Plant based medicinal healing has long been a tradition throughout the Diaspora, dating back to ancient Africa. However, since then, Black folks have traditionally been left out of the mainstream vegan movement, making the mental depiction of veganism as predominantly (if not exclusively) white.
Dr. Sunyatta’s Calabash Tea & Tonic is redefining what it means to heal — naturally. The vegan entrepreneur is a fifth generation master herbalist, naturopathic doctor and vegan chef whose upbringing impacted the way she views food as nourishment.
Since it’s Shaw location opened near Howard University in 2015, this wellness haven has not only proved to be a staple within the DC community, it’s also been voted the Best Tea Shop every year since in the Washington City Paper’s reader poll.
Calabash found so much success healing the local community, that they wanted to do even more to spread its message. This summer Dr. Sunyatta opened the second location — in the Brookland neighborhood — providing over 50 organic tea blends based on her Cuban-Jamaican great-grandmother’s time-tested formulas. Calabash also serves direct trade pour-over coffees, vegetarian vittles, and kombucha.
Here, she speaks with ESSENCE about the healing powers of herbs, and why we need to implement them into our daily lives.
You’re a naturopathic physician and fifth-generation herbalist. Herbs have clearly always had a presence in your life — why was this so important within your family? Was there a tradition that was passed down?
My family is from Jamaica and Cuba. I had the good fortune of knowing my grandparents and great-grandparents who were my master instructors in herbal traditions. For Jamaicans, the continuation of African Maroon and Native American Arawak culture takes great pride in knowing plants on sight… which are healing and which are harmful.
Your philosophy is that “food is medicine.” Why should Black people learn more about the healing powers of herbs? What would you say to someone who doubts their effectiveness?
Wellness is our birthright. When we go back 2-3 generations we see our grandparents had gardens… growing herbs, fruits and vegetables. Our urbanization has left us without that natural earth connection. We no longer recognize medicinal herbs and flowers even when passing them on the street. Herbal medicine is like electricity… you don’t have to see it or believe in it for its efficacy to shock you.
Do you have a favorite “go-to” herb for its therapeutic value?
Passionflower. The most slept on herb for calming tension and anxiety. Modern people’s nervous systems are taxed beyond belief.
What are some herbs that we should be taking every single day for our overall health?
Maca, Ginger, Turmeric, Hops, Oatstraw, Hibiscus… but here’s the thing my great-grandmother who was the village healer told me, “An herb is only as good as its friends in a formula. A good formula is a like a village; it needs a king, queen, messengers, water-carriers. Everyone works in harmony. A single herb is not as effective. It’s like one hand clapping.”
With DC’s economic revitalization (i.e. gentrification) how was it impacted your work, and your clientele?
At Calabash we often have to explain our indigenous traditions in ways we didn’t before. We used to hand someone a tea or tonic and they say, “Wow, that worked so well. Thank you.” Now, we sometimes hear, “Wow, I feel so much better. Probably a placebo effect, huh?” We attribute this to the CVS’ing of America, in general.
You describe yourself as head witch, which for some, can have a negative connotation. What inspired that title?
Well, I am in charge. Seriously though, Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Why should our ancient sciences sit outside of that definition? Magic means transformation and we are proud to be able to offer that to our customers. Any negative connotation deserves to be examined through a decolonized lens.
Calabash has expanded throughout the Washington D.C. area — will we see any locations pop up in other cities?
We are planning to send our best and brightest out to run satellites in ATL, NY, Philly, Chicago, and more. Like our herbalist grandmothers, we are willing to bring our calabashes full of herbs wherever the people need healing.