When Gayle Engels started working with the American Botanical Council (ABC) as sales manager in May 1995, the nonprofit education organization was still two years away from the purchase of its headquarters and herb gardens at the historic Case Mill Homestead in Austin, Texas. At the time, the 12-person team worked out of Founder and Executive Director Mark Blumenthal’s home in northwest Austin. “We had taken over so much of [Mark’s home], there was no room for him to live there anymore,” Engels recalled (email, December 7, 2020). “My office was in a small bedroom and, for a time, four of us shared the space.”
Despite the cramped quarters, Engels strived to help ABC have an outsized effect on its stakeholders and the herbal medicine community, and her efforts contributed to the organization’s growth. “All the projects ABC has seen to fruition over the years might lead people to believe that we have always worked with a bigger staff and budget than we have,” she wrote. Within the first five years of working at ABC, Engels expanded the organization’s catalog of books, videos, and other media to more than 600 items, including some hard-to-find and out-of-print texts. Before large online retailers like Amazon, this was an invaluable resource for ABC members.
Engels is now ABC’s special projects director and oversees its website development and administration, supervises the education department and gardens, and manages other projects as needed.
Over her 25 years of service to the organization, Engels has witnessed significant changes at ABC, including the purchase of the Case Mill Homestead in 1997, the revitalization of the dietetic and pharmacy internship program, and the digitizing of publications, which began in 2001. Currently, her largest project is the complete overhaul of ABC’s web presence with a new platform and website, which launched in January 2021 and has been ongoing for several years. The new website is responsive across mobile devices and has improved navigation, a full-text search engine, the ability to seamlessly connect with customer relationship management applications, and improve access to subscription content for libraries, universities, and other licensees.
In addition to her projects at ABC, Engels is also the national coordinator of HerbDay. HerbDay was founded in 2006 by a coalition of five national organizations: ABC, the American Herbalists Guild, the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia, the American Herbal Products Association, and United Plant Savers. On or around the first Saturday in May, these and other organizations, garden groups, and individuals are encouraged to hold public educational events celebrating the importance of herbs and herbalism. Engels manages the national HerbDay website, which is also currently undergoing a redesign, and Facebook page (OfficialHerbDay). She also coordinates the activities and speakers for ABC’s HerbDay celebration, which is typically ABC’s biggest public event. ABC cancelled its HerbDay event in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the 2021 celebration will go forward as a virtual event in case any safety concerns still exist.
Before starting at ABC, Engels had experience with nursery and greenhouse management, education, and publishing in and around Austin while she worked toward a degree in secondary education from the University of Texas at Austin (UT). “While some of these jobs took me to other locations, I always gravitated back to Austin,” she wrote. “And while all my jobs were interesting and valid learning experiences at the time, the three things that excited me the most were learning about and working with plants (specifically herbs), education, and book and magazine publishing (everything from writing them, to the noise of the presses and smell of the ink, to promoting them).”
When a friend introduced her to ABC, Engels saw a career that fulfilled her professional goals. “I had an interview with Mark, and within ten minutes, I knew I had found a mentor and an organization that I could work with for the rest of my life,” she wrote.
Blumenthal said: “Gayle is definitely an integral part of ABC’s DNA. Hiring Gayle at ABC was a no-brainer. With her background managing a plant nursery, secondary education, and managing circulation, subscriptions, and sales for three magazines, she had more qualifications than we were seeking for the position for which she applied. And, she was smart and engaging! It took me only a few nanoseconds to realize that I really wanted this woman to be part of the future of ABC. After 25 years, I’ve never regretted that decision. She is a real asset to not only ABC, but to the entire medicinal plant community!”
In 2008, Engels made the decision to relocate from Texas to Oregon, and she is grateful for the support from Blumenthal and the ABC staff in redefining her job description to allow it. Before the pandemic, she returned to the ABC campus multiple times a year, including HerbDay and the annual onsite Board of Trustees meetings, to meet with the education and gardening departments and pitch in with the gardens in person.
Engels thinks the growth of the internship program is one of her biggest accomplishments at ABC. In 2002, as education director, she began to restructure the program for graduating health care professionals. In its current format, the interns, the majority of whom are part of the pharmacy program at UT or the dietetic program at Texas State University in San Marcos, gain hands-on experience with ABC Education Coordinator Jenny Perez. They are introduced to herbs from the ground up and learn about plant propagation in the garden, plant chemistry, and the basics of medicine-making. Each intern is also responsible for a research project on an individual plant’s phytochemistry.
“From the beginning, it was important to ABC leadership that the internship program expand students’ awareness of the extent of reliable sources of scientific and traditional information available about herbs and phytomedicines,” Engels wrote. “One of the best things I was able to do for this program was find, hire, and work with Jenny.”
In 2019, Engels was honored with the inaugural Madalene Hill Award for Excellence in Herbal Education from the Herb Society of America.1 The award reflects her commitment to education and deep knowledge of herbs and their uses, and is doubly important to Engels because Madalene Hill, known as the “Grand Dame of Herbs,” was a friend and mentor to her before Hill’s death in 2009.
From her home in Oregon, Engels stays busy outside of work with gardening, reading, plant walks, art journaling, sewing, cooking, and making her own herbal preparations.
Engels reflected on her professional life before joining ABC: “In the early to mid-1990s, I was putting together three lists: things I had done in previous jobs that I never wanted to do again (burned that one), things I had done in previous jobs that I wanted to continue doing, and things I had not had the opportunity to do yet.” At ABC, she has found a home that continues to challenge her with new opportunities and allows her to pursue her passions.
- Bauman H. ABC’s Gayle Engels to Receive Inaugural Award for Excellence in Herbal Education. HerbalGram. 2019;121:19-20. Available at: http://herbalgram.org/resources/herbalgram/issues/121/table-of-contents/hg121-abcnews-award-gayle/. Accessed December 10, 2020.