Mother Herb
An interview with Waltraut Richter

By Birgit Ruff

"I’m the walking example of what you can do with herbs," says Waltraut Richter, Canada’s herbal pioneer. At 80, she is the picture of health, emanating an energy difficult to match even in youth. A woman of strength, courage and sensitivity, Richter insisted on growing medicinal herbs during a time when Canadians knew "little more than chives, parsley and mint." Today, holistic herbal remedies have reached unmatched popularity, with Richters at the forefront of the movement as one of the first and largest suppliers of herbal propagative material North America.

A native of Germany, Richter brought her ancestors’ herbal traditions to Canada in 1953. "When we came from Austria with four little children we had a tough time just to live. We bought an old run-down place in the Markham area with some greenhouses. We started to grow petunias and marigolds to attract customers. The plants were very good and it went very well. Then I wanted to start growing herbs," she recalls. "We took seeds from Austria and Germany. A wonderful English lady gave me cuttings from scented geraniums, pineapple sage and lemon verbena. And I still keep them growing today."

Her passion for herbs and her desire to help people combined with her husband’s horticultural knowledge to build the groundwork for their success. Otto and Waltraut Richter established Richters in 1967. Thirty years later, Richters grows over 700 varieties of herbs and distributes them to countries worldwide including Australia, Germany. Hungary, Austria, Brazil, South Africa and U.S.A. "We only grow organic herbs and vegetables. When chemicals have been used on the land, the soil is no good for ten years. It took us a long time to find our farm. We drove around for months," says Richter. Using organic growing principles, Richters relies only on manure, seaweed and botanical pesticides.

Madame Benoit, a Canadian author of cookbooks, was instrumental in bringing the Richter’s herbal business to media fame in 1972. "Madame Benoit sent us a long list of herbs, enquiring if we carried them. And we had them all!"

Soon after she was asked if she wanted to be interviewed on a nationwide television show. "My knees were shaking," she recalls, "I appeared on CBC’s Take 30 with Madame Benoit and Adrienne Clarkson." At the time, not many Canadians knew about herbs and even fewer knew about Richters. After the show, they received an overwhelming response of 1500 letters and Richter continued to be invited as a speaker to various clubs and church groups.

She explains: "I started to tell people about the medicinal value of herbs. For example, savoury helps with digestion, catnip tea is a sleep aid, and St. John’s Wort helps against stress. At first, people looked at me as if I was strange, but it didn’t take long until they found out the truth. Especially the European people have experience with herbs. I remember my mother used to give us wormwood tea when we had a stomach ache." Richter also points to the culinary value of herbs, such as savoury and its notable flavour when combined with string beans, for an old German recipe.

According to Richter, "laughter is the best medicine." Her own stories are often embellished with humour. For example: A doctor asks his patient, ‘did you take your medicine?’ She answers, ‘Yes I took it and threw it out the window’." This anecdote outlines Richter’s own natural regime for good health. "I really watch my health. I’m vegetarian and every morning I do 20 minutes of exercise. At noon I always have fresh organic carrot juice. I take eyebright, a herb good for the eyes, and yarrow tincture against shingles," she says.

Essiac, which flushes out accumulated toxins, is one of Richter’s favourite herbal remedies. She recounts the story of Rene Caisse, a nurse from Bracebridge, Ontario, who in 1922 received the recipe for this powerful tea from the Ojibway Indians. Richter sent essiac, reputed as a cure for cancer, to a sick friend in Germany. Richter received a letter from her friend who, after taking numerous bottles, told her that he was completely cured of cancer. But Richter always warns people that every cancer is different and every person is different. She takes a holistic view, "You have to look at the whole person. For example, if you lead a bad lifestyle, eat the wrong food and smoke: that makes a difference."

Richter has also created her own special healing blend of tea. "It’s been known to help people with high blood pressure and even with arthritis!" But Richter refuses to elaborate on the healing properties of her tea. "Because I can’t play doctor," she says with a twinkle.

