Herbalist Heidi Woolever can be as tough and adaptable as the wild plants she loves. Before founding Rockaway Herbs in 2014, the blue-eyed plantsmith taught English at a Washington, DC, high school; spent six years raising Icelandic sheep with her husband in rural Maine; and tended lambs for a season in the Hudson River Valley. Then in a weird twist of fate (see below for the details), she found herself in Far Rockaway, New York, where she started Rockaway Herbs and spent four years transforming a vacant, half-acre lot into a robust community farm.
MF: How did a sheep farmer in rural Maine end up becoming an herbalist in Queens?
HW: Good question [laughs]. After my divorce, I spent a season at a lamb farm in upstate New York. It was interesting work, but I was lonely and trying to figure out the whole crossroads thing. I moved to Brooklyn to be near my sister and her family. I was basically hanging out and getting the lay of the land, when I ran into this guy, Matthew Sheehan. It was February, and we were both walking our dogs in the middle of a snowstorm. We started talking, and I mentioned that I wanted to farm down here. It turned out that he was starting a community farm in a low-income neighborhood in Far Rockaway and was looking for growers.
“The more people who connect with plants, the better off our world will be. I want everyone to get into growing plants, using them, healing with them.” – Heidi Woolever, Rockaway Herbs
MF: Wow. Sounds like kismet.
HW: Yeah. It was pretty weird – and lucky. I became a founding member of Edgemere Farm in 2013, and spent four years working there. We grew vegetables, herbs, and fruit, raised chickens and bees, and helped people in the neighborhood access affordable food. I started Rockaway Herbs around the same time, and in 2017, we offered our first herbal CSA at the farm, where I grow most of the herbs.
MF: Tell me about Rockaway Herbs.
HW: It’s pretty simple. My goal with the company has always been to help people build their herbal apothecaries and increase their use of plants for health. I focus on small-batch products made with organically grown medicinal herbs and carefully wildcrafted plants. My herbal products vary from season to season, but I sell a variety of teas, tinctures, salves, bug and first-aid sprays, and a couple of oils, plus I offer than 40 dried herbs by the pound. I just finished a new tea made with mineral-rich red clover and stinging nettle.
MF: Are you still at Edgemere Farm?
HW: I live in the neighborhood, but this spring I started working on an all-woman horticultural crew at the nonprofit Queens County Farm Museum in Floral Park, New York. The farm’s on nearly 50 acres and dates back to 1697, which I’m told makes it the oldest continually farmed land in New York State. We grow culinary and medicinal herbs, tons of produce for our farmstand, and nearly 40 varieties of flowers – lisianthus, bells of Ireland, zinnias, snap dragons, celosia – for our floral CSA.
“My goal has always been to help people build their herbal apothecaries and increase their use of plants for health.”
MF: Speaking of growing things. Where do you source your plants and herbs?
HW: I grow some things at home in my garden, and carefully wildcraft other plants locally. I forage for mushrooms and gather beneficial plants like white pine and mugwort, which most people consider a weed. I also buy organic medicinal herbs (bee balm, calendula, lemongrass, holy basil) from the farm where I work.
MF: Did you study herbalism?
HW: Yep. I got started studying in Maine, observing what plants the sheep ate, what they avoided. I also joined a Listserv that included some knowledgeable practitioners, and began trying out herbal remedies on our livestock. Later at the lamb farm, I made tinctures and salves and started experimenting with different plants, one at a time. I studied with Jade Alicandro Mace, the owner of Milk & Honey Herbs in western Massachusetts, and completed 150 hours of advanced herbalism training with Twin Star School of Herbal Medicine in Milford, Connecticut. Now I teach at conferences and develop curriculum for the nonprofit GrowNYC, which educates the public about sustainability and the environment.
MF: Any advice for aspiring herbalists?
HW: Look around and identify what’s growing in your area. Plant one new herb each year. Eat it fresh, dry it, learn as much as possible about it. There are great online resources, and so many ways for us to share our knowledge. I use herbmentor.com all the time. They offer classes, videos, podcasts, and have a great reference library. You have to pay to use the site [$10 a month], but it’s so good: You can learn as much as you ever wanted on there. I feel like I make great products, and it’s what I want to do and how I want bring herbs into the world. But it’s easy to make something for yourself and see how it works. Just learning about one plant can start you on your journey.
To learn more, visit rockawayherbs.com, or follow Woolever on Instagram @rockawayherbs.