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Herbal Medicine Chest in Your Backyard
What could be easier than effortlessly growing an herb garden? Of course you’ll have to harvest the weeds, but you’d do it anyway: it’s called weeding.
Spring is a particularly fertile time for harvesting weeds—roots and all—and turning them into medicine. Here are some tips on how to find, harvest, prepare and use a baker’s dozen (13) of common weeds that are probably already growing around you.
To make medicines, you will need glass containers of various sizes with tight-fitting lids. And at least a pint of apple cider vinegar (pasteurized), vodka (100 proof is best, but 80 proof will do) and pure olive oil (not extra virgin) or a good quality animal fat such as lanolin, lard or lard. lamb or kid fat. You’ll also need a knife, a cutting board, and some rags to wipe up spills.
Generally, you fill a jar (of any size) with roughly chopped fresh but dry plant material. (Do not wash any part of the plant except the roots if you are using them, and be sure to dry them well with a towel before placing them in the jar.) Then you fill the jar menstruation, i.e. vinegar, oil or alcohol. Label well and let stand at room temperature, out of sunlight for at least six weeks before decanting and using. (See my book Healing Wise for more specific information on preparation.)
A field guide is useful for positively identifying your weed. I like the most: A Guide to Identifying New Zealand’s Common Weeds in Colour, EA Upritchard complied. (Available from New Zealand Weed And Pest Control Society, PO Box 1654, Palmerston North) This book even shows you what weeds look like when they appear.
Ready? OK! Let’s go out with a plant identification guide or experienced herbalist and see what we can find.
Shepherd’s Purse (Capsella bursa pastoris) is an annual in the mustard family. Cut off the top half of the plant when it has developed heart-shaped “pouches” (seed pods) and make a tincture (with alcohol) that you can use to stop the bleeding. Midwives and women who bleed heavily during menstruation praise its quick effectiveness. Gypsies claim that it works on the stomach and lungs. The dose is 1 drop (1 ml); which can be repeated up to four times a day.
cleavers (Gallium aparine) is a perennial, sticky plant that grows abundantly on abandoned lots and the edges of cultivated land. The whole plant is used to boost lymphatic activity. I cut the top two-thirds of each plant when in flower (or set seeds) and use alcohol to make a tincture that relieves tender, swollen breasts, PMS symptoms, and allergic reactions. The dose is 15-25 drops (0.5-1 ml); repeat as needed.
Birdie (Stellaria media) has many uses, including delicious vegetable salads. I cut off the entire top of the plant and eat it or make a tincture with alcohol that dissolves cysts, tones the thyroid and helps with weight loss. The dose is a dropper (1 ml), up to three times a day.
Daisy (Bellis perennis) is a common perennial weed of lawns and open spaces. Completely different from the original daisy (Lagenifera petiolata), the small English daisy is related to the daisies and has similar abilities. I make a tincture (with alcohol) or medicinal vinegar from the leaves and flowers, which relieves headaches, muscle aches and allergy symptoms. The dose is a drop of tincture (1 ml), up to twice a day; or a spoonful of vinegar in the morning.
dandelion (Taraxacum officinalis) is a perennial of lawns and gardens and one of the most famous medicinal herbs in the world. (Dandelion native to New Zealand – Taraxacum magellanicum – it’s also medicinal.) Those who love a pure green lawn curse the sunny yellow dandelion flowers. But those willing to see beauty anywhere (such as children and herbalists) appreciate this weed. You can use any part of the dandelion – root, leaves, flowers, even the flower stem – to make a tincture or healing vinegar that strengthens the liver. A dose of 10-20 drops of tincture (0.5-1 ml) relieves flatulence, heartburn, indigestion and promotes healthy bowel movements. A tablespoon of vinegar also works well. More importantly, dandelion taken before meals increases the production of hydrochloric acid in the stomach, thereby increasing the bioavailability of many nutrients, especially calcium. Fresh or cooked leafy greens are loaded with carotenes, those anti-cancer helpers against heart disease. And flower oil is an important massage balm for maintaining healthy breasts. (There is much more information about dandelions Healing Wise.)
Dock, also called yellow sorrel, curly sorrel, and broad sorrel, is a perennial plant that my Native American grandmothers used for “all women’s problems.” The Maori call it paewhenua or rune. It is another plant that does not agree with sheep, especially when the land is girthed. I dig yellow roots Rumex crispus or R. obtusifolius and the tincture is used in alcohol as an ally when the immune system or liver needs help. The dose is 15-25 drops (0.5-1 ml). During the growing season, I also harvest the leaves and/or seeds and make a medicinal vinegar, taken by the tablespoon, that is used to increase iron levels in the blood, reduce menstrual flooding and cramping, and balance hormone levels. If the chopped roots are soaked in oil for six weeks, the resulting ointment is beneficial for maintaining healthy breasts.
Swizel (Senecio vulgaris) and Starček (Senecio jacobea) are hardy perennials that have a reputation for poisoning livestock like their cousin the tansy. Although not good for sheep, these two Senecios are some of the oldest medicinal plants in the world, having been found in a 60,000 year old grave. You can use the flowering stem and leaves with alcohol to make a tincture that slowly tones the reproductive organs, relieves PMS, and stops heavy menstrual cramps. The dose is 5-10 drops (0.2-.5 ml) per day, used only once a day, but for at least 3 months. (A larger dose is used to speed labor.)
