Skip to main content

An Appalachian Witch Forager on the Magic of Plants

 

fort lauderdale personal chef

Rebecca Beyer forages through the lenses of folk magic and plant lore.

By Jean Trinh 
October 19, 2020

On a cool summer morning a few years ago, I joined a group of strangers and followed Rebecca Beyer, a witch and forager, through a lush green forest in Asheville, North Carolina. As we traversed the woodland and crossed over creeks, we nibbled on tart wood sorrel leaves, learned to identify violets by their heart-shaped greens, and sliced red-lacquered reishi mushrooms off the sides of tree trunks.

We were on a foraging tour in the Southern Appalachians organized by No Taste Like Home, and Beyer, who’s now 33, was our erudite guide. With ornate tattoos peeking out from under her earth-toned clothing, she explained what edible plants were endemic to the region, and the folklore and history behind them. She also sprinkled in stories about magic spells that have been used with the local flora over the last few centuries.

“[Plant] lore has kind of been cut out of foraging because now we come at it from a scientific and nutritive perspective,” Beyer said during one of our conversations over the years. “The story of a plant actually preserves really important historical context or facts.”

For Beyer, foraging, plant lore, and folk magic are all connected. One of her favorite plants to forage in the Appalachians is the fragrant sassafras tree. In the area’s folk magic practices, sassafras root is put into a pouch and hung around the neck to keep illness away. In the spring, it’s made into a tonic to cleanse the liver and get the blood moving. In Appalachian folk medicine, blood is like the sap of a tree in your body: It’s thick in the winter and thin in the summer, according to Beyer.

“When you know that [information], it grounds you into that experience, in that moment, in that place, instead of just [saying], ‘Well, here's a catalog of plants in the world you can eat. Here’s what you can do with them,’” Beyer said. “But [when you tell the] story of the plant, I feel it [adds] an extra dimension.”

Beyer described Appalachian folk medicine and magic as a stool with three legs made up of Native people, Africans, and Europeans. “A lot of West Africans came to this area through slavery, and their religious world views and unique spiritualities from hundreds of different formations within that area affected the Native Americans, the Germans, Scotch, Irish, and all the different settlers,” she said. “Together, [it] created this interesting mash-up that is Appalachian folk magic.”

Another prevalent plant foraged in the Appalachians around the region’s waterways is sochan (a.k.a. the green-headed coneflower). The yellow-flowered perennial, which is closely related to echinacea, has long been a favorite food of the Cherokee people, Beyer explained. Traditionally, Cherokee women would gather sochan leaves and stalks, as they’re believed to be an iron-rich food that is nutritious for pregnant women. They would then parboil and fry the leaves, which taste like celery, in bear fat.

Beyer, who’s been a practicing witch since she was 12, approaches foraging with one foot in academia and the other in the mystical arts. She holds a bachelor’s degree in plant and soil science and a master’s in Appalachian studies and sustainability. She’s using her research in the region’s ethnobotany to write a reference-style book about Appalachian folk magic. She also blogs about her research on her website, Blood and Spicebush.

As a teacher, Beyer co-runs The Sassafras School of Appalachian Plantcraft, where she instructs classes on herbs and wild foods, and operates her own witchcraft school, which features courses on foraging and medicine-making. Beyer also happens to be a tattoo artist and specializes in plant drawings. 

When Beyer teaches her students about foraging, she often tells them that whenever they use a native plant, it’s important to be respectful of its origins. Most of the knowledge behind how to use native plants in Appalachia exists because of indigenous people, she explained. “Especially like myself being a white-settler ancestor… if you're using plants from the land, in my opinion, I think it's irresponsible to not be doing something to promote the wellbeing of living Cherokee and Catawba people today,” she said. “And all people, obviously, but especially where you live, [it’s important to] research what tribes were there.”

She encourages her students to donate to Native American food-sovereignty organizations when engaging with native plants. Beyer gives 15 percent of what she makes selling herbal medicine to the organization North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NāTIFS). She also offers free classes to indigenous people and people of color.

