Holly McWhorter, co-founder of PLANT Apothecary: So is this where we talk about how we met?
Amelia Diamond: Yup. Tell me the story.
Bjarke Ballisager, co-founder of PLANT Apothecary: I was finishing my masters and was here in New York from Denmark for four months. I was doing an internship at an architecture company. At night, I would go out with a Danish friend of mine a lot.
Holly: They had been hanging out at Max Fish quite a bit and met some friends of mine there, who started bringing them out with us. I was in a big summer of partying. I’ve always been a bit of a homebody, but I was single and all my friends were coupled up and I was like, “Okay, if I stay home and read and watch TV, I’m never going to meet anybody, so I’m just going to go out like a crazy woman. Every chance I get.”
If someone said, “Hey, we’re having drinks, come meet us,” I went.
Amelia: This was your summer of “Yes.”
Holly: This was my summer of “Yes.” So these friends ended up hanging out and going out all the time so I just started joining them.
Bjarke: I kind of had to stay out late as well because I was living in a kitchen up by Spanish Harlem.
Holly: Yeah, it was one of those crazy situations you hear about where someone arrives new to New York and they don’t know what a bad apartment arrangement is yet. He was sleeping in a bunk bed overlooking the stove in a kitchen.
We met at this really strange, sort of avant-garde evening of performance and film that a friend of ours — an old, old friend of mine who became a friend of Bjarke’s, too — had put together. He was doing these evening “bazaars,” he called them, where he would rent out the Anthology Film Archives and get all of these creative people he knew to do something.
We were all sitting in this theater in this long line; Bjarke was at one end and I was at the other. A friend introduced us, and we were both like, “Hmmm.”
The friend who made the introduction liked Bjarke, and I knew this. I tried not to talk to him that much because of her, but every time we saw each other, we just couldn’t stop.
Bjarke: There’s one more thing that complicated the matter. I lived with a girl back in Denmark.
Amelia: Okay, well, this happens. Was she your girlfriend? Not fiancé? Had you given her a ring?
Bjarke: The whole ring concept is different in Denmark. It’s not a tradition we do.
Holly: A lot of people don’t get married in Denmark. They live together without intending to be married. It’s also different there in that people don’t date in the same way that we date here. When people like each other in Denmark, there’s a tendency to get together because you like one another, and then you’re together.
Bjarke: Holly made us go on a date after our first kiss.
Holly: Well, okay. Fast-forward six weeks after the first time we met: we had been hanging out with this group of people, trying not to talk to each other — or I was trying not to talk to him — but we ending up talking all the time. Eventually, I learned about his girlfriend, which was kind of funny because at that point I had been so worried about not talking to him because of my friend. Once I found out he had a girlfriend, I was like, “Cool, we can just go back to being friends. He’s not interested in me, anyway!”
Amelia: Right, that just took it off the table.
Holly: Yeah! And so we started talking more. Bjarke wasn’t planning to end up with me, either; we just really liked each other. But then…
I play the violin, and used to play professionally. One evening when I was out on a gig, Bjarke called to see if I wanted to join him and some other friends for a late drink when I was finished. I went to meet them right after the job, still with my violin, and it turned out that I’d never mentioned to him that I played it.
He revealed that he had apprenticed with a violinmaker for years; he thought he wanted to be one.
I mentioned that I had another violin at home that was from the 1700s and had a gorgeous tone, and of course, he wanted to see it. He came up to my apartment once we all left the bar. We ended up sitting and talking all night — literally until broad daylight — but we didn’t lay a hand on each other; it was just talking. And it was after that night that I really couldn’t stop thinking about him, which is what led me to ask if he wanted to meet up at Central Park.
I was like, okay, I’m thinking about this guy all of the time and he’s not available, and he’s going to go back to Denmark. I just need to put myself out of my misery.
So I called him and asked him if he wanted to go to the park to talk.
