I n an East Haven forest, at the end of a long, semi-paved road, there’s a house surrounded by gardens. They’re lovely to walk through even at this time of year, when some plants have already gone to seed, but giving leisure isn’t their main purpose.
These are healing gardens.
Sandi Coppola, the woman behind the wellness company Sperry Naturals, is working on a new project: harvesting amaranth grains. She points out some of their stalks, which tower in fuschia over a small fairy garden. Fairy gardens appear throughout the grounds, decorated with sparkling stones, painted figurines and even little buildings, some of which are homemade. She’s graced one of them with a wooden elephant, and now the elephant is covered in a silver, leafy fungus.
This amuses her. “Everything grows here,” she says. “We even bring things back to life.” The prime example is a tree stump, whose top she graced with dead vines to create a large mushroom sculpture. Now a green sprout is growing out of it.
Coppola’s whimsical personality belies a sharp, curious mind. As we walk through her farm, she’s an endless fount of knowledge, listing the names and uses of plants that an untrained eye wouldn’t distinguish from the undergrowth. Sage, rue, milkweed, lavender, lemongrass, rosemary, chamomile, apple and peach trees, blueberry bushes; for every new patch or unmarked path, there is something unexpected growing.
Sperry Naturals, which often appears at CitySeed’s Wooster Square and Edgewood Park farmers’ markets, began in July of 2014, when Coppola received farm status from the Department of Agriculture. Her herbalist inclinations, however, have been lifelong. One of the first things she made was lavender soap. “My nonna made soap when I was a little girl, with the lavender in the yard,” she says. “She used lard and olive oil from Italy, and we made soap on the stove in the kitchen.” As a young woman, Coppola made an herbal remedy for her father’s gout, and when her son was a child, she invented one of Sperry Naturals’s best-selling products—her Soothing Moisture Therapy Mist, made from chamomile and lavender—in order to help him sleep.
After walking through her property, Coppola goes down into the basement of her home, a.k.a. her “laboratory,” where she does the bulk of her work. There are jars of oil with herbs floating in them, plants drying on tables and containers filled with ground-up pumpkin and lavender. Many of these ingredients are put to use in the products she sells, but some of them, like the milkweed pods she has drying, are still waiting for her to find a use for them as she combs through her herbal encyclopedias.
She seems delighted by her work and the good she says it’s done for those she loves. A close friend who was diagnosed with skin cancer inspired her popular Oatmeal Silk Lotion. Her primary patient, however, is herself. Coppola was in a traumatic car accident years ago. “I was on the guard rail, jaws of life, had to be cut out of the car,” she says with feeling. “But out of that came [Sperry Naturals].”
After her accident, Coppola refused painkillers, instead searching for herbal remedies. “Don’t even get me started on the pharmaceutical industry,” she says with a laugh. Now, two years after she began her business, she takes only one prescribed medication, and she’s actively looking for a way to replace it with a tonic from her own garden. “Everything that we need to heal us is on Earth,” she says.
Sperry Naturals’s newest venture is tea, or, more accurately, tisane, which is made up of dried herbs as opposed to tealeaves. Her favorite flavor is a blend of licorice, spearmint and sage, which she says is a natural expectorant. “People can be reluctant to try it, because it’s different and they don’t know what it is,” she says. She’s working to overcome this by hosting tisane tastings.
Coppola has dreams to build a barn on the edge of her property that would serve as a storefront as well as a new laboratory, where people could come and see how her products are made and even try their hand at making soap or tisane.
Until then, Coppola continues to farm, harvest, and create on her own, among her fairy gardens and abundant herbs. “As soon as it stops being fun, I’ll stop. But I love it, I really do,” she says, heading back out into her garden in the direction of the amaranth, in pursuit of new grain to harvest and new uses to discover.
Written by Sorrel Westbrook. Photographed by Dan Mims.