When Beyer moved to Asheville a few years ago, she quickly fell in love with the city. She said she would have been happy living anywhere else in the Appalachian Mountains, like Tennessee or Virginia, but she felt more comfortable talking about being a witch in Asheville. She described it as a progressive city that is a “blue pond in a red sea.” “I think in Asheville, you can be more open about it, and talk about magic and witchcraft and things [like that] and people won't be like, ‘Oh my God, the devil,’” she said, adding that the devil isn’t even part of her beliefs.

The Appalachian Mountains, which are among the oldest mountains in the world, is a special place not just for folk magic, but also for having a unique ecosystem. According to the book Terrestrial Ecoregions of North America, “The large variety of landforms, climate, soils, and geology, coupled with a long evolutionary history, has led to one of the most diverse assemblages of plants and animals found in the world’s temperate deciduous forests.”

Like how the terroir of a land influences wine, Beyer feels that there’s a certain terroir to the spirit of the Appalachians. The French Broad River, believed to be one of the oldest in the world, runs from North Carolina to Tennessee and adds to the ancient magic thought to be pulsating through this region.

“When you tap into the spirit of those plants, you realize they're alive,” Beyer said. “They have their own identity, their own—we call it the ‘genius loci,’ ‘the spirit of a place.’ They have a type of gnosis, a type of knowing. And you can tap into that if you sit with a plant long enough. How did our ancestors figure out how to use plants? A lot of times they'll say the plants told them. And I really do think that they speak if you'll listen to them.”

FOOD&WINE

personal chefs and event catering
Miami + Miami Beach + Fort Lauderdale + Palm Beach

info@yadachef.com | 954-367-YADA (9232)

Popular posts from this blog

Vegan Whipped Cream Recipe

Coconut Whipped "Cream" 1 refrigerated tinned can of coconut milk (you can use coconut cream) 1 teaspoon/5ml pure vanilla 1 tablespoon/15ml icing/powdered sugar (I never use it) 1/2 teaspoon xanthan or guar gum (not necessary but gives it extra body) Remove the coconut milk from the refrigerator (it is imperative that it is very cold), pour it into a clean mixing bowl. add the vanilla, sugar and xanthan if using. Beat the milk either by hand, in a stand mixer or a food processor until thick and creamy (about 3 minutes). Serve immediately or cover and refrigerate. If leaving overnight it may be necessary to "refresh" it a bit by whipping by hand for 30 seconds. personal chefs and event catering Miami + Miami Beach + Fort Lauderdale + Palm Beach info@yadachef.com | 954-367-YADA (9232) www.yadachef.com fort lauderdale catering and personal chefs

Quick Sauerkraut Recipe

  Fermented foods are so good for your immune system and gut health.  No need to make huge crocks of the stinky stuff.  You can make a couple of ball jars worth.  I say if it tastes good eat it.  So I don’t have an expiration time on the kraut. 1 medium head cabbage (about 3pounds/1.4kg) 11/2 tablespoons/22ml course salt 1 tablespoon/15ml caraway seeds, optional (3) 32 ounce/950ml  wide mouth ball jars cheesecloth Some weights    Remove the outer leaves of the cabbage. Do not wash the cabbage. The beneficial bacteria is in the cabbage, don't wash it all away.Slice the cabbage by first slicing in half, then in quarters. Remove the core and slice the cabbage lengthwise into thin ribbons. Place the cabbage into a large bowl and sprinkle with salt. Massage/rub the salt into the cabbage.Gradually the cabbage will become watery and limp. This should take 5-10 minutes. If you are using caraway seeds or any other spice add it now. Pack the cabbage into your wide mouth mason jars. Really pu

