Where to begin! Well, My name is Molly and I am an herbalist, ethnobotanist, writer, educator, and explorer. I was born on earth, raised in California, and reside in Aotearoa (New Zealand). As a wisdom collector and lover of earth’s wonders, I share my knowledge of the natural, botanical world. Whether through the alchemy of herbalism, research of indigenous plants, or mindful content creation, I educate people on how to interact and heal with nature. I have been traveling the world for years, studying plants, fighting for environmental sustainability and working with indigenous cultures.
I am currently working on a project with Vice to report on water pollution in New Zealand and going to Brazil this summer to study entheogenic indigenous plant medicine with tribal communities, where I will then apply to become a National Geographic Explorer.
Describe your innate connection with the natural world and how it has translated into your career calling.
Well, I have always had a special connection to the natural world. I definitely am a green witch, talking to plants on a daily basis and always thinking about the botanical world around me. My travels have always even revolved around what biome or ecosystem I am in. If I really boil it down, all of my interests lead to my fascination in learning how people and the earth interact with plants.
Starting from childhood, I grew up in the Santa Monica Mountains, where I would wander through the mediterranean woodlands and seek connection to the natural world. While others were playing video games, I was observing caterpillars, making leaf stream boats and climbing manzanita and oak trees. As a teenager, I discovered cannabis, which was not only medicine for my anxiety, but it brought me closer to the earth. I then went to University of Vermont to study environmental studies, where I got deeply involved with environmental activism. Through the semesters, I became involved with environmental education, teaching kids about tropical farming in the British Virgin Islands and later finding herbalism through a plant based healing course. From there, I became a practitioner and wild forager. But, it was not until I read a book about ethnobotany that I knew immediately I had found my true calling.
Since then, I have been doing ethnobotanical work primarily in the Oceania region for almost 8 years and running my own herbalism clinic. But, I have been moving into a space where I am taking my passionate work to the next level, with larger publications and research goals. In fact, while I was at Oxford last summer, I finally conceptualized a career-long project I have been trying to put together for years, which is where hopefully National Geographic and the Berkeley School of Psychedelic Medicine come in. For me, my dream is to work with entheogenic plants on a long term basis, writing books and documentaries, and raising indigenous voices.
How does your love of nature influence your drive to conserve it and our environment as a whole?
We are nature as nature is us. If we want to survive, we need to protect the natural world. My love of nature is loving myself and my family. It is loving all of earth and her species. As a society, we need to stop looking at nature as the “other" and start developing mutually beneficial relationships with earth, while protecting plant species and indigenous cultural rights. That is why I think entheogenic plants are essential for conservation and the climate crisis. When consumed, entheogenic plants shift human consciousness. The environmental movement keeps bombarding people with what they are supposed to do or what they are doing wrong. But, people aren't going to understand and want to change unless they FEEL it and I truly believe that entheogenic plans are the solution to that. When we consume the actual plants or fungi from the planet, we feel that shift and hear the messages that earth is trying to say. We are an organism of this planet. We are ALL the same…animals, plants, trees, fungi, lichen, humans.
Cue a quote from my favorite tv show Avatar, the Last Airbender:
“If you listen hard enough, you can hear every living thing breathing together. You can feel everything growing. We're all living together, even if most folks don't act like it. We all have the same roots and we are all branches of the same tree.”
I have so much more to say on this subject, so I would definitely refer readers to my Substack about entheogens, my career and environmental justice.
Also, just to add, living in Aotearoa has inspired my conservation goals. I thought by leaving the USA I would find an environmental sanctuary, but it isn’t true. I found a place that needs my voice more than ever. The government promotes this propaganda of 100% pure New Zealand, but it is bullshit. We have some of the most polluted waters in the world and most of the land was stolen from Māori during colonization for agriculture corporations. That is why the story I am writing and filming with Vice is so important. I am still in shock that such a prominent team accepted my pitch and we are going to fight to help raise awareness, indigenous voices and finally call out the people polluting our earth and killing communities with cancer from nitrates.
For those who are unfamiliar, what is ethnobotany in a nutshell? Herbalism? How are they related, and how do they contrast?
Ethnobotany is the study of the relationship between humans and plants, primarily in cultural settings. Ethno refers to people, culture, a culture’s collective body of beliefs, aesthetic, language, knowledge, and practice, while botany refers to the study of plants.
Herbal medicine, or herbalism, is the art and science of using plants to support health and wellness. It draws from ancient herbal knowledge to grow with modern medicine and research. Plants have safely been used for thousands of years, with origin of use dating back to almost 60,000 years ago. I would say that herbalism is just an offshoot of ethnobotany. It's the study of herbs as medicine for humans. In fact, it could almost go under the ethnomedicine branch.
