Business Briefing: Queer herbalist aims to redefine wellness

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday September 7, 2022
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Clinical herbalist Laura Ash has launched a new online venture. Photo: Courtesy Land of Verse
Clinical herbalist Laura Ash has launched a new online venture. Photo: Courtesy Land of Verse

Having kept her herbal apothecary in San Francisco's Mission district afloat since the start of the COVID pandemic in 2020, Laura Ash has now launched a new online venture aimed at redefining how people view wellness. It is reaching a global audience keen on expanding how they approach their own well-being or provide health care to others.

Called Land of Verse, the online school soft-launched in May to offer modern wellness courses in herbal medicine, botanical beauty, psychedelics and mental health, divination and tarot.

"The goal is to be a trusted voice of wellness online," said Ash, 42, a clinical herbalist and teacher of western herbal medicine.

The website offers different certifications for people looking to become professional herbalists. The months of courses are all taught online and cost around $3,000, though scholarships to help offset the price are available, particularly for trans, femmes, Black, Indigenous, and people of color, and persons with a disability.

"We want to make it easy for professionals to start integrating herbal medicine into the lives of their family and community," said Ash, who now lives in Oakland with the two young children she had with her ex-husband, and her wife, Lucy Laliberte, a department manager at Pixar.

Ash assumed ownership of the Scarlet Sage Herb Co., located at 1193 Valencia Street, in 2015. She worked there in 2006 while attending the California School of Herbal Studies in Sonoma.

As the Bay Area Reporter noted in 2018, Ash had expanded the business to offer more classes ranging from mindfulness and broom making workshops to astrology certification and spiritual cleansings. She transformed a basement area of the store into the home of the Scarlet Sage Wellness Space and the Scarlet Sage School of Traditional Healing Arts.

Then COVID hit, forcing Ash to shut down all in-person educational classes, temporarily close the doors to the apothecary, and furlough her employees for six weeks. During that time she handled mail orders herself made via the store's website or over the phone.

"As an alternative health care provider in San Francisco, I was really concerned about the safety of my staff," recalled Ash, who was able to reopen after being deemed an essential business by the city. "It was such a scary time. No one knew how safe it was to be with people at all."

She qualified for several rounds of government financial assistance for small businesses and established new protocols for her and her staff to follow, such as wearing masks and passing a smell test of essential oils due to those early on with COVID reporting lost senses of smell and taste.

Not knowing much about mRNA vaccine technology, Ash researched it and determined the COVID vaccines would be safe and had herself and two children vaccinated.

"I am a huge advocate of the vaccines. They are safe, clean, and extremely efficacious. I took it upon myself to educate my own staff and my community about what I understand the vaccines are and how long they have been used and their safety," said Ash, who tried to not engage with customers about the vaccines having had people yell at her and her staff about needing to cover their face in the store. "We definitely had customers really push back on wearing masks. Everything was very, very challenging that first year."

Some of her employees opted to leave, while many of the store's long-term customers moved outside the Bay Area and have not returned, said Ash. But newer residents of the region are coming in.

"We haven't had to let people go but we adjusted our business model. There are less people coming into the store," she said. "We are just starting to see it pick up again, but much more slowly. It is much slower than I thought."

The teaching classes moved online within two weeks, as 50 students had signed up for courses. The transition was a bit difficult at first, said Ash, as not many herbalists were used to spending hours on a computer.

"I'd never run an online school," said Ash. "Thankfully, all of our students stayed. They were eager to stay connected."

Her new venture stems from people seeking out the outdoors during the COVID pandemic not only to exercise but also for spiritual renewal. One course Land of Verse teaches is about forest bathing, a traditional Japanese Shinto and Buddhist practice that aims to derive healing and energy from the trees and the woods, explained Ash.

"Getting people outside is the focus of all the positive that has come from the anthropause of COVID," she said.

Expanding acceptance of such traditional practices comes with challenges. As Ash writes in a blog post on the site about the need to rebrand wellness, she has heard from her own clients and friends that "taking herbal medicine is exclusive to hippies, woo-woo witches, or conspiracy theorists."

Such thinking leads them to dismiss working with "a herbalist, acupuncturist, or nutritionist as adjunct therapies to their western allopathic care. Sadly, no matter the evidence backing up these complementary therapies," writes Ash, adding that for those who do want such services, they often can't afford to do so. "Sadly, the people that want alternative care often do not have the means to pay for additional services since these therapies are not covered by their insurance."

Already, the site is attracting students from across the globe, hailing from Dubai, New Zealand, Wales, and Canada. People from across the U.S. are also signing up for courses, said Ash.

"Scarlet Sage has a pretty wide reach," she noted. "We got lucky because students who traveled in and out of San Francisco always wanted to take a class. Now they have an opportunity to participate in a community."

To learn more about Land of Verse, visit its website.

For more information about the apothecary's classes and product line, visit its website.

Got a tip on LGBTQ business news? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail [email protected]

Updated, 10/25/22: This article has been corrected to remove the amount of funding Ms. Ash is hoping to raise as it's an SEC violation.

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