Meet Francesca Garcia, our South Uptown neighbor who pursued her love for animal care before she was hired by Indigenous Food Lab to be the in-house herbal specialist. Francesca and I talked about how she transitioned from following her animal care passion to following her herbalism passion. Francesca shares where you can find medicinal herbs in Southwest Minneapolis and what you can do with them. You will also be able to purchase Francesca’s herbal tea blends at the new Indigenous Food Lab Market, inside the Midtown Global Market, when it opens later this year.

Melody: Let’s start with the pet clinic. What was it like to work at a pet clinic? How did you end up there?

Francesca: So I applied for a position as a veterinary assistant.  Since I was little, my passions were always geared towards animals, rehabilitation, and veterinary care. I wanted to do something that I care about, that I didn’t have to be scared to do, based on the fact I wasn’t able to go to schooling. We didn’t have enough money and there were other things in my life that prevented that from happening. So, I just saw the position, and I said, ‘I am going to get it.’ But before that, I volunteered at the Wildlife Center. Originally my family is from California, we moved here in 2009.

Melody: That’s when I moved up here. Where in California are you from?

Francesca: Originally, we were from Davis, up north. There’s a huge veterinary medicine campus school, the equestrian center, there’s cows, the fair, and also the farmers market. And everything was all coordinated. It was great. But, here I ended up, since I didn’t have schooling and I wanted to do something with animals, I ended up volunteering at the Wildlife Center. So I did that for a couple of years, and that was so great. I worked with the mammal nursery and the avian nursery, too. [The mammal nursery] was not the rabies vector side, it was just squirrels.

M: Just squirrels.

F: Just squirrels. [laughs] I couldn't work with the raccoons or the weasels. Just because I needed to have the vaccinations for that. Unless you sign up to do the whole year, that means you have to work extra hours, long hours there everyday and then you can get approved for the vaccinations to treat those animals and work with them.

So it was like a huge thing. And I I still had another job. I worked at Trader Joe's. I can afford these four hours on one day. But it was really great. It was a lot of work. But it was really awesome just to work with the squirrels and also I got to feed ravens and other different species of birds.

M: What did you do with the squirrels?

F: Basically, just like feeding, we did measurements, depending how young they were when they would come in.

M: And how do you get the squirrels? Are they sick?

F: A lot of times when storms happen, their nests fall out of trees and then people in the community  find them in their yard or things like that and they bring them in. They are drop offs, from people.

M: So that gave you some background to go to Kenwood Pet Clinic?

F: Yeah, because I had done a lot of the organizational charts and I would keep track of feedings. We would aspirate sometimes too, because when you feed wildlife, sometimes they don't know what we’re using. They’re not familiar with it. It’s not mom’s nipple. So they can aspirate, but you don't want that to happen. Aspirating is when, as they're drinking, it goes into their nose. And they breathe it in, so it can cause lung infections or pneumonia or things like that. We would take notes [for when] they aspirated. That way the vet techs who are also working there can have that information. They can keep an eye out just in case.

M: So then, after that, you went to Kenwood as a vet assistant. What did you do there?

F: When I initially got the job,  I thought that I would just be doing cleaning, maybe cleaning the kennels and cleaning the exam rooms. But it ended up being more, which is cool. They were pushing us to train more. So I got to learn how to draw blood. I got to learn to do X-rays, give medicine. So it was a lot more than I thought that I was going to do as a vet assistant.

It was nice to be able to get that experience. I really did love the learning to draw blood because I got really good at it. As it can be a little tricky, especially if some of the animals are more resistant. Because, of course they are. Anyone would be scared. And we did our best to help them feel calm. It was a good experience. I just ended up needing to get paid more.

M: Do you still have to go to school to be a vet tech?

F: You do.

M: And your experience doesn't work in lieu of school?

F:  No, I think you still have to have that like schooling. Eventually, [Kenwood Pet Clinic] was thinking of offering schooling for someone who wanted to go into that, but you know you'd work at their clinic for so many years. That would be cool, but it just wasn't a good time for me.

M: You started out doing herbalist stuff on your own. Tell me about that whole interest of yours.

F: So that was kind of something that my sister Jessica and I were both really into. My sister lives here too. My mom and my sister with her husband and my two nephews are from California–we all came together. My sister and I are both really interested in herbalism. Everyone’s had family members or experiences where there's been a lot of ailments or maybe someone’s not taking good care of themselves or pharmaceuticals aren't really helping. It's just like masking the problem. I don't feel that pharmaceuticals are not helpful. It’s just dependent on how you can support your body.

