I absolutely love edible plants, many of which are also my favorite natural remedies. But I don’t mean fruits and vegetables. I mean weeds that are usually perceived as a nuisance and something to be “rid of,” but are, in fact, packed with nutrients and have amazing healing powers. Take the much-maligned dandelion, for example. Believe it or not, it’s actually chock-full of good-for-you vitamins and minerals, including magnesium, vitamins C and E, iron, potassium, and calcium, and can be used to make everything from smoothies to salads.
I’d been fascinated by edible plants ever since my late aunt Claire Hagen handed me her dog-eared copy of naturalist Euell Gibbons’s book Stalking the Wild Asparagus when I was fifteen years old. An instant hit when it was first published in 1962, it provided a blueprint that anyone could follow to find, gather, and prepare wild foods.
After giving me the book, Claire encouraged me to go along with her as she foraged for wild edibles in the fields and woods of the North Fork, on the East End of Long
Island, New York. I was born out here, in Greenport, and Claire moved here after living in London for many years, where she worked as an editor for British Vogue. My passion for edible plants and natural remedies came from her, and seventeen years later, I was just as fascinated.
For this reason I was out in the fields teaching a class in edible plants one early Sunday morning in October, a week before Halloween. Fall was one of my favorite seasons and a prime time to be out in nature, identifying and foraging to my heart’s content. Fall was also the North Fork’s best-kept secret. Not only were the summer tourists gone and the beaches and the woods empty, the weather was cool, with just a little nip of cold, signaling that winter was on its way, but not here just yet.
My latest project, a medicinal herb garden dedicated to Claire, opened last year and had turned out to be a smashing success. This despite my finding a dead body near the digitalis plants, on the opening day of the annual Maritime Festival. Fortunately, with the help of my boyfriend and ex-cop, Jackson Spade, and my ex-boyfriend, television writer-producer Simon Lewis, we brought the killer to justice. The garden became a popular place to visit, and I kept busy leading tours several times a day along with running the health food store I’d inherited from Claire, Nature’s Way Market & Café on Front Street.
Now, with the cooler weather, the garden had turned dormant, rejuvenating and regenerating itself for spring. So, in the off-season, I’d turned my attention to my workshops in Nature’s Way on how to benefit from edible plants, and other natural remedies, for health and wellness.
This morning we were foraging in the fields behind Jackson’s house and animal sanctuary, far from the road, and away from exhaust fumes and nasty chemicals that could contaminate any plants we picked. Each class participant had a copy of one of Claire’s most popular books, The Edible Planet, which featured twenty-five commonly used plants complete with color photographs.
The first rule of foraging was to be absolutely certain in plant identification, and the photos helped ensure this. While most plants were safe and helpful, poisonous plants also existed, and we wanted to avoid these. I led the group, which was made up of ten women of various ages, some local, some from New York, and a few from a day trip from Connecticut across the Sound. Lily Bryan, twenty-five, my new assistant at Nature’s Way, was also here.
Lily had graduated from the New York Culinary Institute in June and hoped to open her own restaurant on the East End one day. Lily was intelligent, motivated, and a hard worker—much like her uncle, Wallace Bryan, my manager—and an enthusiastic student. I was glad to have her along today.
We continued to head east across the fields as the early-morning sunshine slanted through the trees at the north edge of Jackson’s property, and birds wheeled and chattered overhead. A few feet later, I spotted a cluster of yarrow, a plant with firm, compact lacy white flower clusters on top of long, elegant green leafy stems.
“This is a good start,” I said as I got on my knees and examined it, and the group gathered around me. “Yarrow is one of my favorite herbs, especially in the
fall. You can make a lovely cup of tea with its leaves if you have a cold, and it’s also relaxing and a mild pain reliever. This was also one of my aunt’s favorite edibles, and there’s a section on it in the back of your book that will tell you more about it.” I paused as everyone found the section.
