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Herbal Medicine Chest in Your Backyard
What could be easier than growing a medicinal garden effortlessly? Of course, you’ll have to harvest your 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 dozen (13) common weeds that are probably already growing around you.
To make medicines, you will need glass jars of different sizes with lids that fit tightly. And at least half a liter of apple cider vinegar (pasteurized), vodka (100 proof is best, but 80 is enough), pure olive oil (not extra virgin) or high-quality animal fat such as lanolin, lard or belly fat from lamb or goat. You’ll also need a knife, a cutting board, and some rags to wipe up spills.
Generally, you will 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 use them, and be sure to dry them thoroughly with a towel before placing them in the jar.) Next, you will fill the jar menstruation, i.e. vinegar, oil or alcohol. Label well and let stand at room temperature, protected from sunlight for at least six weeks before decanting and using. (See my book Healing Wise for more detailed information on preparation.)
A field guide is useful for positively identifying your weeds. I like the most: New Zealand Weed Identification Guide in Color, coordinated by EA Upritchard. (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 sprout.
Ready? ALRIGHT! Let’s go out with a guide or an experienced herbalist and see what we can find.
Shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa pastoris) is an annual plant from the mustard family. Cut off the top half of the plant when it has formed its little heart-shaped “pouches” (seeds) and make a tincture (with alcohol) that you can use to stop the bleeding. Midwives and women who bleed heavily during their periods praise its quick effectiveness. Gypsies claim that it also affects the stomach and lungs. The dose is 1 dropper (1 ml); which can be repeated up to four times a day.
Axes (Gallium aparin) is a persistent, sticky plant that grows luxuriantly on abandoned lots and the edges of arable land. The whole plant is used to strengthen lymphatic activity. I cut the top two-thirds of each plant while it’s in flower (or setting seed) 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 if necessary.
mouse girl (Stellaria media) has many uses, including a delicious salad green. I cut off the entire top of the plant and eat it or make a tincture from 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 areas. Quite different from the domestic daisy (Lagenifera petiolata), the small English daisy is related to the buttercup and has similar abilities. I make a tincture (with alcohol) or medicated vinegar from the leaves and flowers, which relieves headaches, muscle pain and allergy symptoms. The dose is a dropper of the tincture (1 ml), up to two times a day; or a spoonful of vinegar in the morning.
dandelion (Taraxacum officinalis) is a persistent perennial of lawns and gardens and one of the most famous medicinal plants in the world. (Native dandelion from New Zealand – Taraxacum magellanicum – it’s also medicinal.) Those who like a clean green lawn curse the sunny yellow flowers of the common dandelion. But those who are willing to see beauty anywhere (such as children and herbalists) appreciate this grass. From any part of the dandelion – roots, leaves, flowers, even the stem – you can make a tincture or medicinal vinegar that strengthens the liver. A dose of 10-20 drops of tincture (0.5-1 ml) relieves gas, heartburn and indigestion, as well as promotes healthy stools. A spoonful of vinegar also works well. More importantly, taken before a meal, dandelion increases the production of hydrochloric acid in the stomach, thereby increasing the bioavailability of many nutrients, especially calcium. Fresh or cooked green leaves are full of carotene, which helps fight cancer and heart disease. And flower oil is an important massage balm for maintaining healthy breasts. (There is much more information about dandelions in Wise healing.)
Rug, also called yellow, curly and broad is a perennial herb 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 get along with sheep, especially when the land is overgrazed. I dig the yellow roots of Rumex crispus or R. obtusifolius and tincture them in alcohol to use as an ally when the immune system or liver needs help. The dose is 15-25 drops (0.5-1 ml). I also harvest the leaves and/or seeds throughout the growing season and make a medicinal vinegar, spoonful at a time, that is used to increase iron levels in the blood, reduce menstrual bleeding and cramping, and balance hormone levels. If the chopped roots are soaked in oil for six weeks, the oil obtained is useful for preserving the health of the breasts.
Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris) and Ragwort (Senecio Jacobe) are hardy perennials that have a reputation for poisoning livestock, like their cousin the tansy. Although not good for sheep, these two Senecia are some of the oldest medicinal plants in the world, they were found in a 60,000 year old grave. You can use the flower tops and leaves with alcohol to prepare a tincture that slowly works to tone the reproductive organs, alleviate PMS and stop severe menstrual pains. The dose is 5-10 drops (0.2-0.5 ml) per day, taken only once a day, but for at least 3 months. (A higher dose is used to speed up labor.)
marshmallows (Malva neglecta, M. parviflora, M. sylvestres) grow well in neglected gardens and are surprisingly deep-rooted. The flowers, leaves, stems, seeds and roots are rich in sticky mucilage, which is best extracted by soaking the fresh plant in cold water overnight or longer or by boiling it with medicinal vinegar. Starch is wonderfully soothing internally (relieves sore throats, upset tummies, heartburn, irritable bowels, colic, constipation and food poisoning) and externally (relieves bug bites, burns, sprains and sore eyes). Leaves, flowers and bark (especially) of the autochthonous Hohera (Hoheria populnea) are used in exactly the same way by Maori herbalists.