So we started wanting to study more of the natural roles. And we grew up with our mom and we were poor. Eventually we were able to have a house that we were renting and she was able to have a little yard space and garden. Then we would all work the garden. And became more familiar with plants. I think also growing up indigenously, it was something of having that connection to the land already. But also knowing that those are like our plant relatives and you want to be able to learn from them too. They have so much knowledge to share and being able to support them as well as them being able to support us. So it became that passion and when we got here we started trying to go more that route.

M: Go that route as a family?

F: Yeah, I think my mom is very interested in it too, but she's just not able to do as much because she has MS so she's not as mobile. But then that's also where we can help, maybe bring herbs that can help support you or kind of help you along the way as we learn.

We met Jessie Belden from The Medicine Tree. It was an herbal community store and she would teach and have apprentices. And also teach classes.  She's really great. She was really awesome to learn from. So [my sister and I] took an apprenticeship with her there. That was for six months, but it was also outside, so we'd travel to certain locations and then learn that way, which is great to be hands-on. So it just increased our interest and our yearning to want to learn more. There's a lot of information and a lot of conflicting information. So we're still budding herbalists, trying to learn. It’s nice being able to support our bodies in ways, where if you're having a certain issue that you're going through, if you're able to support it with herbs and help your body acclimate to it. Then your body responds and builds stronger immunity so that you can move through it. Sometimes I think we end up just taking a lot of pills for certain things that just mask it completely and it doesn't go away and is not helping your body. So it's for that purpose too. Of course, if someone is really sick, go to your doctor. We’re not saying this has to replace everything, but it's just nice to have that little added step of taking care of ourselves.

M: What does that mean to help your body through something?

F: It’s not like an herb is going to just make something completely go away the moment you put it on. It does take a little bit of time, so I think there's having that patience to work with it and to help your body move through it too, because we're so used to instant gratification. Which I can understand is definitely great.

But for instance, with lemon balm, that's something that is very helpful for anxiety, uplifting your mood and helping with depression and it's also supportive to your digestive system as well. Being from the mint family and containing those volatile oils, [lemon balm] basically acts like an anti-inflammatory. So in that sense if you are having certain digestive issues, it's kind of like when you drink a mint tea after eating or before eating, just to help.

It helps to soothe your organs within your digestive system if they're inflamed or spasming, it can bring on some antispasmodic properties and like help soothe and kind of calm it down to help it move through. So that’s how it works for your body. Where it just kind of helps support it in that way, where the certain properties of the plant will have those effects on your organ systems.

Same with milky oats, or oatstraw, it’s a nervine [supports the central nervous system]. I love it for taking if you're just burnt out at both ends. It also has a lot of vitamins and minerals, so when you take it as an infusion daily, it's really helpful for energy and focus. And so it's one of those supportives, when taking long term, you can start having that support to your body and feeling more of those benefits the longer that you are taking it. Another part is its anti-inflammatory, where it can help soothe your frazzled nervous system, which can make you feel really tense. It basically soothes your nervous system.

M: And all this stuff that you're sharing with me now, is this some of the stuff that you learned at Medicine Tree or is this just you collecting the information over time?

F: Yeah, I think a lot of it I learned from Medicine Tree. My sister and I do some studies with other herbalists who put content out there too. And they'll have lesson videos like Herbal Radio from Mountain Rose Herbs.  It's just a huge bulk supplier and I usually purchase a lot of herbs from them too. We do for NĀTIFS as well.

So it's kind of like doing that throughout the years, to watch and take notes and then trying to test it at home. I think we can learn so much visually and by listening and watching. But it also really helps when you actually are physically applying it to your daily life and even the smell of a tea, or working with the different energetics of the plant, or different herbal actions and how they may affect certain organ systems. The simplest way is to test it out yourself. Take it, smell it, see how it makes you feel, to get a feel for the energy of the plant.

M: I know with NĀTIFS you use things that are indigenous to the to this area or is it also to the continent?

F: It’s to the continent.  And there has been some nice flexibility there because with my studies in herbalism, I don't like to not include other plants that are around us as well, because they're already here. I feel like, well, if they're here, we should learn from them and also work with them, even if they are from somewhere else. We do use a lot of indigenous ingredients, but I think I have more flexibility to work a little bit past that. I had them order lemongrass because I wanted to work with that.

M: What is your official job title?

F: Under the NĀTIFS umbrella, I am the Indigenous Food Lab herbal specialist.

M: That sounds like a job that they wrote for you. How did you meet the people at NĀTIFS?

