Photography by Bryony Whistlecraft
Step into herbalist Ali English’s rural village home in Lincolnshire, England, and you might suspect you’ve been transported back in time. Heavy wood cabinetry filled to the brim with jars of herbs in an abundance of dusky colors, bundles of drying plants hanging from the rafters, clay pots with tinctures and remedies tucked away inside—all nestle cozily against dark forest-colored walls hand-stenciled with looping botanical borders. Touches of Faerie abound: Brian Froud paintings are framed on the walls; velvety toadstools sprout unexpectedly from above the fireplace mantel and in the corners. It’s as if the fairy queen Titania took lessons from Outlander’s Claire Fraser on how to decorate an herbalist’s cottage but still left a few hints of her magical self here and there.
There’s a certain enchantment to learning to listen to the plants, to slowing down enough to watch their growing and flowering, fruiting and fading, and it makes me feel calm, centered, and fully aware of the magic of this world that constantly ripples under the surface of every day.
English’s love for herbs and gardening developed at an early age. She was especially influenced by her mother’s love for plants and gardening at their house in Suffolk. When English was thirteen, she begged her mother for a garden of her own and was given a
small, round herb garden with a sundial at the center and three herbs to go in it: lemon balm, thyme, and sage. Just a year later, English managed to squeeze nearly forty herbs into the small space, with help from a copy of Culpeper’s Complete Herbal that she’d read from cover to cover. In 2009, English completed an honors degree in herbalism from University of Lincoln and has taught several classes on the subject.
“There’s something really magical about herbs, wildflowers, vegetables, and natural dyes,” says English, “about watching the plants through the seasons, from the first tiny leaves of spring to the last twigs and stems of fall. I love everything about it—getting elderberry purple stains on my fingers in the late summer, mud under my nails in the spring, seeds and bits of leaf and twig in my hair whenever I’m out gathering. There’s a certain enchantment to learning to listen to the plants, to slowing down enough to watch their growing and flowering, fruiting and fading, and it makes me feel calm, centered, and fully aware of the magic of this world that constantly ripples under the surface of every day.”
English feels both lucky and somewhat hobbled to live in today’s world as an herbalist, compared with the 18th century Scotland in which Claire worked. “Herbalism is not a frontline form of medicine for most people, so we don’t get the experience of treating some of the stuff Claire ends up dealing with. We do, however, have access to more equipment. I like to think that the way I do things has the best of both worlds—old world charm and new world knowledge, underpinned with an ancient spirituality that many herbalists have always had when dealing with the plants themselves.”
Although she has not read the Outlander books, English has seen the television show and can see similarities between her workspace and Claire’s. “I think my space is a little similar to hers in that my herb room is shady and filled with dark wood furniture, bottles, and jars of herbs crammed into every space. This home was built in the 1800s, we think, and has barely a straight line and proper corner anywhere. It has a quirky charm that really lends itself to how we want to live.”
Of course English has a beautiful and growing garden outside the redbrick semi-detached cottage she has called home for almost four years now. A spiral herb garden is a standout feature on the beautiful grounds, and she feels like ever since she installed it a year ago, there is a difference in the atmosphere—something ancient and strange about the space. The magical intention of her work in her garden is transported inside with every bundle of blooms and botanicals she gathers and brings indoors.
When asked about fairies in her home or garden, English replies, “I haven’t seen fairies in the garden personally, but I’ve had students who are far more sensitive to these things than I am mention that there are definitely folk dwelling in the garden, which I take as a high compliment. I don’t own this land, I just tend it—and I try to make sure that a feeling of welcome is there for everyone who visits, whatever their species.”