Foraging for edible foods with wild-plants expert and herbalist Dina Falconi
Wild-plants expert and herbalist Dina Falconi makes use of wild and cultivated finds in the "herbal worksop" set up inside the barn on her homestead.
The words “good witch” pop into my head as I follow Dina Falconi through the bright sun in the rambling gardens that flank her home on a hillside in Marbletown. “Our land is a funny convergence of wild and cultivated plants,” says Falconi, as she lifts the latch on a rustic wooden gate bracketed by a mulberry tree. “Some things we introduce, and some arrive on their own and are allowed to stay, if I like who they are.”
A small but solidly built woman of middle years with flashing brown eyes, Falconi has a quick smile and a deep, throaty laugh. Her long, black hair is streaked with silver and piled in a knot atop her head that’s held in place by a simple silver barrette. Under her long linen dress, she sports leggings and sturdy rubber boots — a wise precaution against both poison ivy and ticks.
Falconi stops to pick greens and flowers into a shallow, woven basket, offering up a steady stream of information about the plants before us: anise hyssop, elderberry, clove currant, wild bergamot, wild lettuce, gill-over-the-ground, and more, sharing what each one is good for and when.
She breaks off a leaf of sheep sorrel (a slender, arrow-shaped green) for me to sample, and I am rewarded with a burst of tartness that would add a lovely note to salad or pesto. I bite down on the ridged, green seed pod of a sweet cicely plant Falconi hands me, and my mouth fills with the pleasing flavor of anise. It’s really good! I find myself scanning the tangled greenery for more. She points to a pink valerian flower the size of my hand, wrinkling her nose delicately and noting, “This one is a little stinky, but it’s good medicine; helps with insomnia and migraines and a few other things.” After just 15 minutes in Falconi’s company, I have already quintupled my store of knowledge about edible and medicinal plants. Move over, Glinda: This lady has got you beat!
Falconi was a wild-foods evangelist long before foraging became a hipster buzzword, when few people realized that many of the plants we view as “weeds” are loaded with flavor and packed with nutrition, while others have healing properties. She first became interested in the power of wild foods as an 11-year-old growing up in New York City’s rough but culturally rich East Village, circa 1976. It started when a family friend and neighborhood figure named Mickey Carter suggested that she change her diet to cure herself of the headaches she suffered from. “His advice was pretty simple. He said, ‘Don’t eat anything synthetic,’” recalls Falconi, who began to read labels and seek out whole ingredients instead of packaged foods. Carter also gave Falconi her first herb book, and she began to pursue what would eventually become her life’s work: learning how to nourish and heal with wild plants. “For some reason, what he said sank in on a deep level; it imprinted on me. And I made the commitment to use food as medicine, no more junk food.”
As she made the switch from industrially processed to what she calls “nutrient dense,” Falconi found herself at the nourishing, if chaotic, epicenter of many different cultural approaches to food and healing — all just steps from the doorway of her family’s ground-floor apartment. “There were all these macrobiotic bakeries and restaurants springing up, the Hare Krishnas had opened a couple of vegetarian restaurants; there were three herbs stores within a couple blocks of my house; the health-food store was right across the street; and it was also super-rich with ethnic cuisine: Indian, Italian, Ukranian, Polish. Being right in the middle of that really fed a lot of who I became,” she recalls.
But when it came time to leave home, she opted to leave the city, going to college first at Colgate before finishing at Bard. “The city just didn’t feel healthy. The air was really bad at that time, and it was hard to breathe,” says Falconi, who longed for the sounds, smells, and slower rhythms of nature. While at Bard, she met Tim Allen, who would eventually become her husband. After college, the two settled in Kerhonksen, where they gardened, foraged wild plants for food and medicine and raised pigs, goats, and chickens. The couple also had a child, Sam, who is now in his late 20s. “It was important to me to give him the experience of growing up in the country,” says Falconi, adding with an affectionate laugh, “He lives in Manhattan now.”
While raising her son, Falconi sought out knowledge of wild-crafting — the practice of harvesting wild plants for food and medicinal purposes — wherever she could find it, reading extensively and joining the Green Nations Gathering in Phoenicia, the Women’s Herbal Conference in New Hampshire, and the International Herb Symposium in Massachusetts as both a student and teacher. “It was amazing to have the opportunity to teach at those conferences as a young herbalist,” says Falconi. “They gave me a chance to meet and learn from experts from all corners of the world.”
In 1998, Falconi and her family moved from Samsonville to a farmhouse on six and a half acres of land in Marbletown and began to create their unique homestead. Now, nearly 18 years later, the hillside above and below the house and barn is partially filled with a patchwork of edible and medicinal plants both wild and introduced. “The gardens are like a dance between the things that arrive on their own and the things we’ve added,” says Falconi, noting that some things are grown purely for beauty and for the health of the ecosystem. “What feeds the butterflies also feeds us, even if it’s not something we can actually eat.”