“There’s plenty of it here, but we never take more than we need,” I said. “But since we’ll be using the leaves, flowers, and stem, I’ll take this plant whole.” I used my spade to gently dig it up and handed it to Lily, who put it in the big blue bucket that she always carried when foraging. “Now, at our next class, on Monday morning, I’ll show you how to use these to make tea and a yarrow, calendula, and oatmeal facial. So we need to find calendula next. Let’s turn to that page in your book and start looking for it.”
The group eagerly began to search for calendula plants, which sported bright yellow and orange flowers. “Some people say that calendula glows like the sun,” I continued. “It’s a member of the daisy family, also known as English marigold. It’s one of my favorite edibles. We can use it in the facial, but it also adds taste and color to salads and other dishes.”
As we continued to head in an easterly direction, we moved beyond Jackson’s property to the parcel next door, and the Pure vineyard. I had permission to forage here as well, since the property belonged to Simon. Simon had purchased the winery a year ago, as an investment, with David Farmer, a talented winemaker who came from one of the first families of winemaking on the East End. Together they had turned the vineyard into an organic, sustainable winery using
biodynamic methods and native yeast, powered only by wind and sun.
Today was important for Pure and all the vineyards on the East End—the first day of North Fork UnCorked!, a weeklong affair that featured wine tours, tastings, and events from Riverhead to Orient, sponsored by the Long Island Wine Council and Wine Lovers magazine.
Pure and other wineries were competing for the title of best North Fork vintage, and a cash prize of $200,000. The judging of individual wines produced by the vineyards would take place throughout the week, and the winner would be announced a week from today, at a gala ball at historic Southwold Hall.
Simon’s winery was the clear front-runner in the competition. Not only was his vineyard the first on the East End to grow and make organic wine, but his vineyard had already nabbed several top awards this year and had received a ton of positive press. Of course, the rival vineyards were jealous. But facts are facts, and David Farmer was now widely regarded as one of the up-and-coming winemakers out here and in the United States.
This afternoon, Simon was hosting a cocktail party and tasting for the editor of Wine Lovers magazine at Pure and had asked Nature’s Way to cater it for him. So, along with teaching my class this morning, both Lily and I were on the lookout for tasty edible plants to add to the menu.
An hour later we’d discovered not only calendula but chamomile and mint, and Lily had added a few handfuls of dandelion greens for garnish. While she led
the class back to Greenport and Nature’s Way, I headed over to see Simon in his office at Pure to discuss last-minute preparations for the party.
As I walked past Pure’s sunflowers and corn maze on the way to the winery, I realized that today I felt good about everything. Not only was my business doing well, along with the medicinal garden and my classes, but my relationship with Jackson was stronger than ever since we’d met four years ago. Although we’d talked about marriage—I was thirty-two and Jackson was thirty-four—for right now we were happy with the way things were. We also lived on the North Fork, one of the most beautiful places in the world. So, yes, I was lucky. We both were.
But I was startled out of the musings about my good fortune by a shouting match from just inside the corn maze. It sounded like David and his wife, Ivy.
“You never listen to me!”
“That’s a laugh, you’re a control freak. Ivy, you micromanage everything and everyone here.”
“That’s what we’re here for.”
This was true because Simon had been busy producing his new show, Visions, in L.A. and was in preproduction on his new movie about Captain Kidd, based on his screenplay. He’d left the day-to-day running of the winery to David. Ivy Lord was the tasting-room manager, while her twin sister, Amy, ran the bed-and-breakfast at the vineyard.
“But you take it too far. This morning you tried to tell me how to craft our latest vintage! That’s my job!”
“David, please, you wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for me. It’s my money that enabled you to invest
with Simon. You’ve never even supported yourself, not once since you’ve been married to me.”
