A couple weeks ago we had the pleasure of sitting with Gypsi of GypsiJars, a New Orleans healer, herbalist, teacher, gardener, and wonderful spirit. Over the course of two hours we talked about the importance of using plants as self-care, how we can create communities around gardening to uplift Black folk, and how plants can transform our lives.
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What got you into plants?
So I reflected on the purpose of this project, while looking around at the plants I have and my connection to them. There’s random dry herbs everywhere and I can tell you where they all came from. This cat palm was given to me when my grandmother passed in September. She’s been with me every since then. Then there’s a peace lily in my ancestral altar space. This altar space is made up of bouquets from services or herbs that I picked from around that time or maybe when that transition happened.
That pothos in the yellow teapot I thought was cute and brought it home with me. Haha! I’m the queen of going to the hardware stores and shopping the clearance rack. I’m always just like “You’re gonna throw this away?”
My relationship with plants has been self-care. It’s a part of my craft. Being an herbalist I make herbal skin care products for my business GypsiJars. I make things by infusing oils, making tonics with rose petals. All while being intentional. It’s not just a physical healing of course. It’s more than that. Even going into aromatherapy and knowing the different scents that affect your body and your well-being, but still wanting to smell pretty. And not wanting to wear those chemical-infused steroid creams.
My grandmother, my mother’s mother was a practicing bruja. I remember taking baths with flowers and shit and not knowing why. I thought it was normal because it was my grandma. So as I got older, I was like “So your grandmother doesn’t put herbs under your pillow at night?” It was that. It was also physical self-care then in turn it was mental and realizing that certain scents made me feel a certain way. And also being a big science geek. I started looking at the different characteristics of certain herbs and how they correlated with certain chakras. Growing them became second nature. It was another part of my self-care practice in dealing with anxiety and depression. Plants gave me a reason to get up in the morning. These plants have a counterdependent relationship and in noticing the shift and if I’m feeling some type of way and saying alright y’all we gonna work this shit out.
I do crystal work with my plants. There are crystals hidden in all of them, especially the plants I use in my herb work - lemongrass, jasmine, and moringa. This has been a community space pretty much. Once I settled in I felt really good here and rooted. I started having these garden parties when I realized how many people really wanted to learn about gardening and herbs. It wasn’t like a tea and crumpets type of garden party. Haha! It was like a come get ready to work type of party. I would make some food, maybe some sangria and mimosas. Sweating and being dirty is the absolute most cleansing thing. I feel so clean sweating especially in New Orleans.
Do your plants reflect your moods?
I’ve noticed a shift in a few of my plants. I thought about this a few days ago especially with plants that have been gifted to me. Depending on the status of that relationship I notice them changing. Recently coming out of a partnership there was an orchid we’d had for a year and a half and as things started dwindling down - I was looking at her like “I know girl I know”.
A lot of the plants outside I've noticed a shift especially as I’m transitioning out of this place. Some plants I’ll have to find homes for. I do have a good bit of green space at my new place, but I have a 12 ft moringa. It’s a bamboo. So I’ll chop it down. Also everyone needs a moringa plant. I’ve also got lemongrass for f*cking days. I have some mammoth sunflowers - they are 2nd generation. I dried the heads and will be harvesting seeds to give away. I stay stocked with seeds. Folks know to come through. I juice pretty regularly - between that and my coffee and eggshells I’ll make compost for people to come get. I make pesticides with neem oil and tell people to come through for that too.
I also homeschool and the kids come garden Monday and Wednesday mornings. A lot of the things planted have been touched by Black and brown baby hands. Little magic baby hands. Apparently my great grandfather was a farmer. So when my grandmother saw me getting really into plants she would always tell me it was my Great Grandfather Maurice - my Bahamian grandfather. And just looking at my roots period - my family is West Indian. The diaspora is so strong you know what I mean.
I started out the year in Jamaica doing this eco-hub project called Jardin D’Eden in Jamaica. The woman is originally from Montreal with Haitian roots. After a divorce, her and her two kids decided to stay in Jamaica and make a sustainable living. There is no recycling in Jamaica so she reuses a lot of things. She uses what’s available and doesn’t waste anything. I mean the bamboo in Jamaica, god damn. I camped out for two weeks in Jamaica in the mountains, in the bush.
