Desiree Thompson is a folk herbalist and energy worker who runs an herbal practice in West Philadelphia called Nana Catherine’s Apothecary.
Through plant medicine and spiritual healing, Thompson aims to encourage environmental and social justice, all while bringing together black and brown communities through herbal wellness.
Where does your story with herbs begin?
My story with herbs began with a feeling of desperation at looking to Western and allopathic medicine to be able to help mitigate a lot of the troubles I was having with my mental health- particularly depression and anxiety.
While there were certain aspects of what I was experiencing that did respond to medication and therapy, there was this element of some sort of discomfort and pain that those modalities weren’t responding to.
That’s when I started to really get interested in particularly Chinese medicine with acupuncture. Then plant medicine with herbs because I had no relationship really with my body, with nature, with looking to what is already offered by the Earth as a model, and as a teacher, and as a guide for me in my healing process.
What is the story behind the name of your herbal practice- Nana Catherine’s Apothecary?
Nana Catherine is my paternal grandmother. She died when my dad was 14, so I never met her in the physical realm. You know, because I am a spiritualist, she was one of the first ancestors that kind of came to me or that I connected with. Which started my personal journey back to myself.
What do herbs offer that pharmaceutical medicine can’t?
You have more agency and more of a say in how you are managing the herbs you are taking and how they’re working either for or against symptoms that you are having, so it just becomes a little bit stronger and more cohesive, especially if side effects are a big thing for you with pharmaceutical medication.
Herbs actually speak to and adapt to what is happening with you on a cellular and emotional level, so that they become more effective for you in particular.
There are a lot of ways to incorporate herbs, even if you still do take pharmaceuticals and with the guidance of a clinical herbalist or a health practitioner, to begin to see how you can phase in more herbs and phase out pharmaceutical medicine for certain illnesses.
What do you say to people who believe herbs should replace all pharmaceuticals?
I’m not ever gonna be one of these people that are like, all or nothing, or this way or that way. We’re just too complex for that and also we don’t live in a society that supports holistic or total body health.
The community I work most with is black and brown queer folks. I try to work with herbs that are gentle enough to be taken in tandem with medication that are prevalent in those communities. So that’s like antidepressants, blood pressure medication, diabetes medication, hormones.
You don’t want herbal practice to have to be something that excludes what are working for them in some way.
Why do you think, in the past few years, there has been a sudden interest in herbal medicine and healing?
Herbal medicine has always been around, but I think people are kind of tired of the same inconsiderate kind of approach that our society takes to caring or not caring for folks and the way it’s deprioritized. Overall, that’s why people get interested or stay interested. It’s because it’s about this reclamation of power. Being able to respond to yourself with plants you can grow yourself.
What do your clients usually come in to see you for?
A lot of the things people come to me for really are what I view as a mix of biological, psychological, and also like spiritual illnesses. So the Western illnesses that I think fall under the access of those three is something like depression, which has physical symptoms, psychological symptoms, then like spiritual/emotional symptoms.
Anxiety, bipolar disorder folks will come to me for energy work, and herbal work with either side effects from the medication they are taking for these things or for some of the symptoms that the medication is not responding to. Those are the biggest three: depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.
Can herbal medicine be an alternative for lower income communities who may not have proper insurance coverage or simply cannot afford pharmaceuticals?
That’s one of the best justice-oriented things about herbal medicine, that it does tend to be cheaper. That hasn’t always been the case but now getting access to herbs is becoming easier. There’s a lot of what we advocate for, land and food sovereignty, especially in communities where fresh food and herbs and land, the lack of access is immense. It can be, for a lot of folks, a more just and equitable alternative approach to health in general for a lot of black and brown folks.
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