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What to do when green isn’t working: part three

June 29, 2015

Kahina Giving Beauty

In case you’re just joining us now, we’ve been going over some common issues that people have when converting to a green beauty routine. Part one addressed clogged pores and acne, while part two addressed persistent dryness. Here, we’ll take on sensitivity, or a perceived increase in sensitivity, that some people report as they begin experimenting with green beauty products.  Read on if you’ve had problems with sensitivity and if you’ve already been evaluated by a physician (dermatologist, primary care and/or allergist) who has not discovered allergies or underlying medical reasons for your sensitivity.

The problem: As I’m converting to green beauty, I’m noticing more redness, irritation, or general sensitivity. I’m tempted to go back to my trusty Cetaphil products, which, though full of synthetic ingredients, never irritated my skin.

To consider: A big fat myth surrounding green beauty is that it is inherently more gentle than it’s less-natural counterparts. The thinking goes something like, “Well, I’ve ditched the harsh chemicals my body doesn’t recognize, so automatically my skin will be calmer.” Not necessarily so. An irritant is an irritant is an irritant, whether created in a test tube or sprung from the earth. Opponents of green beauty love to bring up poison ivy as an example of something found in nature, 100% natural, that is highly irritating.  They also relish reminding us that everything, even water, is a chemical (“beware of dihydrogen monoxide!” is a common sarcastic refrain). If those two battle cries help get the point across, fine. But why is it so easy to conflate irritation with synthetic chemicals? Maybe because as an everyday skincare consumer it’s pretty easy to overdo it with the acids and peels and retinoids and benzoyl peroxide, most of which are found in conventional, non-organic/natural formulations. Regardless, there are sensitivities that extend into the organic/natural realm. Unfortunately, uncovering and positively identifying these sensitivities can take time, patience, and very, very careful observation.

The plan:

As mentioned in part one, be very careful about how you sample and test out new products.  Pick a gentle, simple lineup of products and stick to them for three months minimum before adding more products in. We like Kahina Facial CleanserKahina Toning MistKahina Argan Oil as your morning and evening routine, adding in Kahina Facial Lotion if you have dryer skin.

If you are concerned about sensitive skin, the fewer the ingredients, the better. There’s a reason we consistently recommend Kahina Argan Oil to those with finicky skin: it’s a single, organic ingredient. The more ingredients in a formulation, the greater the likelihood that it contains a potential irritant and the harder time you will have identifying which ingredient that is.

Do not over-exfoliate or over-stimulate. In parts one and two, we went over how important exfoliation is to healthy skin. That said, you have to choose the most gentle option that your skin will tolerate. If a facial brush like a Clarisonic leaves you red or raw feeling, it is not a good fit. Similarly, face masks with “warming” ingredients or very drawing (and drying) clay can wreak havoc.

Watch your treatment products. Vitamin C, retinoids, acids, apple cider vinegar, tea tree oil, etc. – these can be great, effective skincare ingredients but they are particularly active and when you overuse or misuse them, you are setting yourself up for sensitivity. Different people have different tolerance levels for these products, so when in doubt, go cautiously, and use one at a time for a month before adding in a new one.

Keep an eye on your makeup, oral care and haircare products, too. If you’ve made changes in these product categories at the same time as your skincare switch up, they’re also potential candidates for new irritation. We’d argue that these are very uncommon reasons for sensitivity but worth a mention nonetheless. Problematic hair care products will typically produce irritation on your neck, your back, or around your hairline. Toothpaste sensitivities show up as irritation around the mouth. Problematic makeup will produce irritation wherever you applied it. If you suspect irritation is stemming from one of these sources, stop using it for at least a week, ideally a month, and see if conditions improve.

Choose skincare products with ingredients shown to soothe skin; favorites found in many Kahina products include aloe vera, bisabolol, green/white tea, rosewater, calendula, resveratrol, willow bark, chamomile, blue tansy, and of course argan oil.

Go back to the beginning. By that we mean, pare it down! It is so, so easy to accumulate lotions and potions in your quest for the perfect routine. It is also easy to want to try to incorporate all of them into your regimen, since, you know, you have them in your cabinet and don’t want to waste them. If you’re using 10 different skincare products and it’s working for you, amazing! But if it’s not, go on an elimination diet and scale way back. Like three products max. Twice a day. For a month. Your skin could just need a reset.

