In the field / Sweet Flag Herbs
More than just seasoning—Sweet Flag takes edible and medicinal plants to the next level
A wander through the woods and wild fields on a warm summer day can soothe many ills, nourishing the soul with healthy doses of fresh air, sunshine, movement, and delight in discovering little treasures growing along the path. Sprigs of tiny flowers, glossy green leaves, berries—to the trained eye, those pretty shoots and fruits can make that walk even more beneficial to the body.
Common yarrow, with its feathery leaves and clusters of tiny white flowers, can be used to break fever, ease stomach disorders, stop bleeding, make cocktail bitters, zest up a recipe, and add bitterness to beer. Purslane, its ground-covering stems bursting with succulent jade-like leaves, is a weed to gardeners, but can be eaten cooked or raw in place of spinach and is loaded with minerals, omega 3 fatty acids, and has the ability to kill bacteria, reduce fever, and detoxify the body. Tiny purple elderberries, stars in wine and jelly, have gained popularity recently to ward off colds.
The leaves, roots, bark, flowers, fruits, and stems of hundreds of wild plants have fed and treated Western New Yorkers since humans first set foot on the soil in which they grow. These are things our grandparents and great grandparents likely knew, and traditions many rural folks and global cultures still practice. It’s that lost bounty of practical know-how that drives Community Herbalist Sarah Sorci, owner of Sweet Flag Herbs, to help people safely identify and use wild edible and medicinal plants that grow in Buffalo-area woodlands, fields, parks, and even back yards through guided walks and hands-on workshops.
As a child, Sorci got plenty of exposure to wild plants when her parents paid her a penny per weed pulled from the family vegetable garden (“Totally not worth it,” she says). After earning an undergraduate degree in environmental studies and sustainable development, she apprenticed with organic vegetable farms and began to see the weeds very differently.
“Learning to work with plants and grow my own was empowering,” she explains. “But I also noticed that every farmer I worked with knew what weeds in the fields were edible—and which were sometimes more nutritious than the intended crops.”
The more she learned, the more she was hooked on unlocking the potential of plants that grow wild. But she felt strongly that if she was going to safely identify plants to ingest or share information with others, a formal education in herbalism was a must. She moved to North Carolina to study with the holistic herbalism program at the Blue Ridge School of Herbal Medicine, graduating in 2014. She returned to Western New York to complete a clinical herbalism program remotely through the Eclectic School of Herbal Medicine, and to bring what she’s learned back home. She’s now the executive board president of the Geystone Nature Preserve in Fredonia where she developed a Native Medicinal Plant Trail, the co-coordinator of the WNY chapter of Herbalists Without Borders, and a member of the Buffalo Botanical Gardens’ Medicinal Garden Committee. But Sorci’s biggest project was founding Sweet Flag Herbs, through which she hosts a full calendar of opportunities for curious wanderers, foodies, gardeners, and naturalists to learn more about what’s growing around them.
Group plant walks take place near public parks and trails, where participants can learn to identify wild edible and medicinal plants like dandelions (bitter leaves can be sautéed, roots can be roasted and ground for a coffee substitute), heal-all (mild spinach substitute from the mint family with lots of nutrients), and wild violets (flowers can be candied or frozen in pretty ice cubes, leaves make a lovely salad). They also cover important foraging considerations such as sustainable harvesting methods, getting landowners’ permission to pick, and knowing the pesticide and fertilizer practices, especially in municipal spaces like parks, schools, and bike paths.
Private consultations give homeowners a glimpse at the surprising edible and medicinal plants they might already have growing in their gardens and lawns, or ideas of what to include in a new healing garden. Bee balm, for instance, is a popular landscape perennial that’s also delicious; the ones with purple flowers taste like a combination of oregano and thyme, while the red ones are sweeter and make a lovely tea. Solomon’s seal’s spring shoots can be eaten like asparagus, and the roots offer gastrointestinal healing. Lawns are often teaming with yarrow, heal-all, and of course, dandelions. The wild growing season mirrors the cultivated one, starting in late April with shoots and spring greens and culminating with roots, leaves, and berries until the frost.
Sweet Flag’s hands-on educational workshops get down to the business of what to do with all these harvested treasures. The most popular by far has been the elderberry workshop, where Sorci explains wild elderberry identification and harvesting, medicinal benefits, and how to make cold-combating elderberry syrup flavored with rosehips and honey. The idea for the class came about after she saw how expensive elderberry syrups had become in stores, and decided to show people how to make it easily with cheaper, higher-quality ingredients. Other workshop favorites include how to make cocktail bitters using wild plants; creative preparations for culinary herbs like herb-infused vinegars and honey, finishing salts, and teas; building a home apothecary; and herb-infused gifts for the holidays. Most workshops include plenty recipes and samples to take home.
Besides being an interesting way to enjoy the outdoors and the delicious things growing in it, Sorci sees herbal education as a connection to individual wellbeing, to environmental sustainability, to other cultures around the globe who still use wild ways of eating and healing, and to knowledge that has gradually been lost.
“We don’t live in a culture where people who grow our food are compensated well, so people don’t do it,” she explains. “Fewer people work on the land, so fewer people know it. We’ve become a lawn culture—even though grass doesn’t grow well and weeds do, we have to have lawns. In time, the United States has become an outlier in not having herbs in general medicine. In Germany, doctors prescribe herbs. The Chinese combine pharmaceutical and herbal interventions. If I can help people feel comfortable enough to make a nice cup of wild herbal tea they’ve harvested from their own land, I’d be happy.”