Nicole Apelian Ph.D. is a biologist, anthropologist, mother, educator, researcher, author, expeditionary leader, safari guide, herbalist, and traditional skills instructor. A leader in the field of transformative nature education, Nicole shares with the world her expertise in nature connection, indigenous knowledge, natural wellness, and survival skills.
A native of Massachusetts, Nicole’s first exposure to true wilderness living began while working as a field biologist in Botswana. Following a job as a game warden with the US Peace Corps, she began tracking and researching lions in southern Africa. Nicole immediately fell in love with the African landscapes and the San Bushmen’s way of life, and later, while working with the San Bushmen, Nicole completed her doctorate in Cultural Anthropology within the field of Sustainability Education. Years of visiting the San Bushmen and developing strong relationships within the tribe allowed Nicole to learn many of the primitive skills and ways she practices and teaches today. Nicole continues her work with the San Bushmen to help them find strategies to preserve their traditions and is currently cataloguing indigenous plant uses with a community of Naro Bushmen who regard her as family. She is the co-founder of “The Origins Project“, a 501c3 set up as a joint venture with a community of San Bushmen to help create a legacy of ancestral connection for future generations.
A passionate educator for many years, Nicole has also worked as an adjunct professor at Prescott College and as an instructor at various schools, universities, and leading conservation education programs. Nicole was also a challenger on the second season of History Channel’s TV series, Alone, where she thrived solo in the wilderness for fifty-seven days.
In 2000, a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis led Nicole to apply her research skills towards her own personal wellness. She developed a healthy living strategy that focuses on health and wholeness, and formed her own Herbal Apothecary. At her home in the Pacific Northwest, Nicole makes her own herbal medicines from local plants and through simple changes in her lifestyle and eating habits, she restored her vitality. She has since become a founder and primary guide for her wildlife safari company, Eco Tours International.
Nicole chatted with Face the Current and shared her thoughts on transformative nature education, the benefits of wildcrafting and foraging, the best approach to selecting self-treatments, and tips for learning about and incorporating plant medicine into our daily lives.
Sasha Frate: You are quite multi-faceted with your background as a biologist, anthropologist, educator, researcher, author, expeditionary leader, safari guide, herbalist, traditional skills instructor, and a leader in the field of transformative nature education. How has your work in these fields combined to help you bring natural wellness and survival skills to the world?
Nicole Apelian: My multi-faceted background is mostly due to my love of learning new things, and my fields of interest shift as I ask new questions. When I became ill with multiple sclerosis twenty years ago, my questions shifted to holistic wellness and herbalism. My background in research and science allows me to approach new questions with scientific rigor. This has been extremely helpful in the field of herbal medicine in analyzing peer-reviewed research to help steer my herbal product line.
I turned to natural ways of healing to help me get from bed-bound with MS to the active person I am today, and my intensive study of herbal medicine has not only helped me but many others as well. I feel it is my mission to bring holistic wellness into the mainstream.
SF: Can you explain what “transformative nature education” encompasses?
NA: It’s really about our connection to nature and passing it on to the next generation. Intergenerational knowledge transmission is how knowledge has been passed for thousands of years and I believe that it is our responsibility to continue this mode of learning. Plus, with the modern construct of social media and the internet, time spent outside practicing traditional skills and nature connection is what helps us be happy, joyful, and healthy people. The importance of these skills cannot be underestimated in our journey to holistic wellness.
SF: Your book, The Lost Book of Herbal Remedies: The Healing Power of Plant Medicine, is incredibly rich with information on an extensive variety of plants, their medicinal actions, and their applications for a wide scope of treatments. I’d love to see this as a household staple in everyone’s home! Can you share what went into the preparation of this book?
NA: I would love to see The Lost Book of Herbal Remedies: The Healing Power of Plant Medicine as a household staple in every home. I spent a lot of time reviewing academic research on medicinal uses of plants, lichens, and mushrooms. I then distilled this information to make it palatable for anyone wanting to learn about plant uses. I love that there are color photos, identification tips for each species, recipes, and an introductory chapter on how to make these herbal remedies in your own home. My goal was to empower people to take charge of their own health and utilize what nature has offered us for thousands of years.
SF: In addition to creating this book, you’ve also established an Herbal Apothecary as a great extension and resource for people to source what they need. How do you source the plants, and what do you typically advise as important to know when purchasing any plants for medicinal purposes?
NA: My online Herbal Tinctures are indeed available for purchase. I have put my many years of expertise into these blends and source only high-quality ingredients that are organic and/or wild-harvested. It is very important to purchase herbal extracts from a trusted source. For example, my mushroom tinctures are all dual extracted so as to access the entire spectrum of herbal compounds. Many places don’t use this method, so again, always read the fine print! When purchasing herbs please make sure that they have been ethically harvested. Some things like lichens are extremely slow-growing and should only be harvested after a windstorm and from clean areas.
SF: What do you see as the greatest benefits of wildcrafting and foraging, and what are the hindrances?
