Community herbalist and budding horticulturist Jenny Perez joined the American Botanical Council team in September 2012 as the organization’s new education coordinator. A native Texan, Jenny is now back in Austin after living in Seattle, where she worked as Bastyr University’s longtime herb garden manager and director of the holistic landscape design program, which she helped create. Although the climates of Texas and the Pacific Northwest are obviously dissimilar, Jenny remains in her element, surrounded by plants and educational opportunities.
“I’m a plant geek,” she said. “I can’t help but be passionate about what I’ve learned and be eager to share it. Plants [are] a practical aspect of human existence, really. Without plants, we don’t have a whole lot.”
Jenny, who grew up in San Antonio, was first exposed to natural medicine when she moved to Austin after high school and took a job as a receptionist at Austin Health Associates, a cooperative of natural healthcare providers that included herbalists, chiropractors, and massage therapists. It was through this organization that Jenny met her first herb teacher and became curious about the healing properties of plants.
“I became very interested with what [the herbalist] was doing with his clients,” she said. “I noticed that he had people coming in with some serious health problems, but they were getting results through herbal therapies. My perception began to change in terms of healthcare. Before long, I just started to insert myself wherever people were working with plants … whether it was gardening or using them as medicine.”
While working at the healthcare clinic in her early 20s, Jenny volunteered a couple of days each week at local institutions, including the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the American Botanical Council.
“It was just a short period of time, where one day a week I was working with the [ABC] gardener and one day a week I was filing papers. It was when I was filing that I came across a flyer that read, ‘Brand New at Bastyr: The Herbal Sciences Bachelor of Science Program,’” she explained.
Although she was planning to attend school in Arizona and was concerned about the state of herbalist certification programs in the United States — which does not allow herbalists to become licensed healthcare providers, as is the case in some other countries like the United Kingdom — the Bastyr program piqued her interest. “I knew I was going to take a leap of faith that could potentially lead to nowhere. My dad curiously questioned, ‘What do you want to go study that for?’ It’s a private college with a big price tag, but I could not stop thinking about it. I re-enrolled in [Austin Community College], and got all of my basic sciences done and moved [to Seattle] to study,” she said.
After completing Bastyr’s herbal sciences undergraduate program, Jenny accepted a job as the herb garden manager, a position she held for seven years. While there, Jenny taught student interns in the federal work-study program and transformed the University’s 5,000-square-foot herbal garden into a living laboratory.
“I taught them about horticulture, herb harvesting, herb drying, vegetable growing, and vegetable harvesting,” she said. “Not only did I supervise the students, but I began to fill in the gaps that I observed there. We were able to slowly chip away at what herbs grew really well in our garden that we could gather as educational experiences, dry them, and then use them for students in their medicine-making labs. And not only was that an experience for them with local medicine, but we were saving money. So that was something I developed over time with the help of my supervisor.”
ABC Special Projects Director Gayle Engels, who first met Jenny 15 years ago at Austin Health Associates, described her as very personable and organized. “Jenny has a real commitment to herbal education and an abiding love for people and plants and their connection,” said Engels. “She has already proposed a number of ideas for improvements in ABC’s internship program, the interns love working with her, and I have no doubt that she will continue to be an outstanding addition to the ABC family.”
At ABC, Jenny continues to share her passion for plants with dietetic students from Texas State University and the University of Texas at Austin, and pharmacy students from the University of Texas at Austin. In December, she finished training her first rotation of ABC interns.
“I’m very fresh into that process, but it’s fun and challenging in a whole different set of ways,” she said. “I’m not teaching people that are already in the know, I’m teaching people who have never experienced herbal medicine before. It is exciting to introduce students to the many ways culinary herbs and medicinal plants can be used practically and therapeutically,” she said. “What I often tell students is that I’m waiting for the scientific method to catch up with tradition. I can’t say that I have converted anybody, but there was definitely some give in their perspective of where herbs fit in natural healthcare approaches.”
Jenny, who came to ABC with a background in and passion for horticulture, in addition to plant medicine, is looking forward to providing a unique educational experience for student interns, volunteers, and visitors. “You can’t have an herbal extract without a garden or without botany to properly identify it and know how to collect it,” she said. “That’s where I feel that my blending of herbal medicine and horticulture is a really strong match because you really can’t have one without the other.”
Just a few months into the job, Jenny is thankful for the opportunities that led her back to ABC. “I like plants and I want other people to create a relationship with plants, so I just try to be open and approachable,” she said. “I’m excited about the realization that I have almost on a daily basis about how plants are changing my life and the lives of people I know. You can be 50 years old and have never had a feeling of what it is like to be doing something that you feel meant to do. And I feel lucky, because I think this is it.”