An herbalist once told a story of a young man who studied plant medicine under the tutelage of a wise teacher. For his final exam, the teacher sent the young man out into the woods, telling him, “Come back when you find three plants that can’t be used as medicine.” The young man spent weeks upon weeks searching for the three plants, but finally returned to his teacher empty-handed.
“I’m sorry, teacher, but I’ve failed,” he said. “I can’t find any plants that don’t have healing powers.”
“No,” the teacher responded. “In fact, you have passed, and with flying colors.”
You see, medicine is all around us: in our pastures, along our streams and in our woods. When you train your eyes to see more than foliage and bark, you’ll see that the land and its elements are there to support you and help you thrive.
Native plants make especially good medicine because they’ve adapted to the region where you reside, in turn helping you to resist the elements. On your next nature walk, here are some medicines you can forage for.
Cleavers (Galium aparine) seems so delicate, yet it has found a way to get what it needs in tough, shady conditions. It has a long stem broken up at intervals with a whorl of leaves, making it look like a long-necked woman with a collar just under her chin. As the plant grows, it extends these long necks over and over again as it reaches to creep or climb, clinging with the tiny spines that are spread across the plant, giving it its sticky quality.
As with many spring plants, cleavers are good at removing congestion from different parts of the body. If you think about how this plant gently grabs at your fingers as you stroke it, you can imagine how it works in the waterways of our body to gently grab at deposits and carry them to an exit. Cleavers have successfully been used in the circulatory system to clear cholesterol deposits and in the liver and urinary tract to remove stones and calculi, aka the buildup of mineral salts. Perhaps one of my favorite uses for cleavers is in the lymphatic system, particularly to improve psoriasis. For those with recurrent urinary tract infections or thyroid imbalance, this tiny weed can be a great find.
If you have cleavers in your area, preserve it in oil or alcohol, as its phyto-chemicals dissipate once dried. It’s important to make medicine as soon as you can after harvesting it. Once preserved, this gentle herb can be used by almost anyone to improve health and well-being.
I think many of us overlook the pine tree (Pinus spp.) when looking for healing, as it’s not shaped like a traditional “herb.” Nevertheless, it’s a medicinal plant with a long history.
Known for its volatile oil, pine is most often used as an essential oil for external applications, though Hippocrates
and Pliny wrote of using pine needles for many ailments. You may find them helpful for arthritis and gout, and a handful of the leaves added to a bath might be just the thing to help soothe sore muscles or relieve cold congestion.
A surprising pine-tree product used for medicinal purposes is turpentine. For years, as I’ve stood behind my farmers market table, I’ve listened to people tell me that their older family members routinely used turpentine as a medicine. I puzzled over this until I tracked down turpentine’s origin. It turns out it’s a pine product and isn’t as dangerous as it sounds.
Turpentine is a solvent used in paint and varnish, hence my assumption that it was a chemical product, but it’s more like an essential oil, extracted through steam distillation of pine resin. The resulting product is slightly different than the essential oil, which is a tad less concentrated. Turpentine has been used topically in folkloric medicine for lice, cuts and congestion and internally for worms, though internal use is no longer common. There’s also a long history of using turpentine to treat sore joints and chest congestion in humans and animals.
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) grows under the cover of tall trees, but it seems to like spaces in the forest where you can see the glow of the sun through the canopy, filling these quiet spaces as an indicator of soil health.
Spicebush blooms in early spring with a small yellow bloom similar to the fall color of the leaves. Heading into winter, spicebush is bedecked with red berries until the birds take off with them.
Various Native American people used the twigs and berries of spicebush medicinally. The berries, when dried, are reminiscent of allspice. The twigs have been used for their diaphoretic, aka sweat-inducing, abilities and to prevent the suffering of cold-and-flu season.
Save American Ginseng
Our native stands of ginseng are being poached for the black market nearly to extinction. When we lose ginseng, it will not be just the valuable medicine for humans that will be lost. As preservationist organizations replant ginseng, we are learning that it lives in cooperation with another important medicinal: goldenseal. Both plants protect each other from common pests. We must understand that the medicine within these plants that is used for humanity is only part of the story. When we lose ancient plants, we lose medicine for our soils, thus beginning a domino effect that can take other important plants and animals with them.
The good news is that there are organizations fighting for ginseng. United Plant Savers, the American Herbal Products Association, the American Botanical Council and many others are standing up for the protection of these valuable medicinal elders.
As we hear about plant and animal extinctions around the world, it can be easy to either distance ourselves or to feel helpless, but in this case, we have a situation that can be easily remedied by gardeners across the country. When a plant is threatened, one of the best things we can do is to provide it with sanctuary. Making room in one of your flower beds for endangered medicinals means that their genetic material lives on, regardless of what happens in our nation’s forests. You will be rewarded for your efforts in the case of ginseng by lush greenery and a beautiful white spring bloom followed by a cluster of elegant red berries in the understory of your shade garden or woods.
