Scotland's larder: Monica Wilde forager and research herbalist

We talk to Monica Wilde about the environment, her love of plants and herbal remedies and about the abundance of natural treasures to be found in Scotland's Wild larder

Published 31st Aug 2021
Updated 8 th Aug 2023

Monica Wilde has taught foraging for over 15 years and explains "people always asked could you survive on only wild food for a year?"

So she decided to give it a go, beginning last November (on Black Friday) or as she calls it, "the high feast day of consumerism" and she hasn't been near shops or eaten anything farmed since.

Monica Wilde Forager
Acorn pastry tart with rosehips and wild fuchsia berries with a Rowan berry and honey glaze. Photo: Mo Wilde

To celebrate finishing, she is already planning "a sublime curry from Indie Roots in Bathgate."

What began as a personal protest at the state of the world, has resulted in a two book contract with Simon & Schuster, the first titled, The Wilderness Cure; she said, "it just seemed like a really good time to put my actions where my words were."

Monica Wilde Forager
Hot Smoked Mackerel with wild rockets and baby ceps. Photo: Mo Wilde

The year began without any fanfare and at the time the world seemed an unsettled place; with Brexit followed by Covid-19 and lockdowns.

She said, "it wasn't going to be a look at me sort of challenge, it was something I wanted to see if I could do for myself."

Her earliest memories involve the outdoors, she was the eldest of five children, born in Lambeth in London before family moved to Surrey; "I'd learned not to eat the poisonous flowers of the Laburnum tree and saw a grass snake in the compost heap."

Under African Skies

Aged six her family emigrated to East Africa, her father was an advisor to the attorney general in Kenya.

There was a strong family connection to Africa, she said, "my maternal grandmother and grandfather worked throughout Africa, my uncle was born in Malawi, and my aunt was born in Zanzibar."

Fish head soup with mussels and hot smoked larch bolete buttons. Photo: Mo Wilde

Monica's family lived in a house North west of Nairobi, in Tigoni which was owned by a chief of the Kikuyu people.

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She recalls a brick building surrounded by trees and creepers, "the window of the down stairs loo was very easy to get out of, so most mornings before everybody else was awake I was outside exploring"

She describes the dry season, "we'd be waiting breathlessly for the rain and then one day there is thunder on the horizon, and suddenly thousands of little seedlings come out of the ground. They knew the rain was only hours away, which is amazing."

Monica Wilde Forager
Monica Wilde surrounded by wild carrot. Photo: Lisa Ferguson

She played with the local children and helped gather plants for a local herbalist and quickly realised, "being the eldest of five, as long as I turned up at meals and bedtime and nobody gave a monkeys where I was."

"I just learned to become very self sufficient, and use herbal first aid. If you hurt yourself you put a leaf on it, you didn't go back looking for a plaster."

She attended school in Nairobi where they sang the national anthem in Swahili, and at home she learnt Kikuyu.

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She said, "I still love Africa."

Old Blighty

She was then sent to school in England, and a family friend who lived nearby took her out for walks, and during holidays she stayed with an aunt in the Cotswolds.

They both taught her about British plants; "so it was normal to be surrounded by people interested in plants."

Monica Wilde Forager
Bog Myrtle collected by Monica. Photo: Lisa Ferguson

She said, "my aunt would have us all out collecting plants for dying wool, she taught us how to put a comfrey poultice on a sprained ankle."

Nature's child

Monica (also known as Mo) believes every child forms their own relationship with nature, "If you have adults telling you everything is poisonous you will grow up with the idea that nature is a hostile place, either to be tamed or trampled on."

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She believes, "this is at the heart of our disconnect with nature and the environmental disaster that humanity is causing."

As a young adult she didn't really settle and moved around a lot, working as a scenic artist for the National Theatre in London before emigrating to St Vincent.

Sea and palm trees in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines,. Photo: mbrand85/Getty

West Indies

The West Indies is seen as a glamorous holiday destination but living there she discovered islanders are at the sharp end of global development, and unemployment is a massive problem.

She initially sold tea-shirts on the beach, before working in a graphic design studio, then helped found a small agro cooperative, using local plants to make cosmetics.

Following her divorce she moved to Edinburgh with her three young children; "I hardly knew a soul, I thought I would never be warm again. The first winter was minus 18 with ice on the inside of the windows, it was tough."

