Michigan native Caroline Caswell joined the American Botanical Council (ABC) staff in April 2016. Initially, she worked 10 hours a week in the gardens that surround the organization’s 2.5-acre historic Case Mill Homestead. By November 2017, her responsibilities had grown so much that she was hired full time as education assistant, which still includes garden tasks. However, like most employees at ABC, Caswell oversees a variety of duties: maintaining ABC’s literature database, coordinating ABC’s volunteer program, and assisting the membership and accounting departments, in addition to her main responsibilities in ABC’s education department.
Caswell came to ABC with an extensive background in gardening and herbal medicine. Dissatisfied with conventional treatments for a chronic illness in her early teens, Caswell began to research alternative therapies. “I learned how to grow my own food and never looked back,” she explained. “I began dabbling in teas, making my own remedies, understanding what stress did to my body during college, and ultimately had to live a very different lifestyle than my peers. Falling in love with the magic of growing food kept my curiosity spiked.” Caswell shaped her own course of study at Michigan State University to focus on her intersecting interests in plants, art, and social justice, and she completed a degree in Arts and Humanities with specializations in studio art, art history, and ecology. After graduation, she sought a respite from harsh winters and relocated to Austin, Texas.
In Austin, Caswell attended the Wildflower School of Botanical Medicine on the clinical herbalist track and knew she had found her calling. “I dived deep into the studies and fell in love with hundreds more plants,” she said. “I now teach for the school and love to learn from each of my students, and the plants, of course. They are our biggest teachers.” Caswell has since started her own clinical practice and line of herbal products, in addition to her full-time tasks at ABC, and teaches herbal medicine classes around the city. “Even though it means I work a lot,” she added, “it truly feels like my mission to continue to do so.”
ABC Special Projects Director Gayle Engels has welcomed Caswell and her knowledge of plants to the education team. “I know that everyone is as pleased as I am to have Caroline here at ABC full time,” said Engels. “Not only is she helping the organization make progress on some major projects, but she is a pleasure to work with and a truly kind and generous person. Another plant person with Caroline’s commitment is exactly what ABC’s education department needed.”
In her work, Caswell emphasizes the importance of an open connection between people and plants. “My philosophy focuses on warm and welcoming community-based wellness,” she explained. “Herbal medicine is the medicine of the people. It is meant to be passed down, accessible, and incorporated into the everyday. Accessibility is central to what and how I teach.”
Her favorite moments on the job come from introducing visitors to the ABC grounds and expanding their knowledge about healing plants: what they look like, how to cultivate them, and how to use them. “The folks who visit meet long-time plant allies for the first time or see a new specimen. ‘Oh, so that’s what ashwagandha [Withania somnifera, Solanaceae] looks like?’ Interacting with the live plants will make you appreciate the tincture or supplement you buy in a bottle.”
As ABC grows, so, too, have Caswell’s duties. While she treasures her time spent with ABC’s themed gardens and greenhouse, Caswell has been assigned another project: the organization and cataloging of ABC’s research library. She referred to the library as a “loving work in progress” and expressed her excitement to work with both well-known and more obscure herbal texts.
“ABC is not your everyday place,” Caswell concluded. “Our gardens are a premier classroom. Much labor and love is put into them, and we have hundreds of species from all over the world. It is magic we are cultivating, and I want people to see that.”