By Laren Stover
Photographs by George Holz
Wardrobe and styling: Stacy Iannacone for Ritual Vintage | Hair and makeup: Kirsten Bode | Flower styling: Nicole Absher | Retouching: Chika Kobari
Stop by Hollie Witchey’s late 18th century cottage in the summer and you might find her in her medicinal garden plucking clary sage, horsetail, roses, or chamomile, or in the gazebo distilling wild bergamot flowers to blend with sunflower or rosehip seed oil.
In early autumn she might be picking tart apples, not for pie but to make cider in an ancient cauldron in the meadow, or she might be in the kitchen brewing apple cider vinegar.
The house itself—surrounded by sun-dappled woods, streams, and a pond that croaks with baritone frogs at twilight—feels enchanting. Wallpaper in several rooms sweetens with a haunting nostalgia, and a tiny covert door above a shelf opens to a secret cabinet with vials of potions from an old “witch store” in Liberty that has since closed, frankincense for air clearing, and a porcelain doll’s head. A gazebo sits at the edge of the forest where mushrooms spring up after the rain, and the weathered gothic garage has an elven door on the second floor with no apparent way to reach it, at least from the outside. Such is her backdrop for cultivating plants that flourish in the brilliant air, absorbing the luminous charms of the sun and ever-changing moon, pollinated by the bees from the nearby apiary. The garden is where she practices her deepest green sorcery.
Witchey, a model with Marilyn Agency in New York, calls herself a green witch.
“Everything that excites me in life pretty much has to do with nature and the seasons and the moon cycles,” she says, which explains why she spends all of her free time in the Catskills growing botanicals to concoct beauty potions for her artisanal brand Witchey Handmade. There she has cultivated an 1,800-square-foot garden overseen by her black cat, Spooky, and her pit bull rescue, Rocco.
It is a calling she’s felt since childhood. At nine, her parents took her on a road trip to Walden Pond, followed by visits to Concord and Salem to satiate her curiosity about 17th and 18th century Massachusetts folklore.
Several years ago she began studying plant medicine, herbology, homeopathy, and skincare at a holistic center in New York, where, after classes with several teachers, she found wise woman Peeka Trenkle as a mentor. At first Witchey’s homemade brews were for just for herself; commercial beauty products used in photo shoots (often in plastic) can be toxic, and she wanted to create her own products to use at home. But soon friends were demanding to try the beguiling beauty elixirs in the cobalt blue glass bottles, and within a year she was selling them on Etsy.
“I make cleansers and toners on the new moon,” she says. “And then anything that nourishes the skin or feeds it is usually on the full.”
She brings out the cauldron, mostly used in the meadow, for making apple cider or witch hazel for personal use. But it is the hand-hammered copper alembic, similar to an ancient distiller she saw during a medicinal plant tour at the Cloisters museum in New York City, that she uses to make all her hydrosols.
“Sometimes I distill outside because of the mess,” says Witchey, who also makes small batches in her fairy-size kitchen. “I use a little propane camping stove in the gazebo. It’s close to the garden but in the shade, which is nice. Sometimes I mix there too. It’s a great little outdoor studio going between the garden and the gazebo.”
The label on her bottles features a wreath she drew in pen and ink. “It’s a symbol of growth and fertility, about being fruitful in life in general, and it’s round like the sun and moon,” she says.
Life cycles of plants also figure into her philosophy. “I watch the plants die in fall and winter and come back to life in the spring. I love living with seasons and am reminded of our own life cycle and mortality. People in California seem so much happier than those of us on the East Coast. But it’s more romantic here. I prefer it. I feel really lucky to have the life that I’ve had so far. When you realize everything is mortal and will die, it’s like, ‘I better make the most of this.’ ”
Witchey recently made her witchdom public.
“I am not afraid to be who I am,” she says. “To use all the gifts and the blessings that I have to do things that are really in my heart and really calling me to be able to do them.” One of her favorite childhood books besides The Phantom Tollbooth and Walden was The Secret Garden, which happens to be the name of her wi-fi network and a candle she’s just created. When she was growing up in Ohio, her secret childhood haunt was a little hideaway near the railroad tracks where she stole away to read books.
One of those life-changing books was The Witch of Blackbird Pond. She identified not with the young protagonist but the nanny figure, “basically a healer who was persecuted for possible witchcraft,” she says.
“I wanted to be like the witch because I thought it was so romantic that she was doing something that she loved so much—taking care of people—that she had to basically die for it. And I always thought, What’s the point of doing anything if you aren’t willing to die for it?
“The old definition of a witch was someone who used herbs
and natural medicine for healing. Most of the healers before the Crusades were women. So there was always a female connotation with a witch because it was someone who was the wise healer of the town. I think that so many people are witches now that the word is no longer taboo.”
Hers is an intuitive sort of magic. Asked about when she harvests her plants she says, “The plants talk to me. I feel at one with the garden. I don’t just go out and harvest whatever I need that day.
I stand in the middle of the garden, and it’s like I’m not even thinking—I just get pulled in different directions. And that’s how I know what I’m going to work with that day. They’ll pull you to them. It’s completely subconscious. Like we’re having an exchange, like they’re telling me it’s okay. They really offer themselves. It’s very magical and wonderful.”
What’s new in her witchy world? “I’ve started to collect morning dew from the Lady’s Mantle leaves right outside my door. But right now that’s just for me.”
Witchey Handmade is a sustainable, ethical skincare line made of organic ingredients. Find the collection at witcheyhandmade.com.
Witchey’s Cider Vinegar and rendition of Rosemary Gladstar’s Queen of Hungary Toner from Tree to Face
It was originally created by an alchemist in the 1300s!
Pick five small apples in late September or early October 2017 when the moon is waxing. Wash, chop, and put into a large ½ gallon jar. Add 3 tsp. of raw local honey (dissolved in warm water) (sugar if vegan) and 1 cup of water (using the honey water). Cover with a cheesecloth and tie the edges with baker’s string. Place it in a dark warm cupboard for three weeks. Strain and return liquid to same jar. Cover again with cheesecloth and string. Return to cupboard for six weeks, stirring occasionally. Seal with lid and store in same glass jar until use.
Soak a few pieces of witch hazel bark in 1 cup of water for 30 min. Bring it to a boil and reduce to simmer for 10 min. Remove from heat and steep for another 10 min. Strain and store in glass jar until use.
Throughout the summer and into early autumn collect herbs.
6 parts lemon balm
4 parts chamomile
4 parts rose petals
3 parts calendula flowers
3 parts comfrey leaves
1 part lemon peel
1 part lavender
1 part sage
Put herbs in a glass jar. Add enough cider vinegar to cover plants by 3 inches. Lid the jar and store in warm cupboard for three weeks. Strain herbs and for every cup of vinegar plant liquid add ½ cup of witch hazel. Add a few drops of essential oil of your choice. (Witchey likes to use rose and geranium.) Store in a glass bottle. Shake gently before each use. Apply with a cotton pad morning and night. Keeps indefinitely.
Never before seen outtakes from the shoot.