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Wildcraft business grows in Haines Junction

What looks like a common weed to you might be wildcraft to Sylvie Gewehr. The Haines Junction resident says the very plants most people try to eradicate from their yards are often among those she uses to put together the specialty teas, tinctures, salves and oils she sells through her company, Wildwood Spirit.

“I started as a teen, at 13, picking my first herbs,” Gewehr says over the phone from the 12-acre property where she lives and grows some of the plants she uses in her work. “I grew up in France and Germany, so was picking a lot of weeds like yarrow and dandelion and common weeds … I found books and really was just studying for myself all the time and doing it for fun.”

As an adult, she grew that knowledge base by completing a bachelor’s degree in physiology and cellular biology.

“It’s always been something that was very important to me, and in my 20s, that’s what led me to go to university to become a scientist and save the world with my findings,” she says, laughing.

Gewehr moved to Haines Junction in 2015. At the time, she’d been travelling Canada following a stint in Quebec. The trip ended in the Yukon, but Gewehr didn’t think that would be her final stop. She says she wasn’t someone who ever considered staying in one place. Her plan had been to make money in Haines Junction over the winter and then move on when the weather got nice again.

“But Haines Junction felt like home,” she says.

“It was a really strange feeling because my whole life I had itchy feet and always wanted to move.”

Shortly after, her current property came on the market. Gewehr jumped on it. She says her business kind of grew out of the property. That’s where she first started gardening and found she loved it despite the challenges presented by a northern garden.

“Haines Junction is even tougher than other areas in the Yukon because the climate is so arid,” she says. “We can have night frost in the summer at any time.”

The mountains mean the temperature fluctuations can be extreme. The soil is clay, which is terrible. The first two months of summer are often very dry.

It’s not a great place, on its own, to grow plants. But, Gewehr says, it is a good place to learn techniques to make farming easier. You also learn to focus less on the things you wish you could grow and more on the plants that are happy to produce in the environment you’ve got, like the stinging nettle that grows in one spot on her property, or the chamomile, comfrey and calendula that are hardy enough to thrive.

In 2020, she built on this experience by attending the Gaia School of Healing and Earth Education to complete a first (eventually followed by a second)-year apprenticeship in traditional herbalism, holistic healing and sacred plant medicine. She also completed the Community Herbalist Certificate through Pacific Rim College.

These days, she’s been operating Wildwood Spirit for roughly three years. When she started it, she says the values that led her to the education she’s received also informed the way she came at her business.

Because her love of nature was the driving force behind her work, she says she wanted to build a business that valued the natural world.

“Conventional business is more focused on profit and forgets what other values we can have,” she says. “For me, being an herbalist is about caring about the plants, about nature, about the planet. And it has to come through in my business too.”

Gewehr took her time finding suppliers that would support this. Her products are handmade, partly from plants she grows in Haines Junction, on her property and in greenhouses, but partly from suppliers she has researched. She uses biodegradable and reusable packaging, offering refills where she can.

“I spent several months researching and making phone calls and trying to find the right suppliers,” she says.

The business has built slowly since then, though she feels it’s primed to take off in 2024. She sells at markets and craft fairs, and through her website. All of Gewehr’s blends are her own. She says there are common guidelines, when it comes to herbalism, that are useful in the same way a recipe is useful to a chef. But, as with a recipe, it’s the personal touches and alterations that make the finished product uniquely the work of a certain chef.

The same is true of Gewehr’s blends, which include items like lemon comfort and chocolate devotion tea; yarrow tincture and spruce tip glycerite; raspberry leaf vinegar and balsam poplar salve.

Gewehr also leads workshops and plant walks under the Wildwood banner. In the summer months, she says she typically offers two plant walks a month, with the workshops more spaced out. They taper off a bit in the winter, but the walks teach people about more than a dozen plants in the boreal forest that can be used for medicinal properties and food.

Gewehr teaches people how to identify them, when to harvest and how to do it ethically, and how to use them.

Workshops might teach participants how to make glycerite (a liquid extract that can be added to teas and smoothies) or fire cider tonic.

Sometimes, Gewehr teams up with other artists, like Alida Thomas.

Thomas is a pyrography artist (pyrography is similar to woodburning, but can be done on materials other than wood) whose work focuses on “the northern wild, women, and a little bit of whimsy and magic.”

In addition to wood-based projects like the sign outside the Raven’s Rest Inn in Haines Junction, she loves to draw and burn plants of the boreal forest. That’s how she got connected to Gewehr, who often sold near Thomas at markets.

“We were always buying things from each other,” says Thomas. “Sylvie loved a lot of the wood-burned plant drawings, and like so many in town, I have a full pantry of her teas.”

From there, they became friends. Both had that deep love of natural northern places and both were looking to expand their businesses, which is how they came up with a collaborative workshop that combines Gewehr’s instruction with Thomas’s illustration of that information.

“We joke we are the spruce and the squirrel (Sylvie the spruce, of course), and there isn’t really a better way to describe that. I am excited to be a small piece of all she is launching into action this year,” says Thomas.

“[Sylvie is] absolute magic. She has an incredible gift with plants and a beautiful way of translating that to a diverse audience. Both the roughest backwoods trapper in town and the women most inspired by plants have come to her table and left with something that would help them. She’s a true healer, and she is also truly connected with the plants in the wild. Beyond her extensive studies as a herbalist and in forest ecology, she can connect into the multitude of layers that each plant can bring for us. Her energy and spirit is the plants in the wild, you see her and that’s what you feel, I’m not sure how else to better describe it.”

Visit wildwoodspirit.ca for more information about purchase and workshop opportunities.

Amy Kenny, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Yukon News