Melissa: Abby, for those out there who are unfamiliar with you, could you give us an introduction on who you are and what you do? What started you on this lovely plant path?
Abby: I am many things:
- A botanist- with a Botany degree from Miami University in Ohio
- an Herbalist- I’ve been studying and apprenticing for about 20 years, partly with my teacher, Leslie Williams
- a professional forager-mainly self-taught, I use to forage for restaurants. I now forage for my herbal formulas and forest to table dinners
- an author-my book, The Herbal Handbook for Homesteaders came out last year, and I created the Wild Edible and Herbal Plant Cards and The Wild Foraged Life Cookbook
- Host of the Wander, Forage, and Wildcraft podcast
My introduction to this path was very simple: I ran wild as a child, exploring the woods and creek behind my house and climbing trees. From there, I started working at health food stores in Ohio, then worked on organic farms there and on the west coast. That’s where I started learning about herbs. While in rural Oregon, I made friends with a Native American family and moved to their land. I participated in a weekly sweat lodge and a Sun Dance ceremony. This is where I started to learn about the spiritual aspects of plants. I went back to Ohio and had my daughter, which inspired me to learn more about herbs and natural health.
While vending herbal tea at a farmers market (for the tea business I started), I found my herbal mentor, Leslie Williams, and begged her to teach classes. After going to several colleges and dropping out because I couldn’t find a program I liked, I found a botany program at Miami University (named after the Miami Indian Tribe). When I went to my first class, Field Botany, I knew I’d found my home and calling. After graduating, I decided to move to North Carolina because it was a center of huge biodiversity and I wanted my family to be closer to nature. I started the WANDER (Wild Artemisia Nature Discovery and Empowerment) School to teach botany, wild plant identification, sustainable and ethical foraging, and DIY herbal medicine making. Last year I co-founded The Sassafras School of Appalachian Plantcraft with my friend and co-teacher, Becky Beyer.
Melissa: I know in your teaching, you focus on foraging. What advice would you give to beginning foragers and herbalists?
Abby: My number 1 rule is ALWAYS have 100% positive identification before ingesting anything. The best and easiest way to learn is to find someone who knows the plants and mushrooms and go out with them. Have at least 3 books you can cross reference. Start with one plant that grows near you. Learn everything you can about it, watching it through all parts of the year and stages of growth. Drink it in a tea everyday for a month (assuming it’s non toxic) and note how you feel.
Melissa: Can you tell me about a favorite plant, tree, or fungi that you love? And in the debate on invasives…any plants that you dislike?
Abby: There are so many favorites! Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) is one of my current favorites. It’s a great antimicrobial and so tasty! It is sometimes called “wild oregano” and I like to eat it that way, especially infused in salt. I don’t honestly know that there are any plants that I dislike. The invasive plants were all brought here for a reason or some accidentally, and I try not to blame them. Instead, I try to find the food or medicine in them, when possible, and harvest them to employ them in other jobs. For example, I love infusing honeysuckle blossoms in honey or making syrup with them. There’s all kinds of research about them having antiviral and anticancer properties.
Melissa: Do you have a favorite book or three that have been key in your herbal learning?
- Botany in a Day by Tom Elpel, is my all time favorite botany book. with contributions by friend and local botany hero Marc Williams.
- Making Plant Medicine by Richo Cech is a must have for all herbalists, telling scientific and traditional ways to make herbal medicines, along with a super helpful glossary of herbs and their benefits and how best to extract them.
- Wildflowers of Tennessee, the Ohio Valley, and the Southern Appalachians by Horn, Cathcart, et al, is always in my backpack. It’s an easy to use field guide with good pictures and interesting ethnobotanical information.
Melissa: Tell me a little about your book and what moved you to write it? I personally love that it is a book for homesteaders and those who strive to be self reliant. Is that a goal of yours?