Mallow (Malva neglected, M. parviflora, M. sylvestres) grow well in neglected gardens and are surprisingly deep-rooted. The flowers, leaves, stems, seeds and roots are rich in a sticky mucilage, which is best extracted by soaking the fresh plant overnight or longer in cold water or by making medicinal vinegar. Starch is exceptionally soothing internally (relieves sore throats, upset stomachs, heartburn, irritable bowel, colic, constipation and food poisoning) and externally (relieves bug bites, burns, sprains and sore eyes). The leaves, flowers and bark (especially) of native Hohere (Hoheria populnea) are used in exactly the same way by Maori herbalists.
Plantain, also called plantain, pig’s ear and bandaid, is a common weed of lawns, driveways, parks and playgrounds. Identify it by the five parallel veins running the length of each leaf. You can find broadleaf plantain (Plantago major) with broad leaves or narrow-leaved plantain (Plantago lanceolata) with lanceolate leaves. Either can be used to make a healing poultice or a soothing oil that is widely considered one of the best wound healers. Plantain not only speeds healing, but also relieves pain, stops bleeding, pulls out foreign bodies, stops itching, prevents and stops allergic reactions to bee stings, kills bacteria and reduces swelling.
Try a poultice or heavy application of plantain oil or ointment (made by thickening the oil with beeswax) on sprains, cuts, insect bites, rashes, cracked skin, ulcers, bruises, cracked and chapped lips, rough or sore hands, diaper area, and burns.
Preparing a poultice from fresh plantain: Pick a leaf, chew it well and place it on the bu-bu. “Like magic” pain, itching and swelling disappear quickly! (Yes, you can dry plantain leaves and carry them in your first aid kit. Chew like fresh leaves.)
To make plantain ointment: Tear large fresh plantain leaves. Chop coarsely. Fill a clean, dry glass container with the chopped leaves. Pour pure olive oil into the leaves, poking them with a chopstick until the jar is completely full of oil and all air bubbles are released. Close well. Place the jar in a small bowl to catch the overflow. Wait six weeks. Then drain the oil from the plant material, squeeze well. Measure the oil. Heat it gently and add one tablespoonful of grated beeswax for every fluid ounce of oil. Pour into glasses and let cool.
St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) This beautiful perennial wildflower may be hated by sheep farmers, but adored by herbalists. The flowering tops are harvested after they begin to flower (traditionally at the solstice on June 21) and treated with alcohol and oil to create two of the most useful medicines in my medicine cabinet. Tincture St. John’s wort not only lends a sunny disposition, but it reliably relieves muscle pain, is a powerful antiviral, and is my first choice for those with shingles, sciatica, back pain, neuralgia, and headaches including migraines. The usual dose is 1 drop (1 ml) as often as needed. For extreme pain from a muscle spasm in my thigh, I used the dropper every twenty minutes for two hours or until the pain was completely gone. St. John’s wort oil it stops cold sores and can even ease the symptoms of genital herpes. I use it as a sunscreen. Contrary to popular belief, St. John’s wort does not cause sun sensitivity; prevents it. It even prevents burns from radiation therapy. It also relieves sore muscles.
Self-healing (Prunella vulgaris) This unscented mint is one of the world’s greatest unsung healers. The leaves and flowers contain more antioxidants—which prevent cancer and heart disease, among other health benefits—than any other plant tested. And as part of the mint family, self-heal is loaded with plenty of minerals, especially calcium, making it an especially important ally for pregnant, breastfeeding, menopausal and postmenopausal women. In spring and autumn, I put the self-healing leaves in salads, in the summer I make healing vinegar from the flowers, and I cook the flowering stems (fresh or dried) into winter soups.
fell asleep (Barbata fell asleep) is that multi-branched gray lichen hanging from the branches of your apple or Monterey pines planted there in a plantation or almost any native tree in the regions of the Southern Insular Alps where it is known as to wash to the Maori. If in doubt about your identification: Gently pull the strand apart with your hands and look for the white fiber inside the fuzzy grey-green outer coat. To prepare usnea, harvest at any time of the year, being careful not to get too much. Usnea grows slowly. Place your harvest in a pan and cover it with cold water. Cook for about 15-25 minutes, or until the water is orange and reduced by at least half. Pour usnea and water into a jar and fill it to the top with plant material. (The water should be no more than half the glass.) Add the highest quality alcohol you can buy. After 6 weeks, this tincture is ready to work for you as an excellent antibacterial agent against infection anywhere in the body. The dose is a dropper (1 ml) in acute situations as often as every two hours.
Yarrow (Achellia millefolium) This beautiful perennial weed is grown in many herb gardens because of its many uses. Cut off the flowering tops (use only white-flowered yarrow) and use your alcohol to create a strong-smelling tincture that you can take internally as a cold and flu preventative. (The dose is 10-20 drops or up to 1 ml). When I’m out and about, I carry a small spray bottle of yarrow tincture with me and soak my skin every hour. A study by the United States Army found yarrow tincture to be more effective than DEET in repelling ticks, mosquitoes, and sandflies. You can also make a healing salve from yarrow flowers and your oil or fat. Yarrow oil is anti-bacterial, pain-relieving and incredibly helpful in healing all types of wounds.
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