Herbal Instinct

Herbal Instinct


She’ll never go hungry. Not so long as she can run wild, at least.

On a late-winter romp through the forests of Vashon Island, Wash., Jayne Simmons ’86 is collecting all kinds of woodland specimens for consumption and betterment of health.

“Eat a nettle. Try a violet. This is sorrel. It tastes a little sour.”

To the urban eye, it may look like indistinguishable foliage, but to Simmons, it’s a buffet prepared by none other than Mother Earth – and she was dishing out some goodness.

But – although Simmons does snack on some of these things as she wildcrafts, or forages – to her, the true value of these plants and others is not as food, but as medicine. And, though Simmons occasionally ventures out into the wild, most of the herbs she processes and sells are grown by her own hand on farmland on Vashon Island, a short ferry ride across Puget Sound from Seattle.

Simmons, you see, is the owner of herbal remedy company Sister Sage Herbs, and plants like calendula, lavender and arnica are essential to the manufacture of her line of hand balms and tinctures. She takes the herbs she grows on her farm back to her house in West Seattle, where she steeps them in jars of alcohol before making them into tinctures meant to treat ailments like insomnia, pain and the common cold. Her wares are then sold on the Internet as well as locally in Seattle.

When Simmons moved west in 1988, farming was not part of the plan. The Isle of Palms, S.C., native was happy enough just to reach Seattle, as the ’65 VW bus she drove across the country expired soon after delivering her past the Cascades and into her new city. Years went by, and Simmons found herself working for the retail merchandise giant Costco. Simmons worked almost all the jobs there were within Costco’s stores, but, after a while, she had the urge to try something new – and maybe try working in a place with windows.

“Costco is like jail,” says Simmons, “but hard to quit because they pay well.”

Eventually, the money didn’t matter anymore, and Simmons left Costco. And, if her new job didn’t have windows, it didn’t really matter: It didn’t have walls, either.

She had applied, and been approved, to use a portion of six acres of farmland protected by a Vashon Island community land trust.

“I just applied on some fantasy I had,” laughs Simmons, who planted her first season of crops and launched Sister Sage Herbs in 2006.


That fantasy started with a curiosity about herbal remedies and plant life. She’d long been pestering one of her sisters, an herbalist and midwife, about natural remedies. So frequent were her phone calls, in fact, that her sister finally told her, “You can’t call me every time you have a question. You’re just going to have to figure it out, Jayne.”

And so she did. Of course, Simmons never imagined she’d become an herbal expert in the process, much
less a farmer or a landscaper. (Beyond Sister Sage Herbs, she operates an associated landscaping business that focuses on creating residential gardens and planting edible shrubs.)

But, looking back, she believes her interest in plant life makes sense, considering the impact that John Rashford had on her as an undergraduate at the College of Charleston. More than two decades later, the anthropology professor’s teachings and friendship are still with her.

“My interest in plants and their relationship to people came directly from his love of the subject,” says Simmons. “He always referred to his students as colleagues, and I remember his open-door policy my first year when he would end up having standing room–only sessions about so many various topics that truly blew my mind.”

These days, things have equalized, and Simmons can likely teach Rashford a thing or two when it comes to plants. The same thing goes for her herbalist sister, whom she can now call without pestering for advice.

She knows her work intrinsically now. Just by moving with the seasons, walking her farmland, feeling the soil, she knows when it’s time for tilling, for planting, for growing. She knows when the farm will once again be bursting with betony, catnip and chamomile.

In other words, Simmons will again be serving up a smorgasbord of goodies to nourish both stomach and soul.

– Jason Ryan