Buddha hangs out at Aroma Borealis

The basement was off limits. And it’s where Aroma Borealis’ magic happens. Bundles of fresh and dried herbs disappear down those…

The basement was off limits.

And it’s where Aroma Borealis’ magic happens.

Bundles of fresh and dried herbs disappear down those stairs, and a few days later new ointments and creams show up in the cozy Main Street shop.

“I used to take people down there,” said owner Bev Gray, rubbing some lotion onto her hands and mine.

But after working out a manufacturing licence with Health Canada, Gray has tried to minimize traffic to the basement.

Last week, apparently, there were three women down there in lab coats and hairnets making Chai massage bars.

That’s a change for Gray, who used to make all her own products.

“I still do the product development,” she said, standing in front of a shelf choked with salves and balms.

“And I do lots of other creative things.”

Gray, recently named businessperson of the year by the Yukon Chamber of Commerce, now spends most of her time teaching and writing.

“I love sharing what I know with people — I think it’s important that they know about herbs,” she said.

“Because, often, what grows around you could be the best medicine for you.”

Gray’s daughter had just come down with something and was being picked up from school.

When she arrived, Gray asked her if she’d used her herbal throat spray.

“She could tell she was coming down with something last night, so she came downstairs and took some oregano and usnea,” said Gray.

Usnea?

It’s lichen that grows on the spruce up here, said Gray.

“And it helps to kill viruses.”

Gray still finds the time to pick herbs for her business, and is often joined by her two daughters and husband, Mike.

“This year we picked fireweed, juniper rosehips and usnea,” she said.

She also gathers herbs from friends across Canada.

Gray grabbed a bottle from one of the shelves and showered me with a soft, heady mist.

It was sweet grass spray.

“I only buy from organic farmers,” she said.

The sweet grass comes from a friend in Alberta.

Although her business continues to grow, with a franchise in Ontario and quite a number of franchise requests from across Canada, Gray is going to take a bit of time to sort things out.

“There was a time when I had no time for myself,” she said.

“I was working 18-hour days and pushing hard to get things done, up until about two years ago.

“And now I know I never want to work that hard again.”

Two years ago, Aroma Borealis was one of the local businesses chosen to undergo an innovators support project.

“They gifted me an opportunity to gather together a group of experts in the natural health field to assess my business and offer advice and recommendations,” said Gray.

“It was all a blur.”

Aroma Borealis received more than 90 recommendations and all but one has been completed.

“I was open to the changes,” she said.

“I guess that comes with maturity, because I wouldn’t have been in the beginning.”

Perched around the store, peering down at the customers and Gray, are a series of Thai Buddha heads.

Besides herbs, Gray sells whatever she’s into, including beeswax candles and cotton menstrual pads.

But the Buddha is special to Gray.

“I have a pretty active mind,” she said.

“And it helps me think of stillness.”

A friend once told her, “ You have the curse of the big visions,” she said.

“But I don’t think it’s a curse — I think it’s a pretty big gift, as long as I just write down those visions and don’t do actions on every one of them.”

Gray grew up with herbs in the family.

Her great-grandfather was a herbalist, famous for his all-purpose balsam tincture.

Gray grabbed a yellowed newspaper clipping from the back of the store. It was a 1902 article about the balm, called Mitchell’s Genuine Balsam.

“He used it on horses and people,” she said.

Today, Gray doesn’t make any salve targeted at horses.

But sled dogs are another story.

Some years ago a musher in a bind came into Gray’s shop.

A salve, good for cracked paws, which was made in Alaska, was no longer available.

Gray was up for the challenge, and came up with Pad and Paw Treatment for athletic huskies.

“I’m always looking for new feature products,” she said.

Gray, who’s a registered aroma therapist, started out making herbal ointments and tinctures for her family and friends.

The products were a hit, and demand grew.

“People still remember me holding a little child in one hand and another one on my back, going from store to store trying to sell my products,” she said.

Now Aroma Borealis distributes to 50 stores across the country and takes web, phone and mail orders worldwide.

“I never thought it would be like this,” said Gray.

“But I love my lifestyle.”

Gray recently stepped down from Health Canada’s natural health products directorate in order to cut down her travel.

“I just want to be here in the community,” she said.

“And someday I’d like to open a school of herbal and botanical medicine here.”

On my way out the door, Gray offered me a green apple from her brother-in-law’s Okanagan orchard.

“We sell bags of them here,” she said.

“They’re keepers.”