From Iceland — The Herb Whisperer Next Door

The Herb Whisperer Next Door

Published July 9, 2024

The Herb Whisperer Next Door
Photo by
Joana Fontinha for The Reykjavík Grapevine

Kolbrún Björnsdóttir is nothing short of a modern-day potion maker

Tucked away amid the bustle of Reykjavík’s Laugavegur shopping street lies Jurtaapótek, a herbal apothecary that has been introducing Icelanders and tourists to the healing power of herbs since 2004. At its heart is herbalist Kolbrún Björnsdóttir, who knows firsthand the remarkable benefits of nature’s remedies.

When I was a kid, I lived in the country from ages 12 to 17. I wasn’t really thinking about plants in terms of their healing properties. But I have always had a really big interest in nature. I was outside a lot and I was making sculptures from herbs. I was not making tea back then. 

“You don’t need to be sick to use herbs.”

Then I went to college, to the boarding school in Laugarvatn. I had a lot of time on my hands there. There came a time when I got very interested in health, in how we stay fit. I started doing sports and seeing that if I worked out, I would feel much healthier. Then I started cutting down on sugar and switching to a healthier diet. Probably around the age of 19, I knew I wanted to pursue some alternative career as my future job, but I didn’t know exactly what. Once I saw an interview in a newspaper about a lady who went to the U.K. to become an educated herbalist. I thought, “What is this? I’m going to do the same.” 

At that point, I hadn’t even seen a herbalist or hadn’t taken a mixture of herbs. But that’s what I did — I went to the U.K. to study at a herbalist school and have been doing this for 31 years now. First, I had a private practice for 11 years and I have owned this shop for 20 years. 

A holistic perspective

How I see the difference between herbs and medicine is that herbs make the body stronger, helping and supporting it to stay healthy or get better. Medicine is very direct; it’s got one chemical, which goes to one site, pressing down or suppressing the symptoms. Basically, your body does not complain, but you continue to have the same problem. You’re not making any corrections. I’m not saying that medicine should not exist — we are lucky to have it and it’s very good for acute conditions — but it would be very nice to see it used together with herbal remedies.

The same applies to the healthcare system. It’s good for emergencies. I broke my arm last year — of course, I needed to go to the doctor and get it fixed. I use the healthcare system if I have to. But when it comes to long-term problems, I use herbs.

I continue to learn every single day. Books are just something that almost grows in my hands. I never leave them. People often tease me because when I go to the countryside for the weekend or something, five books is very light for me. Sometimes, I bring 20.

The power of humble dandelion

Dandelions are my favourite plant. You can tell by the logo. People are always surprised because it’s a very common plant. But it’s an amazing plant! You can use the whole plant — leaves for the kidney, the root for the liver. You can also use the flower itself. If you look at the flower, it’s not just amazing, it’s basically the sun — think of the ways it expands and transforms. 

I live downtown and I know the air here isn’t clean. But I think it’s better to pick dandelions in the city instead of not using them at all.

Many plants grow in Iceland. But it’s probably true that we don’t have many plants in a big quantity to collect. I’m importing all of my dandelions — from Poland, the U.K. and U.S., India, from all over. In Iceland, it’s very easy to find them by the roads or in the parks, but you need to dig the root out, so it’s not easy to pick it up there. 

Herbal use made ease

People often are afraid of using the herbs — they’re scared of doing something wrong. They know many of the herbs outside are good for us, they know blóðberg is good, but they don’t know how to use it. They think, “Oh, I know nothing about it. I’m not going to use it.” The herbs are not like that, most of them are not dangerous. Also, there are books where you can see which plant does what. If you want to go out and pick some herbs, always carry the Flóra Íslands book with you.

If you’re still unsure, you can buy everything here at Jurtaapótek. We are producing a few hundred products. It’s basically a handcraft company because we make everything by hand. We offer herbs in powder form — mixtures for supporting the immune system and also for specific things, capsules, teas, decoctions, ointments, essential oils. You don’t need to be sick to use herbs. You can also use them in your diet — put them in your soup, porridge, bread, even pancakes. Just use your imagination. 

“The reason why they have the herbs in capsules is because people are lazy.”

The reason why they have the herbs in capsules is because people are lazy. It makes it very easy — you can swallow the herbs, you don’t have to taste them because some of them don’t taste nice, they’re bitter. You don’t have to think about how to include them in your diet. You can basically come in here and get a mixture to support the body in general. Or you can get one of our teas. Chamomile tea is basic, we use a lot of them. It’s a mild tea, relaxing for the gut system and anti-inflammatory. We also use lime flower quite a lot, which is also relaxing but a little bit stronger than chamomile. Not only for relaxing, but also to strengthen the nervous system, we use green oats and ashwagandha.

The demand for teas has grown a lot since we started. When we first started, we had all the teas, but we weren’t selling a lot. These days, people want to see the plants. We cannot keep the shelves stocked.

Kolbrún often teaches workshops on how to use herbs as well as provides individual consultations. Learn more at jurtaapotek.is

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