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Culture

Herbal essences

A little Detroit store dispenses the remedies of a fading tradition

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Gary Wanttaja stands before his jars of herbs.


Silence lingers in the old shop the way it would inside a library, as if to say that here too, years of accumulated wisdom are stored and revered.

The old wood shelves on the walls are lined with hundreds of glass jars filled with colorful powders and mysterious leaves, like containers of magic potions. Some jars are clear; many are brown to protect their contents from the light. A small label on each says in carefully hand-printed letters what they hold. 

Irish moss sits dried and crumbled in one, myrrh fills half of another with fine grains. They share shelf space with the oat straw and the yam root, the hyssop and the shepherd's purse, the sassafras bark and the coltsfoot. 

This small room is home to Nature's Products, a bulk herb store whose simple name reflects the essence of its conviction — that long before the modern drug industry, nature provided cures to most of our ailments. It sits in a plain building on Conant by Seven Mile, a dusty stretch of road where its closest neighbor is a noisy collision shop that strews crumpled cars along what little parking the road affords. With its dim lighting and old tin ceiling, the shop has the air of an apothecary a century ago.

Its regular customers are practitioners of folk medicine, who use the herbs in traditional remedies often passed down through families or learned from neighbors in the rural countryside. So the labels describe the jars' contents not in their proper name, but in their common one. Thus the euphrasia is labeled as eyebright, to indicate what it does, and the phytolacca is introduced by its vernacular name of pokeroot, to suggest what it looks like.

When someone comes for help with an illness, or for an ingredient for a family concoction, owner Gary Wanttaja will twist the lid off one of those big jars, pour a portion into a plastic bag using his eyes as a measuring stick, then confirm his estimation by putting the bag on one side of an ancient, heavy metal scale that sits in the sunlit window among all the houseplants angling for the light.

But that ritual happens less every year, and not just because business is slow, as it is throughout the city. The hand-me-down knowledge this store embodies is utilized mostly by old folks now, and they're dying off. And marking a break in a long chain, they say their children and grandchildren have little interest in learning the old ways. The tradition is slowly fading away.

"It's not just here, it's happening all over the planet," says the slight, pale Wanttaja, 54. "They're changing all over. They're looking at this like, 'This is the old way, this is going backwards. We need to go forwards.' Their attitude is, like, 'We don't need all this funky weeds and seeds.' And that was what kind of happened here."

Wanttaja had severe allergies when he was young, and he turned to alternative medicine when doctors couldn't help. "Regular medicine just wasn't doing anything," he says. "So after a couple of years of changing my diet, using nutrition and using the herbs and realizing it worked, I started looking at more alternative things, and I thought I'd like to do this as a living."

He opened the store in 1978, in an old building that used to be the neighborhood's little grocery store. At first he expected the growing interest in alternative medicine at the time would provide him a natural customer base. He was wrong. "I thought I might have all these hippies coming in here," he laughs. 

But to his surprise, most of the customers were middle-aged and elderly black people from the neighborhood, many who grew up in deep poverty down South, where for years they had little access to doctors or modern medicine. For them, the woods and the backyard garden were the pharmacy.

"You've got a sick kid, what are you gonna do? You look through the options — I could go to the doctor but I don't have money, I could watch the kid burn up with a fever, or go talk to your neighbor, who knows to use some herbs. So that became part of the culture. A lot of Detroit came in around World War II to work in the factories, so they brought that culture with them."

His customers began sharing with him years of shared secrets and traditions, and he became a repository for different strains of herbal knowledge. "I just started logging this information, and after years it was kind of neat," he says. "You get an idea of what they were using down through the South, and they were happy to share it."

But he's not supposed to share it himself. Telling customers what to take for certain ailments crosses the line into practicing medicine, and could land him in trouble. Instead he shares stories of how certain herbs worked for him personally, and from those hints, some of his longtime customers have realized that he knows more than he's letting on.

"Gary knows it, he just won't tell you a lot," says 78-year-old Faith, an eccentric, longtime regular who years ago rechristened herself with that single name. "He'll tell you he's not a doctor, but as far as knowing it, he does know it."

She grew up in the backwoods of Louisiana, where the family created cures from things growing in the wilds out back. "There weren't any doctors," the 78-year-old says. "The only thing you had was herbs. And you had an herb for everything. They used them to heal us with the things that just got on everyone's nerves. We call them weeds, but yet these herbs heal." 

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