For many thousands of years, mankind has relied on the power of plants to cure what ails him. Back in the day, most villages had a revered herbalist or wise elder, kept busy treating the myriad bumps, bruises, sniffles, and pains of daily life. It is only very recently that we have become dependent on pharmaceutical drugs and the doctor's prescription pad to maintain our health and treat disease, allowing our most admired healing plants to fall out of use.
Yet, there are still those among us who maintain the wealth of the herbalist's knowledge, utilizing the same plants to treat today's ailments that have been used throughout the ages. In addition to their healing abilities, many of these same plants provide nutritious, delicious food. What's not to love about that?
You might be surprised to learn that many of these potent plants live right in your garden or front yard.
Often, these humble little helpers are dismissed as 'weeds' and plucked, poisoned or tilled under to make way for green lawns and tidy patios. While these plants won't win a beauty contest, they do have much to offer, if we only take some time to get to know them better. Hopefully, this guide will get you started on the journey of understanding, and befriending, some of the most valuable and under-appreciated plants that nature has to offer.
Description: This most familiar of weed varieties, the Dandelion, is easy to spot with its sunny yellow flowers that transform into fluffy seed-heads by mid-summer (pictured above). They are perennial, herbaceous and possess simple serrated leaves growing in a rosette pattern from the plant base. These spiny leaves gave rise to the plant’s common name, Dandelion, from French 'dent-de-lion' or Lion's Tooth.
History: Dandelions have been used for food and medicine for much of recorded history. The plant was especially prized in Asia and Northern Europe for its medicinal value, while being utilized more commonly for culinary purposes in traditional Greek, Korean and Slovenian cuisine.
Useful Parts: Can you eat the Dandelions in your yard? Yes! All parts of the Dandelion are edible and possess medicinal properties. The leaves and immature flower buds can be sauteed and eaten, or blanched to remove the bitterness and served like spinach. The flower petals have traditionally been used to make Dandelion wine and have also been added as an ingredient, along with Burdock, to make root beer. Additionally, the roasted Dandelion roots can be used to prepare a beverage that tastes very similar to coffee, offering a caffeine-free, healthy alternative to the popular morning beverage.
Nutrition Facts: Dandelions are mineral accumulators, making them a rich source of potassium, calcium, iron, magnesium, niacin, phosphorous, silica, and zinc. They also contain vitamins C, K, and A, as well as an array of B vitamins.
Medicinal Uses: Dandelion has been long admired for its natural diuretic properties, as well as its ability to stimulate bile flow, promote digestion and support liver health. Some herbalists recommend Dandelion extracts and teas for detoxification, to accelerate the removal of toxins from the bloodstream. Additionally, due to its high silica content, some research suggests that Dandelion supplements may help strengthen the teeth bones.
Summertime Dandelion Tea Recipe
(Note: Please be sure to harvest your Dandelions from a safe, clean area, away from roadways, pet waste and chemical sprays!)
2 TBS Dandelion root, washed and chopped
2 TBS Dandelion leaves, washed and chopped
4-6 Dandelion flower heads
1 TBS rose hips
1 TBS dried lemon peel
Raw clover honey
1. Steep mixture in small saucepan of hot water for 10 minutes. Strain into a mug, and add a dash of honey to taste, if desired. Enjoy hot or cold.
Description: Plantain (Broadleaf Plantain or White Man's Foot) is one of the most widely distributed medicinal weed species in the world. They are easy to identify with their wide, oval-shaped leaves, which have long veins branching outward, nearly parallel to each other, from the leaf base. When pulled apart, the leaf veins have a stringy, rubbery quality, stretching quite a ways before breaking. By mid-summer, this low-growing plant species sends up a single, long, tube-shaped green flower head, bearing up to 20,000 seeds at maturity.
History: Plantain has enjoyed a long and illustrious career as a food-source and medicine across Europe and Asia. First introduced to the Americas by early European colonists, it earned the nickname 'White Man's Foot' from native peoples, who noticed that Plantain sprang up wherever white settlers made their homes. European medical texts from the 15th and 16th centuries contain many recipes and references to Plantain, describing it as a 'cure all' for ailments ranging from insect bites to epilepsy. This humble plant even earned an honorable mention in Shakespeare's works, due to its widespread use in his time.
Useful Parts: The whole leaf is used for medicine and food, while the rubbery veins can be used in survival situations, to make light cordage, fishing lines or sutures.
Nutrition Facts: Plantain offers many nutritional benefits, including high levels of calcium, beta carotene, vitamin C and vitamin K. Additionally, Plantain packs a whopping dose of vitamin A, along with a healthy quantity of cancer-fighting phytochemicals and antioxidants.
