Karen Talbot’s garden is much more than meets the eye.
It’s a medicine cabinet featuring such natural remedies as jewelweed, which she said can be crushed up and used as a salve for poison ivy rashes on the spot. It’s also a cupboard with snacks like bishop’s weed, a plant that Talbot said tastes like a “very, very strong celery.”
There’s even her favorite, stinging nettles, which she brews and drinks every night during the winter. She offered those insights and more during a preview of her Nature Nourishes Weed Walk and Cooking Class last Thursday.
The walk – which will take place on Aug. 17 from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. – is centered on teaching attendees which weeds are edible and how to make dishes from them. The press release for the event notes that while the final menu depends on Mother Nature, possible concoctions could include a milkweed cordial, chocolate stinging nettles cake and pine needle tea. The event costs $40 per person, or $75 if a walker brings a partner or friend.
“I want them to see that they can not only get wonderful nutrition, better nutrition from wild plants, but how delicious they are, too,” Talbot said. “I was reading the other day, we only have 20 different kinds of food at the most that most people eat, the American diet, but the plant world is so diverse, and in the Northeast we have the most diverse plant life in the U.S. … Too bad the season doesn't last longer.”
Talbot said she picked up her habits from both sets of grandparents, who emigrated from Poland. She said that, while she didn’t pay much mind as a child, she recalled her grandfather picking certain plants and that her grandmother would add them to food.
She read the work of Euell Gibbons, who wrote several books about eating foods found in the wild. She started to adopt some of her grandparents’ habits while living in Newport, and her kids began to catch on.
“We had a very small yard, but there were all kinds of wild plants growing in the grass,” Talbot said. “I’d just pick out the leaves. Of course, my son, it’s like I didn't bring him up with it, he was very skeptical. He knew that I was putting some wild plants in the salad. He said, ‘What’d you put in the salad this time, mom?’ But my daughter, who is a little bit younger, really accepted all of it and went to make her own teas and give it to her teachers when she was in grade school.”
Now Talbot wants to imbue a lucky eight people with her knowledge. It was on display during the recent interview, as she moved up and down her backyard path delving into the myriad uses of each part of every plant.
She spoke in depth about milkweed, which she said is the only plant on which Monarch butterflies will feed. She said that her famous fermented milkweed cordial is about 3 to 5 percent alcohol. It’s made from just the plant, sugar and water, but Talbot said it will ferment on its own because of the pollen in the flowers.
Talbot said the appeal of her lifestyle is simple and extends beyond its nutritious value.
“Well, you don’t have to plant them. They take care of themselves. You don’t have to water them. They’re far, far more nutritious than anything you can buy, even at Whole Foods,” Talbot said. “There’s a big movement for people to grow milkweed and it’s really easy to grow. So I’ve seen three Monarchs here. I’ve been waiting five years to see the Monarchs.”
Talbot also grows burdock, which served as the inspiration for Velcro. She even stuck one to the reporter’s shirt to demonstrate the same effect. She said it’s cooked and served as a side dish in Japan.
“When they turn brown and crispy? Forget it. Mean boys used to throw them in my hair, but this plant is very nutritious,” Talbot said. “Every part of the plant is edible, but at this stage, each plant has its own stage of what’s edible on the plant. First it starts out with the green leaves, then the stalk comes up, that’s edible. Then you have to get the flowers before it turns into seed.”
She ventured up a dirt path to show off her wild ginger, which she plans on using for homemade ginger ale. She said it will be “far superior” to the store-bought ginger she has employed in the past.
She also has some mandrake, a plant that is largely poisonous, as well as black cohosh. The latter, Talbot said, is sold in stores for women going through menopause.
Talbot spoke with particular zeal about jewelweed, of which she has a jar in her home covered in witch hazel that she uses as her own natural poison ivy balm. She said she has aspirations of planting her own witch hazel tree, too.
“That’s why I asked you if you’re allergic to poison ivy, because inside is a magical elixir that, if you can’t get to a house to wash off if you've been touching poison ivy, just crush it up and just rub it on your skin, and it’s good for other skin ailments, too,” Talbot said. “The thing is that, if you’re taking out leafless poison ivy runners, you’re going to get poison ivy anyway. You don’t just get it from the leaves.”
Talbot said that at age 73, her lifestyle allows her to “do a lot more things” than others her age. She’ll continue drinking stinging nettles, eating bishop’s weed and teaching those interested how to adopt some of her habits. She said she even has a book in the works.
“I’m going to be cooking with them. They’ll get a short lesson,” Talbot said. “It’s exploding. I have so many plants here, even growing in the cultivated beds … There’s so much here.”