If you don’t have a space to plant in, you can always get involved in preserving this plant in other ways. Most importantly, if you are using ginseng, you can help by ensuring that it is grown or sustainably wild-harvested. If we cease to reward the poached-ginseng market, it will eventually dry up.
Joe Pye Weed
Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum) grows in low areas and swampy soils, which is why you’ll readily see it near roads and along ditches. It’s the root of this beautiful plant that we use medicinally. In fact, if you dig one up, you’ll see why it’s often called “gravel root.”
The plant tends to hold the soil, preventing erosion where it grows and fixing calcified nodules on some areas of its roots, creating the appearance of stones. As folks first began to dig Joe Pye weed, this gave them the idea to use it for gravel in the urinary tract. This was supported later as we came to understand that many of those stones are formed as a result of improper calcium supplementation.
If you can’t find it growing wild, you might consider adding this beautiful plant to your garden, especially if you suffer from arthritis, gout, gallstones or kidney stones. There’s also some evidence that this plant is helpful in the case of diabetes by preserving kidney health and preventing inflammation damage due to sugar in the bloodstream. It’s specific for helping the body to keep deposits, such as uric acid or sugar crystals, from forming and causing problems. When water is mismanaged in the body, these substances migrate into joints and soft tissue, creating pain and inflammation. It’s nice to be able to dig your own root to make a tea or tincture for these times.
There aren’t a lot of downsides to using gravel root unless you don’t know that you have urinary stones. Passing a stone is unpleasant, especially if you’re using gravel root on its own. To pass a stone, combine gravel root with marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis), a demulcent, to make the passing -smoother, and uva ursi (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), an antiseptic.
Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) gets a bad rap in fall because so many people blame it for their allergies. But guess what? It isn’t the culprit! If you tend to get sneezy around the time that you see goldenrod blooming, it’s more likely that you are reacting to something like ragweed (Ambrosia spp.). Goldenrod pollen is relatively heavy and tends to drop to the ground instead of floating around.
Both leaves and flowers of goldenrod are used as medicine. Not only can its light anise flavor improve the flavor of a less tasty herbal blend, goldenrod shines in the urinary tract. It is astringent, diaphoretic and diuretic, so it helps maintain water balance in the body. Goldenrod is really good for urinary tract infections and kidney stones, but it especially works well for incontinence. Whether the loss of bladder control is due to fast growth in a child or to emotional pressure in an adult, adding goldenrod to your tea can be very beneficial.
In the digestive system, it can be used to settle the stomach or stop diarrhea. It can also be used for fevers or to help relieve the congestion of cold or flu.
All violets (Viola spp.) tend to be small plants, growing a maximum of 4 to 6 inches high. If you lie down on the ground with any one of these beauties and look more closely, you’ll see they all have similar heart-shaped leaves, though some will be smooth and others will be hairy. The flowers tend to carry a “Mickey Mouse” petal arrangement, with two petals arranged together at the top of the flower like ears and three petals arranged together at the bottom like a face.
If you look a bit closer, you’ll notice a few lines of color running down the throat of the flower. In the pollinator world, these lines are similar to airport runway lights or freeway exit signs. They very clearly mark the way the pollinator should go to get the nectar. If the obliging insect lines its body up with these arrows, its back is sure to rub against the brushes containing pollen from either above or the sides.
Remember: This plant doesn’t have legs, so it must co-opt the legs of someone else. When you want to train your dog to sit, you give it a cue and then follow with a treat. When the plant world wants to spread its pollen to a neighboring flower, it brushes it off onto the back of an obliging pollinator and rewards them with a nectar treat.
All of our wild violet species are edible and delicious to boot. They can be candied and added to confections. In spring, collect the flowers and make a syrup for that congestion that won’t let go or for someone with chronic headaches. The leaves and flowers have both been used for their high vitamin-C content since the time of the Native Americans. You can also use the leaves to make lip balm. The plant is delicious both cooked or fresh in a salad. Its heart-shaped leaves have led to its historical use as a heart tonic, especially for those who are grieving.
While these native plants will give you a taste of what it can be like to forage for your medicine, with a never-ending curiosity of your land and what’s growing on it, you’ll find that there’s so much more to learn.
This article appeared in Healing Herbs, a 2018 specialty publication produced by the editors and writers of Hobby Farms magazine. Aside from this piece, Healing Herbs includes articles on herbs that can help with pain relief, sleeplessness and stress relief; herbs for teas; how to cut and dry herbs; preparing and preserving herbs; and becoming an herbalist. You can purchase this volume, Hobby Farms back issues as well as special editions such as Living Off the Grid and Best of Urban Farm by following this link.