An avid outdoors-woman, Heather Housekeeper is the author of A Guide to the Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Mountains to Sea Trail (Hither Page Press, April 2014) and A Guide to the Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Finger Lakes Trail (Pisgah Press, April 2016). Here she tells us how she got involved with these herbs.
How did you get interested in herbs?
I developed an interest in herbs through my interest in the natural world. I grew up in a rural area that bordered over 1,300 acres of Gifford Pinchot’s family woods (the Father of Conservation). Beyond these woods were thousands of acres of state forest. Therefore the woods were my playground. My family and I shared a home with my paternal grandparents who were both horticulturalists. The plants abounded. My grandmother was always tending to her ornamentals and my grandfather to his vegetable garden. In college I worked in a campus garden that housed a number of medicinal herbs. I adored having my hands in the dirt and the meditative state that gardening fostered.
How did you get interested in foraging?
The spark began on the Appalachian Trail. For six months I hiked from Georgia to Maine. All the while I would dream of the fresh foods I would devour when I would reach a town after three days, five days, 10 days. I was living off of granola bars, dehydrated meals, and peanut butter. When I would reach a town I would gorge on cooling avocados, juicy pineapple, and crisp salad greens. Then I would pack out a small head of broccoli, a bag of baby carrots, and a couple of apples. None of this produce keeps very well in a backpack in New Jersey in July…and it weighs a ton. I knew I was passing a virtual produce aisle underfoot, but I didn’t know what to eat. As for back-country first aid, I carried anti-itch ointment, Tylenol, Tums, and anti-inflammatory herbal cream. I had the strong feeling that I was also probably trampling over a host of useful herbs…but again I didn’t know what they were. I heard other hikers asking the same questions about the plants about which we knew next to nothing. Strange. To spend 6 months in the woods and know so little about your natural environment.
This realization that the trail was nothing more than a green tunnel to me, along with my interest in holistic health, led me into Herbal Medicine School. Here we not only learned about what herbs were good for what, whether they be local herbs, Chinese herbs, or Ayurvedic herbs, but we foraged for these herbs in the wild. We learned how to identify them, how to process them in the backcountry and at home, and prepare them as medicine. During our week-long field trips, we would also forage for wild edibles to add to our meals.
How do you educate yourself on foraging/herbs?
Through two books that I have written I have had to dedicate far more hours to research than I ever have had to dedicate to the actual writing. To put word into print, one must be certain that the information is accurate. I have a large herbal library at home and the internet, as far as locating scholarly documentation as well as research conducted by the National Park Service, has further helped. I also make a point to attend as many plant walks and herbal workshops as possible by other local experts. The interesting thing about studying herbs is that you can never know everything there is to know about even one herb. Each herbalist approaches an herb from a different angle, has had different experiences in using that herb, and therefore has formed a different relationship.
What is your favorite foraged green? Why? What is it used for?
My favorite foraged green is violet leaves because they are abundant, never grow bitter and so may be harvested throughout the warmer months. Medicinally, they are cooling to the body. They are both astringent and mucilaginous, making them excellent for decreasing inflammation both internally and externally. I employ them in an herbal infusion, throwing a few flowers in for good measure. As a food, the leaves may be used like spinach. They may be eat raw or cooked, and having a simple green flavor, are delicious in a variety of dishes. I particularly enjoy them in quiche or added to a salad along with their edible colorful flowers.
How often do you eat foraged greens?
Daily when they are in season (generally from April – September). For example, I might throw some violet leaves in with my eggs in the morning, then add some chickweed and wild onion to my sandwich or salad at lunch, and then perhaps use a garlic mustard pesto on a pasta salad in the evening. There are so many ways to incorporate wild greens into your diet.