Medicinal Uses: According to the International College of Herbal Medicine, Plantain possesses a long list of medicinal uses, including anti-inflammatory properties, ability to reduce pain as an analgesic, antibiotic/antiviral properties, and immune-stimulating properties. Furthermore, according to James Balch, MD, in his book 'Prescription for Nutritional Healing', Plantain is a strong diuretic and digestive aid when taken internally. Historically, Plantain has been recognized and used topically for a wide variety of skin conditions, insect bites, rashes, blisters and wounds.
Plantain Salve Recipe
To help treat bee stings, mosquito bites and poison ivy. (Note: Please be sure to harvest your Plantain from a safe, clean area, away from roadways, pet waste and chemical sprays!)
1 C fresh Plantain leaves, washed, stems and veins removed
1 C melted coconut oil
1 oz beeswax, grated
1 TBS vitamin E oil
10 drops tea tree or lavender essential oil
Glass jars or cosmetic tins
1. Melt coconut oil in a saucepan or slow cooker over very low heat.
2. Add Plantain leaves and allow to infuse into the oil on the lowest heat setting for about 5 hours, or until the oil turns green and smells like the Plantain leaves.
3. Remove from heat and strain with cheesecloth to remove plant material.
4. Add grated beeswax, vitamin E oil, and optional essential oils to the Plantain-infused coconut oil.
5. Once all ingredients are combined and beeswax is melted, pour into glass or tin containers and allow to cool completely.
6. Store in a cool, dark location. Salve will remain stable for 1-3 years. Use topically to treat irritated skin.
Description: Yarrow is an erect, herbaceous plant, easy to identify by its delicate umbrella-shaped flower heads, and long, feathery, fern-like leaves.
History: Yarrow has long occupied a place in medical libraries, kitchens, herbal collections and even diviner's tool kits. Historically, Yarrow was recognized for its strong astringent properties and antibacterial action, earning its Latin name 'Achillea', due to its purported use by the mythical Greek hero, Achilles, to treat battle wounds among his soldiers. In China, the dried stems of the Yarrow plant have been used for thousands of years as a divinatory aid in I-Ching readings, while the leaves and flowers were used to treat many ailments.
Useful Parts: The leaves and flower heads, both fresh and dried.
Nutrition Facts: Yarrow was a popular salad green in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, often eaten raw or lightly steamed. It contains heart-healthy phytochemicals, such as tannins and bioflavonoids, along with small amounts of the slightly narcotic biochemicals thujone and matricine — both potent healing medicines when used judiciously.
Medicinal Uses: Yarrow has been used widely to alleviate the symptoms of the common cold and flu, due to its ability to induce sweating and elevate body temperatures, effectively supporting the natural immune response to drive viral infections from the body. Similarly, it can be used to treat infections and wounds, due to its antibacterial action, blood-clotting and immune-stimulating properties. Among North American tribal peoples, Yarrow was considered a primary 'life medicine', used to support healthy teeth, skin, ears and gastrointestinal function.
Description: Comfrey is a prolific perennial herb, bearing large, hairy leaves and delicate bell-shaped purple- or cream-colored flowers. It is native to Europe, and often found growing along creek and river banks across Britain, Russia, Ireland and Scandinavia.
History: Comfrey has been used for thousands of years as a food crop for livestock, as a healing herb, and occasionally, as a human food source. Although it possesses a long history, it has recently raised concern among some health care providers and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, due to the presence of hepatotoxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which have been found to cause liver damage in some studies. Because of this potential for problems and despite a long history of safe usage, herbalists now recommend that Comfrey be only used externally. Additionally, Comfrey is a nitrogen accumulator, able to provide bio-available nitrogen fertility to other plant species. Before petroleum-based fertilizers became available, many farmers and gardeners turned to Comfrey to enhance compost and provide natural nitrogen for their crops.
Useful Parts: The leaves.
Nutrition Facts: Comfrey has been long admired for its high protein content, leading to its widespread cultivation as a food crop for livestock. Additionally, Comfrey is the only known land-plant source of vitamin B12.
Medicinal Uses: Known colloquially as 'knit-bone', Comfrey has traditionally been used to support a healthy muscular and skeletal system associated with broken bones, bruises and soft tissue trauma. Similarly, it shows efficacy in the treatment of burns, sprains, arthritis, and acne, as well as being recognized as a bone and teeth builder in developing children. Its ability to repair tissue and aid in the building of strong bones and teeth may be attributed to its high levels of the organic molecule, Allantoin, which is thought to stimulate cell growth and repair while preventing inflammation.
