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Beatrice Helman

A Chat With Marble & Milkweed’s Briar Winters

Garden Collage: Briar, what is your first impression or earliest memory of gardening and the outdoors?

I grew up in Washington State. Out in the country, my parents bought a piece of land where my dad planted an apple orchard and my parents had a huge garden. They would grow everything, all the summer vegetables: squash, tomatoes, green peas– so I grew up basically playing outside all the time.

It never even occurred to me that other kids didn’t do that because all my friends did that too. We all lived in the country, we all had pets, and we would all play outside in the dirt, all day.

GC: When did that view of the world change? Was it when you moved to New York?

We didn’t stay on that farm. When I was seven, we moved to a town where we still had a garden and I had a lot of my own space, but it was definitely different from just running through the fields and picking stuff growing here and there. I guess I really realized nature was such a big part of my life when I came to NYC.
I wanted to come here and I love New York, but you have to work hard to spend time with nature and have a garden when you are here. You can absolutely do it, but it just has to be a priority for you.

GC: Do you think your upbringing influenced what you do right now?

Definitely! I grew up feeling very comfortable around plants. Plants were part of the everyday; they weren’t really exotic.

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Beatrice Helman

GC: So what do you think is the most compelling or perhaps even most underrated plant?

It’s so hard to pick just one, it always changes with the season! Different plants go with different seasons. Right now, I am thinking a lot about nettles, the perfect spring food, since it has so many vitamins and minerals and it’s detoxifying to the liver and kidney. I think it’s amazing how the things that our body needs come at the exact right time of the year. There’s something very magical about that.

I think it’s amazing how the things that our body needs come at the exact right time of the year; there is something very magical about that.

GC: And where do you get these amazing ingredients?

Plant material comes from all over, so right now I am trying to strike a balance between things that come from overseas and things that are grown domestically, and especially locally. There are things I could not work without, like Cardamom and Sandalwood, but of course those plants are not native here and they very difficult, if not impossible to grow here. I don’t want to give these ingredients up but that at the same time I do recognize that the plant material right around where you are living is the most powerful plant material for you. I’m sourcing a lot of things from Vermont as well as from the West Coast and I have some lovely people who specialize in wild crafting. [Editor’s note: Wild crafting is SO cool! Stay tuned for a story on this soon.]

GC: Do you grow any plants at home?

I have north-facing light at my house on the Lower East so it’s not very good for growing things, but I do have a community garden plot in the East Village where I grow lots of herbs, especially culinary herbs for cooking at home. Last year we had several different kinds of basil, and holy basil, fennel, several native plants, and bitter greens – I love bitter greens! The spot is only 8 x 5 feet but we are trying.

GC: How did your experiences at home finally spark into the idea of running a business?

Originally, I was working as a pastry chef. I came to New York and did a few different things and ended up working in professional kitchens, which I really loved and still do. I learned a lot about sourcing ingredients and developing recipes, and those are skills that carry over to my current work. I just got to a point with pastry where I faced a crossroad and I could either go forward and do something on my own or continue to work for other people. It felt like I needed to do something on my own and change my path.

Kitchens can also be unhealthy environments to work in, since people work long hours on their feet, and there is a lot of smoking and drinking. Kitchen culture can be self-destructive in a lot of ways, and I wanted to be away from that even though I didn’t really participate in these things. It’s draining and that needed to be changed. And also feeding people sugar all day [laughs], I wanted to get more into being healthy and create a better lifestyle for myself and to encourage other people to do the same.

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Beatrice Helman

GC: Do you think gardening and the botanical world have impacted other areas of your life? You are dealing with it every day, but that’s the business – How does it impact your life?

In so many ways, really! When you get into plants and start using them, you also start being more adventurous in your cooking. You get to know more about different plants, and most people here in the United States don’t come from a rich food culture in the way that a lot of people do elsewhere, so feel like a lot of people that I know are still going through this process of discovery – What do I want my food life to look like? That’s definitely a way all this has affected my life, especially living in New York with all the different culinary inspirations. Also, in terms of health, I certainly believe in the value of Western medicine, but I also really would love to see some more integrative approaches that take into account the incredible richness of botanicals that we have all around us. [Editor’s Note: We’re doing a story about this, too!] I use a lot of handmade teas and tonics that I think contribute my feeling healthy and good. Being able to connect with nature in the city through having plants in your life is amazing. They are a wonderful way to bring the energy of nature into your space.

GC: Knowing your background and the path that led you to your current passion makes me really curious about your products. Can you tell me more about them?

I have four different fragrances and a fifth in works, maybe more [laughs] –I always have a new project floating around. People say all sorts of things about conventional perfume, the chemicals might be dangerous, et cetera, and that may or may not be important to everyone– but I personally don’t believe in using synthetic chemicals in my products mainly because I don’t think there is energy in them, to me that is the most important thing. Even if you can create the smell of sandalwood in a lab it’s still missing whatever life force exists in real sandalwood. You put it on your body and bring it into your life therefore I think it should be the real thing. It’s energy from the plant world and life is too short to use synthetic perfume.

GC: How long does it take to make one of your botanical scents?

Starting with the development it takes quite a long time. Real plant essences change over time and interact with each other when you blend them, synthetics don’t – they are not alive. Real scentsinteract with your skin, when you put the scents on they start out smelling one way and they can fade and evolve, which I find very interesting. It can take several months after you blend everything together to settle into its final form. The way it smells right after blending is not the same way it is going to smell in a week, in a month, in several months. I always have a good stock of my perfumes because I want them to age.

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Beatrice Helman

GC: Interesting; So it’s similar to a nicely-aged wine!

Exactly, you want all the different components to mingle and get to know each other. Natural perfume doesn’t last forever, both on the skin and in the bottle, it fades and changes over time, which is why I like to tell people to use it right away. They won’t instantly turn and change but you would want to use them while they are still living, just like when you buy herbs for tea, you shouldn’t wait forever to use them.

GC: How would you convince a typical New Yorker to embrace botanicals?

A lot of New Yorkers don’t want to smell like anybody else and I think that should be a big draw for using natural perfume. You can make the same blend ten times and it will never exactly smell the same because each year the distillations that you get may be the same rose or sandalwood but it is from a different year of harvest. There is a natural variation and that’s appealing to people. You don’t want to be in an elevator and smell someone with the same perfume on- it’s like having the same dress. Essential oils are like the blood and spirit of the plant. They create moods.

GC: What impact do botanical scents have on your mood?

Aromatherapy is a whole science. Certain things are uplifting and some calm you down. We as human beings evolved eating or using plants, so it makes a lot of sense that we can connect with them very easily.

GC: It wouldn’t be Garden Collage if we didn’t ask this: What is your favorite plant or flower?

Roses. I am named after them first of all [laughs], which is funny now, thinking about what I do. It’s one of the most beautiful essences because it’s one of those scents that everyone has their own memory of. You present somebody with the smell of roses and it always takes people somewhere. Roses are so common, but they hold so much collective memory.

GC: So it’s like a unique poem for everyone…

Definitely. Also: the time of the year plays a role; the rose is a very life-affirming flower.

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