Abby: The Herbal Handbook for Homesteaders is a combination of directions on how to make herbal medicines, Materia medica (or glossary) of the herbs, gardening instructions for how to grow them, and directions on how to forage them sustainably, with gorgeous pictures of my apothecary by local photographer Jack Sorokin. Interestingly, though self reliance is a goal of mine, the publishers actually came to me and asked me to write it because of my education and experience. Luckily, I had about 10 years of class handouts that I could use to help with the medicine making parts, so I wasn’t starting from scratch. A lot of research went into it as well. Obviously in these crazy times, self reliance is in the front of many people’s minds. I want to encourage that (remember the “E” in the WANDER School stands for Empowerment) in a way that feels attainable for folks, no matter how much knowledge they are starting with.
I offer a free Herbal Book Club on the last Tuesday of the month at The WANDER School Facebook page at 7pm where we discuss part of the book, talk about what we are wildcrafting and the medicine we are making, and I answer questions. The recordings are all on Patreon.
Melissa: There seems to be great discussion on wildcrafting and it’s consequences in the herbal community today. What are your beliefs around wildcrafting and it’s sustainability in these times?
This is a tough one! There are so many opinions on this. First, I think if we can focus on including invasive plants in our wildcrafting, it’s super helpful. Then we can harvest as much as we want and we are helping the habitat and wildlife. Next, it’s important to get to know the plants as well as we can. By being with them, in their native habitat, we can get a true picture of how prolific they are, or not, and how much is safe to gather. Of course. here in WNC, some plants seem prolific, but are only prolific here, so it’s good to do your research before harvesting anything. United Plant Savers
at risk list is a fantastic resource for this.
Melissa: Could you share one of your favorite recipes, food or medicine?
Abby: One of the simplest I know of, that I’ve been making lots of lately, is flower infused honey. Just fill any size jar 1/2 to 2/3 full of flowers (making sure they are edible, of course) and fill to about 1/2 inch below the top of the jar with local raw honey. Leave this infusing 1-2 weeks, turning over once a day to make sure the flowers are covered. No need to strain. Eat as you would plain honey. The flowers make it beautiful. Some of my favorite flowers to add are violets, honeysuckle, rose, and goldenrod. You’ll get the medicinal benefits of the honey and the flowers. Make sure to pick the flowers when dry and let sit out for several hours to let the internal water evaporate before adding honey.
Melissa: Tell me a bit about your school. Do you run programs throughout the year? Will you resume actual in person classes this year or are your moving to online?
With the WANDER School, I teach wherever I wander to, but mainly in North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, and Kentucky. Most of my classes and conferences have been canceled for the year, so I’m trying to adapt and figure out ways to get this important education out when people most need it. I have added a lot of online options. I still have my Patreon
site for ongoing botanical education, including recordings of the Book Club, podcast bonus interviews, botany ID videos, and foraged cooking classes. I am still offering botanical property surveys where I walk folk’s land with them and tell them what is growing and what to do with it, but am now offering options for plant identification by video. I just started a YouTube Channel where I post botanical education, along with my pages on Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok. The Sassafras School of Appalachian Plantcraft is still operating this year, but we pushed the start date back to June and are taking measures to socially distance and keep things as clean as possible. Luckily everything is outside! I miss teaching directly to people and think it is the best way to learn. I hope to be able to do more soon.
Melissa: What do you love most about teaching?
Abby: I love watching people’s face light up as they learn about a plant that they always saw but never really knew. I love watching people connect to nature and each other in a way that fills them up and helps sustain and empower them. I love watching my students take what they’ve learned from me and teach others, weaving the web of education and connection worldwide and inspiring us all to be good stewards of this amazing planet.
Melissa: How can folks connect with you and keep up with all that you are doing?
The WANDER School YouTube Channel
Get ongoing botanical education and support the work on Patreon
Wander, Forage, & Wildcraft Podcast
Melissa: Anything else that you want to share with the co-op community?
Abby: Now is the perfect time to book a Botanical Property Survey to help you sustain yourself and your family by learning what is edible and medicinal on your land. I’m also offering private apprenticeship options to make up for the lack of classes and conferences, designed around what you want to learn about botany, foraging, and herbal medicine making.