A word on essential oils: essential oils are typically very healing and skin-positive; in addition, they are typically in very low concentrations which minimizes irritation potential. However, essential oils are also actives and therefore a few of them can be a problem for some people. If you are having an issue with extreme sensitivity, avoid formulations with essential oils for a while (often labeled as “unscented”) and see how your skin does. Does it rebound and become more resilient? Or is there no change? For sensitive skin types seeking to avoid scent or essential oils, our top recommendations include Kahina Argan Oil, Kahina Facial Lotion, and Kahina Eye Serum.

We hope this three-part series was informative and helpful to you as you continue exploring organic & natural options in skincare. Oftentimes, being aware of potential pitfalls in your routine, correcting them, and then giving time for your skin to re-balance itself (this takes minimum 1 month!) will help get you through any bumps on the green beauty journey.


What to do when green isn’t working: part two

June 22, 2015

Kahina Giving Beauty Skincare

Last post we discussed a common issue people have when they convert their beauty routine to all natural and organic: increased breakouts and/or clogged pores. Here, we address another frequent stumbling block: getting proper moisture for very dry skin types. Just like last time, there are some presuppositions: you drink plenty of water (and are not drinking too much alcohol or caffeine); you’ve been evaluated by a dermatologist to rule out skin conditions; and your recent blood work suggests you are otherwise healthy.

The problem: While some skin types are acne-prone, others are (blessedly) not. A huge category of customers that write to us list very dry skin as their primary concern. They tend to be women in their 40s and older. They are used to using thick moisturizers and creams, procured at drugstores, department stores, or via prescription, for their face and body. When making the switch to all-natural/organic skincare, they occasionally find that their skin is still dry, possibly with flakiness, and they’re tempted to return to their heavy, super-emollient moisturizers.

First things first, let’s define our terms: what is a moisturizer? On a very basic level and for our purposes, a moisturizer is something that combines oil + water. Sure, the skincare industry has formulas that go against this principle, but in general, that’s the concept. Oil and water don’t mix so you need an emulsifier to help the formula change from oil+water to lotion/cream. Many all-natural/organic skincare brands consciously avoid this emulsifier, which is why you see so many oil blends and balms (plant waxes/butters/oils) – there’s no water in the formula and no need for an emulsifier. Obviously, at Kahina we love our balms and oils, but they’re not a complete moisturizer because they are missing the water component. This isn’t an issue for some people, but for others – especially those in dry climates (including indoor climates made dry by AC or heater) – using strictly oils or plant butters without a water component can lead to flakiness or oily-yet-dehydrated skin.

With that in mind, here are some best practices for those who find that they have persistent dryness, especially after switching to organic/natural beauty:

  1. Has an oil or oil-blend/serum become your primary moisturizer? Be sure to use a toning mist when you apply your oil. You can spritz it on generously before applying oil, or you can spray it into your hand, where you combine it with a few drops of oil, and apply both together. Look for a formula that contains sodium hyaluronate, a humectant particle that holds water molecules. This holds true for body moisturizer too: apply body serum on damp skin after showering or bathing.
  2. Are you combining products to get the most moisture possible? We always recommend either our Facial Lotion or Night Cream (both traditional moisturizers with oil and water components) to customers with dry skin, as they can help prevent moisture loss. However, sometimes customers say that they’re not heavy or rich enough. The simple solution is to combine these traditional moisturizers with Argan Oil, Prickly Pear Seed Oil, or Serum. You can add a few drops of any of the oils directly to the moisturizer before applying, or you can apply the oil (argan/PPSO/Serum) first, followed by either Facial Lotion or Night Cream. Finally, spot treat extra or persistently dry areas with Kahina Lip & Face Balm or Kahina FEZ Hand & Body Balm.
  3. Are you exfoliating? Even dry skin types need to exfoliate, especially the older you get, as skin cells start to shed at a more sluggish pace. How can moisturizers optimally penetrate skin if there is an extra thick layer of dead cells? There are a myriad of options for exfoliation and the best one for you is based on your sensitivity. Always start with the most gentle form and work your way up if necessary. If you’re new to exfoliation, get a feel for it with your washcloth – something you already have at home. Other options include konjac sponges, facial brushes, muslins, enzymatic/chemical exfoliants, and clays. Kahina Antioxidant Mask is perfect for even dry skin types; more on that below.

