A woman with a shock of wild red hair and oversized sunglasses approached me outside of Flower Power Herbs and Roots as I stood waiting for Lata Chettri-Kennedy, the East Village shop’s herbalist.
“Are you…” she trailed off, her gaze caught by two leather stools at the entrance of her door. “Chair karma! We have been having very good chair karma lately.” Without missing a beat, she picked up the stools and walked them inside.
The walls of Flower Power were filled with loose herbs and teas, herbal extracts and oils, flower essences, local honey, ritual herbs, and a library of herbal healing books. Hanging from the ceiling were dried flowers, wreaths made by local artisans, strings of lights, and arrangements of branches and leaves, which made one feel as though they had left the streets of New York and walked into a store of C.S. Lewis’s making.
At its inception, Lata’s store was up on East 1st Street. She has been in this space at 406 East 9th Street for the last 24 years (the store will celebrate its anniversary this Tuesday, March 6). During that time, neighboring businesses have come and gone. One of the few that haven’t left the neighborhood is Enchantments, an occult store, though it has changed owners and storefronts in the last two decades.
“You’ve never been in here before?” Lata asked. I shook my head. “You see, our forte is not magick– we’re mostly herbal, like medicinal herbs. Although, everything is magick: breathing is magick, plants are magic. But we aren’t a MAGICK SHOP. Enchantments is a magick shop.”
The magick Lata described is different from performance magic. This magick is rooted in the rituals and theory of the occult, and the belief that one’s surroundings can shift through a deep spiritual understanding of the higher self.
Lata went around the wooden counter to the back of the store, rearranging as she went. She motioned for me to settle into one of the two mismatched plush chairs in the center of the room— perhaps another two chair karma finds. Throughout our discussion, she would get up and walk around the shop, curving jars into a half moon shape because, as she said, there are no straight lines in nature.
As an herbalist, Lata’s studies are grounded in earthly medicine; she trained under celebrated herbalists Robin Rose Bennett, David Hoffman, and Susan Weed. She explained that the lineage that she is a part of, Green Witchery, does not stem from Wicca or Paganism, but rather from a love and appreciation of the elemental. At Flower Power, she trains her apprentices to practice the Wise Woman tradition: this tradition, as Lata explained it, is connecting with the Wise Woman within oneself in order to find empowerment. This deeper understanding of oneself is demystified through learning, practicing, and sharing plant based healing and medicine.
“A lot of people, now especially, are into herbalism and healing, and it’s like ‘beautiful, lovely!’ but then you’re taking power away from people,” Lata explained. “I always tell the people first and foremost: we are not here to heal anyone.”
When suggesting remedies, Lata emphasized that the Green Witches only do so when they are absolutely confident in the suggestion, and then only dispense the wisdom if it will serve the best interest of the person they are trying to empower. This, she explained, allows the individual to take complete responsibility for the treatment and enables them to learn and grow from the experience they are having. It should also be noted that the FDA does not allow them to prescribe anyone or anything. They are not physicians, and because of this, the language they must employ includes “traditionally used” or “if I had this problem”; they don’t “suggest”, “advise,” or “recommend.”
One of the ways Lata and her apprentices help people empower themselves is through nature walks. On these escapades, Lata or one of her apprentices, will lead groups of adults and children through the parks, local gardens, and even vacant lots in the East Village to show them what natural weeds and herbs grow in these spaces, educate them as to which plants are edible, and explain their medicinal value.
Lata sees her store as a center, a hub, not just for the immediate community of the East Village, but of the Earth community. Whether she is raising proceeds for natural disasters, facilitating lectures on medicinal herbs or taking children on herb walks, she stands as a physical reminder how now, more than ever, we are connected, and our survival on this planet depends on our understanding of the earth. She has been known to give herbs without accepting money in order to serve her life’s purpose as an herbalist. Sometimes, she recalls, she couldn’t pay the rent because of this, but through one good samaritan or another coming to pay her back, she is able to keep the store for one more month.
“People have to become aware,” Lata said. “And just start eating herbs— that’s what they gotta do.”
Many of Lata’s apprentices have taken the knowledge learned at the shop and have created herbal products that are now sold there, including plant-based soaps, botanical perfumes, homemade herbal salves, and shea butters.
One of these proteges was Amikolé Maraesa, who stumbled on Lata’s shop when it was back on East 1st Street in the early ’90s. A sign in the window advertised HERB CLASSES: 6 FOR $30. On a whim, Amikolé went into the shop to find out more. It wasn’t too long before she began attending these herb classes with Lata. On one such occasion, Lata was explaining the benefits of nettles (she says it’s an energy booster, full of calcium, iron and chlorophyll), and Amikolé asked to see what this wondrous plant looked like. After Lata showed her a photograph of the herb, Amikolé was surprised to find out that she was quite familiar with the herb— or so she thought. She had always known it as itch-weed, the pesky backyard plant she had grown up with in Minnesota, and her self-professed enemy. Amikolé vowed that from that moment onward she was going to know everything there was possible to know about plants.
“I think she has probably single-handedly transformed the herbal world in New York City,” Amikolé said of Lata. “Stores have come and gone… and she’s just always been there. She has just changed so many lives, and in that sense, she has brought herbal medicine, certainly for New York City, to a new level of awareness.”
After taking a few workshops with Lata, Amikolé’s thirst for knowledge grew and she became Lata’s first employee at Flower Power. As the years passed and she became immersed in the alchemy of these herbs, Amikolé traveled to Senegal where she discovered the processes of making shea butter; from that experience, she decided to explore creating her own organic shea butters using the essential oils and herbs she was familiar with. With Lata’s expertise and guidance, she created her own shea butter company, and Lata now sells its products in her shop. The pair maintains a close relationship and Amikolé has recently begun facilitating her own workshops at Flower Power.
“It’s a lot of love,” Amikolé said of the shop. “Everything that she has done to create that space of self-empowerment… that’s what the store means to me: community, love, empowerment, safety.”