An Interview with forager Rachael West of Once Upon A Weed
Interview by Jeremy Lux, article by Eric Gasa
It may sound a bit unusual, but Rachael West really wants you to fry up some maple seeds with your kids. Trust me, it’s actually a lot better than it sounds but at the end of the day West just really wants you to go outside and get your hands dirty harvesting your own wild foods. An herbalist and foraging instructor, West is so knowledgeable about the food lying around our fields and forests that you might not look at your backyard the same ever again. With the help of her program, Once Upon A Weed, West seeks to reevaluate our relationship with the natural world.
For the latest episode of Life in Motion, Jeremy Lux talks with Rachael West about the joys of gardening, farming, and how you can even treat a bullet wound with some weeds.
So, given her background it’s probably not a surprise to you that West is a self-described “forest girl.” Traveling from Texas to California, she spent much of her time studying herbalism and other nontraditional medicine, but it wasn’t until she moved to Missouri that she discovered nature’s true potential. Let’s just say it all started with a plant.
“I was barefoot pregnant at 28 and had just moved to Missouri,” West shares, “I had no idea of how I was going to have children when I had not even planned on going down that path in life. And so I was just standing there in my front yard staring at this plant.”
The plant West was staring at was actually an elderberry, a vitamin and antioxidant rich berry. She noticed whole swaths of her property covered in them. So after some researching she identified the delicious plant and popped one in her mouth.
Elderberry as it turns out has 17 times the lycopene as a tomato and tastes like a sweet tart. West looked out at her yard covered in elderberries and decided to start harvesting them daily. It was this interest in unappreciated nonnative species that sparked West’s interest in foraging.
“I started Once Upon A Weed to teach about plants in my yard and change people’s minds about regular plants like dandelion or Burdoch,” she says. “Eating nonnatives while respecting native plants, and understanding how they were food crops is definitely a passion of mine.”
The word “passion” might even be an understatement for West honestly; last year she spent an amazing 280 days gathering last year. Talk about dedication!
But at the end of the day, West appreciates how looking towards the forest instead of the grocery store has expanded her palate. West compares the biodiversity of Missouri to the Garden of Eden. From acorn bread, to dandelion root coffee, and lavender pie; the earth has a bounty of natural foods to offer.
“If I made you a roasted dandelion root coffee Jeremy, you would never look at that weed the same way again,” West assures Lux. “You would curse every time you had to dig up rocks in the Ozarks inhibiting you from digging up all those dandelions because they’re that delicious.”
But what also fascinates West is the anthropological side of foraging. For every plant there is a history of thousands of people recording and learning how to use every part of it for medicine or food. This also gave early humans a great nutritional advantage.
“If you eat the same eight or 10 fruits and vegetables as modern humans do today, versus hunter-gatherers who would have eaten over 200, you’re going to limit the amount of good bacteria in your gut,” West explains.
There is also the advantage of freshness that comes with foraging organically. When it comes to cooking, West doesn’t reach for the fridge, she only has to stroll out to her backyard for wild onions and garlic. For West, wild vegetables have a certain freshness that you just can’t replace in a grocery store. How often do you get to prepare food that’s literally minutes old before tossing it into your soup? It’s not only a healthy option but a great way to rethink how we consume food.
Heck, plants can even be used in emergencies too. West recalls a time where her son cut his arm open while working in the garden. It was a pretty deep cut but instead of reaching for the Band-Aids she grabbed a bag of yarrow that clotted the wound instantly like magic.
“I’ve read in field journals about medics during the Civil War that using yarrow for gunshot wounds, but I was amazed by how well it worked.” West recalls.
With all of this knowledge at her disposal West wants to spread her love and appreciation of the natural world. Her end goal is to launch an interactive Once Upon A Weed website to show people how to forage themselves and even publish a book for children. She also hopes to have her book introduced into school curriculum and show kids 10-20 basic plants with applicable uses. Instead of having memories of learning cursive, the next generation of kids will remember the time they learned how to gather wild berries. It’s a goal that West is very passionate about.
“I don't even care if you put a wig on me and you turned me into an old lady and nobody knew my name,” she jokes, “If I could get more kids just out there like harvesting maple seeds and frying them up for their moms with green beans then mission accomplished. That's just the coolest thing ever.”
“So is there a telltale way to see if certain plants in the wild are good to try out?” asks Lux.
“Oh, yeah definitely. You can’t help but think about all the people that died learning how to eat those plants,” West says, “We’re trying to not be those people.”
“Well, that’s good because if I ever got lost anywhere, I hope it’s with you because I will not starve at least!”
**So, this article is just the tip of the iceberg for Rachael West. For even more mind-boggling insights about plants, foraging, and backyard farming be sure to check out Once Upon A Weed on Facebook and be on the lookout for Rachael’s new book and website. You can also reach out Rachael at firstname.lastname@example.org and even schedule foraging classes with her at Sigma 3 Survival School for more hands-on action. And of course, to listen to the full interview, check out the Life in Motion podcast with Jeremy Lux on iTunes, Spotify, and Google Play.