Whether you live in the country or an urban area, you likely have a plethora of edible, medicinal plants just outside of your door. Considered by many to be weeds at the worst or pretty but useless flowers at best, these “herbal allies” are packed with nutrition, flavor, antioxidants, and even an ability to heal cuts, bruises and other bodily harms.
You don’t need to be a credentialed herbalist or a medical professional to know how to safely harvest and use wild plants, but always take caution before harvesting any wild plant intended for ingestion or other healing uses. Check several qualified internet sources or pick up a couple of herb books to ensure with 100-percent certainty what you’re harvesting, to compare different thoughts on their uses and potential hazards, and to learn about non-edible look-alikes. Understanding the larger ecosystem these plants are a part of will help provide you with a holistic approach to wild foraging. Never harvest from roadsides or in areas which may have been sprayed by pesticides, and always forage sustainably, responsibly and ethically.
From early to late spring in North America, there are myriad edible plants that pop up all over in yards and wildlands that haven’t been sprayed with pesticides. Some, like dandelion, stick around through most of the summer. The list is long but we’ll cover some of the big players here. Start with these and you’ll soon be addicted to foraging.
1. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
This ubiquitous “weed” (pictured above) can be found in nearly every North American lawn. Despite its attractive golden petals, flavor and health benefits, it has been vilified in modern times to the point that many try to eradicate it from their lawns and gardens. Every portion of the dandelion has its uses. The root and leaves are diuretics (promoting increased urine) and can help with liver detoxification. Its leaf contains high amounts of potassium, which is something that is lost from excessive urination. As a whole, the plant contains several additional minerals, including iron, manganese, zinc and vitamin C. Studies have even shown that dandelion reduces the size of gallstones. The petals can be used to make heavenly wines and meads and are excellent in salads. It can even be made into beer, with a small amount of the petal used as a bittering agent.
2. Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)
A plant most of us know to avoid from childhood memories of walking through nettle patches in our shorts, nettles have various nutritional and medicinal uses—and the sting can be avoided if handled properly. Nettles can help with arthritis, eczema, hypothyroid problems and fatigue. Additionally, it can be used to boost lactation, alleviate menstrual cramps and increase metabolism. It is packed with nutrients for healthy bones, teeth and hair, and like dandelion, it can be used as a liver cleanser. Wear gloves, long sleeves and pants when harvesting, and boil as a tea to remove the stinging barbs.
3. Purple Deadnettle (Lamium purpureum)
A prolific ground ivy, purple deadnettle gets its name because, though related to stinging nettle, it has no sting. It is packed with vitamins and has high antioxidant properties. I’ve used it in salads and in brewing beer but find it should be used in moderation, preferably combined with other wild herbs, as it has a strong flavor reminiscent of … well … yard. Its square stems mean it is a member of the mint family, though it is far too bland to be considered minty.
4. Creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea)
Like all wild plants, there are many traditional names for creeping Charlie, including ground ivy, Gill-over-the-ground and alehoof (it was used in beer long before hops became common). Don’t worry, it won’t leer at you or sneak up on you and bite. It gets its name from its tendency to rapidly spread through a yard or garden. Also a member of the mint family, it has only a mildly minty flavor with a hint of bitterness. As with other mints, it can be used to make a soothing tea and to help with indigestion.
5. Wild Violet (Viola papilionacea)
Purple (or rather, violet) and white violets often spring up together and along with other yard herbs. In addition to adding to the beauty of a springtime yard, their delicate, floral flavor makes for an exceptional yard salad, and when combined with other flower petals, an exquisite wine and mead. Its medicinal uses include antiseptic and expectorant properties. Freeze or dry them, and save them for when you need a little help loosening mucus during cold season.
These plants are just the tip of the iceberg. Watch your yard for other wild edibles like henbit (another member of the mint family), plantain (which has antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and wound-healing properties), chickweed, yarrow and more. Consult with an herbalist or pursue your own certification online through websites such as Botany Everyday or the Herbal Academy of New England if you want to increase the scope of your herbal healing knowledge.