NA: Wildcrafting and foraging are important in four main ways. First, they give you a reason to be outside and to connect with nature. Second, when you use nature as your pharmacy and grocery store you are accessing nutrients that we have been utilizing for thousands of years, and I believe this helps us live the healthiest possible lives. Third, by forming a relationship with the plants you harvest you can actually “tend the wild” by spreading seeds and planting new plants as you harvest. Finally, it is comfortable on your pocketbook as foraging is free.
SF: From tracking lions to extensively working with the African San Bushmen tribe, to completing a fifty-seven day solo journey into the wilderness with little more than a knife for the History Channel series, Alone, what have been some of the biggest lessons you’ve gained from all of your experiences in the wild?
NA: Two of my biggest life lessons are to live in the present moment and to be grateful every day. Even when we are in periods of grief, gratitude can get us through. Living in the present means making sure to make time for yourself and your family—choose to be with them rather than having your head buried in your computer. Unplug and get outside, play games, and enjoy your life.
When I was on Alone, I never felt “alone” thanks to my connection to the natural world around me.
SF: In terms of the healing ancestral skills that you’ve experienced with the San Bushmen tribe, what are some that you see as valuable for people to learn from? Where can people experience these and expand their ancestral skills learning through your programs?
NA: I lived in a tent in the bush in Botswana in the 1990s studying African lions. Living in the territory of lions, black mambas, cape buffalos and more really tuned me in to bird language, sensory awareness, and tracking. These are often considered the “soft skills” but, in my opinion, they are some of the most important. I have had a few close calls and have changed a flat truck tire next to lions many times. That said, bird language and awareness were my closest friends out there and are what continue to keep me alive while living in places in which I’m a part of the food web. I use these skills often both at home in the Pacific Northwest and when I guide in Africa today. People can learn these skills by taking a class or by going to a traditional skills gathering (there are many offered across the country).
Also, these skills help reconnect us to our primal selves and bring joy. I have never witnessed someone weaving a basket or shooting a bow who was unhappy in that moment.
Ancestral skills are deeply ingrained in us. The San community I work with look at their landscape as their grocery store and their pharmacy, and this is how I now look at my landscape thanks to them.
For more about what I offer, please see www.nicoleapelian.com.
SF: How do you envision the nature connection as a key component in “total health”, and do you see the incorporation and use of plant medicine as part of this nature connection?
NA: We’re all still hunter-gatherers at a genetic level. We haven’t grown out of that or caught up to our modern lifestyles—evolution doesn’t work that quickly. We’re meant to live in community and in nature; we’re meant to live outside, not inside walls. Of course, it doesn’t necessarily work for everybody to live this way. I’m not suggesting we all go live in the woods, but I am suggesting we look for ways to reconnect to nature and use that connection as a lifeline to holistic health.
SF: What are three of your favorite or most frequently used go-to herbs?
NA: I love medicinal mushrooms and they are a huge part of my strategy for managing multiple sclerosis. My three go-tos are: Reishi, Turkey Tail, and Lion’s Mane Mushrooms. I take all three of these tinctures daily.
SF: Considering how few people seem to be aware of them and their applications, can you share some of the most impactful herbs (or the ones that have the broadest variety of uses) that truly feel “lost” in today’s world?
NA: Some impactful herbs are Usnea Lichen (one of my daily go-tos!), which is known to be antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, and antimicrobial. It really packs a punch! Elderberry is also a well-known antiviral that is finally getting more recognition. I combine these in my “Travel Pack” that I use whenever I am around groups of people or exposed to illness. Lungwort Lichen is another that isn’t well known, but I use it for any type of bronchial infection with great success.
SF: Through your apothecary you offer a variety of ways to administer several plant medicine treatments with extracts, tinctures, and salves. With lemon balm for example, can you explain the difference between using the tincture versus drinking the herb as a tea?
NA: I find tinctures the most convenient and impactful way to take herbs. You can take a tincture (which is an herbal extraction, often in alcohol) with you anywhere, rather than having to stop and make a tea. Also, many herbs extract much better in a solvent such as alcohol versus water, so you tend to get more of the medicinal compounds in a tincture. Lastly, when taken in the mouth a tincture very quickly gets into your bloodstream without having to go through the digestive process. It is my favorite method for ingesting herbs.
SF: When working with your book to select treatments, what is the best approach for “self-treatment” when there are numerous plant medicines listed as effective for treating the same ailment?
NA: Great question! I always think using plant species that grow where you live is preferable. For me, I use plants from the Pacific Northwest that I feel are the most effective across the board. People can also try different herbs and see how they work with their body. I also recommend looking up current research.
SF: What are some tips you might have for someone wanting to take steps towards incorporating more plant medicine into their daily life?
NA: People often get overwhelmed by plants. Start by learning about three plants and form a relationship with them. Add one plant to your repertoire every month and after one year you’ll have fifteen plants under your belt. Familiarize yourself with a few that are easy to identify and forage (like dandelion and plantain), then branch out.
Nicole’s Herbal Medicine Book: https://www.thelostremedies.com/nicole-apelian/
Herbal Apothecary: https://www.nicoleapelian.com/dr-nicoles-apothecary/ The Origins Project: http://8shields.org/origins-project/