9 Wonderful Benefits Of Pistachios

The health benefits of pistachios include a  healthy heart , weight management, protection against  diabetes  and hypertension, and improved  digestion . The  vitamins ,  minerals , fats, and protein found in pistachio are all good for health. What Are Pistachios? Pistachios are one of the oldest edible  nuts  and are commonly used all over the world. They are native to Asia, particularly Iran and Iraq. Archaeological evidence  dates  the association of pistachios and man as early as 6,000 BC. They were cultivated in Iran, Iraq, and Syria and were introduced to the Romans only in 100 AD. Today, apart from Iran, Iraq, and Syria, pistachios are being produced in many countries such as the United States, Australia, Turkey, and China, among others. Pistachio nuts belong to the  Anacardiaceae  family from the genus  Pistacia . A pistachio tree takes about 10 to 12 years to produce the first crop. They are drupe, where the fruit has a large  seed  in the center, which is edible. T

Sweet Potato Chip Recipe

S weet potatoes are not really potatoes at all. In fact they are in no way related to the tuber used for fries or chips which are a member of the “nightshades vegetables”. Sweet potatoes are cousins of the morning glory flower. Their flesh can range beige through white, red, pink, violet, yellow, orange, and purple. Here is a foolproof way to get a crunchy, sweet, salty, spicy low fat snack. Serves 4 (snack/side) Pre-heat oven to 225F/107C/1/2 Gas Mark 2 medium sized sweet potatoes, washed 1 teaspoon/5ml olive oil 1 teaspoon/5ml salt 1/8 teaspoon/.5ml cayenne pepper 1/8 teaspoon/.5ml granulated garlic Using a mandolin or food processor with 3mm slicing disk. Slice the potatoes as thin as possible (the thicker the slice the longer the cooking time). Place sliced potatoes in a bowl and drizzle with oil. Toss to coat each piece of potato thoroughly on both sides. Place potatoes in a single layer on aluminum foil lined baking trays. You will probably need 2. Place the trays in the ov

Aunt Vicky's Apple Fritter Recipe

This simple and SUPER easy apple fritter recipe is for any cook, at any level. The following recipe from Chef Joseph's Great Aunt Vickie. Apples, cored and sliced into wedges 1 cup Flour* 1 cup Beer* Oil, Vegetable, for frying Confectioners Sugar Mix the flour and beer. Heat 4-inches vegetable oil on moderate to medium high heat. If you wish to test the oil, add a 1-inch cube of bread to hot oil. If it turns deep golden brown in color in a count of 40, the oil is ready. Place confectioners' sugar in a sifter or a tea strainer. Place a piece of cardboard or brown paper sack on a work surface for draining fritters. Working in small batches of 5 to 6 slices, coat rings of apple in batter, and fry for 2 to 3 minutes, until evenly golden brown. Transfer to paper bag or towels to drain. When all the fritters are cooked, let oil cool before discarding. Top fritters with confectioners' sugar and transfer to a serving platter. * Note: Your beer and flour are to be in equal parts. p

Chocolate Covered Peanut Butter Ritz Sandwiches Recipe

Makes 16 Ingredients: 2 cups milk chocolate chips ½ cup creamy peanut butter ¼ cup powdered sugar, sifted 32 Ritz crackers Directions: 1. Place chocolate chips over a double boiler and melt. 2. Place peanut butter and sugar into a mixing bowl and whisk until smooth. 3. Spread a small amount of the peanut butter mixture onto a cracker and sandwich together with another cracker. 4. Repeat until all the crackers and peanut butter filling have been used. 5. Place crackers onto a parchment line baking sheet and place in freezer for about 30 minutes. 6. Once the chocolate has melted, using a small pair of tongs, or tweezers, dip the chilled peanut butter sandwiches into the chocolate until completely covered. 7. Shake off any access chocolate and place back onto the parchment lined baking sheet. 8. Repeat with the remaining sandwiches and set aside to dry, about an hour. 9. Carefully peel from the parchment and serve. http://www.spoonforkbacon.com/2011/12/chocolate-covered

