On a rainy day a group of us gathered in the parking lot of Cherry Hill Park to meet with Autumn Summers - herbalist from Herb Pharm - to learn about the botanical medicines (weeds) beneath our feet.
We walked over the sodden park lawn to the edge where park boundaries and forest meet. We stood in a swath of mixed weeds while Summer shared their medicinal secrets with us.
Ribwort Plantain (Plantago)
There are broad-leafed and narrow-leafed plantains. The broad-leafed type is tenderer and makes a nice wild green to cook, or eat raw in salads. Both have similar medicinal properties, but this day, we gathered around Autumn and learned about the narrow-leaved type at our feet. It's medicinal properties are soothing. It also has "drawing" properties that aid in bringing slivers and below-skin irritations to the surface.
The leaves of this type may be crushed and made into a poultice. It is soothing to scrapes, bug bites, and cuts. In an emergency, the leaves may be chewed and the resulting wad applied to an injury. This type of emergency poultice is called a "spit" poultice for obvious reasons. Leaves, fresh or dried, may be simmered gently in oil (olive oil works well) to make a soothing, medicinal oil. The leaves may be simmered in an oil-coconut oil base, or Vaseline, then cooled to make a salve. An oil and beeswax combination makes a nice salve also.
Plantain works synergistically with pine sap (which has anti-microbial properties) in salves, and in teas for soothing coughs from colds and flu. Heating honey and adding the leaves of fresh or dried plantain leaves and pine sap and gently simmering results in a medicinal cough syrup.
The seedheads of plantain aid digestion and constipation in a similar way to psyllium seeds. The seed heads may be hung in bundles to be enjoyed by caged birds.
Pine sap, any species, has anti-microbial properties.
Infused in honey, pine sap is not only anti-microbial, but also benefits the respiratory system. Another way to use pine sap medicinally is to make a tincture by soaking it in an equal amount of 80-proof vodka for six weeks, straining, and taking a dropper full in hot tea, juice, or water.
Shepherds purse may have smooth or slightly serrated leaves.
Sheperds purse flowers are small and dainty. The seed capsules, or "purses" are slightly heart-shaped.
Dried and powdered, made into a tincture, or poultice, this herb stops bleeding from abrasions and cuts. A shepherds purse salve is healing for all types of wounds - burns, bruises, and scrapes. It's properties are anti-inflammatory.
Taken as a tea or tincture it will sooth gout, menstrual and urinary bleeding, strengthens the liver, reduces inflammation and pain of arthritis and rheumatism, treats headaches. It is also used to treat bleeding ulcers, hemorrhoids, and scurvy.
Infuse for at least 10 minutes, or more, to use as a tea. Infused in olive oil, shepherds purse will heal earaches and ringing in the ears. It's good for treating diarrhea and may be used as a quinine substitute. Used as a "potherb" it is simmered with meats in stews. Best gathered in early Spring.
Soft gray leaves may be used as Nature's "toilet paper".
An infused oil from the yellow flowers and some minced garlic may be dropped into the ears to soothe an earache. For coughs and colds infuse the leaves in honey or as a tea - be sure to strain out the leaf hairs first - and for respiratory problems and congested lungs. Gather the leaves before the plant flowers for internal use as the properties will be stronger.
To strengthen the bladder muscles and for incontinence gather the first year root for making a tincture. This plant is a biennial and usually flowers in its second year. As a caution when using this plant's leaves as wilderness toilet paper, wipe gingerly the first time or two you try this out to be sure you have no sensitivity to the leaf's components!
Sheep sorrel (Rumex family)
Sheep sorrel is related to French and garden sorrels, all of which have a lemony tang to their leaves. The leaves have a detoxifying and mildly diuretic and laxative effects. This herb shouldn't be used by those having a tendency to form kidney stones due to its oxalic acid content. Used in quantity it may interfere with calcium absorption. It's rich in Vitamin C.
Prickly lettuce (Lactuca)
Prickly lettuce flowers
This plant is related to garden lettuce. If you've had garden lettuce go to seed and become tough, you'll see the resemblance between the the prickly and domestic varieties.
Break the stem of prickly lettuce and a white sap emerges. This sap will relieve pain externally and internally. The sap, and tea made from the leaves, is calming, aids sleep, and treats coughs. Be sure to gather sap and leaves before flowering when medicinal properties are at their strongest. This herb is synergistic with licorice root. Prickly lettuce sap may cause drowsiness.
