their efficacy.
Many of Sunny’s customers rely on her compounds, tinctures, creams, and ointments to help maintain their health. In the context of a national discussion over medical costs, cost-effective alternatives to Big Pharma are worth investigating. Sunny knows this, though she distinguishes herself from modern pharmacists as a promoter of overall health, rather than a provider of treatment for illnesses.
There are two important distinctions between traditional medicines and modern pharmacology: the specificity of a drug’s effect, and the premium charged for it.
Bearing this in mind, what does herbalism have on modern pharmacology? Sunny’s argument is concise and diplomatic. She passionately explains her pursuit of the studies published in PubMed.gov, but she stops to make a distinction, “A drug makes your body do something, an herb ‘gentles’ it there. I know that what I do works. I know why it works—These remedies are as precise as I can make them—I strive to blend both traditional herbal lore that has been passed down with what we’ve learned since.”
“All of these things can work harmoniously together if we let them,” she concludes.