North State herbalist takes to the great outdoors to harvest her medicines
In 2009, while living in McCall, Idaho, Jules Pescon was fighting a battle against breast cancer. While she’d had the lump surgically removed, she was hesitant to continue treatment with radiation and chemotherapy, aware of the tolls they took on the body. She explained the dilemma to her neighbor, who offered her what turned out to be a very valuable, life-changing piece of advice. “If I were you, I’d march right over to Darcy Williamson’s house,” she said. Williamson, who lived just across the ridge, was a master herbalist in McCall who was sustainably harvesting and processing plants into medicinal alternatives to Western medicine.
“I set up an appointment with her and never left,” joked Pescon, who spent the next six years apprenticing under Williamson, foraging for plants in the Salmon River Valley while learning how to incorporate the medicines into her own recovery process. “They [the plants] helped save my life and now I advocate for them.”
For Pescon, advocating for the plants meant bringing what she’d learned to a new area. Having grown up around Chico and Paradise, she made frequent trips back to Butte County from Idaho, and quickly discovered there was a need for more access to herbal wellness information and products.
“Nobody knew anything about it, and I told Darcy I needed to stay here [in Butte County].” For the last two years, she’s been sharing her medicinal plant teachings in the North State. Pescon recently set up her shop, Fiona’s Forest, in Paradise, and she also operates a stand on Saturdays at the Chico Certified Farmers’ Market, where she sells a variety of natural beauty and health products, including soaps, body creams, tinctures, hydrosols and salves.
Made primarily from a combination of plants that she’s harvested together with other local products, Pescon takes pride in using “only ingredients that you can pronounce” in her goods, with her beauty products made mostly using coconut and almond oils.
Perhaps one of the most unique aspects of her mission is “wildcrafting,” or going out and searching for essential ingredients to then harvest into medicines. Every Sunday she invites anyone who’s interested to come forage with her in nature, where she looks for native plants that can be processed into useful health products. That process takes part in Pescon’s kitchen/lab, which plays host to a bevy of jars, distillers and other containers full of plant parts awaiting transformation into new forms, from healing salves to hydrosol liquids.
She explains one of her favorite projects: making tinctures, or highly concentrated medicinal liquids. “A tincture is a plant material and you put it in a food-grade container, and cover it with alcohol, which dehydrates the plants so that all the constituents are left in the alcohol. You only need half a teaspoon, twice a day.” She offered a sip of a particularly strong tincture to this reporter. “These are made of cleavers; they grow down in the valley. They’re a strong immune-system booster, and they’re a lymphatic cleanse. It’s a triple tincture, so it’s very strong; in the spring, I harvest them before they flower in the valley, and then I’ll harvest at a higher elevation about six weeks later and then another six weeks later.”
While harvesting the plants, she makes sure to follow sustainable practices. “We just go out and harvest things that are growing in their natural environment. If things are growing in a patch, we take only an eighth of the patch, and if we’re taking leaves, we’ll only take the tip, so the plant can still thrive.”
Thanks to word of mouth, she’s been able to find and forage from several private properties around Paradise, Chico and Feather Falls, educating land owners about the offerings around their homes. “People want to know what kind of plants are on their property and how they can use them. I’ve also studied with the Shoshone Indians, so I know the traditional uses of these plants.” Thanks to the abundance of available land around the North State, she’s able to harvest plants exclusively within a 60-mile radius of Chico and Paradise.
When asked about native Butte County plants that can be used for medicinal remedies, Pescon says the list is endless, but she offered a few favorites. “We harvest elderberries a lot; we use the flower as a soothing element in salves, and we harvest the berry, which is a strong immune-system booster. We’re also working with local plants that help fight Lyme disease, like the teasel root and the Japanese knot weed. And with spring approaching, there are a lot of plants to look forward to!”