Me-dic-i-nal: of, or having the properties of medicine.—Webster’s New World Dictionary
Some people call them weeds, while others bow in respect to these plants that have been used as medicine long before the pharmaceutical industry attempted to copy their properties in synthetic form. Each spring I look forward to finding my favorite plants bursting to life in my lawn and garden. I have come to know these plants for the nutrients they provide my body, as tonics after a long winter and as medicines I can use to heal whatever might ail me.
At the moment these so-called “weeds” are coming in strong and healthy and a good thing too, because the young plants are perfect for moving my kidneys out of winter hibernation and welcoming liver energy for spring. I will use them in fresh salads, in soups, to make mineral rich vinegars and medicinal tinctures for healing the body. I will share with you my experience with each plant and include bits of information written by many knowledgeable herbalists I have read or studied. These plants have become friends over the years and I hope they will assist your life and health as they have mine.
1. Chickweed (Stellaria media)
After moving north from the deep south, I didn’t know what this tiny white flowered plant was, except that it would be one of the first to appear in my garden and quickly spread out. A good indication that the soil was rich with nutrients and extremely healthy. As I pulled and cursed its speedy growth I got to wonder if I could use it as food or medicine. Research led me to Wise Woman Herbal by Susan Weed. Her chapter on Chickweed reveals it to be high in vitamins A,D, B complex, C, rutin, iron, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, zinc, manganese, sodium, copper, and silica, with the special addition of steroidal saponins. In the human body saponins assist the digestive mucosa, neutralizing toxins. Chickweed in tincture form is useful for breaking down growths, both topically (warts) and internally (ovarian cysts).
Raw chickweed, including the stem, leaves and flowers, can be eaten in salads, or cooked like spinach, which is what it tastes like. It has diuretic properties that help to cleanse the kidneys and urinary tract without depleting essential minerals. You can make a chickweed infusion by pouring 1 cup of boiling water over 1/2 cup of fresh chickweed and leaving it to steep for about 20 minutes, strain and drink warm.
2. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Everything about this plant has called to me from my childhood blowing dandelion seeds in the wind to making dandelion flower tonic and root tincture for strengthening the liver. Dandelion is a highly treasured food and medicine in many parts of the world, while here in the U.S. we treat it like a pariah. The roots and leaves can be used to treat liver disorders, anemia and diabetes. Dandelion also has diuretic properties that help to open the kidneys and increase the output of urine, removing harmful substances from the system.
I love the young leaves in a salad and older leaves blanched first in boiling water then tossed with garlic sautéed in olive oil. They are high in potassium and the bitter taste is beneficial for the heart and small intestine. In spring I collect the yellow flowers from my organic lawn, pour boiling water over them, cover and steep for 4 hours. I then strain the mixture and drink as a tonic to rejuvenate my liver. Dandelion is also beneficial for the gall bladder, kidneys, weak digestion, and rheumatism. Switching off of coffee I found that there are a few companies combining roasted dandelion root with chicory as a delicious instant coffee substitute.
Cream of Dandelion Soup
3. Stinging Nettles (Utrica dioica)
“Gather with gloves,” was my first warning that this plant must be wooed and approached with respect. My introduction to the lovely nettle plant was to harvest a bunch and pack a large jar full, then cover with raw, unfiltered apple cider vinegar, cap and set aside for a good 6 weeks or more. Once strained I had a tonic for my dressings loaded with calcium, magnesium, trace minerals and other essential nutrients.
My second foray was to cautiously gather an armful to cook in a large skillet with an inch of water and marvel at how the stinging nettles are tamed. I love that it can be eaten for its high nutrition content, as well as, for health issues such as arthritis, gout, anemia, kidney and prostate problems. It is used to treat pain in the muscles and joints, and as a tonic for adrenal glands and kidneys.
Her sting is worth the benefits she provides for your body, and if you do not have nettles growing in your backyard consider finding her in tincture form to assist in healing your health conditions.
Nettles for Vitality
4. Plantain (Plantago major)
Whenever I walk out into nature I always keep an eye out for plantain leaf. It has rescued me so many times in the past that I even stash a handful of leaves in my pocket when hiking in unfamiliar territory. You never know what might happen. If I receive a loving sting from a bee or wasp the pain is quickly assuaged by the juice of the plantain leaf.
One autumn I was harvesting some rhubarb at a local CSA, planted quite some distance from the farmhouse, when the knife slipped and cut a deep gash in my finger. It was speed bleeding and I needed to slow it down immediately. I grabbed a few plantain leaves off the ground and chewed them quickly to a green, wet pulp, then applied it to the wound. I then wrapped a few whole leaves around the finger, gathered up the rhubarb and headed back across the wide field to my car. I noticed there was no blood seeping out under the leaves and when I removed the poultice the bleeding had stopped and all pain was gone.
Folk medicine attributes plantain with a wide assortment of uses, from respiratory ailments to skin inflammation, sores and ulcers. It can even be used to relieve itching from poison ivy and poison oak. A good thing to note is that it does have laxative properties and is best administered internally as a tea, dried herbal capsules or tincture.