Comfrey Compress Recipe
To soothe sore muscles, joints, strains, and sprains. (Note: Please be sure to harvest your Comfrey from a safe, clean area, away from roadways, pet waste and chemical sprays!)
3-4 large Comfrey leaves
1/2 C Epsom salt
2 quarts water
Clean cotton rag
1. Bring water to a boil. Remove from heat.
2. Add epsom salt, stirring to dissolve.
3. Add Comfrey leaves and allow to steep until water cools enough to touch without being burned.
4. Dip cotton rag in steeped Comfrey solution, wring slightly to prevent drips, and lay hot, damp cloth over sore joints or muscles. To maintain heat, you can fold the cloth into layers, or insulate with a dry, folded towel laid on top.
5. Allow the hot cloth to sit until it cools, then dip, wring and apply again. Repeat until pain subsides.
Description: Stinging Nettle is an herbaceous, perennial plant, 3-7 feet tall. It possesses soft, green, arrow-shaped leaves with thousands of tiny stinging hairs. When touched, these hairs inject a variety of inflammatory, burning chemicals into the skin, giving rise to the name Stinging Nettle.
History: From Shakespeare to Aesop, the Stinging Nettle has enjoyed much renown and respect throughout the ages. In ancient Anglo-Saxon culture, the Stinging Nettle was revered as one of the Nine Charm Herbs in the 10th century Pagan treatise, the Lacnunga Manuscript. It was believed to be one of the nine holy herbs given to the people by the Saxon God, Wotan.
Useful Parts: The whole leaves, both fresh and dried.
Nutrition Facts: Stinging Nettle, despite being quite uncomfortable to have an accidental run-in with, is truly a nutritional powerhouse. Once soaked, cooked or wilted, the painful hairs are eliminated, allowing for a variety of culinary uses. The leaves themselves have a flavor somewhat similar to cucumber with a hint of spinach and can be used in many different dishes, as well as cheese-making because they contain a natural rennet. Stinging Nettle is unusual for its high omega-3 content, as well as its elevated levels of other essential fatty acids. Additionally, it offers a wide range of minerals, along with fairly high levels of vitamin A.
Medicinal Uses: In Western Europe, Stinging Nettle has long been hailed for its ability to soothe and strengthen for a variety of symptoms caused by arthritis, gout and other conditions. Recent studies have shown that Stinging Nettle is, in fact, a viable treatment for many ailments.
Stinging Nettle Egg Scramble Recipe
(Note: Please be sure to harvest your Stinging Nettle from a safe, clean area, away from roadways, pet waste and chemical sprays! Use gloves to harvest nettle.)
2/3 C Stinging Nettle leaves
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/4 C heavy cream
1 clove garlic, minced
2 TBS ghee or butter
1/2 C shredded cheese
1. Blanch the Stinging Nettle leaves in a medium saucepan of salted, boiling water. Simmer until wilted, then drain well. Chop.
2. Beat the eggs until well combined.
3. Add the dairy, salt, blanched Stinging Nettle leaves, and garlic to the eggs. Mix well.
4. Melt the ghee in a frying pan over medium-low heat.
5. Pour in the egg mixture, swirling the pan gently to spread the egg evenly around the pan in a uniform layer. Cook, scraping the pan occasionally to turn and stir the eggs.
6. When the eggs are nearly cooked, add the shredded cheese, turn off the heat, and allow to finish cooking in the hot pan for 5 minutes.
7. Serve with a dollop of sour cream and a slice of crusty artisan bread.
Description: This unmistakably aromatic, herbaceous, perennial plant is easy to identify by smell alone! If the plant is disturbed, the air fills with the scent of toothpaste or spearmint gum. The leaves are heavily serrated and typically of a dark green color, although some varieties are purple, or nearly black. The flowers are small, either white or purple.
History: Mint has enjoyed long-standing popularity for its strong flavor and scent, commonly used as a room deodorizer in Ancient Greece, a pleasant tea in Europe, and a healing herb worldwide.
Useful Parts: The leaves, both fresh and dried.
Nutrition Facts: Mint contains a wide range of minerals and vitamins, including thiamin, niacin, vitamin B6, phosphorus and zinc. It is also a good source of vitamin A, vitamin C, riboflavin, folate, calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, copper and manganese, making it a healthy addition to the diet. Traditionally, mint is paired with meats in Middle Eastern and British cuisine, while in the Americas, it is typically enjoyed as a sweet treat, in candy, ice cream and beverages.
Medicinal Uses: Mint's most popular medicinal use is as a soothing tea for digestive complaints.
