Every month we catch up with an alumni of the Berkeley Herbal Center certification programs in our Alumni Series.
This month, we chatted with Julie Benefico!
She didn’t find herbalism in the conventional way, but once she discovered medicinal plants, she knew it was the right career path for her. She threw herself into our certification program.
Between her continued work on projects like her herbal first aid clinic during the Santa Rosa fires, her work as a staff herbalist at Farmacopia and 5 Flavors Herbs, and offering sliding scale Herbal consultations during the Corona Pandemic, Julie has been owning and operating her own business, Opal Elements, where she’s bridging the emotional, mental, and spiritual within to the physical.
We are so charmed by the vulnerability that Julie shared in her story – and so grateful that she has agreed to let us share it with you.
Julie’s Journey to Herbalism
I moved to Esalen Institute in Big Sur, CA in June of 2013 from Stamford Connecticut, that is when my journey toward herbalism began. Growing up in a city right outside of New York City, I considered myself a big city gal. I was hip and fashionable but never really that happy or connected. I didn’t grow up spending time in nature or connecting deeply with plants like many other herbalists’ dreamy stories.
A family friend had told me about Esalen which is a holistic retreat center on the edge of the earth with naked hot springs and was and arguably still is the birthplace of the human potential movement. I went there thinking it would be for a month and stayed for over a year and a half. While living in the bountiful beauty of Big Sur, my depression was lifted almost immediately. I found true community, inspiration, and fell in love with the earth and abundant nature surrounding me.
The thing that stands out to me most was the lush and colorful garden. It was a beacon of magic and creativity! I began to learn that there were plants in the garden that were medicinal and could be utilized to heal ailments, used for skincare, and for dying clothes. I was mesmerized.
I had never heard of herbalism before and I instantly knew it was my calling. I took a few beginner classes at Esalen like herbal skincare from the farm and garden and herbal medicine for beginners and began making my own potions. I knew that I wanted to be an herbalist and if I was to do that I needed more in depth training. That’s when I found Berkeley Herbal Center and immediately knew it was where I was meant to be next.
Julie at Herb School
Attending the Clinical program at Berkeley Herbal Center truly changed my life and set me up to fulfill my calling. When first starting I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go in herbalism, just that I was meant to walk the plant path.
While in school I was inspired by the array of teachers from different backgrounds sharing the medicine and stories of everything from flower essences, European folk herbalism, Limpias, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Energetic medicine, Physiology, Botany, Nutrition, and much more. The camping trips and the plant meditations guided me to do my own healing within as well. I had profound experience with the plants and untethered areas of my life that were holding me back through the magic of herbs! The comprehensive teachings and plant guidance I was offered led me to eventually build the holistic practice I have today.
While I was in school my mom had cancer, her cancer got exponentially worse while in my first year and they gave her six months to live. Going back east to visit her I saw how many medications she was on and how the doctors told her it was okay to eat sugar and other unhealthy foods. This made me furious and sad that they would lead her toward an unhealthy lifestyle when she needed nourishment and healing now more than ever!
This ignited the call to become a Western Clinical Herbalist within me. I felt the need to be equipped to support people with an array of illnesses and diseases as well as understanding of drug/ herb interactions. Luckily my mom made it through and is still doing well to this day.
I continued with the clinical program and it felt empowering to jump in and be in sessions with clients from the get go with the support of our teachers. For me, hands on is the best way to learn and I truly got that from the Berkeley Herbal Center experience.
What She’s Up to Now
By the end of my first year at BHC I began my brand Opal Elements Cosmic Apothecary. Opal Elements is a handcrafted herbal skincare & aromatherapy line for self-care, intention setting, and nourishment. This brand was born from my study of alchemy and herbalism and the hopes of marrying the two. I have always had a passion to help others uncover the mysteries of their soul and heal naturally. I focus on allyship, forgiveness, gratitude, shadow work, pleasure, and solidarity as tools to aid my herbal work. Opal Elements is the umbrella to my three businesses in one – cosmic essences, workshops, and consultations.
For the past 5 years I have been blooming this brand and I’m proud of the many offerings I have today. In 2019 I led my first retreat called Desert Magick – this retreat was about visioning intentions, earth stewardship, cosmic alignment, connecting with community, plant medicine, and radical self care. My passion has always been to bridge the emotional, mental, and spiritual within to the physical.
Right after BHC I got a job at Farmacopia in Santa Rosa, CA which is a highly regarded herbal clinic and practitioner grade herb and supplement store as a staff herbalist. There I worked closely with naturopaths and nutritionists and delved deeper into nutrition and began to incorporate more supplements and vitamins into my repertoire. Working on the floor there everyday I learned many more tools for healing and built an unforgettable community of herbal practitioners I am still very close with today.
In 2017 the fires in Santa Rosa were devastating to my community. The women of farmacopia including myself created a mobile herbal first aid clinic to support our community in this time on crisis. We offered lung support, sleep support, and stress & grief tools to our community and donated a lot of medicine, especially to those most marginalized. This led me on the path of Herbal First Aid and I saw that Herbalism was a form of resilience and activism as well.
I continued this work by being a part of multiple herbal first aid clinics throughout the west coast. In 2020 I was invited to be a lead in the Village Witches Envision Festival Herbal Clinic Training in Costa Rica. This was a dream come true and I got to teach students at a beautiful retreat center in Costa Rica about herbal medicine, body systems, and medical astrology. Then we went to Envision which is a big music festival in the jungle to treat attendees experiencing the strains of being in such an intense climate. Now during this pandemic I am offering free and sliding scale Herbal consultations to those financially struggling during this time.
I also have been working at Five Flavors Herbs in Oakland for the past year as the Retail Buyer and Social media content creator. Five Flavors Herbs bridges eastern and western herbalism and has a full service herbal compounding pharmacy and manufacturing lab. I am grateful to continue learning by working with other wonderful herbalists, training employees on supplements and being the staff herbalist on the floor to help customers. When I’m not at Five Flavors I’m teaching classes on Herbal Witchcraft, First Aid, Activism, Self Care and more all over the west coast. I continue making fun products for Opal Elements and meeting with clients for Herbal Health Consultations and Alchemy Coaching Sessions.
I am so grateful to Berkeley Herbal Center for blooming my herbal career and leading me deeper to this plant path!