Bonus considerations:
Look at what kind of cleanser you’re using and make sure it’s not drying you out. Kahina Facial Cleanser is the perfect pick for those prone to dryness; its milky texture and high level of argan oil help maintain a proper oil balance. Cleansers – even all natural/organic – can be gels or foams, made from high concentrations of clay, or be soap-based, all of which have the potential to overly dry your skin.

Are you using clay in your routine? Certain clays (bentonite for example) are extremely “drawing”; you’ll know because when they dry, they harden and crack off the face. If you have very dry skin, we do not recommend using these kinds of clay masks or clay powder cleansers. Kahina Antioxidant Mask was formulated for even dry skin types. Rhassoul clay is much more gentle than a lot of clays, and because we’ve included argan oil and other ingredients in the formula, the mask will not harden or crack. In fact, many people report clearer, more hydrated and less red skin after use.

Are you using any kind of treatments that include acids or retinoids? Retinoids, AHAs, BHAs – they’re proven effective and can be wonderful when used properly. The key is to gauge dosage and frequency (i.e. maybe you need it only a few times a week rather than every day) to make sure you are not overdoing them. Symptoms of overuse? Dryness, tightness, flakiness, small rashes, redness, and increased sensitivity. Overuse can include using too many different kinds of these products in a one month period. Finally, be sure to use adequate sun protection or SPF when on a program that includes sun-sensitizing ingredients.

In the third and final post in this series, we’ll be talking about the third most common complaint when transitioning to a green beauty routine: increased sensitivity. Stay tuned!

What to do when green isn’t working

June 19, 2015

Kahina Line Spring 2014 Low Res lightened and cropped
A recent article got us thinking about what happens when your green beauty products don’t seem to be working. You make the transition from dermatologist-recommended medications or from department store marquis brands to organic/natural products. You’re excited; you love the green beauty community and the new formulations you get to try. You read morning routines, you order samples, or buy from a store with a generous return policy, and you start testing. Eventually you find a bundle of products that work for you. But then. Then you experience a change for the worse. Of course, this does not happen for everyone. But we read about it enough that we want to address it here and provide some common complaints and how to address them. We absolutely think that it’s worth it to stick to a more organic/natural beauty routine, for a myriad of reasons, so we hope this helps you troubleshoot, get over your hump, and persevere.

I am breaking out (more) now that I’m using organic/natural products.
This has to be the most frequent issue we read about. Breakouts have so many causes. Let’s assume that you’re not suddenly experiencing heightened stress levels, or fluctuating hormonal levels, or a substantial change in diet. Let’s assume you’ve been evaluated by your primary care physician, with blood work, to confirm you’re perfectly healthy. Perhaps you were using benzoyl peroxide or a retinoid but you’ve stopped. And now you have more acne than you’ve ever had. Why and what to do?

1. It is fun to try new products, but your skin may not love the process as much as you do. The single most important thing when delving into green beauty is to pick a simple routine to start with and to stick with it for at least a month, but ideally more like three to four months. Our standard recommendation to anyone with acne-prone skin who is just trying Kahina is Facial CleanserToning MistArgan Oil, AM & PM, with a bi-weekly Antioxidant Mask. Save serums, targeted moisturizers, etc. for later. Incorporating them one at a time down the road will help you determine if the new product is the offender in new breakouts.

2. If you used benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, or retinoids to treat acne, try incorporating their natural counterparts into your routine.

