Naturalist Vickie Shufer found out how important it is to be mindful while foraging for wild foods recently. She was gathering bright red rose hips at the edge of a marsh late one afternoon. Earlier, she had seen a cottonmouth sunning, but dropping temperatures meant he had probably gone back in his hole, she told herself.
As she walked around the prickly brambles to reach the fruits at the ends of branches, she looked down. “I realized I was standing not even an inch away from its curled-up body with its mouth open, showing the characteristic white, cotton lining,” Vickie said. “The fangs were tucked back but quite visible. However, the tail was not vibrating, and I knew he really did not want to bite me.”
“All I could say was, ‘I knew you were there. Thank you for not biting me,’ and stepped away,” she said.
An adventurous naturalist who routinely forages for edible and herbal/medicinal plants, Vickie is known for getting up close and personal with Mother Nature’s wild side. Her new book, “The Forager’s Handbook,” provides personal insight into the link between people and plants. Vickie lives in southeastern Virginia Beach, where she runs her 11-acre Wild Woods Farm.
Other naturalists in our region tend to keep it closer to home on small farms and big backyard gardens. Instead of unexpected wildlife encounters, they discuss herbs such as lemon balm and ginger brewed into healthy teas; dandelion, clover, and chickweed turned into fresh salads; and wild violets transformed into drinks and desserts. Let’s learn more about the bounty of nature that awaits those how know how to look.
Jean Howard, Community Herbalist & Owner of CA & J Farm
“I’m Always Researching Wellness”
Jean Howard wears many hats—community herbalist, farmer, master gardener, natural beekeeper, educator, musician, drum circle facilitator, and life enthusiast—at her farm in Mathews. She offers special programs open to the public on weekends and by appointment for groups and families.
“I was always an office worker, but in 2013 decided to be home on our simple, five-acre farm we purchased in 1997,” said Jean, 66, who became a master gardener and natural beekeeper in 1998. “We became senior homesteaders, growing more self-reliant each year.”
That desire to be self-reliant and live healthier motivated Jean to take a two-hour herbal class. That course inspired her to study four years at Forrest Green Farm and Sacred Plant Traditions, where she became a community herbalist.
“I felt I had to share the knowledge,” she said. “We opened the farm to the public in 2017 and began our educational journey.” Now Jean offers courses in herbalism along with special events at her farm.
CA & J Farm is open year-round for educational and entertainment needs and features two large outdoor classrooms, an indoor education and music center, and a small indoor stage. The Barn Store sells herbal teas, essential oils, elderberry products, local honey, chicken and duck eggs, lotions, salves, and other wellness items.
Herb beds and a small nursery enable Jean and helpers to grow medicinal and culinary herbs, as well as elderberry, pollinator plants, and edible flowers sold in small pots. The farm grows and sells its own special salad mix that includes lettuces, edible flowers, and healthy weeds.
Everyone enjoys the farm animals, Jean said, and her big happy family includes 120 chickens, 30 ducks, more than 100 rabbits, and three Great White Pyrenees farm dogs that “love to be hugged.”
A separate side of the farm is devoted to prayer, quiet reflection, and meditation. There, people can walk the classic circular labyrinth and focus their thoughts in prayer or take the winding Woodland Peace Path through two acres of woods with seven clearings offering benches, statuary, and plantings.
Jean credits herbs for keeping her busy life balanced, calm, and well. One of her favorite herb tea blends is made from nettle, a natural antihistamine that also soothes arthritis pain; lemon balm, which lowers stress and anxiety and helps with sleep; and ginger, which aids digestion, eases headaches, and benefits blood pressure and blood sugar levels, she said.
“I’m always researching wellness,” she said.
Vickie Shufer, Owner of Wild Woods Farm
“Food is Medicine and Medicine is Food”
Vickie Shufer believes herbals are the key to good health year-round—which is why she starts and ends her days with herbals.
In the mornings, she sips a yaupon tea blend with turmeric for stimulation, prickly ash for circulation, bacopa for mental alertness, and wild rose and St. John’s wort for a general lift. If she’s going to be around other people, she uses elderberry and echinacea to boost her immune system.
“I drink herbal teas throughout the day, depending on what I feel like,” she said. “In the evening I take passion vine, skullcap, lemon balm, and any other relaxing herbs that I feel drawn to for calming and sleep. Black willow is my go-to for headaches. My dishes that I prepare have wild herbal seasonings added to them or in some cases are the main dish, depending on what’s in season.”
Foraging for edible plants started in Vickie’s childhood when they were just another crop to be harvested on the family farm. After college in 1979, she returned to Virginia Beach to launch nature programs that included wild edibles. In the 1990s, she met and started following medicinal plant expert James Duke.
“To my surprise, everything he talked about was what I had been eating all those years,” said Vickie, who got her master’s degree in therapeutic herbalism in 2012. “I then realized that food is medicine and medicine is food.”
At her farm, Vickie makes and sells a salve for rashes, poison ivy, or anything that itches; a CBD muscle rub for aches and pains; and a soothing salve for scrapes and scratches.
Her favorite edibles for foraging are berries, cherries, persimmons, and grapes made into pies or jelly; hickory nuts shelled and add to cookies or cakes; and greens such as pokeweed in omelets and mustard greens in salads or cooked dishes. “Dandelions can be found year-round and a good one to start with,” she said. “All parts are edible, including the roots.”
“Mother Nature provides us with everything we need, in her own way, her own time. We just need to be aware of what’s growing around us,” she said.
Seth Fisher, Owner of Mini Acre Farm
Appreciates “The Abundance of Edibles Growing At Our Fingertips”
In the northern end of Newport News, master gardener Seth Fisher grows more than 20 varieties of microgreens, herbs, edible flowers, and vegetables that he sells to individual subscriptions and restaurants and caterers from James City County to Virginia Beach. His no-chemical Mini Acre Farm started in 2004, he said, thanks to gardening days that go back to his childhood.
“My older brother had severe allergies to chemicals as a kid, so we grow everything using organic methods and compost and planting companion plants to reduce bad bugs and disease,” he said.
In spring, sweeping swaths of wild violets steal the show at Seth’s urban farm. It’s one of his favorite times of the year, and he is like a proud protective parent of the violets, which are edible and can be used in salads, drinks, desserts, and even candied. “We allow them to bloom and reseed before we mow that area of the property,” Seth explained.
His microgreens—greens cut young at usually four to 10 days after sprouting—include dandelion greens that add a tantalizing touch of bitterness to a salad, as wells as arugula, cilantro, cantaloupe, sunflower, popcorn, radish, and wasabi. Edible flowers cultivated include dianthus, violas, squash, snapdragons, borage, lavender, chives, oregano, and thyme.
“It’s fun and satisfying to realize the abundance of edibles growing at our fingertips and nice to have plants that don’t need a lot of attention,” Seth said. “Wild edibles are used to fending for themselves.”
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Here’s a tasty recipe from Vickie Shufer for pollen cakes made with cattail pollen.
2 cups cattail pollen
¼ cup pine pollen
1 cup dandelion flowers
2 cups corn meal
½ cup butter, melted
¼ cup half-and-half
2 T. molasses
¼ cup hot water
- Beat eggs.
- Add butter and half-and-half.
- In a separate bowl, mix pollen and corn meal. Add to beaten egg mixture.
- Stir in molasses. Add hot water and mix.
- Drop by spoonfuls onto hot, oiled griddle.
Note: Serve warm cakes with pesto, herb spreads, cream cheese, or goat cheese.