Marguerite Uhlmann-Bower is a registered nurse, herbal educator and wild foods forager who conducts“weed walks” in which she teaches us how to forage for wild edibles.
How long have you lived in the Catskills?
Manhattan and Brooklyn. I was born in Manhattan and spent part of my young life in Brooklyn. When I experienced the country when I was eleven, I knew that was where I was going when I got old enough.
Did you choose a vocation that matched that at an early age?
I was a make-up artist in the city, but I had to make a change and that was the change I made. So it was a rough go of trying to find my place up here and it was either here or California.
Yes, it’s rough going trying to find your place up here. It’s much easier if you bring a vocation with you, and some savings.
Yes, I had very little savings, but I brought that and that’s a story in itself. I waitressed for ten years before I decided what to do and I had my own diner in Bloomville. I took the money I had left from the city, which wasn’t a whole lot and bought the diner in Bloomville with a partner. It was crazy. We bought it together for $1500. I worked there from 1981 to 1984. After that I went off to continue my life, but I have to say every spare moment I had I was in the garden or in the woods. I was always looking at the plants learning about them and trying to identify them. I was always a gardener, even in Manhattan, and in Brooklyn. In the little plot we had I was always growing something to eat, or flowers, so it was my inclination. As an adolescent in Manhattan and Brooklyn, I also started to self-teach on the subject of herbs and there really weren’t a whole lot of sources back then.
What made you decide to do that?
I guess it was my mother’s influence. My mother was very naturally oriented towards health. She wasn’t an herbalist, but she had a lot of home remedies. Whenever we had a sty she would put a boiled egg on the sty. If we got an earache, she would put warmed olive oil with garlic juice in our ear, a couple of drops, those kinds of things. She would rub us down with vinegar when we had muscle and body aches.
What did you do first once you decided you wanted to be an herbalist?
I was still an adolescent, but I went to the Parsons of Design and the Wilfred Academy because I loved faces. I still am an artist. I started to re-introduce myself to herbs in my early thirties. Then I went to nursing school because I thought it was very important to know the body. After nursing school, I found a teacher and became an apprentice with a traditionally trained herbalist. I took her classes for three years. I went every month. I completed the necessities with her. I read journals and I go to conferences.
That’s really thorough of you to get a nursing degree.
You see a lot of herbalists now becoming a nurse or a doctor.
I think so, absolutely, because I think they have to walk that path in the system and it’s a challenge but I think it will come together where they’ll be diversity of healthcare givers.
When I go to my doctor, she never asks me what I’ve been eating. They just seem to be trained to give you a pill to make whatever it is go away.
There are more and more doctors that are working around that, who are asking: what are you doing, what are you eating, how are you sleeping, how are you coping? It’s the first line of our health: having a healthy gut from mouth to anus. In nursing school I got one class of nutrition. I probably could have taught the class, that’s how much I had already educated myself and I’m not big on myself at all. Just from reading from when I was a teenager, what I had, I could have passed the class. Now, though, I’m hoping it’s different. But even herbalists, when I was being trained we looked at the diet and at the excrement, but we always separated herbs and food. However, back in 2000 I started studying bits of Ayurveda medicine and traditional Chinese medicine. I don’t have the title of either, but I have the training of both. But honestly, there’s no demarcation line, between what’s an herb and what’s food. I think food is our best medicine.
I agree. What are some plants that are growing in your area now?
Dandelion. We all have dandelion. Dandelion is available to us as long as there is no snow on the ground. We can eat it raw, cooked: consume the whole plant. It’s very nutritious. Parts of it are food for our gut bacteria. Dandelion is high in inulin, which is in the root. I encourage people to sauté the root. The leaves are high in Vitamin A. They have healthy bacteria on them that will propagate our own bacteria.
Burdock is another common one. The whole plant is edible, but the stages are very specific. I have yellow dock leaves and Japanese knotweed. It’s only six to eight inches tall. What you can see now is the bamboo. It tastes just like rhubarb. There’s a very specific time to get it. You can’t really get it after it’s 12 inches tall. Also, apple blossoms should be coming out soon.
What about cherry blossoms? I have some of those.
The reason I’ve never done cherry blossoms is because there is an amount of cyanide in the whole tree.
Why does the cherry tree need cyanide?
All plants make chemicals that are supportive of their safety in some way. That’s one of the reasons. They call them phytochemicals. Some of these phytochemicals are very healthy for us and some of them are not.
What inspires you most about the Catskills?
The trees. They always did. It’s not really any one particular thing, but it’s the smell in the air from the evergreens and the quietness. Every once in a while you can hear a plane going by above you. That’s what I cherish the most.