We were there together in the thick of it while shit was getting washed away. There was a really bad rainstorm, everybody was wet everything was wet. We were in teepees and bamboo huts. We went through it together. We made our own drainage system. There are volunteers from around the world helping at Jardin. It was a pretty diverse space and it was really interesting having the locals around working and interacting with us.
Where do you go for your plant inspiration?
Probably just things I’ve seen in the islands. I like to walk a lot. It’s a meditative practice to slow down and be more appreciative. That’s how I source all my plants. I can tell you where eucalyptus trees are, lime trees in the city. There’s a few places with lavender and aloe. Just looking around walking around, it’s always an exchange. It’s not just for me, but about what feels good for the plants. A friend of mine who’s a plant connoisseur was surprised that my cat palm is so happy inside.
Finding that sometimes I’m drawn to different plants or herbs. I won’t know what they are but they are beautiful. Later on I’ll do some digging and research. And realize oh that’s why. You know it’s about conjuring what you need. And always wanting to learn and inquire. Same thing with different herbs I work with.
I do consultations and some people need help with certain things and even if I don’t know off the top of my head what herb works I take time to find out and study them. I get really excited about doing the research and doing something new. Which is so inspirational!
Seeing how different plants grow in different regions. Wishing I had an apple tree or cherry blossom tree. I get really excited when I’m out and see plants I know. I also think people should know about plants that grow in bounty here in New Orleans. For example, how ginger is planted. Or rosemary.
I used to work for the Whole Foods on Broad and I remember people coming in to buy herbs and there was rosemary right outside at Faubourg Farms. There are signs that say feel free to harvest just respect the space. The rules are clear and right there. People come through the line spending $20 for herbs when they could just clip them and grow their own. Especially Uptown with all the different fruit trees growing.
I have an infatuation with vines, airplants. I’m getting into succulents. I love bromeliads, orchids. I have to brag on my passion flower right outside.
Are there any farms or gardens you like to go to?
I spend some time at Grow Dat - it’s one of my retreat spaces. I have a few friends that teach there. I would go there to get my hands in the dirt. I’d volunteer there. It was a rooting practice for me.
I wish I could get to the Guerrilla Garden more and the garden behind Whole Foods - Emily and I are pretty close. I love Faubourg Farms because upstairs there’s a whole seed library where the Firstline School office is. It’s organized by season and by vegetable/fruit.
I have a few friends that are green thumbs that share, but nothing nearly as huge. I have a small farm outside full of sweet potatoes, green beans.
I feel like kids don’t have the opportunity to get dirty anymore. So since I homeschool. I let them. First day of class I asked them what they liked to eat and we’d grow those foods.
There’s been a few parents that home school that are part of a collective that come through as well. Also grown ass adults who’d come through to learn and exchange ideas because I don’t know everything either. A lot of plants that are out there now are 2nd generation that have come back since last year.
How have plants changed your life?
I feel a lot more grounded. I feel generally in my daily life I float and drift. I feel like plants ground me. Having a relationship with them. I touch them, talk to them, we have dance parties everyday. When the kids would come in we’d dance. I had crystals from NC and they’d whisper a secret or intention and we’d plant them with the plants. One little girl said “Please grow. Please grow”. That made me wanna cry. My nickname is Mama Mushy. I’m a happy crier.
If I’m feeling a certain way or If there's something I need to get through at that moment or time I get the energy from the crystal, the plant, the sun, and the dirt it’s been buried in. It’s a very synergetic, mutualistic, symbiotic relationship. And just looking around and knowing what I’m giving their receiving.
Of course cooking with them, making them into GypsiJars products, with energy work. I make the dog bug spray tonic. Being able to look around at the dry herbs and knowing where they come from. They still hold memory and very tangible emotions for me.
How do you think plants can transform Black people's lives?
For me, it established a ritualistic practice. It’s reclaiming the word ritual which has become so taboo. It’s a daily practice. Something I commit to. It’s also noticing the difference in the plants and myself when I don’t do these things and noticing the difference in how I feel. There’s no greater feeling than growing your own food and sharing it with other people.
