Do know Laura? She is the Founder of Wild Muskoka (one of our Favourite Things), Forager, and a Kitchen Witch. Laura has always lived a life connected to nature (and when you learn with her, it’s CLEAR that she truly lives in relationship with plants). She is a woman of mixed British, French and Anishinaabe Algonquin ancestry born in the Niagara Region of Canada in a rural farming area. Her family moved to Muskoka, Ontario when she was 11, and Laura fell in love with the area and became fascinated with wild plants as food and as medicine, and began experimenting and learning. After studying Environmental Technology at Fleming College, Laura spent several years learning sustainable agriculture and herbalism, and earned a Permaculture Design Certification. I had the good fortune to take a Wild Plant Medicine course in person with Laura in the Spring, Summer, Fall of 2021 … I was taken with everything I learned, every creation that I purchased from her, but mostly with the energy and gift that she is a teacher. This interview only touches on very few points of Laura, but, all so valuable … I hope you enjoy.
If you’d like to meet Laura and be in community with her and other good humans, join us in The Wellness Intelligence Collective. Find all of our interviews, including this one, and so much more Wellness Intelligence.
Virtual or in-person learning? Which is better?
Personally, I prefer to teach in-person. I teach about plants, mushrooms and ecology and I feel like when I teach online I am missing my co-teachers, the flora and fungi themselves. I really love to teach through hands-on activities. Giving people the opportunity to harvest plants, make medicines, and prepare food. There is so much to be learned just from being in the physical presence of another living organism and from being on the land. However, I am inspired to see the way the online world is bringing opportunities for learning to people who may not be able to access them otherwise for a variety of reasons. I think when online learning is partnered with time on the land or hands-on skills it can be incredibly valuable. For example, my partner Chris Gilmour runs an online course on wildlife tracking. When he launched it I was honestly a bit skeptical how he could teach such a nuanced skill online. However, the lessons and course are about getting people to go out on the land on their own with ‘homework’ of things to look for and I’m amazed at how the online community component and the space for sharing has really created a very valuable learning environment. I will always personally value in-person classes the most but online learning can be so great to keep people engaged through community over a longer period of time and is an important tool to offer accessible learning opportunities when the cost is often higher for in-person classes.
Should we all be learning about mushrooms?
YES! Mushrooms are something I am incredibly passionate about. Often the focus is on what they can do for us medicinally, but for me, my initial interest in mushrooms was as an ecologist and from a permaculture perspective. To start, you need to learn about them as organisms. Their role in the environment is incredibly fascinating. How they are the main recyclers of organic material. How they build relationships with trees and truly connect a forest. They really carry the spirit of community and service in nature. In relationship with humans, they are an incredibly nutritious and sustainable food source. I grow a big veggie garden and raise animals on our small homestead and of all the food we produce the shiitake mushrooms we grow are the most abundant and calorie-dense for the effort put in. As someone who lives in the forest, mushrooms are all around me and it makes sense to use them. All winter long we have a crockpot of medicinal mushroom chai on all the time. We use our locally harvested Reishi, Turkey Tail, Chaga, Birch Polypore along with some roots like Dandelion, Burdock and some chai spices like Cinnamon, Cardamom, and Ginger. Store shelves these days are filled with very expensive mushroom products but mushroom teas are one of the easiest to make and cheapest way to access these incredible medicines. A small amount of mushrooms provide lots of medicine and with incredibly abundant species like Reishi and Turkey Tail there is plenty of medicine available in our local woodlots. More importantly for urban people, many great edible and medicinal mushrooms are easy to grow even indoors or in small backyard areas.
What does sustainable foraging mean to you?
Sustainable foraging means to ensure the population you are harvesting from does not decrease with your picking. Over time I have been approaching my harvesting with a question of how can I move beyond just not causing harm but how can I make this relationship be reciprocal and ethical? At a bare minimum we should make sure that when we are harvesting wild plants or mushrooms we are doing so in a way that ensures that species will still be thriving when we leave. There is no exact rule, such as “only take 10%” or whatever. You have to get to know the individual species, understand the part you are harvesting, and how that impacts that plant, the species that rely on that plant and the overall ecosystem. For example, Wild Leeks are a very popular wild food. In most parts of their historical range they are endangered. Where I live in Muskoka, Ontario, Canada they are locally abundant. I could go out and dig the roots and on a small scale not impact them. However, with the knowledge that I have that this is one of the last places they are abundant I choose to help protect the species by only harvesting the leaves, so the plants can come back every year. This allows me to harvest from the same areas every year which is actually good for my business to not have to always look for new lands to pick from, and I know that in the last place they are abundant I am maintaining their health. I also take time to spread seeds into areas where they don’t grow when I am harvesting… this way I am giving back to the plant. I also harvest lots of Elderberries every year. Berries on plants are meant to be eaten. So, in one way you could look at berries and say for the plants sake, I can take them all and it doesn’t hurt the plant. Birds eat lots of Elderberries and they are an important food source along migration routes. Ethical harvesting means not picking all the berries and making sure the birds get their fair share. Same always goes for me with mushrooms. When I remember that I am just a small thread in the web of life and see the species around me as kin I see my actions as a forager as not just between myself and who I am harvesting but affecting everything around me. Just like living in a community of humans, I want my actions as a forager to be viewed by my woodland neighbours to be of someone who cares about others and gives back.
Forest or lake?
Lake in the forest.
A foraged meal you look forward to every year?
I look forward to a foraged combo of fresh asparagus, shiitake mushrooms, wild leeks and fiddleheads.
Can you explain what Wildfire Vinegar is?
‘Wildfire’ is based on an old traditional herbal recipe called ‘fire cider’ that infuses vinegar with very pungent and antibacterial herbs. This infused vinegar is wonderful used in salad dressings, marinades or simply drizzled on steamed veggies or any other culinary creation you can imagine. Wildfire is also wonderful in a hot toddy mixed with honey, lemon and a shot of lemon if you see fit. Also makes a wonderful addition to Caesars.
What are bitters?
Bitters are a traditional cocktail ingredient made of bitter and aromatic herbs infused in alcohol. Used as only a few drops per drink they are the ‘salt & pepper’ that brings out flavour and character to your drinks. The prohibition era collapsed the thriving bitters industry. Until the early 21st century the selection of bitters was extremely limited.
Our WILD BITTERS are a part of the movement to bring back craft cocktails. We use wildcrafted ingredients, high-quality organic herbs in our bitters. They are formulated using traditional herbal knowledge and attention to providing flavors applicable to modern craft cocktails. Try them!
An evening ritual you can count on?
A nice long stretch before bed.
What does Wellness Intelligence mean to you?
When I think of Wellness Intelligence I think of nature. And my body is nature. So I move with the intelligence in my own body towards what is well… what is good for me.