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Go wild

7 September 2022
wild dispensary ophir 41
The Wild Dispensary team grow and forage natural goodies from all over Central Otago to create their health products.

With a new bricks-and-mortar store and rising interest in its unique offering, Dunedin-based natural health company Wild Dispensary is growing, in all senses of the word… Words Josie Steenhart

Whatever the weather and in all seasons, those looking to the hills, forests, fields and coastlines around Otago might spot some of the Wild Dispensary team harvesting or foraging for a diverse assortment of natural goodies for use in everything from tonics and elixirs to skin oils and throat sprays.

“We grow and forage all sorts!” says Ruth Vaughan, who along with life and business partner Gerald Davies co-founded Wild Dispensary back in 2016.

“In Central Otago (in various locations from Bannockburn to Ophir) we forage thyme, rosehips, Californian poppy, elderberry, horehound, hawthorn, St John’s wort and usnea.

Closer to home in Dunedin we source akeake, mānuka, horopito, elderberries (Taieri) and usnea.”

“Our locally grown organics come from the Vern Paddock Project in Mihiwaka on the Dunedin Peninsula. They grow our chamomile, globe artichoke, calendula and horseradish and are setting up to grow our nettle and lemon balm,” says Ruth.

“Then we have North Island growers where we source turmeric and lemons and foragers up there who collect our kawakawa.”

What started as “a small passion project” is now a booming small business, with Wild recently opening the doors on its first bricks and mortar store in Dunedin’s Bond Quarter.

“We started with a group of five of us, all hailing from diverse backgrounds but brought together by a shared love of the New Zealand landscape, its plants and herbal medicine, and a mutual desire for sustainable business practices,” says Ruth.

“Our ‘why’ was around creating a range of herbal medicine that worked, but also tasted nice – our children were perfect taste testers for this – as well as wanting to celebrate Central Otago’s wild herbs, New Zealand natives and championing locally grown organics.

“It was a fun project where we could collaborate and share skills and learn from each other. I’d just finished my environmental science degree and had a strong interest in creating a mindful business with a sustainable ethos. I have a track record of finding myself working around plants, so this was a natural progression for me.”

Ruth says the rest of the original team moved onto other projects but together with a new team member and shareholder Skye Macfarlane (“our technical go-to and trained naturopath and medical herbalist”), they have developed the former passion project “into a natural health company that can really help bring plant medicine into more homes”.

“We’re a small but mighty team,” says Ruth. “Keeping the team small but all pitching in together means we can be adaptable, which has been useful over the last few turbulent years. We have set roles, but all collaborate.”

What sets Wild Dispensary apart, and what they most pride themselves on, says Ruth, lies in the company’s name.

“Every single one of our products has a wild element,” she explains. “That connection with nature, and the value it holds, is so important, we wanted a piece of it in every bottle. Wild harvesting offers not only premium and potent traditional plant medicine – but also a connec tion to nature for us and our customers. We are truly passionate about providing natural medicine right from our very own backyard.

The Wild team works to an annual foraging calendar. “It’s really important we collect the herbs at their prime potency and quality,” explains Ruth. “As this changes seasonally we have windows of time where we monitor the plants we’re looking for.”

“With natives we have a little more grace as to when we can collect. So we tend to collect as and when we need.”

Ruth says all of their harvesting is done on private land, with the owner’s permission. “It has to be land that is wild in nature, with no sprays and a long way off any roadsides. This has taken time to locate the ideal spots, but five years in we’ve built some good relationships with landowners who love being able to be a part of what we do.

“We practice a foragers rule of never taking more than one-third of the plant – leaving some for wildlife and some for the plant itself to continue to thrive.

“We process our plants fresh as we believe we get a better quality product over dried – so this is a busy production time for us also.”

A further point of difference is Wild’s determination to keep things in house. “Many other natural health companies contract out all their manufacturing,” says Ruth.

“We are with our products throughout the whole process – from harvest through to production and bottling. We love this connection with the product as well as our ability to ensure only the best-quality plants and base ingredients are used, ensuring a premium product.”

The brand’s bestseller is its Liver Bitters, which Ruth describes as a being for digestive, liver and hormone support. “It’s also award-winning, taking out the Best of Digestion at the 2020 Best of Natural awards,” she adds.

Other top sellers include Elderberry Switchel and Immunity Tonic, both made using elderberry and mānuka, and Rest and Calm, formulated with Dunedin-grown certified-organic chamomile and wild-harvested Central Otago Californian poppy.

Musing on the pros and cons of running Wild Dispensary from Dunedin, Ruth is adamant there are “honestly not many” negatives.

“Running a lot of our business digitally means we are adaptable, and being at the bottom of the south doesn’t make too much difference. We have a team member that works out of Wellington. Our local team can be flexible on those frosty Dunedin mornings and work from home!

“The cost of freight is a tad more expensive being that we are just a little bit further away, which does add extra freight costs over the Strait especially. But we’ve built that into our costs and make it work.”

And on the flipside, she says, Dunedin is “an amazing place to live, play, work and bring up our families”.

“Ged and I grew up in Dunedin. We truly love living in this small city. It’s such a great size, and the Dunedin vibe suits us well. We have conscious consumers who are willing to support new businesses, access to Central Otago’s wild herbs – unmatched anywhere else in the country – and great business support from Enterprise Dunedin and the wider start-up scene.”

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