This, too, was true. David had been able to buy the winery thanks to Ivy Lord, and a quirk of fate. When the twins were just five years old, their parents died in an auto accident on the Long Island Expressway. Because of this tragedy, their grandfather Walter Lord, a wealthy hedge-fund manager, and his wife, Emily, agreed to bring up the girls and act as their guardians. When Walter died at the ripe old age of ninety-five in 2012, Ivy inherited a vast fortune because she was the oldest twin by twenty-two minutes. She was also put in charge of Amy’s trust fund. From what I’d heard, Amy, like David, wasn’t happy about Ivy’s being in charge. Although, Ivy had given Amy a quarter stake in Pure as a consolation prize.
“You know, when you say things like that, I feel like you’re killing a piece of my soul.”
“Oh, David, don’t be so dramatic.”
“No, really, you make me feel like nothing. Like I’m nothing at all. Do you know what it feels like to be a man and know that your wife is supporting you?”
“Get over it. You knew what you were signing up for.”
“I can’t listen to this anymore. I’ve got to go.”
Quickly I moved on, but as I walked past the east entrance to the maze, David stormed out and ran right into me. I stumbled backward, but he grabbed my arm and kept me from falling. “I’m so sorry, Willow, are you okay?”
“Fine, David, thanks.”
David, in his early thirties, could have been a TV or a movie star. His best features were his chocolate-brown
eyes, a thick thatch of dark brown hair, that unshaven look, and a dazzling white smile. A smile that obviously hid some unhappiness.
“What are you doing out here?”
I pointed to the winery, which was about twenty yards away. It looked like a classic French château, with weathered slate-blue paint, tall pitched roofs, and mustard shutters, covered in ivy and in every way completely charming.
“I just finished giving a class on wild edible plants and now I’m off to see Simon to make sure everything is on track for this afternoon’s party.”
“I’m glad to see that you are doing your job,” Ivy said as she walked out of the maze and over to us. While David sported a casual look with jeans, a faded Coldplay T-shirt, and a brown corduroy jacket, Ivy wore a beige Chanel suit with four-inch heels, her auburn hair tucked behind her ears.
I nodded and smiled, ignoring her sharp tone. “Of course. I always check on the venue before any event, and I’ll return with my crew shortly.”
“Just so you know, we’re nearly ready on our end.” Ivy tapped her expensive-looking black-and-gold Apple watch.
I glanced over her shoulder and read a text message that had popped up: You bitch! You’ll pay for this!
But Ivy didn’t react. Instead, she turned to us. “In fact, the tables were just delivered and my staff is setting them up now.”
“And the tasting for Nora Evans, the editor at Wine Lovers magazine?” David said, sounding anxious. “That’s the most important part.”
“I know that, David. And we’re ready, of course we are. But I do need to check with Amy to make sure the accommodations for the guests are in order.” Without saying good-bye, Ivy left us and headed inside.
David seemed embarrassed. “You’ll have to forgive her, Willow. We’ve got a lot riding on this.”
“Don’t give it a second thought.” I suddenly felt sorry for David. Ivy was a lot of work; that was for sure.
• • •
Inside, I found Simon in his well-appointed loft office with an expensive sofa, bookcase, and desk that overlooked the bar and lounge area. Its enormous picture window had a view of the vineyard, the sunflowers, and the corn maze, and beyond that the trees, with peekaboo views of a pond and, farther north, the Long Island Sound.
Simon, thirty-five, wasn’t conventionally good-looking. He was slender and bookish, but something about him, his charm, made him absolute catnip to women. Dressed in khakis and a black dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and white Jack Purcell sneakers, he sat on the edge of the desk, talking into his headset while his adorable dachshund, Zeke, chewed a bone at his feet. Zeke spotted me, left the bone, and scampered over to say hi, tail wagging.
“Cassie, I told you that you should have taken him with you,” Simon said into the phone, and rolled his eyes dramatically. “I just don’t have time to give him the attention he needs. I’m very busy right now.”
