Myakka woman reclaims herbal heritage, combining old and new worlds
The remarks of the tour guide could have been alarming.
“There’s spiderwort and mugwort,” she says, pointing to the ground. “You are stepping on a lion’s mane. Careful around those Spanish needles.”
Myakka herbalist, homesteader and herb gardener Caitlin McMullen had the attention of the participants on an herb walk at Sarasota’s Native Plant Nursery.
Caitlin led an enlightening excursion down a path that rambles around a native garden lush with plants and flowers observers often regard as “just weeds.”
“We can talk all day about plants in books,” Caitlin says, “but there is nothing that equals walking about to see them. Many of the plants growing around us—be they natives, invasives, landscaping plants or naturalized non-natives—hold amazing medicinal and nutritional benefits.”
Caitlin’s passionate work revolves around reclaiming our herbal heritage, marrying ancient traditions within the scientific context of our modern world and practicing methods integral for living a healthy, natural lifestyle.
“By getting to know our local plants, we can become less reliant on food and medicine from faraway places, while deepening our connection with our local bioregion,” she says.
Caitlin says the challenge is to show people how simple and easy it is to connect with plants and nature in a meaningful way without spending much money or time.
“I really want to meet people where they are and without being critical of them for making choices I don’t agree with,” Caitlin says. “I try to hold a lot of compassion and humility when I talk about patterns of imbalance and illness in our society.
“I focus on medicinal herbalism: educating and sharing. Nothing I do exists in a vacuum. I want to bring people’s attention to, and get them in touch with, the plants that grow around here.
“Lots of plants right here are overlooked. You can’t expect populations to protect things they don’t love. It requires being aware of environmental degradation and our interdependence.”
Caitlin establishes this connection through classes, tutoring and apprenticeships. She leads educational herb walks, gives talks and offers a line of products at markets and conventions.
Unreservedly, she calls herself a tree hugger—in both the literal and metaphorical sense.
“I’ve always felt at home in the woods,” Caitlin says. “Trees were my first loves in the plant world. Only as an adult did I really dive deeply into learning about and appreciating smaller herbaceous plants and flowers.”
A Florida native, Caitlin was born in Tallahassee and raised on a mostly plant-based diet of home-cooked meals.
“My mother followed a homeopathic style of life,” Caitlin explains. “She used herbal and homeopathic remedies to care for us. This upbringing laid the foundation for me to call upon herbs as medicine and allies in keeping myself healthy.”
Caitlin graduated from New College, using a Bright Futures scholarship, and earned a self-created degree in interdisciplinary performance.
“In one of my college classes, we watched a video on traditional Chinese medicine that examined how health and illness is a continuum, not a static condition, but rather a constant ebb and flow,” she says. “New stressors and information require us to continually work to support our health. Maintaining health needs to be a constant practice.
“Other students in the class experienced this as a new and enlightening perspective, while for me, it was very much in line with the philosophy I’d been raised with.”
Her first year, Caitlin cooked all her food in her dorm. By her second year, she bought bulk herbs and made teas.
“I liked to blend,” she says, “but at that point I was just learning from books.”
For a time following her graduation, Caitlin performed in contemporary dance, mingled with experimental vocal music and improvisational-based performance structures.
But always an herbalist at heart, she also began studies at the Florida School of Holistic Living, keeping focused on connecting with the earth.
Today, Caitlin grows her own herbs and vegetables, sharing a holistic homesteading life with her partner and their two children on 5 acres in northeast Sarasota County.
Focusing on homegrown and respectfully wildcrafted bioregional herbs, she manages Magnolia and Pine apothecary.
“This is a cornerstone of my medicine-making practice,” Caitlin says. “Medicine made slowly, seasonally, in reverence for the day and with love.
“I finally made time today to get my hands in the dirt. Ahhhhhh, sweet relief for an herbalist’s soul!” n