Peppermint Tummy-Ache Tea Recipe
(Note: Please be sure to harvest your Mint from a safe, clean area, away from roadways, pet waste and chemical sprays!
1 handful fresh Mint leaves, washed and chopped
1 TBS lemon juice
1/2 tsp fresh or crystallized ginger
Raw honey, to taste
1. Bring water to a boil in a teapot or medium saucepan.
2. Remove from heat and add mint leaves, ginger and lemon juice.
3. Allow to steep for 5-10 minutes.
4. Add honey to taste, and enjoy hot or cold.
Description: This miniature sunflower look-alike is a hardy perennial, growing 10-20 inches tall. The leaves are bright green, oval and grow close to the ground, with a single bright yellow flower growing atop a long stem.
History: Arnica is native to Western and Northern Europe, growing mostly in higher altitude alpine areas above 3,000 feet. It has been cultivated as a medicinal crop in Europe for centuries, inhabiting an important place in the herbalist's toolkit. Today, it is cultivated across Europe for sale to wild crafters and herbalists.
Useful Parts: The mature flower heads, fresh or dried.
Nutrition Facts: For external use only. Toxic when ingested.
Medicinal Uses: Arnica eases discomfort and provides relief from aches and pains associated with injury, strain and arthritis as well as swelling and bruising. A study published in the Journal of Rheumatology found that, compared to over-the-counter NSAID pain relievers, topical Arnica application reduced pain from rheumatoid arthritis as well as, or better than, the NSAIDs in the double-blind study.
Arnica Sports Rub Recipe
(Note: Please be sure to harvest your Arnica from a safe, clean area, away from roadways, pet waste and chemical sprays! Do not ingest.)
2 handfuls of freshly gathered Arnica flowers
1 handful fresh Mint leaves
20 drops eucalyptus essential oil
20 drops clove essential oil
1 TBS ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1 TBS ground cayenne pepper
1 C apricot kernel oil or olive oil
Pint-sized mason jar with lid
1. Combine all ingredients in glass mason jar. Screw lid on tightly.
2. Place in a cool, dark cupboard for 6-8 weeks to infuse.
3. Strain oil and return to lidded container. Keep in a cool, dry place.
4. Apply topically as a sports rub for muscle pain after workouts, rub on joints, and use on strained tendons and ligaments to promote healing.
Description: Although it's not a 'weed' exactly, Oregon Grape is considered an invasive species in some areas. It is a short evergreen shrub, growing close to the ground in conifer forest areas. It has spiny, serrated leaves with a high gloss topside. The tiny yellow flowers grow in tight clusters, giving way to bluish-purple berries later in the year, reminiscent of grapes.
History: Native to North America, the Oregon Grape was used widely by Native American tribes as both a source of food and medicine, as well as a dye for art and clothing. The early American settlers discovered that the Oregon Grape, like their larger namesakes, could be fermented and used in wine-making. They were also harvested to make jams, pies and other fruity desserts, as well as a rich purple dye for fabrics and wool.
Useful Parts: The berries and roots.
Nutrition Facts: The berries of the Oregon Grape are extremely tart, lending themselves well to applications where a sweetener is added. They do make delicious jam and pie, with a good measure of honey or raw sugar. The berries pack a punch in the vitamin department, sporting extraordinarily high levels of vitamin C, along with heart-healthy antioxidants.
Medicinal Uses: While the berries are edible, the medicinal aspect of the Oregon Grape arises from the bright yellow roots of the plant. The root of the Oregon Grape contains berberine, an alkaloid that demonstrates very strong antimicrobial properties. This compound has been shown to be effective against many strains of antibiotic resistant super-bugs, as well as run-of-the-mill infections. In addition to its antimicrobial properties, it contains a multi-drug resistance pump inhibitor molecule, which actively works to reduce the ability of microbes to develop resistance to drugs and antibacterial agents.
Oregon Grape Wound Wash Recipe
(Note: Please be sure to harvest your Oregon Grape from a safe, clean area, away from roadways, pet waste and chemical sprays!)
2 TBS Oregon Grape root
1 TBS Epsom salt
1 C water
Clean cotton or flannel rag
1. Bring water to a boil in a small saucepan.
2. Add Oregon Grape root and simmer for 10-15 minutes, until water turns yellow.
3. Remove from heat and add Epsom Salt, stirring to dissolve.
4. Let cool to lukewarm, and use as a soothing, antibacterial wound wash for cuts, scrapes, and skin ulcers.
Description: This majestic, and often misunderstood, perennial plant grows up to 10 feet tall in a single season. Mullein grows a tightly-packed, spiral rosette-shaped leaf cluster at ground level early in the season, maturing with a very tall, flowering stem later in the year. The leaves are very soft and fuzzy, lending the plant its nickname Velvet Leaf. The flowers tend to be bright yellow and are short-lived.