White Fish Gravlax Recipe

White Fish Gravlax Serves 4 Here is a great starter, light lunch or a fantastic item for your holiday buffet.  If you have problems with gluten substitute the wheat bread for a flax or millet bread or leave it out entirely and eat on some mixed greens.   Gravlax 5 ounces/145 grams white fish, bass, snapper-I used tilapia (sushi grade) 2 tablespoons/30 ml coarse salt 2 tablespoons/30 ml caster sugar 1 tablespoon/15 ml of ground black pepper 1/2 teaspoon/2 ml ground allspice 1/2 teaspoon/2 ml ground cloves 8-10 pieces of fresh dill fronds Mustard Butter 2 Tablespoons/30 ml 28g of unsalted butter, softened 2 Tablespoons/30 ml of dijon mustard. Salad 1 handful of watercress dressed with simple vinaigrette Creme Fraiche or Sour Cream Mix salt, sugar, black pepper, allspice, and ground cloves.  Liberally sprinkle on both sides of the fish.  Lay half of the dill in a glass container.  Place the fish on top and cover with rest of the dill

Poule au Pot (Chicken in a Pot) Recipe

Poached Chicken/Chicken in a Pot or as it is called in Italian Pollo Bollito is a much misunderstood meal. It was possibly crea ted during the time of Henry the IV or Henri de Navarre who famously is quoted as “Si Dieu me prête vie, je ferai qu'il n'y aura point de laboureur en mon royaume qui n'ait les moyens d'avoir le dimanche une poule dans son pot!” (If God keeps me, I will make sure that no peasant in my realm will lack the means to have a chicken in the pot on Sunday!) We usually like Cooks Kitchen for the way they re-work recipes. This is one time that we disagree. It should not be tired boiled chicken. The vegetables are not over cooked or the stuffing a soggy mess when done in the traditional manner. That is NOT if it is done correctly, with the flap sewn or skewered and the whole pot is cooked slowly for about 1 1/2 hours to gently cook the chicken and the vegetables. All will be good, the chicken cooked perfectly when the vegetables are done. Serve

Bolognese Sauce/Meat Ragu Recipe

  First things first.  Let us set the record straight. This is not the true ragu alla bolognese.  Ragu alla Bolognese is   a slowly cooked meat-based sauce from the city of Bologna, Italy used specifically for lasagna or to dress the long ribbon like pasta, tagliatelle. Outside Italy, the phrase "Bolognese sauce" is often used to refer to a tomato-based sauce to which minced meat has been added, and are  more similar in fact to the ragu alla napoletana.   Serves 6-8  ¼ cup/60ml extra-virgin olive oil  1 medium onion, coarsely chopped  2 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped  1 celery stalk, minced 1 carrot, minced  1 pound ground meat, beef, turkey, or pork  1 28 ounce/794g can crushed tomatoes 2 tablespoons/30ml tomato paste 1/2 cup/125ml white wine ¼ teaspoon/1ml cinnamon ½ teaspoon/2ml thyme 1 teaspoon/5ml oregano small handful of flat leaf Italian parsley, chopped 8 fresh basil leaves, chiffonade  1 teaspoon/5ml salt ½ teaspoon/5ml black pepper  In a large sauce pan, add extra

Lasagna Bolognese Recipe, the real deal

We have all had lasagna. It is usually layers of sauce, bechamel, pecorino, parmigiana, ricotta and mozzarella.  The end product is in our opinion, delicious. The problem is this is not the real deal.  Lasagna, or as it is called in Bologna lasagne (because it is layers and therefor referred in the plural, is much simpler.  It has four (4) ingredients; the noodles, preferably green ones (made with spinach), bechamel, bolognese (ragu), and Parmigiano Reggiano. That's it.   If you don't make your on noodles we found it pretty much impossible to find the spinach lasagna sheets, so we used store bought regular noodles.  We also cheated a bit and added a touch more sauce so we didn't have to pre-cook the noodles.  We don't by the "special" no boil, just the regular ones.  Once you try this version, we are pretty sure you won't want the overly cheesy version you will get in most restaurants outside of Bologna.  It is delicious and light. The flavours of the ragu