“It’s interesting what life you find when you look closely,” says herbalist Anne McIntyre from her Cotswolds garden. “Let’s have a taste. It’s sweet and it dries your mouth, so astringent. Delicious and I consider it to be good for heavy menstrual bleeding,” she adds. We’re munching on white dead nettle, and this sensory way of exploring a plant transports us both back to our childhoods, sucking on the creamy flowers for the faint but sweet hit of nectar.
Anne McIntyre has lived a life in and with plants. From a child taken with sweet smelling flowers to a woman with a career spanning five decades, dedicated to the practice of treating people with herbs, she is one of the most respected herbalists and ayurvedic practitioners in the country and abroad. From her home practice in the Cotswolds, Artemis House, Annie (as she likes to be called) continues to work with patients, teach students, write about and grow herbs.
I first met Annie through one of her books. The Complete Women’s Herbal was handed to me by a herbalist friend as I foraged my way around her bookshelf. At the time I was designing a herb bed dedicated to everyday herbs for women’s health, whilst studying Herbology at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Finding Annie’s book helped me set a blueprint for how I interacted with plants, and has continued to influence my life in the most nourishing of ways.
I’ve sat here as a student, a patient and a friend, so the comfort of Annie’s company and kitchen table are familiar to me. We’re surrounded by books, goddesses (three to be precise), fabrics from far away travels, and a beautiful old copper alembic in one corner. This is where we sit to talk, the doors have been slid open to the garden in full bloom, with the soundtrack of busy May-time birds.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How did you first get into plants?
My mother was a keen gardener and I used to just love growing things. I had my own section of the garden and grew pansies and stocks and all sorts of sweet smelling plants. My favourite was rosemary.
After travelling over land to India in 1971, I returned to study a degree in Eastern Religion thinking that my tutors would be my spiritual teachers. I found it so dull and after six months I left. People in those days were talking about living self-sufficiently and going back to the land. There was a book by John Seymour called The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency that I started reading and decided I really wanted to live close to the earth. Around that time, my mother sent me an advert from the The Times for a house to rent on an island off the coast of Essex. It was in the Black Water estuary near Maldon. When we went to visit on spring morning, I completely fell in love with the island. I moved into a little cottage there on my own and started digging the garden to plant fruit and vegetables.
And when did your love for plants evolve into a love for growing herbs?
I read Food for Free by Richard Mabey and as I was finding wild edible plants I realised that they were also amazing herbs. I began to develop a really strong feeling that nature held all the answers to our wellbeing and that herbs could balance and heal us on every level of our being – physical, mental, emotional and even spiritual. When I moved off the island I really felt that I had to find out more about herbs. I moved to a cottage near a herb farm – Suffolk Herbs – and the Stevens who lived there taught me about growing herbs, taking cuttings, pricking out, potting on. As I walked there I’d collect loads of herbs on the way and they’d tell me what was what.
Later I had the chance to study plants with a shaman when I was travelling in South America, but I decided that I needed to do it my way and to come back and study herbs from the place that I was from. The four-year herbal course I did was intended to prepare you to become a practitioner, which was never my intention, really. I just wanted to find harmony within myself and balance and health in mind, body and spirit.
I think that harmony really lies at the centre of a lot of herbal practices. What do you think are some of the common misconceptions around the world of herbs and herbalists?
People used to say to me that they imagined I had a cauldron out the back! Now the misconception is that if it comes from the ground, then it’s all perfectly fine and we can all just help ourselves. But actually, herbs need to be respected. We need to have both own intuitive experience of the plant coupled with reliable information about the plant constituents, cautions and interactions. The notion that one herb fits all to treat a certain ailment is also not my way of thinking. The we way use herbs will depend on our philosophy of life. I think more along the lines of change from the inside out and using herbs to support us on our journey through life. We need resilience to face the challenges we encounter, and in the end, I think it’s about finding a place of love rather than thinking a plant is going to fix me. It’s about having that symbiotic relationship with oneness of all, which is our relationship with nature, isn’t it?
It’s exactly that, but often there’s this commodification of “nature” for our needs, especially when it comes to health and wellbeing.
I think if we can forage or grow our own herbs and foods and learn to take care of ourselves at home in traditional ways that’s great, but when it comes to needing help then you need to do it with the advice of someone who can look at the underlying problems, rather than treat symptoms.
What do you think the future of your practice is?
