Maria Fernandez Garcia is on a mission. Forever amazed by the incredible plants that live around us, Maria is keen to share her knowledge. With her walks and workshops, she empowers people with the practical skills to confidently make herbal remedies from these wild medicines.
We caught up with Maria to find out how she first discovered her love for medicinal plants and she shared with us her favourite foraging tips and a recipe for a fizz that adds an extra spark to Livener.
What inspired you to start your journey into foraging?
I have always been a big lover of science, I studied Zoology at University and I love a good evidence-based paper. When I began my first herbal medicine course some years ago, I was amazed at how much scientific research there was to support the use of these plants as medicine. For some reason, the society I grew up in hadn’t celebrated these powers and I became hooked on learning about their benefits.
I also love walking and I often use Ordnance Survey maps to create my own footpath routes and explore the landscape. Once I began seeing these medicinal plants on my walks, I was mind blown; these medicines were everywhere! Amazed at their abundance, I was so excited to learn about all the different species.
How did you start out? Do you have any advice for beginners on how to find out what is safe, what is seasonal, and so on?
There are some basic principles you can follow to tune into seasonal plant cycles: spring is for new fresh leaves, in summer the flowers start to bloom, berries and seeds ripen in the autumn and winter harvests tend to focus on roots. These general rules are based on where the plants are focusing their energy and therefore which parts have the most phytochemicals, nutrition and energy that we are seeking.
There are also some characteristics of some common plant families that can help you to find safe-to-eat plants. For example the mint family (Lamiaceae) have square stems and leaves that grow in opposite pairs along the stem and the rose family (Rosaceae) typically have five petal flowers and mostly serrated leaves.
Do the rules for foraging differ in urban environments compared to wild environments?
Plants create their own medicine to manage difficult environments. It is these same secondary metabolites and medicines we are able to assimilate into our own bodies, just like we’re able to take in vitamins and minerals from vegetables and fruit. So, it could be said that plants growing in harsher environments will be producing more of these medicinal compounds.
In both wild and urban spaces, pesticides, pollution and dog pee are the main things to weigh up. Whilst it may feel preferable to be foraging in wilder environments, there are different contaminants to be aware of. The most important thing to remember is to always forage away from roadsides, away from path edges and away from private or managed land as these are most likely to be coated in pollutants.
On the other hand, unless we eat organic, our food is covered in pesticides too so a simple wash of your foraged plants can help you in the same way that washing your vegetables before cooking with them can.
What plant do you think is under-rated for its medicinal properties?
Hands down, my herb of the moment is chamomile. I used to think this was a weak, floral-tasting plant with little power to offer us but wow, I was mistaken. It turns out I had been brewing my tea all wrong! I found out that herbal tea should be brewed for at least 10 minutes and covered with a lid so the volatile and medicinal oils don’t escape with the steam. Once I started brewing chamomile this way, I was totally hooked on how amazingly potent these properties were feeling in my body!
Chamomile's latin name begins with Matricaria - this comes from the translation of matrix (mother) and caria (caring) - so this plant is like a caring mother, soothing our nerves which in turn relaxes our entire body.
Maria's favourite ways to use chamomile for its calming properties
For relaxation and sleep: Drinking a strong cup of chamomile before bed really helps in quieting those racing thoughts and sends me off to sleep so quickly.
Digestion issues: Feel bloated or have indigestion? Chamomile tea provides pretty instant relief by soothing the walls of the intestines and releasing gas. This can also help digestion issues such as IBS.
With Three Spirit Nightcap: Adding a chamomile syrup or cold brewed chamomile tea to other drinks is a great way to nourish the nervous system and is a great mixer for Nightcap - an even stronger aid towards a restful sleep!
What are your top 5 ways new foragers can reassure themselves about what to pick?
There are a few things to help you become a little more confident when foraging in your local area, once you feel confident in these ways you’ll be away!
1. From first hand experience: Don’t get overexcited and take a whole crop of plants when you’re unsure of what you’ll do with them. It’s great to use these medicines but we must do this with respect and protect them from overconsumption.
2. Legal rights: In the UK you are legally allowed to forage on public rights of way and in public spaces - this medicine is there for you! Check on local endangered species and admire these from afar. You aren’t allowed to up-root any plants at all but if it’s your own land or you have permission then there’s no problem.
3. Knowing where to start: You will feel much more confident foraging for daisies, dandelions and nettles at first. Practice picking and taking them home to use them. Once you’re familiar with a few recipes you are much more likely to use the other plants you identify and pick to take home!
4. Find an identification guide that suits you: Pocket books are amazing when you’re on-the-go, so are apps e.g. PlantNet or PictureThis. Always triple-check against multiple sources when learning about new plants.
5. Last but not least: have fun! This is an endless learning journey, immerse yourself in the abundance and make sure you’re doing your bit to promote responsible foraging in your area and enjoy getting to know native plant medicines!
What’s a fail-safe medicinal plant for beginner foragers to find?
Nettles are a great place to start because they challenge the way we see wild plants. Lots of people find the idea of working with nettles a little scary as they get taken back to childhood memories of tears and pain. I want us all to rewrite these memories!
These plant powerhouses are packed full of nutrients almost all year round. The leaves in spring are so nutritious and versatile in cooking and the seeds forming in the late summer have all the same nutrients - yet somehow with even more energy-boosting benefits!
The best thing to do is to get confident using scissors and tupperware to lure the parts you want into your container. I guarantee reestablishing your relationship with these infamous plants opens up a whole new perspective and connection to wild weeds!
There are so many things you can create with plants! Nettle Fizz made this way tastes great by itself, not sweet and it is lovely and fresh, it also takes to other flavours well and pairs perfectly with Three Spirit Livener.
How to make Nettle Fizz
3 cups of sugar
6 cups of water
1 cup of fresh nettle leaves (before they’ve flowered)
2 oranges and 1 lemon, sliced
3/4 tbsp champagne yeast
This recipe makes approximately 1.5L of Nettle Fizz
1. Add sugar and water to the pan, heat until sugar has dissolved
2. Simmer the nettles and fruit gently in the sugar water for 5 mins and prepare 3/4 tbsp of champagne yeast
3. Turn off the heat and when the nettle liquid is cool, add the yeast and let this sit covered for 5 days or so, stirring often
4. Strain through a muslin cloth and transfer the remaining liquid to a glass swing-top bottle
5. The nettle fizz will keep bubbling for another week or so in the bottle, open the lid twice a day to prevent explosions and enjoy however you like after 5 days!
Nettles (Urtica dioica) are flowering and going to seed by now - but you’ll still find some younger plants in shadier parts or growing close to big plants that have flowered. It is really important to use fresh young leaves for this recipe, older leaves contain calcium carbonate crystals which are difficult for our body to flush out and can be inflammatory for us. Use this method with other plants and experiment with flavours of your own!