  • Tea tree oil is the typical swap for benzoyl peroxide, but it, just like benzoyl peroxide, can be irritating so go about testing carefully and be sure it is well-diluted in a carrier oil. Another promising option for killing acne-causing bacteria is a thyme hydrosol.
  • As for salicylic acid, you have some options. Salicylic acid is a member of the salicin family, so in the green beauty world, willow bark (white or black) is often the comparison, as it’s also in this family. Willow bark does provide anti-inflammatory benefits, which can help with redness and inflammation, hallmarks of acne. Willow bark is in both the Kahina Cleanser and our Toning Mist. To help clear pores, which salicylic acid also does, your best bet might be apple cider vinegar. Again, dilute this guy with water because he’s strong and the goal here is to avoid irritation at all costs. You can splash or swipe some apple cider vinegar + water over your face post-cleansing and pre-toning. The malic acid it contains can help clarify and decongest.
  • Regarding retinoids there are a lot of brands making comparable organic/natural products that are gentle. As mentioned in #1, however, as these are not single ingredients but rather formulations with lots of ingredients, we’d say it’s best to wait a few months before adding a new product in.
  • A word on vitamin C: vitamin C is a proven skincare champion, BUT it can be irritating and therefore exacerbate acne. Getting a stable form of it and in the right dosage for your particular skin can be difficult. We would not recommend experimenting with vitamin C products until you’ve achieved many months of clear skin, and we would not recommend looking to vitamin C products as breakout-fighting solutions. Everyone’s skin is different and good on you if vitamin C somehow cleared your acne, but in our opinion, it’s not worth using at first if you’re prone to breakouts or sensitivity.

3. If you’re experiencing clogged pores, check four things: your moisturizer, your makeup, your sunscreen, and how you exfoliate.

  • A big word of caution we’re constantly telling our customers is this: do not use more moisturizer (oil, lotion or cream) than you need. You probably need fewer drops of argan oil than you think you do. Feel free to layer our products if your skin is dry, but also feel free to use just argan oil, or just a lotion/cream if that’s all your skin needs to feel comfortable (not taut). Always apply an oil with a toning mist containing sodium hyaluronate – a humectant particle – to ensure you get a complete moisturizer (oil + water). This helps prevent flakiness which causes some people to overdose on oil, ignoring the water component of properly hydrated skin.
  • As for makeup and sunscreen, coconut oil can be a big offender in formulations (admittedly not everyone has a problem with coconut oil, but many do), as can excessive plant butters and waxes. Where possible, we suggest using mineral makeup (like Alima Pure) rather than creams or sticks. Look for sunscreens with simple ingredient lists. Zinc oxide is our favorite method of sun protection, as topical zinc can be soothing for acne.
  • Finally, are you exfoliating? How often? Aim for gentle exfoliation as often as your skin can take it. For some skin types, this could be every day via a washcloth or konjac sponge. For others, it might be once a week with our Antioxidant Mask. Can you use the Clarisonic? Absolutely, if you keep the brush clean – try soaking in hydrogen peroxide every few uses – and if your skin is not irritated at all afterwards; we wouldn’t recommend it for use during active breakouts. Your skin does a great job of shedding dead skin cells on its own, but some skin types shed more sluggishly than others, leaving dead skin cells on the surface where they can mix with sebum/excess oil and clog pores. If you do your part to exfoliate – gently without irritating – you can help your cause. The malic acid in ACV mentioned in #2 will help, but we also recommend recommend gentle physical exfoliation (washcloth, muslin, konjac, clarisonic, clay). Kahina Facial Cleanser contains papaya enzymes which are a super-gentle daily enzymatic exfoliant.

Examining these three areas and making improvements where possible should help resolve any bumps (pun intended!) along the road as you transition to organic/natural beauty products.

In part II, we’ll discuss two other common transition complaints.

#PostcardFrom: Win Kahina Essaouira Body Serum!

June 11, 2015

#PostcardFrom Essaouira #KahinaContest

The Moroccan seaside village of Essaouira served as the inspiration behind our latest body serum scent. The breeze off the ocean, its open-air markets and overall sense of lightness led to ESSAOUIRA Body Serum‘s final blend of geranium, sandalwood, petitgrain, and lavender.

ESSAOUIRA Body Serum is a natural expression of travel and discovery, two elements at the heart of Kahina Giving Beauty. In celebration of travel and the inspiration it provides, we are inviting you to share with us your #PostcardFrom.

How to enter: Post a photo from a travel destination or special place that inspires you; be sure to tag each photo with #postcardfrom and #kahinacontest so we can find your entry. (It would be helpful where possible to tag Kahina!) Not necessary but encouraged: tell us a bit about that place that inspires you. You can post as many photos as you like! Each is an individual entry, as long as it has #PostcardFrom and #kahinacontest along with it.