I don’t have a picture at all about where healthcare is going. I would say that, with the NHS falling apart and the money that private medicine costs, my view is that we really need to educate ourselves and be as self-sustaining as we can – eat the best we possibly can, grow as many herbs as we have space for and forage sustainably. One of the reasons that I teach is to try and help people be as resilient as they possibly can is because I don’t have a vision as to what’s going to happen.
Some of the issues we’re facing collectively at the moment feel quite insurmountable. What do you think plants can offer people at this particular point in time?
I think in the past there’s been a tendency to think that the plant world is here to serve us, but actually I think we’re here to live in harmony together.
It’s a relationship.
Yes. And I think that we need to understand what our relationship with nature is all about and perhaps then we will learn to value it and take care of it better. People are talking a lot about challenging times and the state the world as it is now, but I think it’s always been exquisitely beautiful and incredibly painful... that’s what it is to be human. In my mind, plants can help us be more resilient physically and emotionally so that we can be healthy and live long enough to discover what it is we are here to do.
What inspired you to make the garden at Artemis House?
I moved here over twenty years ago with my three daughters and named the house after Artemis the moon goddess as she is the protector of women and looks over nature and fertility. I wanted a garden to illustrate the benefits of herbs through our lives and so decided to lay the garden out as a spiral representing a journey through a woman’s life expressed through herbs. As you move through the seasons of womanhood, you should find herbs growing there to support you at that time.
What are some of the benefits of growing your own herbs?
You can be sure of their quality and identity. Herbs, like everything else, are big business. Some supplements like St John’s Wort or Ashwagandha are being substituted with other plants – the adulteration of herbs in herbal supplements is really quite scary. Here, we collect as many plants as we can from the garden. These are the tools of our trade, so we need to have the best possible herbs. Growing your own is best – even if you live in a flat, you can still grow pots of mint, basil or coriander.
I think people don’t really understand herbalists and what they do. To help demystify, could you give us a picture of what your day-to-day looks like.
Well, it depends. Some days are totally focused on patients. Other days I’m working in the garden, planting, weeding or collecting herbs. I have people that come and help now, students who come and stay and then we do a lot of collecting herbs, drying herbs and that’s ongoing. Herbs might be dried and stored and made into tinctures, or they might get dried and powdered and I’m really into the powdered herbs. Your own powdered rosemary or lavender or lemon balm – I mean it’s amazing.
What’s the benefit of having a herb powdered?
The powder uses the whole plant – I like that. The original material would have only made a few cups of tea, but the powder is incredibly concentrated.
What’s the easiest way for people to incorporate herbs into their life?
Eat them! Nettle soup and wild garlic pesto are delicious! Make sure you have culinary herbs and spices in every meal that you cook. And drink herbal teas throughout the day.
Do you think we’re at quite an exciting moment in time in terms of what modern science is able to offer people in terms of this ancient wisdom?
Yes. I’m very excited by gut health. In Ayurveda they’ve been talking about gut health for at least 5,000 years, as they have in Chinese medicine and Tibetan medicine. Many think it’s all new, but to me the latest science is providing another perspective of knowledge and wisdom that is ancient.
Do you have a favourite herb and why?
Rosemary and roses.
Rosemary was the first herb that I fell in love with because there was rosemary in the garden as a child. I see rosemary as my protective herb. And roses because roses are inexplicably beautiful. And a combination of the two is quite amazing.
Agreed! You’re turning 70 this year, what’s next?
I’m much more into living in the present, I have no idea what’s going to happen next. I need more time for contemplation and fun. I really enjoy teaching too; I think you need to enliven teaching with practice otherwise it would be too easy to say “rosemary does this and sage does that” and actually it’s not like that in practice.
I’m still writing courses and still writing books. I think probably what I’ve tried to do more in my life than anything else is try and be a conveyor of knowledge. . I feel like after 42 years in practice, I still only know the tip of the iceberg. I used to think I had to know everything about my subject if I was giving a talk or teaching, but now thankfully I’m quite liberated from that. I'm fine with not knowing. Understanding the world of nature and what it is to be human is a feat few have achieved and then combining the two…? Maybe nobody has ever known the absolute truth – everyone has their own take on it. We’re all exploring.
Interview by Maya Thomas.
Photographs by Camilla Greenwell.
Anne wears our Garment Dyed Linen Shirt.