Cassie, his now ex-girlfriend, was a documentary
filmmaker on location in London. Simon blew out a sigh, took his wire-rim glasses off, rubbed his eyes, and put his glasses back on. “But you said that you wanted him there once you got settled, remember? He was going to stay in your trailer while you were working, and your assistant would walk him and play with him. Now you say you both don’t have time for him?”
I scratched the dog under the chin and put two and two together. Now that their relationship had ended, neither of them wanted the dog they’d acquired as a puppy six months ago.
This made me angry, first of all because Cassie had bought the dog at an NYC pet store that was known for selling animals from abusive puppy mills, and second because of their sudden change of heart once they broke up.
I’d seen this happen all too often at Jackson’s animal refuge. People were super-excited about getting a pet, but when they realized that it would require time, energy, attention, and effort, they wanted out.
“Fine, I’ll deal with it,” Simon said, hanging up and giving me a beseeching look.
I knew what that meant. “Let me guess, you want me to take the dog.” I picked up Zeke and gave him a kiss on the nose. Zeke was what is known as a red dachshund, with big brown eyes and a sweet disposition. He licked my face in return.
Simon nodded. “Would you? Cassie is too busy and so am I.”
“I told you to think it through before you got him, but you didn’t listen. Having a dog, a puppy especially,
is a lot of work. It’s worth it, but you have to put the time and effort in to care for him, walk him, and play with him. You said you would, Simon.”
Simon shrugged. “I know I did. I meant to, but . . .”
What I wanted to say was But you’re selfish and only think of yourself. Still, we were friends now, not boyfriend and girlfriend, and I needed to act like a friend. So I tempered my reaction. “I know that you’ve got a lot on your plate, especially right now. It’s okay, we’ll take him.”
He arched an eyebrow. “Jackson won’t mind?”
I shook my head. “We’ve already talked about it. We both knew it was coming.”
“You are good friends. Better than I deserve.”
Instead of focusing on Simon’s flaws, I thought about all the times over the past few years that he’d been there for Jackson and me, with the murder investigations and incarcerations, and his help with lawyers and support. “It’s fine, Simon, really. I’m going over to Jackson’s now, so I can take him with me.”
Simon blew out a breath. “Good, thanks, Willow. That’s a relief.”
I put Zeke down on the area rug and pushed his bone toward him. He grabbed it and began to happily chew, his tail wagging. “So are we all set for this afternoon?”
Simon nodded. “Ivy has the tasting-room setup handled, and the dining room, while Amy’s managing the B and B.” The bed-and-breakfast, behind the tasting room, was a quaint clapboard house painted sea-foam green with bright white shutters, containing four bedroom suites.
The B and B had been up and running when Simon
and David had taken over the vineyard and was a good moneymaker, especially after a complete interior and exterior renovation. Wine lovers enjoyed staying on-site, with the wine, the walks, and being in nature.
I told Simon about running into David and Ivy outside. “She’s a real piece of work, isn’t she? David seems miserable.”
“They’re always like that. The whole family has been fighting for years. He argues with her and his family, and Ivy fights with him and Amy.” Simon pushed off the desk and came over to me. “Don’t worry, Willow, no one is going to kill anyone.”
“What are you talking about?”
He put his arm around me. Simon had always been demonstrative, and fortunately Jackson didn’t mind. “C’mon, friend, it’s been over a year since your last case. You haven’t been able to play detective since that murder in your medicinal herb garden. Are you sure that you don’t want something to investigate?”
I shook my head. “You are nuts. I was just reporting what happened.”
He smirked at me. “Whatever you say.”
“If that’s all, I’m going to go home and get ready.”
“Don’t forget your new little buddy.” Simon picked up Zeke and his bone, patted his little head, and handed him to me. “I put all his stuff in that bag by the door—his dog bed, his blanket, his special puppy food and treats, bones and toys, you know, the works.”
The duffel bag was big and heavy, but I managed to hold Zeke and his bone and put it over my shoulder.
