All photos by Emilly Prado
Lara Pacheco’s fascination with plants emerged from a schoolyard encounter with wild onions. She held the green sprigs, amazed food could grow freely among the grass. “I always felt drawn to the wild,” Pacheco recalls. “I always wanted [the] outdoor experience.”
Pacheco, who is genderfluid and uses they/she pronouns interchangeably, grew up in Virginia Beach. She has since settled in Portland, Oregon, where she runs Seed & Thistle Apothecary, an apprenticeship program that supports people interested in reconnecting with their ancestral roots and tradition through plant healing and medicine. Pacheco also runs the Seasonal Wellness Clinic project that she co-founded, captures oral histories of Latinx curanderxs in Portland, and empowers young girls of color to take hold of self-love and listen to their bodies through Brown Girl Rise.
Pacheco and her two siblings were was raised by her mother and grandmother. Throughout childhood, she struggled with a very sensitive stomach and painful digestive issues. Pacheco’s grandmother employed various traditional Puerto Rican remedies to alleviate and treat her symptoms. “My grandmother is the link to my relationship with plant medicine,” Pacheco says.
Her travels abroad through college stimulated her passion for plant medicine and exposed her to the impacts of colonialism on traditional medicine. “I got really sick and [one of my oral history subjects’] sister-in-law employed methods to make me feel better and they almost capture the narrative of colonialism and medicine in the area,” she recalls from living in a remote village in the Costa Rican jungle. When pills didn’t work, the tree sap that locals used in their own remedies did the trick.
Pacheco ended up in Portland by the end of the aughts and enrolled in the Arctos School of Herbal and Botanical Studies. Ancestral medicine and plants as a connection to lineage have always been important to Pacheco, but she says that it’s only been recently that the herbalism community in Portland began to embrace those roots more openly and commonly.
In addition to witnessing a more inclusive and diverse community of herbalists unfolding, Pacheco continues to push along conversations at the intersections of decolonization and accessibility. “There are tons of people that carry so many traditions and remedios that just aren’t seen. Going to an herb school—that’s a whole different cultural priority. There’s a whole new generation of people that are, like, ‘wait a minute, these remedies are actually hella important. And a lot of this information has been stolen or this has always been part of our family ancestry and I want to learn it and celebrate it,’” she says. “All around, there’s this shift happening where there’s a lot of reclaiming on many levels. Everyone is feeling a voice through that.”
Part of reclamation for Pacheco has been exposing her two-year-old son to the beauty of plant-based healing. After he was born, her son’s unexpectedly harrowing delivery reminded her of the strength they both possessed. “Trust in knowing how resilient our bodies are—that’s important for me to think about because I can tend to think of myself as really weak, physically.”
Together, they drink tea blends—one of Pacheco’s favorite types of remedies.
“I always go for more gentle remedies. Highly nutritive herbs that gently stimulate things like your kidneys and liver. I’ve done classes in the past on demystifying detoxes because people, especially in Portland, get really obsessed with detoxes and cleanses. There’s certainly a place for that but our body is also just naturally detoxifying all the time,” she explains.
For the same reasons, herbal vinegars are also a common go-to. But what she’s most excited about is her venture into limpas, or spiritual cleansings. “When I go back to traditional roots, all of it is the spirit [and the] belief that energies enter our body through these thirteen joints. So [when] using plant medicine or baths, you’re taking the time, and you’re calling [emotions] out and then clearing them out.”
What Pacheco’s collective body of work boils down to, most simply, is empowering Brown folks to connect with their ancestral roots through plants. With Brown Girl Rise, she demystifies the concept of the witch and shares the rich history of ancestral resilience and power through plant medicine. She believes that having a deeper connection to the land creates humility and perspective. “There’s an exciting identity associated with [being a witch or curanderx], as it should be, but it shouldn’t come from a place of ego…The most powerful healers are actually the most humble because [they’re] a medium or a conduit of greater sources. At the heart of it should be humility.”
For budding herbalists, witches, and plant healers, Pacheco suggests starting with guided plant walks and, from there, simply sitting with plants.“There’s a place for all of it, but in our world of increasing availability for distraction, I think we really need more opportunities to invite slowing down, being with yourself, and with one thing (whether it’s an element or a plant), and then providing self-care.”
Emilly Giselle Prado is a Chicana writer, photographer, and library assistant living in Portland, Oregon. Her work focuses on amplifying the voices and stories of people from traditionally marginalized communities. When not writing or taking photos, she teaches writing and zine-making to students of all ages.