I was totally expecting Bjarke to tell me, “I have a girlfriend, I’m going back to Denmark, that’s it.” I figured that once I heard him say it, I could get my head on straight and stop thinking about him all the time.
I had a date lined up with someone the same evening of the afternoon that I called Bjarke to get together for this talk.
Amelia: Very strategic from your end. Like, “Okay, I’m going to get rejected and then have a date.”
Holly: Well, that’s just when the other guy was available. It wasn’t even like a “date-date,” it was a slice of pizza. Get a slice and whatever. So anyway, we went to the park and I was like, “Okay, so what’s the deal?”
Amelia: That’s very brave! No one ever does that.
Bjarke: She does.
Holly: Yeah, I do. I was nervous, but I really like to just get things out there. I’ll just spit it out and that’s how I deal with it.
Bjarke: That’s how you live life!
Amelia: Do you remember what you said?
Holly: I think I said, “I really, really like you but I know you have a girlfriend. Are you happy with her?” And it turned out that he was not, which had nothing to do with me — it was just the way things were between them. And I don’t know, somehow over the course of the afternoon we ended up kissing and realized we wanted to be together–
Bjarke: It started pouring down.
Holly: It was like something out of a movie. We were on that bridge overlooking Bethesda Fountain in Central Park.
Amelia: Are you insane?
Holly: It was kind of ridiculous.
Bjarke: It seemed a little staged.
…And then she went on her date.
Holly: I did! I had the slice of pizza. But I already knew I really liked Bjarke. I didn’t know what was going to happen, you know? I knew that I really, really, really liked him and now knew that he liked me, too, but I also was thinking, “He is going back to Denmark, and he does have this girlfriend, and who knows if it’s going to pick up again.”
I guess that’s why I didn’t just call up the date and say, “Hey, I can’t meet you for pizza.” I was in awe that this wonderful thing happened, but like, let me just get that pizza anyway. Just in case. But Bjarke did break up with her.
Amelia: Bjarke, what were you thinking the whole time that you had a girlfriend? Were you just trying to be loyal to her?
Bjarke: Yeah. It was tricky with her being on the other side of the water. It would’ve been easier for me to just say earlier, “This needs to end.”
I did fly back for a weekend to tell her. I was more sure that the relationship definitely wasn’t for me than I was about what would happen with Holly.
Holly: It was kind of weird. All of my friends were like, “You need to delete his number from your phone.”
Even the friend who had the bazaar — not the one who introduced us — was like, “Come on. He’s younger than you, he lives in Denmark, he’s got a girlfriend. You know how this is going to go. You know this is not going to work!”
My actual brother was like, “What are you doing!? He’s going to go back to Denmark! And he has a life there!”
And then my friends were like, “So wait a minute, he’s got a girlfriend back home and you’re busting up that relationship? How would you feel if you were the girlfriend?” I tried to explain that they were going to break up anyway, that it would work with us…
I don’t know. Somehow I just felt like it was going to work. It made no sense.
Bjarke: When I came back from breaking up with my girlfriend, Holly and I dated for a few weeks, but then I had to go back to Denmark at the end of my internship and continue school.
Amelia: So you had to do long distance. How did that work?
Bjarke: It was hard.
Holly: This was nine years ago; we had Skype. We talked on Skype almost every day. Which is weird because neither of us are phone people. I’ve never had anything to say to anybody on the phone every single day except in junior high when you call your friends and talk about nothing.
Bjarke: We missed each other a lot but saw each other every few months.
Holly: Yeah. And somehow it just kind of worked. What helped, I think, is that I decided to go back to school for interior architecture. It was a two-year program. It kept me focused. When that finished, we decided to try starting out in Denmark. He was finishing up his final project. That was in January, which is not a good time to be in Denmark. The sun comes up at a quarter to nine in the morning and goes down at 3:30 p.m.
Amelia: Oh my god.
Holly: And it’s cloudy and/or raining literally every day.
