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Nick MacAskill gathers sage leaves during the foraging at Sylvester Manor Saturday. (Credit: Charity Robey)

On Saturday afternoon at Shelter Island’s Sylvester Manor Farm, herbalist Dawn Petter knelt before a fuzzy-leaved plant and asked permission to pull off a leaf.

Permission from the plant.

“Plants are our spiritual allies,” she said. “We should treat them with respect.” 

Petter grew up in London and got her start in herbalism as a lover of nature and a hiker, interests she later married with an urge to make things. The daughter of a pharmacist, she was familiar with flower essences as a child, which were sold at her family’s store, and her first foray into herbs was through flowers. At a class in Scotland, she studied how to heal the body with flower essences, which led her to formal studies on how to use wild plants in daily life for both food and medicine.

Petter was at Sylvester Manor to lead a workshop on medicinal herbs, which she began by offering everyone a taste of pesto made with stinging nettles.

Dawn Petter speaks during the session at Sylvester Manor. (Credit: Charity Robey)

“Herbal pestos are a really nice way for people to take their medicine,” she said. Apparently everyone agreed, as the pesto was quickly consumed.

Petter led the group along the edge of a farm field, and through a shady wooded area in search of weeds as she demonstrated they were actually useful plants. The going was slow because along the way there was so much to taste, smell and feel.

She warned the group that the foraging walk would be, “a really sensual experience.” She pointed out comfrey, sage, fennel, plantain, rose, mugwort, dandelion and clover, and explained how each plant was useful. The shady, wooded land on the edge of the Windmill Field was particularly fruitful ground for foraging, due in part to the fact that pigs, chickens and goats have all lived there, and contributed personally to its exceptional fecundity.

She pulled at the stem of a plant growing on some fencing, tossed a piece of it onto the shirt of a participant and everyone laughed when the stem stuck its landing.

“It’s a galium, also known as cleavers,” she said. The cleaver or stickyweed made the rounds of the group, from one sleeve to the next.”

A forager inspects a stem of galium, aka stickyweed. (Credit: Chariy Robey)

“There are plenty of teachers offering very serious classes,” she added. “I teach in a spirit of play. I want people to feel that they can expand their limitations.”

When the group returned to the shady picnic table where the walk began, a large mound of weeds took up one end of the table. They set about turning the pile of mugwort into medicine by means of a tincture, or extract which they made after much snipping, stuffing and a liberal application of grain alcohol.

Ms. Petter was a lively and passionate guide to the beautiful plants in yards and woods that can improve digestion, calm nerves and promote healing. Within an hour, the group had gathered a variety of medicinal herbs, and made teas, extracts and oils they would take home with them, perhaps saving themselves a stop at the drug store for the manufactured kind of medicine.

Information about Dawn Petter’s work, and her line of products is at