F: When I was applying to Kenwood Pet Clinic, I was volunteering at the Indigenous Food Lab because they were making meals during the pandemic when it was still going on really heavily.

I was volunteering, making soups and then helping to package them. And I of course got acquainted with Sean [Sherman] and he basically was like, ‘oh, want a job?’ At the time I was like, ‘oh this is great, but I also just applied to Kenwood and I don't want to like not go that way because I think they just offered me a job. I can't right now.’ My big passion was animals. [Sean replied] ‘well, if you change your mind, the door’s open.’  So after Kenwood, I still had Sean’s number. ‘Sean, is that still a possibility for me to come work here and like if it's not, that's totally OK. But I just wanted to touch base and see if that was still open.’ And then he was on board about it.

M: So then, what does your job entail at Indigenous Food Lab?

F: I'm going to be having a flex position where I'm going to be able to work with the education team, teach classes, as well as creating different herbal tea blends and cacao blends which I wanted to make. I was just always interested in making hot chocolate because I love hot chocolate. I was like, ‘oh we can do this with cacao, that’s indigenous and I can make something really yummy with that. So we have a few of those recipes on there. I’ll do the creative blending and be working on bulk batching the teas and having those prepared, as well as continuing to create new blends based on the different seasons and what's available.

We also just went out to feed chili and fry bread to our houseless neighbors that got moved by the police.

M: Did you do that on Indigenous Peoples Day?

F: Yes, Indigenous Peoples Day. We had the day off but I felt like I really want to go help today because they’re our neighbors too and I just want to bring them some food and some comfort and something to help, so I worked with [my co-worker] Jason and I think we did like 20 gallons of tea. Southside Harm Reduction Services was there to provide food, too and multiple people from [Indigenous Food Lab] came out. We all overdid it with the food and then the tea and the fry bread. But it was OK because we didn't run out. But it just felt good to go out there and also share that. It's my way of also taking care of the community, like trying to include ingredients that have more medicinal benefits for certain things.

M: Your tea is very good by the way. I have been given multiple samples. It’s very good.

F: Thank you. Which did you try?

M: One had rose petals and nettle.

F: Oh, that’s the garden one. We’re working on the Dakota name. I need to learn how to pronounce it from Liz [Cates], our Dakota speaker.

M: Which reminds me, I was going to ask you, are you from a particular nation or tribe?

F: Yeah, so I'm half-Native, so from Tarahumara and Yaqui and then I am half-Mexican.

M: So your tribes, are they, were they indigenous to California then?

F: They're indigenous to Southwest–Tarahumara and then there's also Yaqui. They were right by each other in like, the lower part of Arizona and the borders of Mexico.

M: Is there anything that you wanted to share, either about your love of animals or herbalism that we didn't get to?

F:  I really enjoy herbalism because it connects me more to the Earth, to nature, and I love to go foraging, yeah. My sister and I will do that. There's a lot of goldenrod everywhere and sumac.

M: What do you use goldenrod and sumac for?

F: It's good to help if you're allergic to cats. My nephew is allergic to cats, so my sisters made a tincture of goldenrod. So if he goes over to a friend’s house who has a cat, then she has him take it and it’s been actually, really helpful with his allergies. Nettle is good to help with seasonal allergies. Sumac has antioxidants, vitamin C, and it just tastes really good as a spice. So when I'm making tacos or any ground bison or beef, I’ll add sumac. Sumac lemonade is also really good.

M: If someone wanted to make an easy herbal thing from around Southwest Minneapolis, what could they find around here that would be forgeable and medicinal?

F: Well, there's goldenrod, there's sumac, and there's nettle everywhere. There's also motherwort, which is an invasive weed but I love her. She’s like a warm hug. She helps with anxiety and depression and such things. She's very bitter though, so I wouldn't recommend just eating it, but you can take it as a tincture or make an herbal vinegar. And there's burdock, which is also everywhere. Burdock roots and the leaves you can use. And plantain.

M: Plantain? How does that work here?

F: Not the fruit, just the plant. It has oval leaves. It's probably growing in any park. We also have an indigenous plantain. If you pull the leaf up and the middle stock is a reddish purple, that's the indigenous one. Plantain was called the white man's footsteps when it was initially here, because apparently whenever settlers would come and walk, this plantain would follow in their steps, is how it was perceived. But there is actually an indigenous plantain that has that purple on the stalk of the leaf.

M: Wow, I love this all so much. Thank you so much for talking with me.

F: Yes, of course.

After our interview, Francesca suggested visiting Present Moment Herbs and Books at 3546 Grand Ave. S. to learn about and access medicinal herbs.