Bjarke: Yeah, people kind of hunker down.
Holly: It was so hard. He was busy finishing his project; I was learning Danish but I had just started so I didn’t really speak any and couldn’t understand anything anybody was saying. I was lonely.
Amelia: Were you like, “What the hell did I do?”
Holly: No, it was more like, “I don’t think I can do this.” His English was fine and he liked New York so we ended up moving here.
Amelia: When did you guys say, “I love you”?
Bjarke: I really don’t remember!
Holly: I do. And I think you’ll remember when I tell you. That last weekend of the summer we first met, when you had to go back to Denmark for school. Neither of us had any money but we wanted to get out of town so we found this bed & breakfast in Liberty, New York. It’s this small town with nothing going on but you can take a bus right to the middle of town, so you didn’t need a car…
Holly: So we went up to this town that had a park with a small mountain called Walnut Mountain and we went for a hike and it was the end of summer. You know, flowers, trees…and we ended up on this hillside full of wild flowers. A beautiful, beautiful place, and there were monarch butterflies.
Bjarke: Nooo way. You are adding to the story!
Holly: Yes there were, there were monarchs.
Bjarke: They were cabbage butterflies.
Amelia: What are cabbage butterflies?!
Holly: The little white ones that are tiny and fly all over the place.
Amelia: Okay, so there was a mixture.
Amelia: For the record there was a mixture of cabbage and monarch butterflies.
Holly: And there were a lot of them! And it’s why we were standing there because we were like, “Oh my god, there are monarch butterflies all around — this is crazy!” So we are standing in the middle of these butterflies and we were kissing and I was like, “I know it’s soon and I don’t want to put the pressure on and you don’t have to say it back, but I love you.” And he said, “Well, as it happens, I love you, too.”
Bjarke: That’s true!
Amelia: You concur?
Bjarke: Yeah! I mean, I’m not sure about the monarchs…
Holly: They were there!
Bjarke: The rest is history.
Holly: Want to know something crazy about butterflies? And this is probably the reason I know they were monarch butterflies. The word for butterfly in danish is “sommerfugl,” which means “summer bird,” and I’ve always liked that. And one day during the time we were in a long distance relationship, I got up and had to do laundry. It was early and I wasn’t really awake and for some reason I had the word “summerfugl” in my head. I don’t know if that ever happens to you, where a word gets stuck in your head…
Amelia: Allll the time.
Holly: So I had that word on repeat in my head as I was on the way to the laundromat. I put my laundry in the machine and I look down on the floor and what do I see but a little plastic monarch butterfly. I totally thought, “Okay, this is a sign that this is right and we are supposed to be together.”
Bjarke: Okay, if that’s how the monarch came in, then I see.
Amelia: Maybe you were distracted on that mountain by her beauty.
Bjarke: That is true. That is true.
Amelia: So now you’re living together in New York and…
Holly: Well, I wanted be married to Bjarke! For me, it was about the idea of standing up in front of all these people who we love and who are a part of world and saying, “Hey, we love each other and intend to be together.” Saying that in front of them, that was the magic for me. And even though marriage hadn’t been something he originally thought about, this was ultimately something Bjarke could get on board with.
Bjarke: I sort of prefer to not be the center of attention, at any party, so that was hard. But it was a good party.
Holly: It was a good party.
Amelia: So where in all of this did your company, PLANT, come about?
Bjarke: Well, Holly was working on her spice company at the time and I started jumping in to help.
At the same time, she was doing the apothecary stuff for us and friends on the side.
Holly: I have sensitive skin and was experimenting with natural products. PLANT was eventually born from there. The products are all-botanical and USDA organic, 100% free of petroleum, parabens, PABA, sodium lauryl sulfate, silicones… We design and formulate all the products either together or independently.
Amelia: What’s the hardest part of working together?
Hooly: The constant togetherness. Also the sharing the responsibility for the same things. We are both interested and good at a lot of the same aspects of the business, and we are two different people: of course we are not always going to agree.
