Meet the Ethnobotanist Using Science and Squamish Tradition to Make Skincare


Leigh Joseph harvests wild ingredients in the forests, estuaries and subalpine meadows near her home in Squamish, B.C. In a large woven basket, she carefully collects wild rose petals, rose hips, yarrow, cottonwood buds and stinging nettle, which she’ll later dry and process into oil infusions and powders for her skincare and apothecary brand, Skwálwen Botanicals.

Joseph is trained in ethnobotany – the field of study exploring the relationship between people and plants – but her own relationship to the natural world is rooted in her childhood. A member of the Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) First Nation, Joseph remembers visiting her great–uncle Chester and great–aunt Eva in the Snuneymuxw (Nanaimo) First Nation, where she picked vegetables from the garden, fished in the river and helped hang salmon in the smokehouse. “Those experiences helped guide me on this path of connecting culture, plants and health,” says Joseph, who also goes by her ancestral name, Styawat.

After completing her Master of Science in ethnobotany at the University of Victoria, Joseph moved to Dawson City, Yukon, where she launched her small–batch brand in 2017. She started by making her own salves and tea blends as gifts, eventually selling them at holiday markets. Now, her Skwálwen line includes facial oils, toners and masks, all made in her home workspace in Squamish (where she returned two years ago), using ingredients foraged in sustainable, respectful ways. “Skwálwen is a Squamish word that speaks to the connection between mind and heart, and how we move in the world,” she says.

July 1, 2020

Skwálwen is a Squamish word that speaks to the connection between mind and heart, and how we move in the world.”

Leigh Joseph foraging in the forests of British Columbia
A bottle of Tewín’xw Cranberry Rose Antioxidant Facial Serum by Sḵwálwen Botanicals
Last year, Leigh Joseph renamed her brand Skwálwen Botanicals (from The Wild Botanicals) to create a stronger link with her Squamish culture. “I was nervous there would be a language barrier, but I’ve found it draws people in.”   Photos: Kaili Smith

As her company grows, Joseph wants to continue to bridge the gap between Indigenous plant science and Western science. She’d like to partner with a laboratory to explore how to make her own plant extracts using natural, traditional methods. “I want to elevate the understanding that Indigenous knowledge of plants doesn’t just fall into folklore, where I think it’s often placed,” says Joseph. “Our ancestors practised scientific methods through observation and experimentation, with a spiritual element as well.”

Joseph is also currently completing her Ph.D., studying the prevention and management of Type 2 diabetes in the Squamish First Nation that incorporates an increased access to plants. Over the last year, she’s run workshops and harvesting trips with community members to help them regain knowledge lost to colonialism.

Her paternal grandparents, great–uncle Chester and great–aunt Eva were all residential school survivors, which is why it’s so important for her to pass along traditional Squamish knowledge to her two young children. “They take so much pride in harvesting,” says Joseph. “I can hear them thanking the plants. It’s so meaningful to witness that connection, knowing my family didn’t have a chance to do that. It lifts my heart.”

Foraged stinging nettle in a woven basket
Foraged stinging nettle is used in products like the Pá7pawtn Nettle and Arnica Sore Muscle Salve.   Photo: Alana Paterson

Three Tips for Respectful Foraging

  1. “Before you begin foraging a particular plant, learn as much as you can about it. How does it change seasonally? What insects or animals rely on it?”

  2. “Learn how you can contribute to the plant’s well–being through weeding, spreading seeds and planting out cuttings or root segments.”

  3. “If the plant is plentiful and widespread, and you’re certain it’s not sacred or at risk, start with a small harvest spread out over many different plants and take only what you need.”