Where to post photos: Entries are accepted via Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter; you can enter on as many of these platforms as you wish. Please follow us on whatever platform you choose to use. Follow Kahina on Instagram. Follow Kahina on Twitter. Follow Kahina on Pinterest.

Prize: A full-sized ESSAOUIRA Body Serum will be awarded to each winner; one winner will be chosen per social media platform – one Twitter winner, one Pinterest winner, and one Instagram winner

When: Entries accepted June 11 – June 24, 2015

Winners: Winners announced & contacted June 25 and have until June 30th to respond to us with address, otherwise an alternative will be selected.

Who: This contest is available for United States residents, over 18 years old, only. You are welcome to join in with posting if you’re from another country, but unfortunately we cannot ship prizes outside the U.S.

How will winners be decided?: Winners will be chosen on merit by the Kahina Giving Beauty team. Our favorite photos win!

We will be joining in on the fun with some of our favorite photos of Essaouira.

#Postcardfrom Essaouira Morocco #KahinaContest

Why we love geranium oil

May 29, 2015

KAHINA ESSAOUIRA BODY SERUMIf you’ve tried our new ESSAOUIRA Body Serum, you’ll notice a bright note of rose geranium on first sniff. Not only is it a favorite scent of ours, rose geranium has wonderful skin and aromatherapy benefits.

Here are three ways rose geranium in ESSAOUIRA Body Serum can come to your aid:

1. Rose geranium helps support your body’s lymph system and can temporarily improve the appearance of cellulite. For best results, as you massage the body serum in, focus on long, vigorous strokes toward your heart.

2. Rose geranium is a female hormone balancer, meaning it can help relieve uncomfortable pre-menstrual or menopause symptoms. For cramps or other discomfort, add a few pumps of ESSAOUIRA Body Serum to a bath to take advantage of the aromatherapy benefits while also moisturizing and soothing. For hot flashes, we recommend a cool shower or spritzing the body with water and then applying a light layer of ESSAOUIRA Body Serum all over.

3. Rose geranium calms frayed nerves. Paired with lavender, the Essaouira scent blend is the perfect aromatherapy ritual for relaxing at the end of the day, or beginning your day in a centered frame of mind.

Don’t just take our word for it – the ladies at No More Dirty Looks are also big fans of this wonderful oil!

Shop ESSAOUIRA Body Serum.

36 Hours in Essaouira

May 5, 2015

36 Hours in Essaouira

To celebrate the launch of ESSAOUIRA Body Serum, we’re giving you Kahina founder Katharine L’Heureux’s quick travel guide to Essaouira, Morocco, the town that inspired the new scent.

Day 1:
The first thing in the morning, wander down to the docks to watch the fishermen bring in the days haul. The locals will be there jostling among numerous vendors with their wares laid out in boxes on the ground or in carts to buy their fish for the day. A huge variety of fresh fish is on display, eyed by plenty of cats hoping for their chance.

If you’re feeling brave, do what the locals do. Choose one of the vendors based on what looks good (even if you can’t identify the type of fish) and buy directly. There is a guy with a few tables and a grill at the end of the dock who will cook your fish and serve it to you on paper plates with bread for just a few dirhams.

Otherwise, head back towards town where there is a row of open-air restaurant/stalls where you can choose the catch of the day from glass cases and they will serve you with a touch more formality.

After lunch take a stroll on the beach and watch the wind-surfers. Towards the end of the long beach, you can ride camels and gallop horses.

Make time in the afternoon for the hammam. There are two types to choose from, the traditional hammam which is a shared experience in a large room, or a private hammam session. Either way, treat yourself to the traditional beauty treatments of Moroccan women including exfoliation with savon noir, a rhassoul clay mask, and argan oil massage. If opting for the traditional version, make sure to stop at the souk and pick up your own products to bring with you on the way.

Afterwards, make your way to the old fortress to watch the sun go down. Stroll along the walls of the medina on the way to browse the shops and galleries there. There is a good selection of restaurants for dinner in the medina to suit your mood and budget.

