WILDE by name and, so far as edible food and medicinal plants are concerned, wild by nature. Monica Wilde is a renowned research herbalist, ethnobotanist and forager who has been intrigued by plants and herbs for almost all of her 52 years. It is a fascinating story.
Ms Wilde, who is also managing director of Napiers the Herbalists, was born in London, the eldest of five children. In 1969, when she was six, her family resettled in Kenya, her mother’s homeland, where her father became a legal adviser to the country’s Attorney General Charles Njonjo. “We moved to Africa and it was wonderful,” she says. “We lived on a farm in the countryside and, because I had so many brothers and sisters, as long as I turned up for meals nobody gave a monkey’s where I was.” Kenya was idyllic. A local old lady, a Kikuyu herbalist, quickly introduced her to herbal medicine and without either of them knowing it Wilde had stumbled upon one of the abiding passions of her life.
When she was nine, she was sent to a boarding school in England. But her time in Kenya was interrupted in the mid-70s. The country’s political situation had been heating up with President Jomo Kenyatta, the man who had led Kenya to independence from the UK in 1963, in increasingly feeble health. “Because my father worked for Njonjo, he realised he wasn’t on the right side of things and that a career change might be a good idea, so he took a job as a parliamentary draughtsman in St Vincent and the Grenadines.” When her parents later divorced, their father won custody of the children and took them back to Africa, to Malawi.
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“Africa helped shape me as a person,” she says now. “It gave me a huge sense of independence from an early age. It gave me a great love of nature but it also taught me a sense of proportion in life: if there’s no blood, it’s probably not a crisis.” She laughs. “If somebody is not chopping you up with a machete, it can probably be resolved.” A voracious reader, she was also familiar with the traditions and medicines of American Indians.
She was still in her teens when she returned to England and was living on her own in Cowley, Oxford. She remembers a Saturday job in a picture framer’s; to make ends meet she also embroidered badges for truckers, a community she came to know rather well.
In her 20s and 30s she worked in branding and marketing but her heart was always in the world of plants. In 1991, back in the Caribbean, she set up a voluntary project for local women turning indigenous plants into cosmetics and toiletries. Four years later, by now a single parent, she found herself in Scotland. In 1995, she came into contact with Napiers, which had been founded in 1860 by Duncan Napier and which was now being run by Dee Atkinson. Today, armed with an MSc in herbal medicine from the University of Central Lancashire, she is passionate in her support for natural medicines, taking the view that non-chemical healthcare options should be available to everyone.
Home is a self-built wooden house “on four wild acres” in Gowanbank, West Lothian, where in a painstakingly-created garden she nurtures wild edible and medicinal species. It is, she says, “the perfect foraging patch – it means I always know that supper is on the doorstep”. Wilde has also become known for leading educational foraging expeditions; the next one, Edible Hedgerow, takes place in Edinburgh on March 26 and in Glasgow on April 2. Sign up and you will learn how to find edible wild plants suitable for either a smoothie or a gourmet meal.
In an earlier email outlining her career, Wilde had said something tantalising: that she loves foraging for wild food as well as wild medicine “and would happily never visit a supermarket again”. She says of foraging: “It is addictive. We still have to buy certain things at the supermarket, mainly because it takes time to live sustainably. If you go to work during the day, which I do at Napiers most days, then you don’t have the time to go completely independent of the supermarket, but there are some very good health reasons for doing more foraging.
“You only really hear about it in the media at the mushroom time of the year, when it’s like [and here she pulls an exaggerated face] ‘Oh my God, it’s mushrooms, they’re poisonous, and all these migrant workers are stripping the forests’.
“But nobody ever worries about, for example, people stripping the countryside of nettles, which are one of my favourite plants.”
So what is it like to go foraging? “It’s totally instinctual. It connects with a part of us that is as old as the hills. Sometimes I’ve been asked to do foraging with companies, with firms of accountants or wine importers or what-have-you. I’ve had situations where guys who are corporate executives, who are really busy and are building businesses and are really switched on, have come on a foraging walk as part of a corporate day.
“You can see at the beginning how they take the view of ‘yeah, we’ll have a laugh’, but at the end of it, some of them are almost tearful. Some of them have shiny, tear-y eyes and they’ll go: ‘I enjoyed myself so much – I can’t believe how I lost all sense of time. I didn’t even think to look at my email or my phone’.
“You just become so engrossed. It’s very liberating. I think it gives you the same sort of feeling as you get from meditation. For hundreds of thousands of years, an ability to spot your food has been integral to existence. It’s part of the psyche.”
Wilde has long learned how to identify habitat so she knows where plants or fungi will be. She will be driving through the countryside “and will see a certain copse or hedge, and you just know what’s going to be there.
“When you’re outside a lot of the time, you become acutely aware of the seasons, of the movement of things, so you almost know the week before the fungi arrive, you have a sense of heightened anticipation. You know that last rainstorm was all it needed – you can almost smell them before they arrive. In east Africa, you’d have a dry season, when everything stops growing, and a day or so before the first rains come, you’d see lots of tiny plants coming up. They know the rains are on their way.”
In summer she spends a lot of time on the coast, eating seaweed and shellfish. “Last June I was up in Islay with some friends and we were eating cockles, winkles and mussels, and feral oysters, all straight out of the sea, with seaweed salads.” She eats meat “but likes to know where it comes from – it must have had a genuine life”.
She talks knowledgeably about how our ancestors used to know how to cycle through the food groups. “People wonder why, when they eat sandwiches for lunch every single day, and have cornflakes every single day for breakfast, they get to their 40s and suddenly find they’re gluten-intolerant. We were never meant to eat the same thing day in and day out. Our bodies have this capacity for an enormous diversity of foodstuffs, but our capacity for gluttony has been what has been our downfall in terms of the modern diet. We’ve forgotten that variety really is absolutely essential for us.”
Speaking of food, what will she have for dinner tonight? She laughs again. “Bean stew. I’ve been soaking various kinds of beans but will probably have a wander around and see what else I can add into it.
“Normally when I am driving home I’ll go over the Blackridge Heights and pull over and see what I can find. You might find this abandoned little Matiz car somewhere and you’ll know I’ll be off in the woods somewhere, or a ditch, looking for edible food. At this time of year, though, it’s lean pickings. You need to have worked hard during the summer to have saved up your food for the winter.”
As she cheerfully put it in that email, now that her three children have left home, she finds herself unsupervised “and getting wilder by the day”. Wilde by name, wild by nature, indeed.
Napiers the Herbalists: www.napiers.net; Monica’s wild food walks at www.monicawilde.com.