On an April evening in Sea Cliff, front yards and curb edges brim with green — not only that of sprouting tulips, but also dandelions, chickweed and feathery shepherd’s purse. Shoots of garlic mustard cluster along a low wall. Heart-shaped oxalis, a dead ringer for clover, carpets the edges of a park.
Many might curse these so-called weeds and whack them into submission. During a guided walk around the neighborhood, herbalist Angus Towse points out that many are edible, too. Pluck and nibble a starry sprig of shepherd’s purse, and it tastes almost like a radish. The garlic mustard has a peppery tang, and the leaves of the oxalis, a type of sorrel, are tiny bursts of citrus.
“You’ll find a lot of these plants where ground has been disturbed,” says Towse, who is also a horticulturist, acupuncturist, and massage therapist, as well as founder of Sea Cliff’s Green Man Natural Health.
Towse is also the president of the Long Island chapter of the American Herbalists Guild, whose nine or so local members (out of a national body of 2,000) meet monthly. While their experience in herbalism is broad and impressive — many integrate herbalism into professions such as medicine, acupuncture, nursing or chiropractic — the guild’s monthly meetings are hardly exclusive; they are free, open to the public and offer vibrant forums for discussing and discovering “all things herbal,” Towse says.
In the grips of winter, meetings might cover garden planning or making herbal infusions and tinctures. From spring to fall, they often focus on field botany — seeing, smelling, and handling the wild and cultivated botanicals that thrive on Long Island, an especially verdant place as far as plants go.
“Long Island, and the Northeast, has an incredibly mild climate with very balanced seasons. Between the microclimates, and European adaptation, we have so many different species here, both native and alien,” Towse says. “[AHG] wants to acquaint the average individual with how to recognize and use these plants.”
For instance, hops, a bittering agent for beer, grow wild on Long Island. A tisane made from floppy mullein leaves can be used for upper respiratory infections, as it has been for centuries. And the tender spring tips of Japanese knotweed, an invasive plant, can be eaten raw or steamed.
Of course, it’s ill-advised to identify and pick these plants without training or guidance. “One should never consume any plant that has not been positively identified, and should avoid harvesting in any area known to be contaminated” by pesticides or other substances, he says.
Though spring might seem like high time for botanical discovery, the usable part of each plant evolves throughout the year, from root to flower to seed, yielding “an ongoing range of edibles and medicinals,” says Ellen Kamhi, a registered nurse, herbalist, author and radio host whose program “Herbally Yours,” airs twice a week on Nassau Community College’s WHPC 90.3 FM.
Kamhi, secretary of the local AHG chapter, occasionally leads or coleads events such as June 11’s Medicinal Herb Walk & Medicine Making Workshop at Restoration Farm, a 7-acre plot at Old Bethpage Village Restoration. “We go out in the field and gather plants, and we bring them into the barn. The plants are washed and processed and made into things” such as a salve and tincture, Kamhi says.
Though that workshop costs $45, those who just want to dip their toes into the botanical waters first can do so at upcoming AHG meetings — on May 11 outside the Oyster Bay-East Norwich Public Library, and on June 13 outside the Sea Cliff Adult Library.
“You can just come for fun,” says Kamhi, adding that AHG membership is open to all, including novices. “You don’t have to be a serious student of herbal medicine.”
Monthly meetings of the American Herbalists Guild are free and open to the public. The next two meetings are:
6:30 p.m. May 11, outside the Oyster Bay-East Norwich Public Library
6:30 p.m. June 13, outside the Sea Cliff Adult Library
INFO Email firstname.lastname@example.org
FOR MORE IN-DEPTH EXPERIENCE WITH BOTANICALS
Medicinal Herb Walk & Medicine Making Workshop
Gather medicinal herbs and learn how to process them into herbal medicine.
WHEN | WHERE 11 a.m.-3 p.m. June 11 at Restoration Farm, 140 Bethpage-Sweet Hollow Rd., Old Bethpage
COST $50 ($45 advance), $50 at door.
INFO Email email@example.com
‘Edible and Medicinal Plants of Long Island’
Learn identification, use, history and ecology of commonly available useful plants in 10-week field botany course led by herbalist Angus Towse. Certificates available.
WHEN | WHERE 1-4 p.m. Sundays, rain or shine
COST $30 per class
INFO Email firstname.lastname@example.org