Day 2.
Take a drive south toward Agadir. It’s a beautiful drive through the argan forests. You’ll see goats in trees and some typical Moroccan villages. There are several argan cooperatives along the way to stop in and see how the nuts are cracked. Make sure to try the amlou with bread, a mixture of almonds honey and argan oil. If you are feeling ambitious, continue approximately 2 hours south to reach Agadir. There is a beautiful stretch of unspoiled coastline before you reach Agadir and multiple spots for surfing. Have lunch at any of the restaurants along the boardwalk of Agadir before heading back.

Where to Stay
L’Heure Bleue $$$
Luxury in a traditional Moroccan riad decorated in a Colonial Style

Madada Mogador $$$
A boutique hotel decorated in traditional Moroccan finishes with rooms on the ramparts overlooking the water and the medina.

36 Hours in Essaouira
Iconic blue boats in Essaouira’s port

Fish Market in Essaouira
Fresh fish can be grilled surfside for lunch

camels on the beach at Essaouira
Camels nap on Essaouira’s beach

Orange Cart in Essaouira

Inside the Hammam at Madada Mogador
The beautiful hammam at Madada Mogador

Argan forest
The argan forests are a fun day trip from Essaouira

On Essaouira

May 4, 2015

Katharine L'Heureux in Essaouira Morocco
Morocco is the heart and soul behind Kahina Giving Beauty. Our new ESSAOUIRA BODY SERUM is inspired by the breezy village by the sea.

Here, Kahina founder and CEO Katharine L’Heureux reflects on her experiences in Essaouira.

When was the first time you traveled to Essaouira?
Essaouira was my first stop on a journey to discover the argan forests in January of 2008. After discovering argan oil on a trip to Morocco the previous year, I returned to learn all that I could about the precious oil, where it grows and the methods of its production. The argan forests begin around Essaouira and continue south and east. I always make sure to spend a couple of days relaxing and enjoying Essaouira before delving into the more rugged argan region to the south.

What makes Essaouira different from all the other cities in Morocco?
Essaouira has a rich history as complex as the history of Morocco itself. Conquered by the Portuguese in the 15th Century as a fortress against the Spanish, it was reclaimed by the King of Morocco 150 years later. Under Moroccan rule, a French architect was hired to design the city in the 18th Century. So you have this amazing juxtaposition of Portuguese fortress, French architecture, and Muslim culture. Because it is in Southern Morocco, it can be very traditional, but Essaouira has also inspired generations of musicians, famously including Jimmy Hendrix, and so it attracts an interesting mix of visitors today. I love all the layers, but most of all I love that it is really just a sleepy port city without the bustle and glitz of Marrakesh just two hours away.

What is your strongest memory of Essaouira?
When I think of Essaouira, I think of beautiful blue everywhere – blue boats in the harbor, blue shuttered windows against whitewashed walls, blue taxis, all in the most beautiful shade. After the dusty chaos and sand colors of Marrakesh, it is always such a relief to arrive here and breathe the fresh ocean air and just relax.

What elements of Essaouira do you feel are captured in ESSAOUIRA Body Serum?
Fresh and crisp, yet sultry at the same time, I wanted a scent that would evoke the breeziness of the Moroccan seaside village. Floral notes mingling with citrus and wood make me think of rose geraniums in blue pots against white washed walls in meandering alleyways amidst vendors selling fresh orange juice and the scent of sandalwood wafting from the apothecary.

For Katharine’s Essaouira travel tips with can’t-miss spots, click here.

Shop Kahina Essaouira Body Serum.

Introducing Kahina ESSAOUIRA Body Serum

May 1, 2015

Kahina Essaouira Body Serum

We’re thrilled to introduce ESSAOUIRA Body Serum, a new all-natural scent for our classic body serum formulation.

What is the inspiration behind the name and scent? Essaouira is a Moroccan town by the sea and we wanted to create a light, breezy scent to match.

How do you pronounce Essaouira? Roughly “es-uh-weer-uh”

What notes are found in the scent? Rose, lavender, geranium, sandalwood and petitgrain

How do you use a body serum? A body serum’s main objective is to moisturize. We recommend applying a generous amount after a bath or shower, with slightly damp skin. The water helps the oils absorb and hydrate even better. You can of course apply it to dry skin as well.

