A Visit to Southern Light Herbs

Sunday, 18 May 2014


I had the pleasure yesterday of spending a Sunday in country Victorian visiting Michael Brouwer and Natalie Greenwood, the owners of Southern Light Herbs.  I have noticed that there is a special something to people who work with the land and the herbs that’s hard to put your finger on.  Whatever it is, Michael and Natalie certainly have it, and they drew a group of us into that magic for the day.

Many of you in Australia will know Southern Light Herbs as one of the main go to companies for all your top quality organic teas.  Most herbal students at one point pool funds to buy a group herb order to fill up their tea shelves with all the herbs for all manner of experimentation.  This is certainly my first memory of them.

A glowing Wormwood in flower (Artemisa absinthum)
Based in Maldon (just beyond Castlemaine) Michael and Natalie took over Southern Light Herbs from Greg Whitten (Australia’s pioneer in quality herb growing and author of the growing bible "Herbal Harvest" and now the grower of Gould’s Naturopathica’s herbs down in Tasmania) some 20 years ago.

Southern Light Herbs is the head quarters of a network of herb growers across Eastern Australia.  Unlike our American and European counterparts, Australia has so many micro-climates that growers can usually only grow a certain selection of herbs to be able to provide Western herbalists with a good spectrum of herbs to use in their practices.

Select herb growers sell their harvests to Southern Light, who then undertake the last phase of processing to ensure that the final product measures up to a tea-grade quality, which is a very involved process and continually makes me grateful that so much care and consideration goes into a cup of herbal tea!  What I have observed so far from Australian herb growers is that they are so humble.  What they see as common sense procedures to make sure quality is maintained, others would see as a painstaking labour of love.

Michael and the entourage of tools
Calendula (Calendula officinalis) seed heads

Propagation from roots.  I never knew you could cut a dandelion’s tap root (Taraxacum officinalis) into a dozen little pieces, and each one would spring up into new plants.  Wonderfully stubborn mites they are. 
This contrasts quite heavily with the quality parameters on the import trade market.  Michael comments that “the way we grow, and the quality standards that we have, you simply couldn’t survive supplying manufacturers”.  For example, for a kilo of chamomile in Australia, that has been grown organically, hand harvested,  dried and processed using high quality standards and fair wages paid to staff, you’re looking at $60 a kilo.  In contrast, the chamomile that is coming from Egypt, that is harvested and processed by peasant workers who are getting paid a couple of dollars a day, sells for $6-8 a kilo.  In terms of profitability, you can see why manufacturers go with that latter.  In terms of quality, you can see why some herbalists insist on making there own from the caliber of quality you can get from growers like Southern Light.

Autumn garden going to seed.  Fennel heads (Foeniculum vulgare)
Rosehips
Michael and Natalie have been encouraging and mentoring growers for years and throughout the day provided some really lovely insights.  Michael said “herbs have a character and a nature, that just grabs you in.  Often we are approached by one partner who is the one with the initial interest for growing herbs and their partner is coming along for the ride. But the partners usually always get drawn in and becomes just passionate about it.  The herbs just seem to have that power”.  When asked about how one would work out which herbs they should grow, Natalie smiles and says “the herbs seem choose the grower, not the other way”.

As the evening chill starting setting in, we were rounding up the day with steaming cups of their Festivitea and sourdough herb and garlic bread (with calendula blossoms in there too, which I would never have thought to do, but a beautiful addition!) Michael reflected on the changing philosophy of modern herbal practice and how that has changed the landscape that they were working in over the years.  He says “we are in a new paradigm in the herb industry, we have scientific validation as the be all and end all, and herbs simply transcend that. The thousands of years of tradition transcends that.  That’s something we know, and its something we want to allow other people to experience”.

Wattles 

You can have a bit more of a look on their website of what they do or popover to their Facebook page which Natalie fills up with all sorts of delightful herbal tid bits.  

2 comments :

  1. Typo - it is Greg Whitten, not Grey Whitten :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Ah, thank you, very important typo not to make!

    ReplyDelete

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