Another natural remedy that has stayed with her from the past is charcoal tablets, "I never forgot how they worked. All these years I’ve continued to use them, especially while travelling when the water is bad. They isolate the poison in the stomach and get rid of it. After two hours or so you feel good again!"

Richter recalls how she was first introduced to these tablets at the end of the Second World War. During the war, Richter was separated from her husband when he became a soldier. She lived in Berlin and knew he had been released near his home town in Austria. "So many children had lost their fathers and I wanted my children to have their father. Alone, I took my children on a freight train for five days and five nights. Whenever the train stopped I ran out to get food and water for my children. The children became sick and a doctor on the train gave them charcoal tablets." Friends and family in Berlin had tried to convince her not to go to Austria to find her husband because as a German she was now the enemy. "But I had to go for the children to find their father. When it comes to your children you fight like a lion," says Richter.

Throughout the war, Richter fought to protect her children. "The war was terrible, especially during the bombings of Berlin. My daughter would wake up screaming. Many buildings were destroyed in my neighbourhood. When I ran with my family to the bombshelter, the spitfires shot at us like rabbits. I ran with my baby in my arms. A bomb just missed my mother. In the shelter some people laughed, some cried, some screamed. It gives me goosebumps talking about it," Richter shivers. One day as they emerged from the bombshelter they saw that her friend’s house had been reduced to a pile of rubble, with all 12 family members inside.

Later the Russians invaded Berlin. Richter returned home to find her house swarming with Russian soldiers. "I came into the house and began screaming ‘Get out! Get out!’ like a madwoman. Every Russian soldier left. Can you imagine?" As the weeks passed, Richter continued to assert herself with the soldiers. She knew a certain Russian liked photographs. One day this soldier grabbed her at her garden gate. In defense, she hit him. He drew his gun. "Don’t be silly. Show me your photographs," she said, commenting, "You act very tough but it hits you afterwards."

Once in Canada, peace did not come to Richter immediately. A particularly hostile neighbour tormented Richter. During one such incident, Richter was outside watering her flowers when a bit of water splashed into the neighbour’s garden. She in turn came over and poured a pail of water over Richter who was quick to retaliate. "Well, I had a hose in my hand. What would you have done?" The neighbour laid charges against Richter. Once in court the judge said, "You are a newcomer and you have to behave!" Richter was found guilty of criminal assault. When the woman continued to attack Richter, she feared for her house and for her children. "This was my little Canadian war. I thought, [why] am I here?"

Today, Richter continues to fight for her rights. Canada’s Bill C-7, a controversial Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, has imposed restrictions on the use and sale of medicinal herbs. Since some traditional herbs come under the classification of "stimulating and relaxing" (a clause in the bill), access to natural supplements is threatened. Although alcohol, nicotine and prescribed drugs are exempted from the bill, natural products are not.

Seen as too much of a threat to the monopoly held by pharmaceutical industries, herbs are under attack. Seeds are held at the Canadian border, and natural remedies have even been pulled off the shelves of health food stores.

"Herbs that have been used for years are now suddenly in question and in danger. One example is echinacea, a herb native to North America and traditionally chewed by its Aboriginals. Comfrey is widely used in Europe. Here [in Canada] we can grow it and sell it but not explain what it is for. Our catalogue is full of explanations. When you say a herb is for stress or something else it becomes a drug," explains Richter. Since the bill, the sale of 58 medicinal herbs has already been restricted, and the future of herb growers has become uncertain. Richters is organizing against government interference with the help of a lawyer. "We are telling the government to keep their fingers out of it," says Richter.

When Waltraut Richter turned 80 she was advised to slow down. Instead, she continues as President of Richters, consults clients, and remains active in the 33,000 square feet of her greenhouse facility. At home among the sweet aromas of the greenery, she continues with her life’s work. "People have told me, ‘Take it easy,’ when they see me running through the greenhouse to get them a particular herb. I’m really strong. I’ve been called an amazing woman," says Richter.

Originally published in Women & Environment International Magazine, Winter 1997 (Issue 41).
Copyright © 1997-2024 Otto Richter and Sons Limited. All rights reserved.