A flock of roughly 40 chickens roams freely within what Falconi calls “the edible forest chicken yard,” a fenced acre full of fruit and nut trees, shrubs, and perennial wildflowers for which the birds provide valuable fertilizer. Falconi lifts a wooden panel on the outside of the main chicken coop, exposing a row of eight large egg-shaped cutouts, each filled with a hen’s tail feathers, caught in the act of laying eggs. She closes it again to give them their privacy.
Falconi gestures to the hillside below us, which is a riot of happily flowering plants, shrubs, and trees, noting: “This was a mostly barren ridge of shale when we came here, but the chickens have allowed us to transform it. Between their droppings and the wood chips we bring in every year, we’ve got wonderful soil now.”
The property is dotted with Allen’s whimsical touches: Antique chandeliers dangle from fruit trees throughout the property; rustic wooden benches invite you to sit under grape arbors and enjoy the view; old porcelain sinks hold a tangle of succulents growing amid coral and stones smoothed by the sea; and some brightly painted chicken coops are charmingly decorated with salvaged bits of scalloped metal and wooden cutouts. A wooden sugar shack holds a boiler that Allen fashioned out of an old propane tank, and piles of brush and firewood are stacked nearby to fuel it come February, when the maple sap starts to rise.
Across from the house, the door to the weathered gray barn is flanked by a towering angelica plant that would dwarf Shaquille O’Neal and has numerous culinary and medicinal uses. “That one just planted itself there,” notes Falconi. Inside the barn is the “herbal workshop,” the room where Falconi turns the plants she harvests into medicines to heal herself and her family of everything from chest colds to stomach aches to muscle cramps and more. The tools of her trade are simple: a small stove, a sink, a Vitamix, a Cuisinart, and an army of glass bottles. The air holds the memories of the many aromatic plants Falconi has transformed into tinctures, syrups, and salves — a complex scent that is impossible to parse but not unpleasant.
A 240-page hardcover guide to 50 edible wild plants, with an extensive collection of recipes, by Dina Falconi, with beautiful color illustrations by Wendy Hollender, $40. Available at www.botanicalartspress.com, and at local bookstores, such as The Golden Notebook in Woodstock.
A few years ago, Falconi joined forces with celebrated botanical illustrator Wendy Hollender to create Foraging and Feasting: A Field Guide and Wild Food Cookbook, the culmination of 30 years of studying, experimenting, and teaching. “I’d been thinking about the book for a long time, because it felt to me like there was not yet anything like it in the world,” she says. “I collect cookbooks and herb books, and there was nothing that you could enter into on such a visual level, with all the illustrations, that also provided all the information about the uses, the recipes, and the charts of when to harvest.”
Published in 2013, the book is not only beautiful, filled with Hollender’s deft, detailed botanical illustrations, but also a veritable treasure trove of knowledge about edible plants and inspiring ways to enjoy them, all honed to perfection through years of testing at the thick, weathered, wooden table in Falconi’s homey kitchen. “I use it all the time,” notes Falconi. “I teach from it; I cook from it. It’s always open.”
Over the course of four years, Hollender captured the intricate details of 50 wild plants at each stage of life with painstaking guidance from Falconi, who served as the art director, as well as the author. “I was so lucky to have Wendy help me bring this book into the world,” says Falconi. “Not only is she incredibly talented, she’s also remarkably willing to learn and truly delved into these plants on both a micro and macro level with me.”
Although Falconi’s vision of the book was clear, the path to publication was marked by twists and turns, taking four years from start to finish. They decided to go the alternative route and self-publish, to ensure the integrity of Falconi’s vision. This led to the creation of a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign in 2013. “It was crazy,” says Falconi. “I didn’t even use the Internet and had no presence there. But it worked amazingly. The support we got from all over the world was really inspiring.”
We head back to the house carrying a basket filled with edible greens, herbs, and flowers, all of which are detailed lovingly in Foraging and Feasting. In the mix are leaves of wild lettuce, sheep sorrel, day lily, violet, and lamb’s quarters (a relative of quinoa, with small, silvery, goosefoot-shaped leaves that vies with purslane, another common weed, for the title of world’s most nutritious plant, according to author, Michael Pollan in his book, In Defense of Food). Topped with the delicate, light-purple flowers of dame’s rocket and the marble-sized flowers of red clover, this wild-greens salad leaves the iceberg lettuce at the grocery store in the dust, in terms of nutrition, flavor, and beauty.
As I say goodbye, Falconi stands framed in her red front door, looking rather like a gypsy fortune-teller. Bees buzz from flower to flower in the green tangle of her half-cultivated, half-wild garden, and I can hear the proud squawks of a hen that’s just laid an egg in one of Allen’s quirky coops. I drive off excited to put my new knowledge to use in the woods and fields near my home.
Dina Falconi hand-picked some recipes from her book, Foraging and Feasting, that focus on wild foods found in August, tweaking them specifically for Hudson Valley Magazine readers.