History: The Mullein plant has been used for centuries as an herbal medicine, fire starter, candle wick material, toilet-paper alternative and in cosmetics. In fact, it is one of the most useful, and versatile, weed species on our list, even earning an honorable mention from the Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder, in his book 'Naturalis Historia'. Similarly, it was recommended by the ancient Greek physician, Pedanius Dioscorides, in his massive five-part medical encyclopedia, 'De Materia Medica'. In that treatise, he recommended Mullein as a primary treatment for most lung ailments, including asthma and bronchitis.
Useful Parts: All parts of the Mullein plant can be used.
Nutrition Facts: Not edible.
Medicinal Uses: The medicinal uses for Mullein are many, but its primary use is in the respiratory system. Traditionally, the leaves were steeped and consumed as a tea to aid in the opening of the airways and to reduce inflammation of the respiratory tracts. In some cases, the leaves were dried and smoked, or burned as an incense, to be inhaled directly into the lungs. Mullein is a gentle but effective expectorant (removes phlegm), broncho-dilator (opens airways) and emollient (softens the membranes), making it a perfect support for respiratory function.
How to Make a Mullein Steam Treatment
For coughs and respiratory symptoms. (Note: Please be sure to harvest your Mullein from a safe, clean area, away from roadways, pet waste and chemical sprays! Do not consume or otherwise ingest Mullein.)
2-3 Mullein leaves, shredded or chopped
5 drops Eucalyptus essential oil
2 quarts water
Large bath towel
1. Bring water to a boil.
2. Add Mullein leaves, turn heat down to a simmer.
3. Add eucalyptus essential oil
4. Lean over the simmering pot and place the towel over your head to trap the steam inside, inhaling deeply. (Careful! Don't burn yourself!)
5. Repeat treatment as often as necessary to relieve symptoms.
Description: The mallow plant, native to Europe and Asia, grows to be about 3-4 feet tall. The leaves are soft, fuzzy and irregularly serrated. The five-petaled flowers are light pink to white.
History: The Mallow plant has been admired since ancient times. Roman writers spoke highly of it, describing it as a primary delicacy of Roman cuisine. It was also quite popular in ancient Egypt, where the roots were boiled down to produce a mucilaginous goop which, when combined with honey and rose water, made up the predecessor of today's marshmallow treats. Additionally, the entire plant was used for medicinal purposes.
Useful Parts: The whole plant.
Nutrition Facts: All parts of the plant are edible. The leaves can be used in salads, soups and stews. The flowers provide a delicate, slightly sweet addition to fruit dishes and cold salads, while the roots can be boiled and used as a substitute for egg-whites in recipes. The Mallow plant is rich in vitamins C and A, as well as a range of minerals.
Medicinal Uses: The same mucilaginous quality that makes the Mallow a good substitute for egg whites, and a primary ingredient in marshmallows (back in the day), makes the plant very effective at coating and soothing the digestive tract. It has historically been used to support healthy gastrointestinal function, as well as a soothing skin lotion.
How to Make Traditional Marshmallows Recipe
(Note: Please be sure to harvest your Mallow from a safe, clean area, away from roadways, pet waste and chemical sprays!)
1 TBS Mallow root powder
1 C water
1 C honey
3 tsp unflavored gelatin
1 tsp vanilla extract
8-inch pan, lined with parchment paper
1. Bring the water to a boil in the saucepan.
2. Add the Mallow root, stir briskly to combine and remove from heat. Allow to cool completely.
3. Divide the Mallow root water, setting half aside. Add powdered gelatin to the half you've set aside.
4. Take the other half and add the honey and vanilla extract to it.
5. Bring the honey, vanilla mallow water mixture to a low boil. Continue to heat until the mixture reaches 240 degrees Fahrenheit on the candy thermometer. Remove from heat.
6. With the hand mixer on low, begin beating the marshmallow root water and gelatin mixture you set aside earlier. While beating continuously, slowly pour the hot honey, vanilla, mallow water mixture into the water and gelatin mixture in a slow, steady stream.
7. Once all ingredients have been combined, continue beating the mixture for 5 minutes on medium speed.
8. Pour the mixture into the prepared 8" baking dish lined with parchment paper.
9. Refrigerate overnight before cutting into small squares. Enjoy!
Editor's Note: The recommendations listed here do not replace a care provider's advice. Consult your care provider if you are pregnant or nursing before consuming any of the above plants. The statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.
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