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Herbal Medicine Chest in Your Backyard
What could be easier than growing an herb garden without effort? Of course, you’ll have to harvest your weeds, but you’d do it anyway: it’s called weeding.
Spring is an especially fertile time to harvest your weeds—roots and all—and turn them into medicine. So 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 your medicines you will need glass jars of various sizes with tight fitting lids. And at least one liter each of apple cider vinegar (pasteurized), vodka (100 proof is best, but 80 proof is enough), and pure olive oil (not extra virgin) or good quality animal fat such as lanolin, bacon or belly. fat of lamb or kid. You’ll also want a knife, a cutting board, and some rags to wipe up spills.
In general, you will fill a jar (of any size) with coarsely chopped fresh, but dry, plant material. (Do not wash any part of the plant except roots if you use them, and be sure to dry them well with a towel before placing them in your jar.) Then you will fill the jar with your menstruation, that is the vinegar, the oil or the 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 preparations.)
A field guide is helpful in positively identifying your weeds. The one I like the most is: A Guide to the Identification of Common New Zealand Grasses in Color, performed by EA Upritchard. (Available from the New Zealand Weed And Pest Control Society, PO Box 1654, Palmerston North) This book even shows you what the weeds look like when they appear.
Ready? GOOD! Let’s go outside with a seedling 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 formed its little heart-shaped “purses” (seeds) and make a tincture (with alcohol) that you can use to stop bleeding. Midwives and women who bleed heavily during their period praise its quick effectiveness. Gypsies claim that it also works on the stomach and lungs. Dose is 1 drop (1 ml); which can be repeated up to four times a day.
Knives (Gallium aparine) is a persistent, sticky plant that grows abundantly in abandoned lots and edges of cultivated land. The whole plant is used to enhance lymphatic activity. I cut the top two thirds of each plant while it is in flower (or setting seeds) and use alcohol to make a tincture that relieves tender, swollen breasts, PMS symptoms and allergic reactions. Dose is 15-25 drops (.5 – 1 ml); repeated as needed.
Chickpea (Stellaria media) has many uses, including delicious salad greens. I cut off the entire top of the plant and eat it or use alcohol to make a tincture that dissolves cysts, tones the thyroid and helps with weight loss. Dose is a drop (1 ml), up to three times a day.
Daisy (Bellis perennis) is a common perennial weed of lawns and open areas. Completely different from the native daisy (Lagenifera petiolata), the small English daisy is related to feverfew and has similar abilities. I use the leaves and flowers to make a tincture (with alcohol) or medicinal vinegar that relieves headaches, muscle aches and allergy symptoms. Dose is a drop of the tincture (1 ml), up to twice a day; or a spoonful of the vinegar in the morning.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinalis) is a persistent perennial of lawns and gardens and one of the best known medicinal herbs in the world. (New Zealand’s native dandelion – Taraxacum magellanicum – is also medicinal.) Those who love a clean green lawn curse the sunny yellow flowers of the common dandelion. But those who are willing to see beauty anywhere (like children and herbalists) treasure this herb. You can use any part of the dandelion – the root, the leaves, the flowers, even the flower stalk – to make a tincture or medicinal vinegar that strengthens the liver. A dose of 10-20 drops of the tincture (.5-1 ml) relieves gas, acid and indigestion, and also promotes healthy bowels. A tablespoon of vinegar also works well. More importantly, taken before meals, dandelion increases the production of hydrochloric acid in the stomach, thus increasing the bioavailability of many nutrients, especially calcium. The fresh or cooked green leaves are loaded with carotenes, those anti-cancer, anti-heart disease helpers. And the oil of the flowers is an important massage balm to maintain healthy breasts. (There is much more information about dandelions in Healing Wise.)
Dock, also called yellow dock, curly dock and broad dock is a perennial plant that my Native American grandmothers use for “all women’s problems”. The Maori call it paehenua or runic. It is another plant that disagrees with sheep, especially when the land is overgrazed. I dig the yellow roots of Rumex crispus or R. obtusifolius and dip them in alcohol to use as an ally when the immune system or the liver needs help. Dose is 15-25 drops (.5-1 ml). I also harvest the leaves and/or seeds during the growing season and make a medicinal vinegar, taken one tablespoon at a time, which is used to increase blood levels of iron, reduce menstrual flooding and cramps, and balance hormone levels. If the chopped roots are soaked in oil for six weeks, the resulting ointment is useful for keeping the breasts healthy.
Groundswell (Senecio vulgaris) and Ragwort (Senecio jacobea) are hardy perennials that have a reputation for poisoning livestock, like their cousin tansy. Although not good for sheep, these two Senecios are some of the oldest medicinal plants in the world, having been found in a tomb 60,000 years old. You can use the flower tops and leaves with your alcohol to make a slow-acting tincture to tone the reproductive organs, ease PMS, and stop severe menstrual pain. Dose is 5-10 drops (.2-.5 ml) a day, used only once a day, but for at least 3 months. (A larger dose is used to speed up labor.)