Mahonia - Berberis aquifolium (Oregon grape)
This plant looks similar to holly and in the Spring bears fragrant yellow blossoms. They grow all over where I live and have both culinary and medicinal uses.
Mahonia berries, following upon the flowers, are edible, but sour so are usually sweetened and made into jams and syrups.
The root of the mahonia is its most medicinal part. If you scrape the root, a bright yellow color is revealed. Local tribes used the root as a dye. The root has anti-microbial and antiseptic properties. It works synergistically with antibiotics. The root is used in tincture form for gastritis, gall bladder issues, and weak indigestion. It aids the liver and interestingly, protects the liver against damage that may be caused by acetaminophen-based pain killers. Topically, in salves and oils, it is used for eczema and other skin conditions arising out of poor digestion and also for gout.
White yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
You'll see this plant at the plant nursery, usually in yellow, or pink, or even red! However, for medicinal purposes the wild, white variety is best. Yarrow blossoms and leaves have "styptic" or anti-bleeding properties. Dried, powdered and applied to a cut - or as a fresh poultice - will halt the bleeding of cuts, nicks, and scrapes.
Used internally - tea or tincture - it will provide internal support for healing rashes. It has tightening and astringent qualities. It is anti-inflammatory.
I've not used yarrow for these purposes, although I do use its dried flowers, along with dried elder flowers, dried horehound leaves and flowers, and dried peppermint leaves and blossoms in a combination tea for colds, flu, and hay fever. There's always something new to learn about the weeds beneath our feet!
Everyone recognizes these!
Dandelions have such a bad wrap! Yes, they invade lawns but that is only to get our attention! They want to help heal us. Dandelions are both food and medicine.
When I lived at the Cottage I had no trouble with dandelions because I used them. Blossoms became wine. Leaves were used fresh in salads and sauteed as healthful greens for soups and pasta dishes. The roots were dried and roasted to make my favorite "anytime" beverage, dande-ccino!
When eaten by my chickens, dandelions provided much needed nutrients and tasty, hard shelled eggs. The chickens and I both loved to enjoy our dandelions!
Aside from their extensive uses as a nutritive food, dandelions have medicinal qualities. The leaves are a powerful diuretic and won't leach potassium from the body (as do many pharmaceutical diuretics) because they are rich in potassium. They are a great source of Vitamins A, B, C, and some D, along with being a good source of calcium.
Dandelion roots have a cleansing action on the liver, kidneys, and gallbladder and stimulate bile production, along with having a very mild laxative effect. The root is used for a variety of skin conditions, such as arthritis, osteoarthritis, and gout.
As an avid consumer and user of both leaves and root perhaps that is why I healed some years ago from near debilitating arthritis. Medical tests showed elevated RF factors in my blood - an indicator for rheumatoid arthritis. Since I began daily intake of dandelion I've had no further issues with arthritis or pain. So I use and enjoy dandelions instead of killing them.
I can personally vouch for dandelion. The other herbs I've introduced from my herb walk, aside from yarrow, are new to me as medicinals so I don't yet have personal experience with them. However, I plan to begin gently and cautiously experimenting by gathering them and making tinctures, oils, and salves. This is the best way for me to get to know them.
Some herbs I do use regularly in tincture form are St. John's wort - native here in Idaho but planted in my gardens at the Cottage as a "bee" plant and medicinal for mood elevation. I also dry, tincture, and "tea" nettle for its calcium and silica content, for hay fever, and adrenal support. Motherwort I tincture for strengthening my heart and have to grow it as I've not found it to be a native plant here. I make St. John's wort oil for external use - mixing the oil with arnica salve - for external use for muscle aches and back pain...the arnica salve provides immediate pain relief and the St. John's wort oil helps heal over a period of time. Oil and salve made from calendula blossoms (for rashes, scrapes, and cuts) I grow in window boxes on my balcony.
I'm excited to add the newly introduced herbs to my medicine chest! What's more, they are native to where I live and grow beneath my feet!
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Weeds are medicine for the people"
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Go ahead! Make a wish...
Foraging Notes: As with all medicines, and herbs, be sure to positively identify them before gathering. The first time you use an herb try just a little in case you're sensitive to any of the constituents. Just as with pharmaceuticals, there may be sensitivities, allergies, or reactions. There may also be healing!
In addition to Autumn Summer's knowledge of medicinal weeds, I also looked up the ones she introduced us to in two of my books, Plants of Southern Interior British Columbia and the Inland Northwest by Parish, Coupe', and Lloyd and The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants by Andrew Chevallier.