BELFAST, Maine — Herbalists rely on the sun and rain to grow the plants they use to make remedies and concoctions.
But for years, Maine herbalist Kathi Langelier has been working under a cloud: a lawsuit brought by a Massachusetts company that she believes threatens her livelihood.
She’s one of three herbalists being sued for trademark infringement by Shire City Herbals of Massachusetts, in a suit pitting homespun tradition against capitalism that has dragged in the courts for five years.
The “fire cider” trial held in U.S. District Court in Springfield, Massachusetts, wrapped up this July, but the herbalists are still waiting for the judge’s verdict. The long legal ordeal has had an effect on Langelier and the other two herbalists named in the suit, Mary Blue of Providence, Rhode Island, and Nicole Telkes of Austin, Texas, and Portland, Oregon.
“The lawsuit alone is very wearing on the soul. It’s very heavy,” Langelier, who owns Union-based Herbal Revolution Farm & Apothecary, said this week. “I’m tired of having this hang over me. We’re all tired of it.”
It also has cast a shadow on the greater Maine herbalist community. Denise DeSpirito, an herbalist and gardener from Hope, is a co-organizer of the Maine Herbalist Gathering, scheduled to be held Oct. 5 at the Merryspring Nature Center in Camden. She expects that the fire cider lawsuit will be on people’s minds during the gathering.
“It comes up all the time,” she said. “This corporatization of things is not really welcome here in general. Corporate America, in some ways, is particularly unwelcome in the herbal community in Maine.”
Fight over fire cider
So just what has gotten DeSpirito and other members of this normally tranquil community so worked up? It starts with fire cider, a spicy herbal concoction that is made from apple cider vinegar, onions, garlic, hot peppers and horseradish. Devotees of the folk remedy swear it can help stop a cold in its tracks.
The term fire cider was coined in 1980 by herbalist Rosemary Gladstar, and a loose recipe under that name has been widely used ever since.
But in 2012, Shire City Herbals trademarked the name after founder Dana St. Pierre began selling it at craft fairs and farmers markets. On the Shire City Herbals website, St. Pierre said his recipe was handed down by his “feisty German grandmother,” who brewed it to keep her family healthy.
When other herbalists learned that Shire City had trademarked the phrase they had long used, it was a blow — made worse when the company started reporting them for allegedly violating its trademark.
In a January 2014 blog post, Shire City responded to herbalists angered at the idea that fire cider could be trademarked.
“We did not write the law, but we ignore it at our peril,” company founders wrote. “We are asking all those who want to sell commercially to change the name within that commercial setting, that is all.”
But Langelier, who had started selling “Fire Cider No. 9” in the 1990s, rejected this. Although she eventually changed the name to “Fire Tonic No. 9,” Shire City was not appeased, she said.
In June 2014 she, Blue and Telkes filed a petition in court to cancel the trademark, arguing that fire cider has become a generic term. They also encouraged consumers to boycott Shire City’s product and helped start the “Free Fire Cider” website and movement.
The following year, Shire City filed a lawsuit against the three women, claiming copyright infringement and saying that the boycott had harmed their business.
“My opinion is that it’s this really weird clash of worlds,” St. Pierre told the New York Times earlier this year. “We’re just trying to run a business. The herbalist community has tried to present this as a story of good versus evil.”
‘Standing up for our truth’
Whatever its roots, the lawsuit has been difficult and financially intimidating, Langelier said.
“They’re trying to get a lot of money from me,” she said, adding that Shire City at one point was seeking more than $200,000 plus close to $1 million in lawyers’ fees.
But she and the others did not want to back down. They believe trademarking fire cider is against the traditions of the herbalist community, which encourage sharing knowledge and honoring pioneers such as Gladstar.
“I can say for myself that when I did get up and testify, it was the most empowering experience I’d ever had,” Langelier said. “I felt strong. I felt clear. We were all standing up for our truth, and we all put our livelihoods and businesses on the line.”
Nyla Bravesnow, a Thorndike herbalist who is co-organizing this weekend’s gathering, said that the lawsuit has changed how she markets her own version of fire cider.
“I definitely feel like I have to be careful,” she said. “It feels really hurtful that herbalists would take other herbalists to court and sue them.”
DeSpirito said that regardless of the trial’s outcome, she does not think the herbalist community will go back to the way it was before the lawsuit.
Her hope is that it will become even stronger.
“I think there is the awareness of protecting these recipes and protecting traditional herbalism, and also protecting the land and our communities,” she said, adding that this weekend’s gathering will help that goal. “When the herbal community can connect, it allows us to be a larger force.”