Hummingbirds have more fun

Melanie Rose, owner of Hummingbird Herbals, inside her shop./Photo by Dustin Bradford.

When Melanie Rose whirs past you – two swinging orange braids, goddess pendant dangling from her neck, fat lower lip irresistibly slack – you can hear the faint buzz of gossamer wings following her frenzied flight. The proprietor of Hummingbird Herbals, Melanie is hummingbird incarnate: slight build, snappy pace, fast metabolism and flamboyant tail feathers keeping her constantly a flight.

When I first met Melanie her home and business were located in a one-room, tar-papered shack on the south side of town. After spending most of her 20s living in a tepee, truck and, for a short time, a cave, Melanie had become accustomed to making her nest in small spaces. Water came from portable jugs, and electricity flowed through an extension cord routed from the main house through the back yard. Terra cotta pots of catnip (used to calm fussy kids) hung 6 feet off the ground from chokecherry limbs outside, a last-ditch effort to keep the neighboring cats out of her herbs.

I came to Melanie as an apprentice. Five hours a week I chopped smelly roots; poured dark, forest brews called tinctures from mason jars into 1-ounce bottles for sale; and mixed shredded herbs in a 5-gallon bucket until I had sneezing fits. For this work, Melanie gave myself and five other apprentices a weekly class on healing with herbs.

Classes were held in the shack/office/ medicine-making-kitchen-turned-Wednesday-night-classroom. Hippies, freaks, plant nerds – we all were with Melanie as our leader. She taught us first and foremost that to separate personal life from business life was folly, and furthermore too much trouble. So the night Melanie taught class in a gelled-up mohawk, fishnets and leather mini was all par for the course.

“I’m going to an ’80s party after class” she explained, silver bangles sliding down her hummingbird wings as she showed us, through ripped Pat Benatar shirt, where the liver, stomach and gall bladder were.

Invariably our budding herbal knowledge came to circle around our own lives and ailments. We etched our knowledge of liver herbs in our minds through apprentice Pam, who was convinced her own liver was beyond repair due to being a lush pot-head and incurable addict to coffee, cigarettes and sugar. Melanie would look at us, sprawled across her sagging thrift store couch, lower lip poised in slight expectant pout and test: “Now if Pam believed in treating her liver damage, what herbs would she take?”

It was through Eli that we became familiar with aphrodisiac herbs, learning to distinguish between those you sip in tea with a tried-and-true lover and those you surreptitiously slip to a man of your affections on Valentines Day. From Neil we learned that mind-altering plants were just under our noses.

“Looks like you’re having a little serotonin fix,” Neil said to Melanie one night as she peeled a banana during class. “If you add peanut butter or sunflower seed butter it’s doubly powerful – a real happy meal,” he added.

“OK Neil, you’re in charge of snacks for class from now on.” Melanie directed.
In that one-room shack, with Melanie’s sweet and needy rez dog, Liz, pacing in hopes of finding food or a scratch, we learned about emmenagogues (herbs that bring on menstrual bleeding) and chologogues (herbs that support the liver). And when an apprentice asked “what about the synagogues,” Melanie, not missing a beat, explained that those were places where Jewish people went to worship.

Classes were two hours long though often we’d push it, getting into the finer, micro elements of herbalism. It must have been in the wee hours that we began renaming Melanie’s formulas with their more truthful titles. “Moon Balance,” for balancing womenhormones and easing PMS, became known behind as “Bitch-Ease.” The tonic for herpes known as “Viral/Nerve Tonic” was secretly referred to as “Vixens and Viruses.”

Melanie can go from hard science, explaining the difference between gram positive and gram negative bacteria, lower lip hanging slightly, and then suddenly begin chirping about magic and forest fairies. Quite fluent in computers, she’s quick to see that if the computer is giving her problems and Mercury is in retrograde, the best solution is to let it lie and go get a beer at Carver’s.

This 32-year-old hummingbird is true renaissance woman, putting up dozens of quarts of tomatoes in fall, playing guitar and singing in a band, chopping her own firewood, making jewelry and even hanging drywall. She can explain why marijuana produces “the munchies” and give a detailed explanation of how food is digested and excreted. She is clinical herbalist extraordinaire, whom many people all over the Unites States rely upon. Clients who’ve moved from Durango continue to order formulas, and she gives consultations to people with persistent and challenging conditions. She has her a cult following of locals who swear by her Virobiotic tincture for colds and flus.

More than 50 students have come through her program, sitting in Wednesday night classes sipping custom herbal tea and making up their own censored names for her formulas. She works with menopause, urinary tract infections, irritable bowel syndrome, warts, hemorrhoids and the common virus with practical herbal science and just the right amount of ethereal magic that seems to trickle out of her orange braids and leave a trail like tiny feathers wherever she treads.

These days Melanie’s home nest is a converted school bus, complete with kitchen, bathroom, spice rack full of tinctures and a tiny woodstove barely big enough for two hummingbird families to nest in. Her shop is bigger than ever, 1,000 square feet that includes shop, lab and office, with each and every crevice filled. Every six months there is a new batch of apprentices. Like those who came before, they stand on the step stool, pulling down mason jars of sloshing dark green tincture, praying this is not the moment when the bookshelf crammed with jars containing liquid worth thousands of dollars comes crashing down. They brew sweet, spicy chai by the gallon and mix up teas with names like “Passion,” “Rejuvenation” and “Mother to Be.” All the while Melanie buzzes around, navigating the small space wielding turkey baster and graduated cylinder (tools of the trade) while muttering about new herbal formulas. Never doing less than five things at once, she whirs, buzzes and flaps until she’s sent herself into a tailspin, prompting the apprentices to suggest a nectar break.

In summers, Melanie often migrates north, gathering plants, trading with other herbalists and sometimes taking a break to simply enjoy wild lands and the plants that grace them. This is, after all, what brought her to herbalism in the first place. After reading Clan of the Cave Bear at age 16 and becoming inspired by the references to wild plants, Melanie bought several herb books and began foraging through open space adjacent to her home near Denver. While other teens were partying and flirting, she was making dandelion cookies and onion cough syrup for her family. She continued to experiment with herbs after leaving home, and at the summer Rainbow Gathering in 1995 she had the opportunity to work in the CALM (Center for Alternative Living Medicine) tent. Having just finished herb school in New York and armed with an apothecary of herbal medicine, Melanie worked with about 500 people over eight days. And after eight years of learning, making and using herbal medicine, it was this experience that propelled her to open Hummingbird Herbals.

That was seven years ago. Melanie is pretty pleased with the way things turned out. She pulls on her lower lip and thinks about life for a moment, “It was either herbalism or learning to sing opera in Greeley.”








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