Herbal Intelligence

How a spiritual journey changed the herbal industry
By Craig Gustafson

Coming out of college, Ric Scalzo didn’t visualize himself seeing a dozen patients a day and dispensing herbal remedies.

“I wanted to find my path toward my spiritual side of life,” said Scalzo. “My journey was not so much to connect me to the healing properties of plants, but one that would connect me to nature and to allow me to find some sort of peace spiritually.”

He found himself in India studying Vedic philosophy, which then led to learning about the practice of ayurveda with Indian doctors. “That included herbs, it included the detoxification systems, it included the diagnostic practices, and a number of other non-botanical types of approaches that are encompassed by ayurvedic medicine,” said Scalzo. “I realized at one point that the only way I could really find the answers that would satisfy me was through nature.”

Returning to the States, he enrolled in school again, studying under the renowned herbalist John R. Chris­topher and participating in extension programs from Bastyr University for naturopathic doctors. However, Scalzo continued to apply what he had learned in India. “It was that whole spiritual quest, where I became familiar with ayurveda, that formed a lot of the formulas that I developed.”

In the mid-1980s he entered private practice as part of a medical clinic in Massachusetts. “I decided that I would set up a medicinary there and supply the medicinary with herbs that I would harvest out in the wild myself to make medicines for the patients,” he said.

The decision was driven by two ideals Scalzo had previously embraced. “I wanted to incorporate elements into formulas that could regenerate and revitalize the organ systems and promote longevity of those organ systems. I used Vedic principles of formulation to do that, which was very unique at the time.”

“Second, I was a big advocate of fresh plant medicine,” he said. “I noticed that a lot of herbal products in the marketplace were being made from dried, powdered herbs which were likely of poorer quality and lower vitality. I introduced the concept of fresh plant elixirs and fresh plant extracts. That was new to our industry.”

“Anything that’s freshly harvested out of the earth has a higher degree of vital force,” he explained. “We want to repair the vital force to enable a person to overcome disease. In order to do that, you need to look to nature for the highest vitality of medicine.

“Look at the vibrancy of colors. Colors are relevant because they carry medicinal properties. Yellow, oranges, and reds carry the flavonoids. Blues and purples carry the anthocyanidans. These are very important properties of nature. When you make herb extracts fresh, you can see that the fresh herbs retain these colors and  these properties much more physi­cally.”

Custom harvesting and preparing herbal medicines for his patients was also very good for his practice. Scalzo was working 10 to 15 hour days, then harvesting and formu­lating over the weekends. This pace was not sustainable, so he decided to raise his fees by 60 percent in hopes of restricting demand—and his practice doubled in size. “I realized that it was just not going to work that way. I needed to put more emphasis on making this product line what I wanted it to be,” he said.

After two years of product devel­opment, Scalzo was finally ready to launch his company. Gaia was founded in 1987, but this was only the beginning. Technology and research and development were destined to play a significant role in the new venture. “We brought on testing equipment. I hired some of our first chemists. We developed a technology that allowed us to concentrate the plant without drying it, and maintain the fresh herb quality at the same time.” Further technological method­ology evolved as the business was able to embrace more of Scalzo’s core values.

“If we really were going to have an impact, we needed to put more attention on the farming side of it,” said Scalzo. “I bought a 200-acre farm in western North Carolina, put in research equipment, and brought in more chemists. It occurred to me that having a seed-to-shelf philosophy and being sure we have the right cultivar or the right genus and species, all the way through the controls of horticultural development [would make us more competitive]. [We began] using scientific instruments to monitor the crops as they come close to maturity—using the window of science to understand when to harvest our crops by virtue of measuring the bioactivities.

“For Gaia, R&D and science are tools for validation but not for interference. We never use R&D to change what nature is already doing. We concentrate and standardize our extracts, but it’s through a whole-plant mechanism. In our industry, a lot of companies standardize by virtue of removing or altering something that’s naturally occurring. That’s not what we do here—we just concentrate. When we concentrate to an active ingredient, we concentrate everything in the same proportions and then measure the active ingredient.

“That to me has got to be a part of everything we do: Do not be disruptive, but be cooperative. That is where sustainability really is. When you can become a part of that relational dynamic, there is tremendous awakening.”

It is that kind of reverence for what Scalzo refers to as the “intel­ligence” of plants and of nature that underpins every part of production. “I often tell our people, if we’re going to manage Gaia, we need to use the principles of the administration of nature because nature knows how to manage creation. If we can draw from those lessons and bring them into our management of Gaia, there is a beauty for me. It tickles me to think that we can really run a company like nature runs nature and make it really dynamic.”

“We coevolve with the formative forces of nature and all the relational living entities that exist. It’s because of that inter-relational dynamic, the formative forces—the forces of day and night, the changing of the seasons, the movement of the tides, the passing of the sun across the fields, the influences of different nematodes in the soil, different insects that act upon the plants, and how they interact with each other to keep a balance—all of these things are part of what delivers our medicine. How we come to meet the earth and make our medicine is a result of all these relations.”

By managing every aspect of supply and production Scalzo’s intent is to inspire confidence in Gaia’s customers; confidence that they are receiving a safe and effective product. “I personally hope that by using Gaia herbs, consumers feel that they are participating in these meetings and awakenings that are shaping our medicine. There is a relationship that they’re now becoming a part of. That awareness connects us to something that’s very, very precious. For me, that is meaningful.”

Editor’s note: In March, Scalzo was honored by New Hope Natural Media, producers of the natural products industry’s largest trade show, as a member of its 2014 Hall of Legends class. Induction recognizes individuals for their significant contributions to the development and evolution of the industry.