What are the key moisturizing ingredients? We’ve created a special blend of absorbent antioxidant- and vitamin-rich oils so this serum leaves with you soft, nourished skin. Those oils are argan, watermelon seed, sunflower seed, olive and coconut.

Available in 200 ml ($98) and 30 ml ($32) sizes.

Shop ESSAOUIRA Body Serum.

Conversations in the garden with my mother

April 26, 2015


My mother started gardening in earnest at the age of 45, when her own mother, my grandmother Grace Kelham, died in 1977. That was the year my mother and father relocated from San Francisco to Vine Hill Ranch, the vineyard property in the Napa Valley that my grandparents had assembled, and moved into the grand house that my grandfather had designed and that was completed in 1960

My grandfather was a classically trained architect with an excellent eye for scale. For his wife and himself on Vine Hill Ranch, he designed a gracious modern home in the California Ranch style featuring spacious rooms with 10 foot tall pocket doors that open directly onto a classical garden designed by California landscape architect Thomas Church. According to Thomas Church’s design dictates; the house is sensitively sited, nestled beneath a saddle in the rolling hills of the Mayacamas mountain range and with sweeping views of the vineyard and the cliffs of Stags Leap across the valley beyond a shimmering blue Chanel swimming pool. This house could easily have been the setting for one of Slim Aarons photographs of the social set of the1960’s.

When my parents moved to “the big house”, my father retired from his job as the Western manager of a national brokerage firm based in San Francisco determined to create a significant wine producing enterprise and manage the vineyard full time, as my mother was busy completing her term as the President of the San Francisco Fine Art Museums. Following their transition from a busy life in the City, my mother fully embraced her version of “country life.”

We had always spent lots of time on the ranch. Summers and weekends were at “the little house” down the road on the 150-acre vineyard property. When we were kids, while Daddy worked weekdays in the summer, my sister Alix, 2 years older and my brother, Bruce 5 years younger, and I spent our time with our mother, riding horses, swimming in the pool, and playing games in the evening, pursuits to occupy younger children with no access to TV.

Once my mother and father moved to “the Big house”, with the kids now gone away to college and boarding school, my mother hung up her riding boots and took up gardening and raising chickens, roosters and exotic rabbits. There were strict limits imposed by Thomas Church’s garden design, its symmetrical lines not allowing for much experimentation by my mother. Instead she worked the soil around the house, planting an ever expanding perennial garden on the hill just above and behind the house, closest to her bedroom, with a rambling path through ancient redwoods leading over the old “wakishaw” bridge to an eventual pond my parents created from a seasonal stream that they had landscaped. On the other side of the house, near the kitchen, was the vegetable garden to which she was continuously adding new wooden planter boxes that my father would build for her. Each summer, she cultivated an impressive array of heirloom tomatoes, eggplant, artichokes, zucchini, peppers, herbs, lettuces, radishes and cucumbers mixed in with yellow and orange marigolds. The vegetable garden was just outside of my bedroom window and the sounds of my mother muttering to herself or the dogs provided comfort on the long lazy days of summer when I was home for vacation from college or my New York life.

I have deeply loved my mother, but I wouldn’t say that we had a particularly close relationship. She had a sharp intellect, a remarkable recall for history, was well-read and versed in politics, art and philosophy, but she had no time for small talk and expressed only a polite interest in my life, my friends, my children, their schooling and my work.  Easy conversation or displays of affection didn’t come naturally between us. For me, an interest in gardening became a way to connect with her. Asking about her plants and walking the garden with her was a way for me to please her.

When my husband and I purchased our first home in the upper Haight in San Francisco after the birth of our daughter Grace in 1993, the large garden in the back was a big draw for me (which I failed at miserably). Gardening is what one did at a certain stage in life, like dinner parties (which I also struggle with). Jump ahead six years, one more child, Jamie, and a move to Manhattan, when my husband and I purchased seventy acres of land with a nondescript house on a two-acre pond in the Hudson Valley as an escape from the City. Repeating the family mantra passed down from my grandfather, “it was all about the land.” During the many years that followed, and the birth of one more child, Armant, while I spent summer weeks alone with young children and my husband stayed in Manhattan to work, gardening occupied my time. It fulfilled a creative need as well as satisfying a more acquisitive desire. My trips to the nursery replaced shopping in New York City. I purchased every interesting plant I could, memorizing the Latin names as my mother had done. As my mother had also done, I frowned on easy color from annuals or showy roses, and focused instead on form and texture. Everything in my evolving garden was maintained with my mother as my gardening muse, her voice in my head guiding me. My garden became a running dialogue with her.

