Annie Raser-Rowland on ‘Let’s Eat Weeds!’
Annie Raser-Rowland is a Melbourne-based horticulturalist and artist. She is the co-author (with Adam Grubb) of Let’s Eat Weeds (Scribble, September), a guidebook for young readers on which weeds are safe to eat. Reviewer Anica Boulanger-Mashberg says Raser-Rowland and Grubb ‘tackle the task with humour, zeal and confidence’, creating ‘a sensible guide to finding, preparing and eating common weeds’. She spoke to Raser-Rowland.
At what point in your lives did you think, ‘Hey, my garden isn’t overgrown, it’s a salad!’—and why did this happen?
Nearly 20 years ago now I moved into a share house with Adam. He’d just bought a great little book by a NSW herbalist called Pat Collins which talked about the edibility of many of the weeds that she used in her practice. Adam cooked us a superb omelette with some fat hen harvested from a feral corner of our backyard, and we were hooked.
Let’s Eat Weeds! does for children what your incomparable Weed-Forager’s Handbook did (and continues to do for adults). What responsibilities and legal concerns did you feel bound by, in terms of writing for children?
There’s a fine line between being appropriately emphatic about the hazards of eating wild plants and scaring kids (or guardians) off the idea altogether. The hazards are real, but we like to credit kids with the intelligence to work out when they do and don’t feel safe exploring something new. Prickly pear, for example, is a really challenging weed to harvest, and we talked long and hard about leaving it out. But we eventually decided that we didn’t want to patronise kids by assuming that something spiky was beyond their capabilities. So we laid out all the tricks for picking it safely, stressed the need to enlist a helpful grownup, and put it in our ‘advanced’ section.
In the process of transforming knowledge from your previous handbook, what kinds of changes did you need to make in order for the book to be accessible and inspiring for children?
Simplifying the language and shortening the word count was a big one, as was replacing our rather wry adult-compatible witticisms with more kid-friendly ones involving farting tigers and so on. Humour is very important to us. This is fun stuff to learn about!
We also included a lot more interactive pages and some super-simple recipes to allow kids to fully participate in cooking for their families—and with an ingredient that they have brought to the table.
The beautiful botanical images are a very important part of this book. What kind of working process did you go through with the illustrator, Evie Barrow, as the book developed?
The illustration process was fascinating—though Evie might use the word ‘gruelling’. It was essential that each drawing be not only botanically accurate, but also evocative of the plant in its wild state. This meant layers upon layers of changes in response to our requests to make leaves ‘more billowy’ or a stem ‘seven percent less woobly’. Shockingly, Evie both tolerated and understood such instructions, and we’re over the moon with the results.
The book’s second half contains a ‘careful-ometer’, reminding us how dangerous some weeds can be. How do you reassure people who might be anxious about making mistakes in plant identification and differentiation?
It’s encouraging that with over 40,000 copies of The Weed Forager’s Handbook in circulation, we’re yet to have one email from a reader who has picked the wrong plant—and we get a lot of reader emails. Humans, including many children we know, seem to be inherently good at learning to tell one plant from another. Not surprising really, given the importance of this skill for the vast majority of human history. Once you know a plant, confusing it with another one is about as likely as confusing your cat with your dog.
Both books include links to online galleries showing photos of the weeds from different angles and at different stages of growth, and we encourage readers to use them. Both books also describe key identifying features that let you know you’ve definitely got the right plant, and the kids’ book has extra descriptive detail within the text for those that take in information better that way.
What is your all-time favourite weed to eat?
Dandelion. It scratches some nutritional-craving type itch like nothing else.
Read Anica Boulanger-Mashberg’s review of Let’s Eat Weeds here.