That’s a very important part of reclaiming space as Black people, especially people in and from New Orleans and in the South. Reclaiming agriculture is next to civic responsibility. Especially during this time when we really don't know where we’re getting our food from. It’s beneficial to have control over something. It’s growing your own medicine for you and your community. It’s having that exchange when you’re trading seeds, ideas, sharing compost and rainwater. You know all these very basic things. It creates community. It creates a practice. It creates an awareness. It creates an alternative. I think more than anything right now we need to know that we have alternatives.
For me sustainability and solidarity are one in the same. That’s the only way we’ll ever be able to carry our own, take care of our own is to be sustainable. It starts with what we put in and it determines a big part of what we need.
I love your idea of a community garden as a sanctuary. I know more people are doing it. But what are some other ways you can make this more accessible for other Black people where it might not be the norm or something they really know about it?
Early last spring we had started a small Facebook Group and it was too drive the fact about Black Earth and Black herbalists and that this was something that Black people do. That's when the garden hangouts started. In moving to my new home I’ve decided it probably won’t be as much a community space - as my capacity is shifting. I’ve thought about that and how I want to move from here.
I’m still interested in offering what I know to the community - whether it’s gardening or farming. I just haven’t figured out how I’m going to do that yet. I would like to do more work with the elders in the community. I know there are folks that know how to grow their own food, but probably just need a little bit of help. It may be a matter of them not being able to get down and weed and cultivate the Earth. I envision some type of work exchange co-op thing. Where able-bodied folks are helping elders and kids are having an exchange with elders. I feel like there is a lot of space that we could occupy if people knew what we could do with these spaces.
I’d like to do that more. Or make a mobile community garden and go to different people’s places to help them with their garden. Or even if there are folks who live in an apartment or have no green space but they want to farm - we’d schedule it so these people could help with your space in exchange for some harvest.
But right now I’m taking a break from curating spaces.
Are there any Black gardeners that we should be hip to?
4 Couloured Gurlz is a femme couple from Chicago and the Bay area. Nayome and Liz - they are both educators. They make candles and herbal products. We met at a reiki retreat. Liz made lavender cupcakes with lavender honey drizzled on top. That was a really special experience. We did our reiki training with Valerie from Black and Brown Bodies in Motion. Since it was a retreat I brought my watermelon with basil from the garden. I remember exchanging the love of herbs and we really hit it off. Since they’ve started their business I’ve been dragging them with me to pop-ups. Haha! I wish I had had someone pull me along when I first started my business.
But it’s been a beautiful symbolic relationship. I remember last summer after coming back from the Alton Sterling marches in Baton Rouge and coming back shell-shocked and them dropping off tea. Lizzie made me an anti-anxiety bread with lots of herbs in it. On the bag it said something like “It’s ok if all you did was survive today”. And I was like yo, we are here for life. I love them dearly and they have a nice little balcony plant selection/garden.
I plant sat for them several times. We’re those kinds of friends. Haha!
After our interview Gypsi took us on a tour of the outside garden.
This cat palm was given to me after my grandmother passed. I buried a bracelet that was given to me at that time in the plant.
Here is my ancestral altar. There was a period last year where I was finding all these feathers. I was like alright ancestors come through. This wreath I made from cosmos outside for a photo shoot.
This bouquet is one a friend gave me and it was on my doorstep when I came home. And I just thought y’a’ll are really loving on me.
This pothos is a rescue baby from Lowes. I take clippings from here and make gifts. Oh look there’s a new leaf. She sprouts everywhere she doesn’t care.
This is my Black Lives Matter space with the obsidian. Which is a very grounding stone.
This is my family, friends, community love altar space. Gifted flowers or things I’ve picked. This is a gift from when my grandmother passed. The Peace Lily bloomed on my grandmother’s birthday.
Outside Gypsi showed us sunflower seeds from a 2nd generation plant, the giant moringa, green beans, sweet potatoes, lemongrass, jasmine, zinnias, and many more plants and herbs used in GypsiJars products and consumed.
All photographs taken by Collection of Collections, unless otherwise noted.