Troy Hill-based herbalist uses organic products to support women advocacy and local female entrepreneurs
By: Victoria Stevans
*Editors note: Some product names in this article may contain sensitive or offensive language. We’d like to remind readers that the words in reference are used to reflect the proper names of a commercial product and title of an artistic work.
After working on Wall Street for a private banking firm and a global fragrance portfolio for several years, Sarah Ashley Baxendell decided to shift her professional focus from the corporate world to the environmental.
Already trained in marketing, finance, sustainability, and permaculture design (the study of the development of sustainable and self-sufficient agricultural ecosystems), Baxendell wanted to learn more about environmental and food systems advocacy, as well as herbalism (the use of botany for the purposes of wellness). As a result, she quit her job and hit the road.
“I went from corporate banker to a person who wasn’t working, but who was very enriched,” Baxendell said.
Baxendell started the Troy Hill-based Apothecary in 2015. As the business’ founder and lead herbalist, Baxendell creates and sells small, homemade batches of medicinal spirits and ritual beauty products, while also teaching hands-on classes about herbalism throughout the Greater Pittsburgh area. Currently, this small operation allows Baxendell to work toward one of her main aims: educating and empowering Pittsburghers to engineer their own wellness through the plants that grow around them.
However, back in the spring of 2013, after leaving her position on Wall Street and before starting Corner Alchemy Apothecary, Baxendell re-vamped a school bus, equipping it with solar panels and vegetable oil conversion, and took it on a cross-country tour of America’s flora.
It was during this trip that Baxendell met and procured the mentorship of several American herbalists. This tutelage would serve as one of Baxendell’s primary points of entry into her future venture.
“I was trained by some of the great American herbalists, such as 7Song at The Northeast School of Botanical Medicine and Juliet Blankespoor at the Chesnut School of Herbalism, both in formal and informal ways,” Baxendell said. “I’ve also been trained by an army of spectacular community herbalists across the nation in at least 25 states.”
Through these travels, Baxendell gained an intimacy with the American landscape and began to understand it through “bioregional herbalism.”
“What that really means is that most of the core herbs that I use in my products and education are plants growing wildly in our region,” Baxendell said. “You could go out and meet them living in your yard or in the park.”
After about two to three years on the road, Baxendell moved to Pittsburgh. Soon she began to design herbal medicines in her free time. It wasn’t long before friends started to request remedies for their everyday maladies.
“I had all these formulas. I was making them for other people, and I found that more and more people were asking for them,” Baxendell said. “So instead of making products one-on-one, I started making them in batches.”
Partly as a result of this uptake in interest and partly on a whim, but mostly because her passion for local herbs and their healing potential, Baxendell created an online store for her products. In turn, Corner Alchemy Apothecary was born in her Point Breeze apartment.
The “core” line of Corner Alchemy Apothecary products – which mirrored those Baxendell was already making for herself and her friends – were mostly water-soluble medicinal bitters: herbal distillations that can be taken by mixing them with a water-based liquid.
These original bitters are synthesized mainly from herbs found in Western Pennsylvania that Baxendell sustainably wildcrafts herself, with the exception of particularly potent herbs that can only be found in specific areas of the United States or China. However, Baxendell takes extra steps to ensure that even the out-of-state herbs are still sustainable and organically sourced.
“Really, these first medicinal bitters, which are kind of the central ones, have anywhere from three to seven herbs in them that work together. I call them ‘the ones that play team sports,’” Baxendell said. “They are designed to be used by different types of people with different kinds of symptoms.”
Over the years, Baxendell has expanded Corner Alchemy Apothecary’s line of products. The Apothecary docket now includes single plant tinctures, limited, seasonal items (like lines of heart-themed products for Valentine’s Day or fire ciders in the winter), and healing salves.
One of Corner Alchemy Apothecary’s most controversial products proves to be its line of botanical lubricants, or “Cunt Butters,” which are herb-infused oils that are mixed with a small amount of beeswax.
“They are designed for women but can be used by everyone on all genital appendages,” according to Baxendell.
