Plant Kingdom

Meet the British woman who’s preaching the benefits of tulsi to the world

Tish Streeten is collaborating with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni to make a documentary that highlights the cultural and medical significance of tulsi.

Born in Oxford, England, to a family of academics, there was little in Tish Streeten’s early quiet life that hinted at the calling she would find decades later – as an herbalist and a documentary filmmaker who is spreading the word on tulsi.

It was the well-regarded book, The Illustrated Herbal Handbook, and its author, Juliette de Bairacli Levy – the self-proclaimed “busy farmer, botanist, practicing herbalist, soil doctor, tree physician, wanderer in search of the sun and anthologist of gypsy lore” – that changed Streeten’s life. Levy would later become the subject of one of Streeten’s most popular documentaries – Juliette of the Herbs (1998) – which follows Levy’s colourful story of learning from people who live close to nature.

“Juliette wrote about how she had learnt herbal medicine from the gypsies, the peasants and the nomads of the world,” said Streeten, who lives in New Jersey. “I, too, love travelling and meeting people who live close to nature, so this especially resonated with me.” At 16, inspired by Levy’s free-spiritedness, Streeten decided to turn vegetarian and became deeply interested in healthy foods and organic farming.

Introduction to tulsi

At university, Streeten had studied agricultural botany but it was over the past few decades that she became a keen student of herbal medicine. Her introduction to the benefits of tulsi, or holy basil, came in 2000, when she was visiting India to begin the process of adopting her daughter. She came across the popular herb repeatedly during her travels and was given tulsi seeds by gunis or folk herbalists to take back home to the United States. That her adopted daughter had been named Tulsi at birth made her believe they were fated to be together.

The herb now is integral to her garden, along with calendula, gotu kola and nasturtium. It is also the subject of Streeten’s next documentary film, Tulsi, Queen of Herbs.

“Since that first visit to India, I have been back about three times,” she said. “When I went to get my daughter, people would start singing the song from [the Bollywood film] Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki. And they would tell me how they used tulsi, what a blessing [the herb] was, and how auspicious my daughter’s name was. Because of my daughter, I began researching the stories, myths and healing properties of tulsi.”

The idea of making the documentary came to Streeten the year she adopted her daughter. She travelled to Uttar Pradesh in 2009 because Prashanti de Jager, one of the original founders of the company Organic India, invited her to visit the Tulsi Mahotsva, the world’s only agricultural festival held since 2003 in honour of the herb in Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh. She filmed the festival, and then travelled to Varanasi, where she got the chance to document a Tulsi Vivah, a ceremonial marriage of the tulsi plant to the Hindu god Vishnu or to his avatar, Krishna.

During that trip, Streeten also interviewed two key people who have since died – Dr Narendra Singh, a pioneer in the scientific investigation of traditional Ayurvedic and medicinal herbs who collaborated with Organic India to create their tulsi tea collection; and Kailash Singh, one of the first tulsi farmers.

Layering stories

For a number of reasons, Streeten had to stop work on the documentary for some years but she is now raising money via crowdfunding campaigns and hopes to resume filming in India in October or November, and in the UK in June. With her first crowdfunding campaign offering her over $16,000, she aims to release the film by 2020.

The role that tulsi plays in Indian culture and mythology forms an important part of Streeten’s documentary film. She has roped in Indian-American author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, who is writing short stories on Tulsi Devi – written in Tulsi’s voice to add “dramatic and intimate flavour” – for the project.

“In our culture and mythology, things of the natural world are given a particular, powerful persona that brings out the mysterious and anthropomorphic connection between matter and spirit,” said Divakaruni. “This is particularly true in the case of the tulsi plant – I love the many stories associated with it, and the fact that these stories give the plant a power and a personality.”

Streeten also plans to work with veteran Malayalam filmmaker Sanjeev Sivan and his wife Deepti, who will help her with some of the “fiction elements” of the production.

Through the film, Streeten hopes to offer a worldview in which all living beings have a say. “Tulsi is a wonderful ambassador for the plant kingdom, because she can speak to and connect with all kinds of people on so many levels,” she said. “Because tulsi is an adaptogen, she’s happy in most surroundings, and is very willing to offer healing on physical, emotional and spiritual levels.”

Herbal connection

Passionate about herbs and their healing properties, about five years ago Streeten set up Queen Mab’s CSM (Community Supported Medicine), which she runs along the lines of an herbal CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) in Hopewell, New Jersey. “The idea is to practice preventative medicine and keep people healthy with these herbs,” she said. Members pay a fee at the beginning of the year and in return they receive herbal tonics, teas, tinctures and vinegar four times a year. “Like the Chinese doctors of long ago, I am paid to keep people healthy, rather than getting paid when they get sick.”

Although she did not grow up surrounded by an herb garden, Streeten’s childhood home in Oxford did have nearly three acres of land filled with fruit trees, nettles, dandelions, daisies and plantain. Basic herbal remedies were common knowledge in her family. “I’d say the older people knew about herbal remedies that they had grown up with,” Streeten said. “For example, most older folk knew to give children elderflower and mint tea when they had a fever. All these plants – nettles, dock, elder and mint – are herbs I still use frequently today.”

Despite the various roles she dons, documentary filmmaking – a journey that began in Sicily when she was in her 20s – has remained an important part of Streeten’s life. “I’ve continued research and filming Tulsi, Queen of Herbs in America, while tulsi has continued to become more and more widely known and loved in the west. It seems that now is the right time for the film.”

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