I wrote two articles that break down both subjects: https://mollyhelfend.substack.com/p/what-is-ethnobotany
https://mollyhelfend.substack.com/p/herbalism-101 (published in April)
Describe your research as an ethnobotanist.
I have been traveling the world researching, studying and lecturing about ethnobotanical and environmental subjects across the Oceania, North American and UK/European continents for upwards of 10 years. But, I think my work is always evolving, but as I mentioned, I am beginning a journey researching and working with entheogenic plants.
The truth is the psychedelic movement is here to stay. They have become a globalized commodity. It's a hot button subject that even the New York Times is covering and we're just not going to go backwards from this point. So, what can we do instead of getting angry and trying to remove these substances from modern society? Well, we can educate people on how to properly take these medicines and how to use them with cultural competency and ritualistic knowledge.
For example, as I start my work with ayahuasca in Brazil in mid 2023, a lot of my research will be dedicated to educating people in other areas of the world that there is an enormous amount of cultural relevance and sacred ritual practice that has existed for thousands of years with this medicine. Most importantly, we have to create a system where we are incorporating indigenous reciprocity into this globalization. Hopefully my work can take me to places like Mexico, researching peyote, or the Congo, researching Iboga, and so on.
And as my career grows, I am also passionate about tea. From rooibos in South Africa, black tea in Kumaon to matcha in Japan, I am fascinated with the art, ceremony and cultivation of tea. Or perhaps I will do more research into other plant medicines. Maybe discover new botanical wonders. Who knows? That is what is so amazing about learning and exploration. The natural world has endless inspiration. I can become Indiana Jones, adventurer and professor!
Describe your involvement as an environmental activist.
Flashback to 18 year old Molly! One day, I was walking home from class in university, smoking a joint, and a few activists stopped their car and told me they were going down to Washington DC to protest the Keystone XL pipeline and asked if I wanted to come. I spontaneously jumped in the trunk and rode 18 hours down to the capitol. I slept in an abandoned church and met Greenpeace activists who said I had a knack for this work. So, freshman summer I applied for their coveted internship and got it. I flew to San Francisco and found an apartment with some rad gypsy women in a rough neighborhood, and it was such an amazing time. I became Greenpeace’s youngest intern! In fact, during my time there, what began as an in-depth research presentation into oil corporations and their impact on the environment, led to the creation of their campaign against oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It even made its way to the Obama administration, where it was later instrumental in banning drilling from the region.
I also helped build the campaign against palm oil plantations in Sumatran rainforest with Rainforest Action Network and organized the 2013 San Francisco march and protest of the Keystone XL pipeline over the Golden Gate Bridge with 360.org. It attracted thousands of participants and media attention from around the world!
Although I would not say I am on the front lines trying to get arrested anymore, I think education is now my own form of activism. I would hope that my work is contributing to environmental sustainability and promoting a movement of trying to disrupt corrupt systems and oppose transnational corporations!
How did you discover Avasol? What is your experience using it?
I discovered Avasol at my local herbal and organic produce shop in Raglan. We started buying it in our household for surfing, and one day when we were shopping for groceries at The Herbal Dispensary, we met your sales rep Seth. I could recognize a fellow California accent anywhere!
We had such good yarns and it turned out he was from the same part of California as me. He gave us heaps of product to try and we became hooked. It’s really the only zinc that can protect us against that gnarly New Zealand sun. It was just so healthy and easy to apply! I use it for surfing, large hikes and overall beach days.
Why do you recommend Avasol to your clients?
The fact that your company prioritizes clean ingredients and environmental sustainability is like giant wedding bells to me. As a content director for health and wellness companies for many years, I got so tired of working with brands that were not transparent with their customers, and frankly employees. You have such a healthy team and customer base. You are honest about what is in your products and are TRULY trying to make a difference. That is rare in this day and age and I admire it so much.
You are honest about what is in your products and when we use your zinc, we don’t feel scared if it's been on for hours. We know we are protected from UV rays, but also from unhealthy ingredients. When I am surfing in Raglan, I know my skin is safe, but also when I go diving in Indonesia, I know I am not bleaching the coral. THAT is why I recommend Avasol to my clients.
How do brands like Avasol empower you, whether through outdoor-exploration, sustainability, ethnobotany or all three?
Avasol is really special, because it showed me that you can be honorable AND be a successful business. That is huge! A company that is not prioritizing profit over the earth…reminds me of Patagonia! I can support a product that works for all my outdoor hobbies and explorations and is doing great things for the planet.
If you put the right ethics into your brand, you will be successful and profit can come. I wish more brands were doing it like you guys! It inspires me knowing that not only a brand like that exists, but it inspires me to keep fighting against transnational corporations. This way, I can keep supporting small businesses and local products. You all empower me to keep educating and leading people to brands like yours.