Meet the foragers turning wild herbs from Central Otago into a wellness business
A love of foraging in the hills of Central Otago is at the heart of a natural health business that’s transforming wild herbs into wellness.
Words: Nadene Hall
Who: Ruth Vaughan, Skye Macfarlane, & Gerald Davies
What: Wild Dispensary, small batch wild herb-based natural health products
Land: 11ha (27 acres) plus the wilds of Central Otago
There are few more dramatically beautiful workplaces than the Central Otago countryside. It’s why Ruth Vaughan loves harvest days, even when foraging for wild herbs is a long day of hot, hard work under a big blue sky.
She and her Wild Dispensary colleagues gather herbs from late spring when it’s time for thyme, pungent puffs of elderflower, minty grey horehound, and bushels of bright orange Californian poppies, right through to the last harvest of cherry red rosehips in autumn. “It’s not always as glamorous as it sounds, sunburn and rosehip thorns under your nails. But I love being able to slow down and get into the hills together.”
When it’s time to go home, they take more than just the plants they’ve picked. “Thyme has the most amazing scent, and it gets all through your clothes and hair and car. You’re left with purple hands throughout the whole elderberry harvest period.”
THE GARAGE PROJECT
Wild Dispensary began as a ‘garage project’, a group of five friends with an interest in natural health and being in the outdoors. They loved hiking through the hills of Central Otago and foraging for wild herbs. They would often create herbal concoctions for their families, and wondered if it was a business idea. One of the group was a herbalist who came up with their first product recipes. “We wanted it to be a sustainable business,” says Ruth. “One that did some good, and it felt like a fun thing to do too.”
After two years, having developed several wild herb-based health tonics, Ruth took on Wild Dispensary as a full-time project. “Time-wise, the others peeled off to do other things, but I just loved it. Then I met (herbalist and naturopath) Skye and knew she would be perfect as a partner, and we’ve been working together for three years.”
Wild Dispensary uses wild-harvested and organically grown herbs, berries, bark, and spices in a range of wellness products that sell in online health stores and at retail nationwide. Their best-sellers include an Immunity Tonic (elderberry, manuka, ginger root, orange, cinnamon, star anise, cloves), and an anti-inflammatory mix (turmeric, ginger root, black pepper, horopito, akeake). Another product is Switchel, an energy tonic based on a 17th century recipe (elderberries, fresh ginger root, manuka leaves and flowers, infused in raw organic apple cider vinegar, and honey).
The different plant ingredients are predominantly harvested from the wild by Ruth, Skye, their husbands, and friends. “The native plants tend to come from the Dunedin coast and wider area,” says Ruth.
“Our manuka, akeake, and horopito are harvested from friends’ bush properties locally. The thyme, horehound, Californian poppy, St John’s wort, and rosehips are all wild harvested. The organic lemons we buy direct from a grower in Northland. Usnea, a native lichen, is collected after storms from broken branches. “Once you know the plants you’re after, you always have a hawk eye for them whenever you’re adventuring in and around the hills.”
It has taken time to find properties that fulfil their needs: wild areas on private property (you can’t forage commercially on public land), no spraying, and far away from roads to avoid pollution. The Central Otago climate has a significant effect on the potency of the wild herbs.
“It greatly affects how things grow,” says Skye. “It’s extremely hot in summer and extremely cold in winter, so the plants that grow here have to work extra hard to survive. That concentrates the constituents within them, and we harness that and use it in our products – it makes them a lot stronger and a lot more therapeutic.”
Skye and her husband Jed Tweedie produce other key ingredients on their organic block (read more on the Vern Paddock Project here), including globe artichokes, chamomile, and calendula. “We always prioritise organics, local organics where we can, and we really try and use our NZ natives,” says Ruth. “That’s our three-pronged approach: the wild, the organic, and the natives.”
Wild plant harvests are timed for when the plants’ key components are at the highest potency, in late spring and summer for leaves, peak bloom for flowers, and late summer-early autumn for elderberries and rosehips. “We use the top part of the plant, primarily the flower, and the top leaves,” says Ruth. “We typically take only a third of a plant to ensure there’s enough for sustained growth and wildlife. We only take herbs that are in abundance – usually, after a day harvesting, you can’t tell we’ve been there. We wouldn’t harvest anything that was limited in growth.”
THE BREWING PROCESS
Back at their commercial food premises in Dunedin, the herbs are quickly processed. Some are used to make tinctures. Plant matter is added to vinegar or alcohol for 2-6 weeks to extract key constituents such as antioxidants, polyphenols (micro-nutrients), minerals, and enzymes into the liquid.
“It depends on what herbs you’re using, how you’re extracting the constituents, and what you’re making,” says Skye. “We’re not whizzing up random plants and putting them into something. Anything sturdy, like a bark, needs to be in a high alcohol tincture to pull out the active constituent, whereas sometimes leaves and flowers don’t need as much alcohol.”