Simon waved to us as we went out the door. “Have fun, you two.”
• • •
I decided to stop by to see Jackson and introduce him to Zeke before I headed back to Nature’s Way. Less than five minutes later we arrived at his two-hundred-year-old house, on a generous two-and-a-half-acre lot, seven minutes east of Greenport.
I found him out back repairing the paddock for the horses, while volunteers buzzed around him, tending to rescued animals in the paddock and in the adjacent barn, including donkeys, goats, pigs, birds, opossums, raccoons, and two turkeys.
Rescue dogs and cats were placed in temporary foster homes with volunteers until they were adopted. Jackson put photos and bios of available animals on a website, and potential pet parents had to fill out an extensive application with information about themselves, their vet, and personal references. If the applicant looked promising, Jackson or one of his volunteers conducted a phone interview and a home visit before any adoption.
Unfortunately, animals had often been injured, abused, or abandoned, and when necessary, Jackson worked with the local vets to treat them and raised money from the community to care for them. Recently, he’d received a New York State grant that would fund his refuge through the end of next year and enable improvements to the paddock and the barn and the addition of more fencing out in the field for the larger animals.
I’d also been able to contribute quite a bit, and regularly, thanks to my profits from Aunt Claire’s Fresh
Face herbal antiaging cream. The money took the pressure off Jackson, but fund-raising was a fact of life. Tomorrow night, we were hosting a dinner at Nature’s Way where dishes would be paired with Simon’s wines to benefit the sanctuary.
Healthwise, Jackson was feeling good. The back injury he’d sustained on the job from a slip on black ice, which resulted in his retirement, was no longer an issue, and he credited me with his recovery. Really, it was a combination of my natural cures and therapies such as massage and acupuncture from my in-store practitioners and good friends, Allie and Hector.
One problem for Jackson, though, was Simon’s new vineyard next door and the resulting noise from tour buses, limos, and visitors. Jackson also didn’t like Simon’s frequent pop-ins. While Jackson tolerated and even liked Simon, he could only take him in small doses. Simon could be charming and helpful but also selfish and self-centered. Often, he was oblivious of the effect his actions had on others, such as chatting up Jackson when he had work to do.
I waved to Jackson and pointed to Zeke. He shrugged, knowing what had happened. “Bring him over to meet the boys.” Qigong, and two dachshunds we’d rescued together named Columbo and Rockford, spotted me and scurried over to the bottom edge of the paddock that Jackson had reinforced with chicken wire so that they’d stay inside and safe. I met them there and patted their heads, while their little tails went back and forth like metronomes.
Jackson stepped out of the paddock and came over to us. He had on his usual working clothes—flannel
shirt, jeans, and boots—and looked hunky and handsome with his short-cropped hair, scruffy beard, and piercing blue eyes.
“Hi, honey; hi, Zeke.” He gave me a kiss and scratched Zeke behind the ears, which he loved. “So, Simon couldn’t handle having a dog. Did you say, ‘I told you so’?”
I shook my head. “No, I was nice. He felt kind of bad about it, I think. Both he and Cassie are super-busy right now.”
“Unfortunately, I hear that all the time. Best to put Zeke inside the paddock and introduce him to the boys. Neutral ground and all that.”
“Good idea.” I followed Jackson through the gate. Curious, of course, our dogs scampered over. I put Zeke down on the ground and he immediately rolled onto his back submissively so they could examine him from nose to tail. “Qigong, Rockford, Columbo. Say hi to Zeke, guys.”
Dogs are pack animals, so I had no doubt that once they got used to each other Zeke would be happier here with all of us, rather than on his own, alone. His tail was already wagging back and forth.
Zeke stood up and the dogs sniffed him all over again. Finally, they decided he was A-OK, and all four of them began to explore the paddock together. After overhearing the fight between Ivy and David, I couldn’t help but think that it would be nice if people could be as accepting as dogs are.