In preparation for my parents’ annual visits to the Hudson Valley house at varying times of year, I would jump into action to make sure the garden looked its best. Her visit wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the native plant nursery in which she would buy a shrub or two for my garden, authoritatively declaring the value of the plant: “Oh, this snowball viburnum is very special,” and then a careful selection of where the plant would be situated. She would advise on gardening technique: “pull weeds by turning and pulling,” make cuttings of plants deemed desirable (once these were cuttings of an extremely invasive wild rose that I have since been trying to eliminate in a rare act of subversion), and comment on color stories. Her approval of something I had designed would ensure that the happy planting would remain in place forever, not subject to the constant rearranging and reshuffling that constitutes much of my gardening efforts.

Earlier this year, four months after the death of my father, my mother succumbed to a cancer that she had been treated for five years ago. Now, unable to leave her bed and struggling to stay mentally focused as the cancer moved into her brain, once again I turned to her garden to form a connection with her. Leaving her bedside at a loss for words during a visit from New York in early Spring, I went into a section of garden that she had started to redesign last year. I photographed the progress of the new plantings and some of our old favorites in bloom. As she was never one to communicate emotions readily in her lifetime, and as this seems to be one of the things I inherited from her, now it felt unnatural for me to say the things I wanted to say, to ask how she was feeling, to probe her about her feelings about her impending death, even to tell her I loved her. Instead, as I sat there showing her the photos on my iPad, my mother, who could not recall when or what she had last eaten, identified each plant by its Latin name – brunnera, euphorbia, salvias and pelargonium. The deathbed scenarios I had envisioned seemed only possible in movies. Instead, I looked for meaning between her words. On showing her the pictures of her garden she profoundly (or was it?) replied, “well, it was a good effort.”

Outside her window, an ancient weeping wisteria tree, planted by my grandmother for the original garden circa 1960 and propped up using traditional Japanese supports by Mr. Takahashi who worked by my mother’s side in the garden until his death approximately five years ago, stood with branches bare where there should have been an abundance of blooms. As if in solidarity, without words, its time had come.

GIVING BACK: High Atlas Foundation Spring Project

April 21, 2015

High Atlas Foundation Team to Make A Difference

I was contacted by the High Atlas Foundation in Morocco one month ago with an urgent plea for help. A one-room school outside of Marrakesh for boys and girls in Grades 3 – 6 was noticing a sharp dropoff in attendance by the girls. Without a bathroom for the children, there was no privacy or sanitation, an unacceptable situation for the parents of the girls, not to mention humiliating for the girls themselves. Kahina was able to provide the money for building and plumbing supplies, and the fathers of the children went right to work.

I met Abderrahim, the program director of the High Atlas Foundation and went with him to view the project on my trip to Morocco in April. I was amazed to see what the men had accomplished in just one month. A square structure built of cement blocks stood next to the school, complete with septic system and plumbed for four toilets, showers, and faucets. On my arrival at the school, I was welcomed by the school principal, teacher and the men of the village, as well as 50 boys and girls waving and calling out “Bonjour”. The children lined up and each one politely shook my hand, and, with huge smiles, repeated “Bonjour”. It is a tragic circumstance that so many lively, eager children should be deprived of a future over something we so easily take for granted, clean running water. I am grateful to all of our Kahina customers for participating in our efforts to make a difference in the lives of these children.

Children outside schoolhouse

Interior of schoolhouse

Katharine L'Heureux with children in High Atlas region

Katharine L'Heureux in Morocco

About Katharine

Katharine's lifelong pursuit of natural skincare that works finally culminated in a trip to Morocco where she discovered the effectiveness of pure argan oil. Working with a chemist specializing in organic cosmetics, she developed the Kahina line to fulfill her own desire for a simple yet effective organic skin care regimen.

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