Holly: It can be difficult to separate work issues from relationship issues, but we are working on it. It’s hard, but at least from the perspective of the business, it’s working, which is good. We are thankful for that, definitely.
Amelia: How do you navigate working together and then leaving for the day and disconnecting? Is it very hard to separate work from your regular lives?
Bjarke: For me it is. At the end of the day, I keep thinking about things that should have been done.
Holly: I try to give it more of a cut-off time. Like, okay, it’s 6:30, it’s time to go home, I am not going to work on this anymore. And of course when it’s your own business you end up doing more work anyway, but I have it in my mind that I am going to make a division between work and personal life, even though that doesn’t always feel natural. We don’t always agree about to what extent that should happen, but somehow we keep muddling through.
Amelia: At this point we always ask what do you like, or love, the most about one another?
Bjarke: Well, Holly, I think your directness is one of them. You are very honest in everything you do. You are not afraid. Your courage is very admirable.
Amelia: That’s a nice thing to say about someone.
Holly: It is. That’s really nice. I had a really bad car accident when I was 19 and I made it out alive just by a hair. And I can honestly say a lot of who I am today goes back to that. When I came out of that, I realized there was a lot I hadn’t said to people. There were people who I loved who I’d never told, “I really care about you.” I decided that nothing was worth not letting someone know how I felt about him or her. I’d rather be embarrassed or feel awkward.
Amelia: I don’t think many people would have done what you did at Central Park, Holly, and say, “I feel this way even though you may not.” Bjarke, do you think that you would have said something if she hadn’t?
Bjarke: It’s a good question. I don’t know…
Holly: Well, I’m glad I did!
Bjarke: Me too.
Holly: I would say one of my favorite things about you, Bjarke, is your compassion. You have the biggest heart. You have the biggest heart, the biggest soft spot for animals and people…and beings. I am impressed by it.
Amelia: What’s the best part of working together?
Bjarke: That’s a good question. When it really works, it’s fantastic. It’s a good feeling. It’s like, “Wow, we do make a great team.” It’s a great feeling. Creating something from idea to execution feels good. And when you get to spend time together, then it’s fun. And it’s not always possible, but having the freedom to decide when to do what at certain times.
Holly: I agree with all of that. It’s gratifying to create things together. When we have come up with a product and launched it and it’s going well or gets good press, there is a sense of, “look what we did together!”
Bjarke: It’s gratifying.
Holly: It is gratifying! And it’s not the same, but I’d imagine it’s similar in a much, much, much smaller way to how parents feel when they have their first kid together. That’s obviously a huge thing and this is a bottle of soap.
Amelia: I mean, you are making something together.
Holly: Yeah! We did this together. This is the product of our efforts.
Amelia: Do you guys have anything else to add?
Bjarke: Well, Holly was surprised when I gave her a wedding ring.
Holly: Oh yeah! I wasn’t expecting that at all! He surprised me with that, too! When we got married, he didn’t want to wear a ring.
Bjarke: I caved in. I ended up liking her ring so much that I had the guy make another one to match mine.
Holly: I didn’t think you were going to wear one, Bjarke, so I certainly didn’t expect you to give me a ring during the ceremony. And we had been saying the whole time that where the ring exchange would traditionally happen, we’d use wire stand-ins.
Bjarke actually made two rings out of some wire on the day of the wedding. I saw them and thought, “Oh, okay, so that’s what we’re going to exchange.” So were standing up there, saying how excited we were to be getting married and he reached in his pocket and brought out an actual ring! Apparently he had finagled this whole exchange with his sister in Copenhagen who bought there rings and Fed-Ex’d them to somebody else in America who would bring them so to the ceremony so that I wouldn’t see them come in the mail.
Amelia: Oh my god, Bjarke, you’re a secret romantic.
Bjarke: Well, yes!
Holly: Yes. I like that about you.