Millstream Gardens Herbal Remedies

April 2015

Ointments and skincare products from herbs grown at Millstream Gardens

For over 30 years Geoff and Jan Speeden have been running Millstream Gardens, growing medicinal herbs and making skin creams and salves. In the early years they propagated and sold herb plants, but for at least the past decade they have concentrated on manufacturing medicinal ointments and skincare products, mostly using their own spray-free grown ingredients. They used to sell mainly wholesale but with the growth of the internet they now sell about half of their products online. Creams for eczema and psoriasis are particularly successful, and these are of interest to a relatively new category of customer – mothers of young children. In line with their philosophy that ‘Small is Beautiful’ they have deliberately kept the business small. This allows them to be involved in every step of the process.

Geoff Speeden calls Millstream Gardens a “fruit salad” business. They manufacture around 50 products and sell them through shops all around the country, through their website and on TradeMe. He and wife Jan also sell herb plants online and are part-time tutors in herbal product manufacture at a local naturopathy college.

They started just over 30 years ago growing herbs and selling them through a local craft fair. This led to making herbal salves and ointments from the plants and weeds that were growing in their garden. These sold so well that they started supplying a local health shop and began to expand their business.

“We originally got recipes from books and made six basic ointments in the traditional ways that have been used for hundreds of years, a low tech approach using vegetable oils and beeswax,” says Geoff. “The plant materials came from our own gardens and as our interest in herbs grew, we developed a large plant nursery specialising in herb plants and perennials. We wound that up about 15 years ago to concentrate on making medicinal ointments for a range of problems like eczema, psoriasis, arthritis and for first aid purposes.”

The Speedens grow their plants using organic principles although their garden is not certified organic. They have a commitment to support local suppliers and source their olive oil and beeswax in Hawkes Bay. Some of the more recently developed products are more complex and require essential oils and emulsifying waxes and oils, which they buy in.

The main process they use to combine herbs and olive oil is known as maceration – either cold maceration with flowers or hot maceration with leaves. The resulting medicinal oils have beeswax added to form an ointment.

In late spring they start harvesting flowers and make oils from Elder, Arnica, Chamomile and Calendula.   They also use Hypericum (St John’s Wort), Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) and Verbascum (common Mullein) and at other times of the year make oils from the leaves of Comfrey, Aloe Vera, Chickweed, Plantain, Kawakawa and Titoki.

Over the years Millstream Gardens’ products have grown in popularity and they now produce around 50 different items. At one point they started supplying a large eco-product chain but pulled back from that because they would have had to expand into a manufacturing facility in town.

“We are quite mindful that our motto is ‘Small is Beautiful’ and we think that the way we grow and make things and a flexible lifestyle is more important than earning lots of money. We like to be hands-on the whole way through, so that we can maintain a consistent product of high quality,” says Geoff.

“Our philosophy is to be as organic and as natural as possible and that can be a bit of a minefield too. We used to buy a soap base that contained palm oil that we thought was produced sustainably but it wasn’t, so we had to change suppliers to source an acceptable ingredient.   We have to be constantly on guard in case ingredients are being greenwashed.”

“The other part of our mission statement is to keep our products affordable. We have lived on the dole, so we know what it is like not to be able to afford things for your kids, so we keep our prices quite competitive.”

The Speedens used to sell most of their products through retail outlets but now about half are sold online and that proportion is increasing as more people use the internet.

Customers have always come from all walks of life but Geoff says a significant new category is new mothers who have become conscious of what they put on their children’s skin after discovering that there can be ‘nasty’ ingredients in baby products, such as mineral oils and parabens.

“We sell a lot of eczema cream to mothers with babies because it seems more prevalent these days, and people say our products work really well,” he says. “Every now and then someone will write to thank us. We had one person say they had tried every product for their daughter who had chronic eczema for 10 years and wouldn’t go out in public, but after using our cream it had cleared up within a week. That’s pretty mind-blowing for us that we can make such a difference. Another person wrote to us saying that he had been covered in psoriasis over 80% of his body and doctors said they couldn’t do anything for him, but using our cream had ‘saved his life’. Frustratingly, what helps one person may have no effect on another, as everyone responds differently.”

While being grateful for the positive feedback, the Speedens are conscious that they are only making available what nature provides in abundance.   “We grow and harvest with intent and mindfulness, which is about remembering that it’s not about us, it’s about nature providing this amazing abundance of healing,” says Geoff. “Maybe that’s our most important point of difference.”