Monica Wilde. Forager
St John’s Wort. Photo: Lisa Ferguson

Eventually she got a job, and started doing freelance design work and met Dee Atkinson from Napiers, she said, "until then I never knew you could work as a herbalist. I got to see the effects of working with plants and seeing people get better."

They both ended up working together and then completed a management buyout, Dee looked after the clinical side while Mo looked after the products and the licensing.

Lyme disease

Later she studied for a masters in Herbal Medicine from University of Central Lancashire, her research focused on helping people who were suffering the long-term consequences of Lyme disease.

From monitoring the online helpdesk at Napiers she knew there were lots of people this affected.

She adds, "I was brought up with a huge sense of fairness, my father was a barrister. It was unjust that a whole group of people who had caught a bacterial infection from a tick should just be abandoned medically, they were being told they were making it up."

Rose Hips. Photo: Lisa Ferguson.

She still runs specialist Lyme disease clinics online, which has some benefits, but she adds, "you can't take someone's pulse over zoom and if someone cries you can't hug them."

Taking root

Plants gradually took over her life, but as a single parent she was always looking for ways to earn extra money and a friend suggested running some foraging workshops.

"I knew about plants for foraging for food, crafts and medicines, so I put together weekend seasonal activities for adults where we would gather and then make something at the end of it."

The wider public started to hear about them and she continues to run her courses, she said, "I enjoy seeing the lights go on, very often it is not the person who booked it, it is the poor partner that has been dragged along."

She realised early on that you can't teach people everything in a short time but; "I can tell them the stories of the plants and how nature works in such a way to inspire them to become a complete plant addict."

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Monica Wilde. Forager
Hazlenuts.  Photo: Lisa Ferguson

Foragers code

Mo believes, "people who forage for themselves, are the strongest band of eco stewards that you will ever meet, if you appreciate the plant and depend on them for food then you are going to make sure that the environment is tended and looked after year on year."

She appreciates that nature is generous but adds, "it's a two way relationship, we all live on a planet where everything is interconnected, you can't ever think of nature as something separate, unless you want to live in concrete boxes on Mars and if you do, please hurry up and go."

Green values

Looking ahead to COP26, she said, "I don't despair at the world or humanity but I despair at politicians. I'm just astonished that in the planet's hour of need we have such a bunch of immature self centred egotists."

Although she believes in people power; "if we all decided we would leave every piece of non biodegradable packaging at the till it wouldn't take long before supermarkets would change to renewable packaging. If we want something to happen fast, as individuals, we need to take some responsibility for what we consume."

Monica Wilde Forager
Tansy. Photo: Lisa Ferguson

Mo admits Scotland's climate makes her challenge particularly hard, and she had to purchase an extra fridge freezer, second hand, she said, "the ancient people didn't have those, but I buy all my electricity from green suppliers so I don't feel too bad."

She also had to eat more meat over the winter which made her ponder the bigger picture, "should animals be culled or should they graze everything to a nub on the Scottish hillsides? Do we want forests but are we happy to let deer and rabbits eat all the seedlings?"

Waste not want not

However she has seen a drastic reduction in household rubbish, and has shed a few pounds: "all the middle aged spread I'd put on over the years, so I'm back to a size I haven't been since my 30's."

Monica Wilde Forager
Cleavers are related to the coffee plant, so the seeds can be toasted, ground and simmered to make a foraged alternative. Photo: Mo Wilde

Her foraged highlights have been dandelion roots, she said, "I love them roasted with a tiny drizzle of birch sap syrup over the top of them, they are delicious. They are quite bitter, but cooking them that way, they are just really great."

"Cleavers seed coffee, I used to teach people it was possible to make it but I never bothered because it always seemed to be so fiddly."

But Scotland's wild larder has also provided her with great abundance; chanterelles, and wild strawberries "a treat when you haven't had any fresh fruit since the last crab apples saved till March."

She was grateful for how much food you can find throughout the year and the support from friends, she said, " it's good to feel hungry as it makes you appreciate things a bit more."

Monica Wilde Forager
Monica Wilde in the wilderness. Photo: Lisa Ferguson

Monica Wilde

Forager and research herbalist

Catriona is a freelance writer based in the Scottish Borders, and a nominee for Food and Drink writer at this year's Scottish Press Awards.
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