If you know what to look for, a hike in the New Hampshire woods can be a harvest. At least it is for one Henniker man who has started a business selling foraged herbal tinctures.
Rob Wolfe leads the way through an overgrown field toward a tangle of bushes and tall grass. Just down the street from his home, he knows where to look for wild foods in season. Wolfe pauses on his way to inspect a small tree.
“So this is one plant that I collect a lot of in the spring," he says, tugging at the leaves, "it’s called basswood and the leaves are really, really good in salads. There’s like, no weird, funky flavors. Super tender.”
Wolfe is tall and slim, with a trimmed beard and dark hair knotted in a bun. A head net keeps mosquitos and black flies away from his face as he pushes his way toward a patch of black raspberries. Picking a couple, he pops the sweet berries into his mouth.
“The thing with wild plants, in general," he explains and he chews, "is the taste just totally trumps even an organic variety of the same plant.”
Wolfe wants to get more people experiencing that difference. He teaches music at a nearby Montessori school, but a year ago he decided to start selling herbal tinctures. His company, Yellow Birch Herbs, is named after a tree that often hosts the massive chaga mushroom, a fungus considered to have medicinal properties.
“I had known about chaga and the fact that if grows on birch trees for quite awhile," Wolfe says, "One day I realized, we have birch trees in New Hampshire. Maybe I can go find this and collect my own. It was exciting to just go out, walk in the woods and look for this. I kind of liken it to that feeling of, when you’re going on an egg hunt and you’re six years old.”
When Wolfe finally found some chaga of his own, he decided to process the mushroom by way of dual extraction, steeping the dried fungus in organic grape alcohol for three months or more, then reducing it in hot water.
“So I started taking chaga and other things similar to it just as a prophylactic to help my immune system and seeing it that would work," Wolfe says, "And I noticed that it did. I think the first winter that I started taking chaga, I didn’t get sick. And that was the first time that had happened in quite some time.”
Wolfe is careful to note, on his website and in person, that these supplements are not FDA-regulated. He acknowledges that a natural skepticism might exist for people who have always depended on Western medicine.
“Herbalism," Wolfe mused, "it almost requires that someone have that trust in long term usage of a plant. A lot of people would probably want to develop a relationship with someone they feel comfortable trusting to get information about natural remedies.”
Wolfe has spent years taking classes, and reading, about the use of wild foods and supplements. He forages every other day when certain plants are in season, but tends to stay close to home for his harvests.
“I’m most fascinated with what plants are growing in New Hampshire," Wolfe says, "There’s somewhere around 2000 plants that grow here. And having gone the first 30 years of my life without having known any of them was a little disheartening. But also exciting, because it deepens my connection to where I live. ”
And with that, Wolfe takes off to harvest the Staghorn Sumac.