There’s an art to creating a good herbal tonic, especially one that tastes good enough for the picky palettes of children. “There’s lots of other wonderful companies in this space, but we couldn’t get our children to take their products,” says Ruth. “We thought we could make them taste good, and get that compliance from children. It needs to work, but taste is really important too.”
The tonics have a natural sweetness due to organic rice syrup, and non-palm glycerine, a natural, clear, odourless, syrupy liquid compound derived from vegetable oil. It also helps to thicken the tonics and is a natural preservative.
“When we’re formulating a product, we’re thinking about taste,” says Skye. “Even in one like our liver bitters – which is obviously bitter – we use cardamom and orange peel to make it smoother and round off the edges. We have one called Fire Cider (horseradish, cayenne pepper, turmeric, ginger), which packs some punch, but we include some honey to make it smoother to take.
“We want people to buy it, take it, and notice a difference and then it’s not just a waste of money in a cupboard.”
Ruth, Skye, and Gerald regularly brainstorm product ideas, talk to people about their health needs, and look for new ways to use their sources of wild and organically grown herbs. Once they have an idea, Skye comes up with a series of options. “It’s really exciting to bring products to life. I create things, then make Ruth taste a whole lot. I bring all these bottles and ask ‘which one do you like?’, then I’ll go back and change a few things, then we try again.”
When they agree on a favourite, samples go to friends and family for feedback. “There’s quite a lot of tasting, and we have to test it quite widely because our palettes are so used to this sort of thing,” says Ruth. “We make sure children taste it, people who aren’t au fait with herbal medicine, so it’s collaborative.
“You do get used to the tastes,” says Skye. “If you’re only just beginning with natural health products, (the flavours) can be confronting because they can taste quite different, whereas I’m quite used to it.”
To help their retailers, the company produces testers so customers can try before they buy. “Sometimes, we have people who want to start with our Fire Cider,” says Ruth. “I have to say, no, no, don’t do that! Start with a tonic first.”
THE GROWTH OF NATURAL HEALTH
Five years since they started, the company now supplies retailers nationwide, but Ruth and Gerald are still regulars at the Otago Farmers’ Market. “That’s been a big part of our sales, and as we’ve grown and people have gained trust in our products through good word of mouth, we’ve gone out to wholesalers. Healthpost has been wonderful for our growth as they’re quite well respected and have really high values and standards. We’ve passed the test with them, and that’s given other wholesalers confidence.”
While Covid lockdowns have played havoc with lots of businesses, Ruth says their industry was buffered because a lot more people wanted to do something to improve their health. “Business has been growing quite well. We’ve recently taken on staff and machinery to help us with bottling.
“We don’t want (the company) to become a big, big thing, but we do want to provide an income for us, and for our staff, and ideally support our community and create more employment.”
The company also runs a bottle-return scheme, and sales support the Dunedin Wildlife Hospital. “A big part of business for us is doing our best to tread lightly, socially and environmentally.”
WHAT YOU CAN AND CAN’T SAY ABOUT NATURAL HEALTH PRODUCTS
When you read a label on a bottle containing a natural health product, there are two things you should look for. One is how a manufacturer describes their product. “We’re not making a pharmaceutical medicine, so we can’t use medical terminology,” says Skye. “You’ll see wording like ‘ills and chills’ instead of colds and flu. That can sound vague and fluffy for some things, but that’s a regulatory requirement.”
The second thing to look for is a Therapeutic Advertising Pre-vetting Service number, written on the label as ‘TAPS’ followed by a code (such as ‘PP4787’ in the case of Wild Dispensary’s Liver Bitters). TAPS is a voluntary pre-vetting service for natural health producers, advertising agencies, and media companies. It tells you whether a product description is using the correct legal language. The problem for producers using herbs is the lack of science, unlike medicines that must undergo expensive, comprehensive research and testing over many years.
“There’s a lot of traditional experienced-base evidence with herbs, but not a lot of actual testing or scientific studies (compared to medicines),” says Skye. “It’s hard to say exactly how anyone will be affected (by a natural health product).”
Wild Dispensary ensures its products have all the ingredients listed. This is noted on the label, along with the source (eg, tincture), and whether the plant is wild harvested or from an organic source. “We want to make sure they’re effective products, that what we formulate will do something that can help the whole family, and is a safe product, so we’re not over-promising and we’re sticking to the rules.”
Currently, there are no specific natural health regulations. Instead, products come under food safety and dietary supplement regulations, but Skye is hopeful about promised legislation regulating the natural health industry.
“Anyone can make things – people can take something, and it has no active constituents in it. Customers go, ‘oh, it doesn’t work’, and it blankets the whole industry. If we can tighten up (the regulations), it’s going to help our industry.”
Tincture: a concentrated herbal extract made by soaking the fresh or dried leaves, bark, berries, or roots from plants in alcohol or vinegar for 2-6 weeks, then straining it and using the liquid therapeutically.
Tonic: a preparation of herbs, water, and glycetracts to promote good health, stimulate energy, and increase strength. Designed for daily use.
Elixir: a mix of herbal tinctures to support the body during times of stress and ill-health. Used more for specific conditions. Some contain glycetracts for taste and compliance.