Where the Wild Things Are
Known as the witch of Mono Centre, Lisa Yates is a wizard in the kitchen, transforming ordinary weeds into uncommon victuals
The driveway winds through the trees past a sign reading Cailleach Cnoc (Gaelic, I later learn, for “witch hill”), until it ends in a clearing beside a small stone cottage overlooking a pond. Right away, you can feel the magic.
Herbalist, folklorist, wild-foodie Lisa Yates emerges from the cool darkness of the broad veranda with a basket over her arm. Small and slender, with her reddish blonde hair pulled loosely into a ponytail and no makeup, she looks younger than her 53 years. And there is definitely something about her, not witchy, but something – nymph-like, fey, a hint of mystery.
Lisa has invited me for lunch, a meal she will prepare using ingredients we will forage from the grassy meadows and wetlands surrounding her house. We set out in the June sunshine, and before we have gone 10 paces, she stops and crouches down.
“Look at this plant trying to get my attention,” she says. It is wild yarrow, with its feathery leaves and creamy white flower. “You can eat the leaves,” she says, picking off a few, “or use it as a disinfectant on wounds.”
Oxeye daisy. “I’ve been eating a lot of these lately.” She explains the entire plant is edible, though the stalks get fibrous later in the summer.
We forage ahead through the bee-filled morning. Young fleabane: “The leaves taste like spinach. Dry the flowers and grind them into powder. It makes an excellent flea repellent.”
“Milkweed is my favourite plant right now. In June, you can break off the top two inches of the plant, blanch, then stir-fry, and it tastes like mild rapini.” Oh yes, and the “milk” is said to remove warts.
Dandelion. “The buds are great in salads.” Brine them and they taste like capers. The leaves are bitter, a taste Lisa says we’ve forgotten. Dandelion also helps digestion and aids the body in absorbing minerals.
Queen Anne’s Lace (wild carrot) can be eaten raw in early spring. The leaves taste like parsley. Older plants can be cooked with wild apples to make a broth.
Thistle. “Most people would never think of eating thistle,” says Lisa, “but boiled or fried, you can eat them, thorns and all.” They’re also an excellent source of manganese, iron, phosphorus and zinc.
“That’s why we are so malnourished,” she says. “We have forgotten how to use these highly nutritious plants. Wild things have way more nutrients and they make you feel full. Our bodies crave these things and we eat too much of empty foods trying to get them.”
Lisa, who has a doctorate in alternative medicine, grew up in Kentucky. She attributes her lifelong devotion to wild plants to a natural curiosity and the influence of her maternal grandmother. There is something semimystical about that devotion. She believes in the intelligence of plants, that they have something to tell us.
“Years ago, we had more intuition. We’ve lost that, but I believe that if you listen, plants will teach you.”
Lisa has been listening all her life, and experimenting too. She cautions it’s important to identify plants carefully before eating them, and even then to ingest small amounts before eating the whole thing. Not all plants are friendly. “I have probably poisoned myself a few times,” she says of her trial and error approach.
We pass a tangled patch of vetch, its elongated purple blooms just emerging. “Toxic!” she proclaims. Buttercups shimmer in the breeze. “Deadly poisonous. Leave them alone.”
We are barely halfway through our circumnavigation of the pond, and there is still so much to learn. The pollen from cattails is high in protein, add it to pancakes or baked goods. Hop clover can be used to make beer. The oily seeds of plantain are a high-energy trail food. The tender tops of goldenrod taste like mild asparagus. And a tea made from cedar is loaded with vitamin C. Ground spruce tips are excellent as a rub for grilled ribs. Chewing baby pine cones will protect your teeth.
I try one and indeed, it has a lemony, astringent taste that is not unpleasant. As we climb the hill to the house for lunch, Lisa’s basket now brimming with green things, I envision (my hunger tinged with dismay) platters of plantain and sautéed jewelweed washed down with mugs of mint tea, and I contemplate picking up a pizza on the way home.
Back at the house, while the “witch” of Mono Centre, as she is known locally, bustles away at her stove, I sip a cup of slightly spicy “coffee” made from dandelion roots. (Chop and roast in a 250°F oven for an hour. Store in an airtight container). Beside me, an open cupboard is filled with an array of preserves – jars of pickled wild leeks, dried mushrooms, elderberry cough syrup, pickled day lilies, wild quince vinegar, candied violets and dried wild mushrooms.
“I eat something wild every day,” says Lisa as she blanches lamb’s quarters, garlic mustard and dandelion greens. “I believe it connects you to where you live. Eat what you have around you and you’ll feel more grounded.”
Lunch, when it comes, is not what I expected. Despite her reverence for nuts and berries, Lisa’s culinary repertoire reaches well beyond the fields and forests. We sit on the veranda in the warm breeze and lunch on a sumptuous wild-weed chowder garnished with bacon, milkweed-ginger pot stickers with soy-sesame dipping sauce, tender wild grape leaves stuffed with local sheep’s milk cheese, oxeye daisy-black walnut pesto smeared on crusty bread, and for dessert, a simple flan sweetened with pine syrup and candied violets.
And while we eat, Lisa continues her tales of trolls flying about on stalks of dockweed, how placing dogwood leaves in the pages of your journal will make the words invisible, that witches ingest deadly nightshade because it makes them fly.
“I probably would have been burned at the stake if I’d lived 200 years ago,” she says. Today, Lisa Yates is a walking encyclopedia of the secret lives of plants. “I believe what is underfoot is trying to give us something. We just need to get out and learn.”