Coastside aromatherapist Mary Pancoast crafts her own line of artisan soaps, perfumes, candles and other products, relying on an environmentally friendly ethos.
Close your eyes, breathe deep and imagine your favorite botanical scent. Is there an aroma that lifts you up, soothes your spirit or evokes a feeling of bliss? Whatever your preferences (it’s all about the orange blossom, redwoods and bay leaves for me), plants have power, and in the right hands, working with their essences is both a science and an art.
“I’m so intrigued with plants, with everything that plants can do,” says Coastside aromatherapist and “neighborhood apothecary” Mary Pancoast of Shen Aroma Farm (her personal favorite scent? Probably geranium.) Pancoast’s blooming brand is based on her creekside patch of land in Pacifica. From those idyllic headquarters she grows flowers, keeps thriving hives of honeybees and offers a variety of handmade products, including artisan soaps, body butters, shower steamers, perfumes, syrups, candles, dream pillows and more, all infused with scintillating scents from essential oils and produced with an environmentally friendly ethos.
Aromatherapy is the practice of using concentrated botanical extracts to promote healing and well-being through scent. According to Pancoast, aromas of certain plants can bring about feelings of peace and calm (some lavenders, for example) or boost energy (rosemary or peppermint). Essential plant oils can soothe aches and pains, she says, and enhance physical and mental wellness in a variety of other ways. Some also boast germ-killing properties. Aromatherapists can help find the right oil to fit the need, as well as teach how to best use them.
“I imagine herbs as an energetic healing,” Pancoast said. The Chinese word “shen” in her farm’s name refers to the spiritual element of a person.
“Shen is the invisible side of healing, of consciousness, how you live your life,” she said.
Pancoast grows many of the flowers she uses, including honeysuckle and violets. Her space is the site of a former mint farm and the herb still grows there plentifully. And while she currently sources out her seed oils, she would eventually like to press her own.
“I focus on the energy of all of this – of connecting people with the ingredients, not using any fillers – and growing my own raw ingredients really helps the process with me,” she said.
According to Pancoast, many mass-market, store-bought products are overpriced, over-packaged and stuffed with additives and derivatives, drastically reducing their benefits in addition to being environmentally unfriendly. At Shen Aroma Farm, the emphasis is on sustainability as well as purity, in both the products and the packaging.
“My vision is to keep pushing the packaging industry to be more sustainable,” Pancoast said. Ultimately, her goal is to use 100% compostable and biodegradable packaging. Currently, she uses glass, paper and bags when possible (although she does use some plastics when necessary).
Pancoast combines her artistic sense of style with her dedication to natural products when creating her wares, including charming, delicately hued soaps molded in the shapes of animals and plants. Always mindful of staying true to her values and aesthetic, she experiments with natural dyes, using dragon fruit powder for pink, for example, or spirulina and butterfly pea powder for blues.
“Part of Shen Aroma Farm is my exploration of ingredients. I’m always looking for ways to color things naturally. Maybe they don’t look perfect sometimes, but I like that more rustic, natural look,” she said. “I want someone to know that I made it.“
Her commitment to being as holistically connected to all parts of the process now includes a relationship with those all-important pollinators as well.
“As I started making more and more items and being more of a stickler about organics and keeping things as natural as possible, it got me on my beekeeping journey, which I love!” she said. “That’s a whole other ball of wax, no pun intended.”
Currently housing six backyard hives of honeybees, Pancoast also sells small batches of honey to people looking for “pure flower power honey” (her bees are not fed any additives or sugar), although it’s just a small part of her business.
She says she’s fascinated by and attached to her busy bees, which has proven challenging at times when facing strife such as colony collapses or brutal robberies by other hives. “It’s pretty rugged out there in nature,” she said, remembering how she’d call local beekeepers in tears in the early days when watching her hives struggle.
“I realized its animal husbandry. You have to have your feet on both sides. It’s a business, but also they are special little people; little insect people,” she said with a laugh.
An avid photographer, Pancoast posts gorgeous photos and videos on Instagram, including some remarkable recent footage of one honeybee appearing to assist another with its landing.
“These things that fly by you have their own lives,” she said of her ever-growing appreciation for the hardworking insects – both for her own hives and the native species that visit her garden. “Getting down to the micro level, I love it.”
Pancoast has been active in the aromatherapy world since the mid-’90s, when she got a job at an apothecary shop in San Luis Obispo as a college student. She’d originally planned on studying agricultural sciences, then art, but found her truest calling in a field that involves both (in some ways literally). She interned at the Nova Studio in Berkeley, became a registered aromatherapist from the American College of Healthcare Sciences and is currently studying international formulation with Formula Botanica. As she makes plans to revamp her website and “up her game,” the busy mom of two, who offers custom orders, pop-up shops, classes and consultations, says she hopes to further synthesize her artistic skills with her aromatic expertise to best show the world what she – and Shen Aroma Farm – are all about.
“I want it all to be my design house,” she said, “like a fashion house but with flavors and scents.”
Follow Shen Aroma Farm on Instagram @shen.aroma.farm and visit shenaromafarm.com. Find Shen Aroma Farm at the third annual Handmade Pacifica artisan fair from 1-5 p.m. July 30 at the Sanchez Art Center, 1220 Linda Mar Blvd. in Pacifica.