The Apothecary’s line was inspired, to some extent, by one of Baxendell’s personal and formative feminist experiences. When Baxendell was around 16-years-old, she was part of a group of about 75 women at her Amherst, Massachusetts high school that came together to perform the first-ever high school production of The Vagina Monologues. Baxendell was particularly struck by a monologue called “Reclaiming Cunt,” in which the speaker spells out the C-word, reveling in the sounds of it and eventually screaming it. This monologue aims to take back a word that has historically been used to control, harm, and subjugate women. It became the inspiration for her product’s name.
“[The product] is about us all reclaiming the word … physically, socially and anthropologically. It’s an empowerment tool for women in their own sexuality and in reclaiming that and the use of the word,” said Baxendell.
Additionally, ten percent of the product’s sales go to the One Million Rising Campaign. One Million Rising, an affiliate of The Vagina Monologues, is a campaign to end violence against women worldwide.
“A key component of the story,” said Baxendell. “Is that it is not just about us, it is about every woman.”
Baxendell’s passion for women’s advocacy bleeds into her work with Corner Alchemy Apothecary in more ways than one. Beyond her feminist products, Baxendell has also formed partnerships with several other female entrepreneurs.
One of these connections is with Cara Freidheim, the owner of Mooshki Wellness Center. Freidheim’s wellness center, which provides massage, acupuncture, Ayurvedic Treatments, and yoga, also sells Corner Alchemy Apothecary products and hosts Baxendell’s herbalist workshops.
According to Freidheim, one of the reasons she wanted to work with Corner Alchemy Apothecary was because of the opportunity it offered for collaboration between woman-run businesses.
“It’s local and woman-owned,” Freidheim said. “I like to collaborate with other local businesses, especially female entrepreneurs. I think it’s a really powerful time for women to start taking up leadership roles, entrepreneurial roles, business roles, it’s really turning the tide. Plus, I resonated with [Corner Alchemy Apothecary’s] mission and [Baxendell] in general, so it felt like a good fit.”
Baxendell also works with Black Forge Coffee House, which is woman-co-owned by Ashley Corts and her business partner Nick Miller. The Allentown-based, “heavy metal” coffee house, as Corts describes it, also carries Corner Alchemy Apothecary products and hosts workshops.
“It’s a way to empower people to understand that they already have tools at their disposal to be fully well.”
— Sarah Baxendell
The workshops, that both Freidheim’s and Corts’ businesses host, aim to “get people [regardless of gender identity] acclimated to herbs,” according to Baxendell.
Currently, Baxendell is in the midst of her Winter Herbal Academy, a series of two-hour workshops that take place once a month from January to April.
“I’ve been positively surprised by how curious people are about plants. It seems like people want the knowledge and really don’t have access to it,” Baxendell said. “What I want people to walk away from the workshops with is the ability to understand a lot of different plants and to empower them to become their own medicine makers as their plant knowledge expands.”
In some instances, Baxendell’s goals for these workshops are being realized. According to Corts, of Black Forge Coffee House, her interactions with Baxendell and Corner Alchemy Apothecary have steered her toward herb-based sleep remedies.
Positive interactions like these, between plants and people, are one of Baxendell’s main goals with her small business, and these same aims transfer to her day job.
Baxendell works as a Greenspace Project Manager for The Hilltop Alliance, a nonprofit group that focuses on community development in 11 of Pittsburgh’s southern neighborhoods.
Currently, Baxendell is working with the Hilltop Alliance to complete the Urban Hilltop Farm, which is slated to become the largest urban farm in the nation.
“It’s about learning the medicinal benefits that you, as an individual, can have from the plants that are already there in your yard. And, with that, learning how you can use them as tools to support your health, your family’s health, and your community’s health,” Baxendell said. “It’s a way to empower people to understand that they already have tools at their disposal to be fully well.”
All Corner Alchemy Apothecary products and workshops can be found and purchased on their website. Or at wholesale shops including Mt. Lebanon Floral Shop, Black Forge Coffee House, PA Naturally Clean, REED & CO, Massage with Abby, and Mookshi Wellness Center.