Plantain, also called ribwort, pig’s ear and bandaid plant, is a common weed in lawns, driveways, parks and playgrounds. Recognize it by the five parallel veins along each leaf. You can find broadleaf plantain (Plantago major) with broad leaves, or narrow-leaved plantain (Plantago lanceolata) with spear-thin leaves. Both can be used to make a healing poultice or soothing oil that is considered one of the best wound healers. In addition to speeding up healing, plantain also relieves pain, stops bleeding, draws out foreign matter, stops itching, prevents and stops allergic reactions to bee stings, kills bacteria, and reduces swelling.
Try a poultice or generous application of plantain oil or ointment (made by thickening the oil with beeswax) on sprains, cuts, insect bites, rashes, chapped skin, ulcers, bruises, chapped lips, rough or sore hands, baby’s diaper area, and burns.
How to make a poultice from fresh plantain: Pick a leaf, chew it well and put it on the boo-boo. “As if by magic” pain, itching and swelling disappear, fast! (Yes, you can dry plantain leaves and carry them in your first aid kit. Chew as you would fresh leaves.)
To make plantain oil: Harvest large fresh plantain leaves. Chop coarsely. Fill a clean, dry glass jar with the chopped leaves. Pour pure olive oil into the leaves, poking with a stick until the jar is completely filled with oil and all air bubbles have been released. Shut it tight. Place the jar in a small bowl to collect any excess. Wait six weeks. Then strain the oil from the plant material, drain it well. Measure the oil. Heat it gently, adding one tablespoon of grated beeswax to each ounce of oil. Pour into jars and leave to cool.
St. John’s wort / St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) This beautiful perennial wildflower may be hated by sheep farmers, but adored by herbalists. The flower heads are harvested after they begin to bloom (traditionally on the solstice, June 21st) and prepared with alcohol and oil, to make two of the most useful remedies in my first aid kit. Tincture St. John’s wort not only puts you in the mood for sunbathing, but also reliably relieves muscle pain, is a powerful antiviral and is my first choice for those suffering from herpes, sciatica, back pain, neuralgia and headaches including migraines. The usual dose is 1 dropper (1 ml) as often as needed. In case of severe pain caused by a muscle spasm in the thigh, I used a 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 relieve the symptoms of genital herpes. I use it as a sunscreen. Contrary to popular belief, St. John’s wort does not cause sun sensitivity; it prevents him. It even prevents burns from radiation therapy. It also relieves sore muscles.
self healing (Prunella vulgaris) This odorless perennial 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 imbued with a lot of minerals, especially calcium, which makes it an especially important ally for pregnant women, nursing mothers, menopausal and postmenopausal women. In the spring and autumn, I put the leaves of the sycamore in salads, in the summer I make medicinal vinegar with the flowers, and I cook the flower tops (fresh or dried) in winter soups.
Usnea (Lips barbata) is that multiple gray lichen that hangs from the branches of your apple trees or Monterey pines planted in plantations there or on almost any native tree in the areas of the southern insular Alps, where it is known as अधिक To the Maori. If in doubt about your identification: gently pull apart the strand with your hands, looking for the white fiber within the fuzzy gray-green outer layer. To prepare usnee, harvest at any time of the year, being careful not to take too much. Usnea grows slowly. Place your harvest in a cooking pot and just pour cold water over it. Cook for about 15-25 minutes, or until the water turns orange and reduces by at least half. Pour water into a jar, fill it to the top with plant material. (The water should not be more than half the jar.) Add the strongest alcohol you can buy. After 6 weeks, this tincture is ready to work for you as a superior antibacterial drug that fights infection anywhere in the body. The dose is a dropper (1 ml) every two hours in acute situations.
yarrow (Achellia millefolium) This lovely perennial weed is grown in many herb gardens because it has a multitude of uses. Cut off the flower tops (use only white-flowering yarrow) and use the alcohol to make a strong-smelling tincture that you can take to prevent colds and flu. (One dose is 10-20 drops, or up to 1 ml). I carry a small spray bottle of yarrow tincture with me when I’m out and wet my skin every hour. A study by the United States Army found that yarrow tincture was more effective than DEET in repelling ticks, mosquitoes and sandflies. You can also make a healing ointment from the tips of the yarrow flower and your oil or ointment. Yarrow oil is antibacterial, relieves pain and is incredibly helpful in healing all types of wounds.
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