Mauves (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 making medicinal vinegar. The starch is extraordinarily soothing internally (relieving sore throats, upset stomach, heartburn, irritable bowel, colic, constipation and food poisoning) and externally (relieving bugs, burns, sprains and sore eyes). The leaves, flowers, and bark (especially) of the native Hohere (Hoheria populnea) are used in exactly the same way by Maori herbalists.
Plantain, also called ribwort, pig’s ear, and the bandaid plant is a common weed of lawns, driveways, parks, and playgrounds. Identify it by the five parallel veins along the length of each leaf. You can find broadleaf plantain (Plantain major) with broad leaves, or narrow leaf plantain (Plantain lanceolata) with lance-thin leaves. Or can be used to make a healing poultice or soothing oil widely regarded as one of the best wound healers around. Not only does plantain increase the speed of healing, it also relieves pain, stops bleeding, draws out foreign matter, stops itching, prevents and stops allergic reactions from bee stings, kills bacteria and reduces swelling.
Try a poultice or a generous application of plantain oil or ointment (made by thickening the oil with beeswax) on sprains, cuts, insect bites, rashes, irritated skin, boils, bruises, cracked and chapped lips, rough or sore hands, baby diaper rash. area, and burns.
To make a fresh plant poultice: Pick a leaf, chew it well and put it on the boo-boo. “Like magic” the pain, itching and swelling disappear, fast! (Yes, you can dry plant leaves and carry them in your first aid kit. Chew as you would fresh leaves.)
To make plantain ointment: Choose 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 chopstick until the jar is completely full of oil and all air bubbles are released. Cap well. Place a jar in a small bowl to collect any overflow. Wait six weeks. Then strain oil from the plant material, squeezing well. Measure the oil. Heat it gently, adding one tablespoon of grated beeswax for each fluid ounce of oil. Pour into jars and leave to cool.
St. John’s wort/John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) This beautiful perennial wildflower may be hated by sheep, but herbalists adore it. The flower tops are harvested after they begin to bloom (traditionally on the Solstice, June 21st) and prepared with alcohol, and with oil, to make two of the most useful remedies in my first aid kit. Tincture St. John’s wort not only lends one a sunny disposition, it reliably relieves muscle aches, is a powerful antiviral, and is my first-choice treatment for those with shingles, sciatica, back pain, neuralgia, and headaches including migraines. The usual dose is 1 drop (1 ml) as often as needed. In extreme pain from a muscle spasm in my thigh, I used a drop every twenty minutes for two hours, or until the pain was completely relieved. St. John’s wort oil stops a cold in its tracks and can even relieve 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 it. It even prevents burns from radiation therapy. Also relieves sore muscles.
Self healing (Prunella vulgaris) This odorless perennial mint is one of the world’s great unsung healers. The leaves and flowers contain more antioxidants — which prevent cancer and heart disease, among other health properties — than any other plant tested. And as part of the mint family, self-healing is full of many minerals, especially calcium, making it an especially important ally for pregnant, nursing, menopausal and postmenopausal women. I put self-healing leaves in salads in the spring and fall, make medicinal vinegar with the flowers during the summer, and cook the flower tops (fresh or dried) in winter soups.
Usnea (Usnea barbata) is that multi-stranded gray lichen hanging from the branches of your apple trees or the Monterey pines planted in the plantation there or on almost any native tree in areas of the South Island Alps, where it is known as wan to the Maori. If in doubt about your identification: Pull a thread gently apart with your hands, looking for a white fiber within the dull gray-green outer coat. To prepare usnea, harvest at any time of the year, being careful not to take too much. Usnea grows slowly. Put your harvest in a cooking pan and just cover it with cold water. Boil for about 15-25 minutes, or until the water is orange and reduced by at least half. Pour uso and water into a jar, filling it to the top with plant material. (Water should be no more than half the jar.) Add the highest proof alcohol you can buy. After 6 weeks this tincture is ready to work for you as an excellent antibacterial, fighting infection anywhere in the body. Dose is a drop (1 ml) as often as every two hours in acute situations.
Yarrow (Achelia millefolium) This beautiful perennial weed is grown in many herb gardens because it has many uses. Cut off the flowering tops (use only white-flowered myrrh) and use your alcohol to make a strong-smelling tincture that you can take internally to prevent colds and flu. (Dose is 10-20 drops, or up to 1 ml). I carry a little spray bottle of aquifera tincture with me when I’m out and about and moisturize my skin every hour or so. A study by the United States Army showed that the tincture of achille is more effective than DEET at repelling ticks, mosquitoes and flies. You can also make a healing ointment with yarrow flower tops and your oil or fat. Yarrow oil is antibacterial, pain-relieving and incredibly helpful in healing all types of wounds.
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