A Quaker summer camp in Pennsylvania got Debra Swanson interested in herbal medicine at a young age.
Swanson, the owner of Dancing Willow Herbs on Main Avenue, has been a clinical herbalist for more than over 20 years.
“The Quaker camp was a farm camp, and it was about taking care of animals and gardening. I remember going out with the counselors, and they would point out medicinal plants,” Swanson said. “We were chewing on roots and digging up things and it felt so right to me. Being in a rural environment just fed my soul.”
The passion led Swanson to open Dancing Willow Herbs, an herbal apothecary, in 1992.
“The store started in a cubby in a basement and has grown to what it is now. I’ve grown as a practitioner along with it,” Swanson said.
Swanson grew up outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in Montgomery County with a mother who encouraged living a healthy lifestyle. Her mother was doing yoga before it was a trend, Swanson said, and she was always surrounded by health-conscious individuals.
“My mom was engaged in health and nutrition. I had the cardboard whole wheat bread while my friends ate soft bread. I ate natural peanut butter and my mom was making granola,” Swanson said.
After graduating high school, Swanson took a road trip with friends to work in Yellowstone National Park. It was then that she realized how strongly she connected to the West.
She learned to backpack with an herb book in hand and spent most of her time in the mountains. Swanson said she began using her friends as Guinea pigs for her herbal remedies.
Swanson later took classes at Naropa University in Boulder, a Buddhist-inspired school where she studied health and healing.
She furthered her studies at Fort Lewis College after the administration accepted the Naropa University credits and allowed her to construct her own major. She eventually graduated in 1990 with a degree in the philosophy and psychology of health and healing.
“I combined all of my contemplative studies in Buddhist psychology with hard science like biology and chemistry to construct my major,” Swanson said.
Shortly after graduating college, Swanson studied for a year at the Southwest School of Botanical Medicine under her idol, medicinal herbalist Michael Moore, in Silver City, New Mexico.
It was the next fall that she opened her store in Durango.
Since then, Swanson said she has treated thousands of people for various ailments, often using the products she makes in her own laboratory.
“Our community is very receptive to natural healing. ... I count a lot on the locals, and there is never a down time because there is always a need to assist people and help with their health,” Swanson said.
Plants aren’t her only passion; she also enjoys meeting with people on a clinical level. The more she learns about an individual, the better she can recommend a remedy for their ailment.
Swanson said the hardest part about being an independent business owner can be keeping staff, many of whom participate in an internship program at her store.
“I’ve been lucky finding great staff, but they need to move on and create their own life. I’ve had a lot of staff go on to be naturopathic physicians or go on to herb school,” Swanson said.