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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Herbal Medicine Chest - Wildcrafting

As I've mentioned in the Where Do I Begin? segment of the Herbal Medicine Chest Series, you can begin by purchasing ready-made herbal preparations or dried herbs and in some cases it's much easier to do so.  But if you're like me, you like to get a little more down and dirty when you can.  Close to nature, if you will, by starting from scratch.  If you are gathering plant materials in the wild (wildcrafting) please make sure of these important points before you begin.

1. Find a good field guide for medicinal and/or edible plants in your area with good pictures and information.  Research before going out.  Find an experienced herbalist or naturalist to take you out on an "Herbal tour" of your yard or areas where you may be gathering medicinal plants.  Knowing or being able to look up edible plants may be helpful in survival or "living off the land" situations.

2. If you're gathering on public or private property other than you own, be sure to get permission first.

3. Know what your harvesting!  Buy a good field guide. (See #1)  Learn to identify both poisonous and safe plants.  Sometimes, as with pharmaceuticals, this can be a grey area because while small doses of a certain drug or plant may be helpful, larger doses can be harmful.  Parts of some plants are poisonous while others may be very useful...take rhubarb for example.  We love to eat the fleshy stems but eating the leaves is harmful.  Elderberries are another.  The leaves and pithy stems contains an alkaloid and glycoside that can change into cyanide.  Folks have died from using elder spouts for maple sugaring or pea shooters but the flowers and berries offer immense immune boosting and antiviral properties as well as many other health benefits.

4. Know how the land you're gathering from has been cared for.  Has this yard been sprayed with chemicals of any kind?  Is it next to a road where the plants are exposed to road chemicals and fumes or covered with dust?  Has this field been sprayed with pesticides?

5. Know your plants!  Some plants don't have any look alikes but a few of the most dangerous plants out there are very similar to favorite medicinal and/or edible plants.  A good example of this is wild carrots or Queen Ann's Lace and its very dangerous, fatal cousin, Poison Hemlock.  Just ask Socrates!  Invest in a good field guide for your area.  Did I already say that?

6. Is the plant you're wildcrafting protected or near extinction?  If it is, consider growing your own from seed.  Be selective.  Don't harvest the entire patch of one herb leaving none to reseed for the next year.  Be responsible.  Don't pull out the entire plant if you only use the leaves or flowers.  In most cases, trimming off up to 2/3 of the top growth will encourage more growth and will delay flowering if you're only after the leaves.

Things you'll need before you start:

a good field guide for your area (see above)
a low basket with a big handle for gathering; or a lovely trug.
a sharp pocket knife or pair of pruning shears
brown paper bags
rubber bands and cordage
a dehydrator - not a necessity but nice to have

 Knowing when to harvest depends on what part of the plant you want to use.  The best time to harvest roots is in the fall after the plant has sent it's energy and sap into the roots for the winter.  Most aerial parts are best harvested before flowering at midday, shortly after the dew has dried but before the full heat of the day.  Flowers, of course when they're in season at the same time of day as other aerial parts.  There are variations that will be noted in most guides.

If the idea of wildcrafting sounds intimidating to you, let's start right in your own back yard. I'll make the assumption that if you're interested in making your own herbal remedies, you're not treating your yard with harmful herbicides or pesticides. Healing plants can be found easily by looking a little harder at the "weeds" in your lawn. Let's look at some of the most common;

Notes: some of the terms used here and in reliable herbal manuals to describe the uses of herbs and herbal remedies may not be familiar to you. Please refer to the Herbal Medicine Chest - Terms to Know page. (Sorry - Still under construction at this time)
Also, some of the info. here is shared from Complete Medicinal Herbal (Natural care) by Penelope Ody which is a valuable resource for the home herbalist offering advice on preparation, storage and dosage of your medicinal herbal creations.

Dandelion - Taraxacum officinale - unfairly despised by many, all parts of this plant offer valuable properties so if you're digging them out anyway, you might as well learn how to use them.
Here in the West, we tend to use the individual parts separately but in Chinese medicine, it's used as a whole plant (pu gong ying) which is use as a liver stimulant and diuretic as well as removing toxins from the blood, making it a great treatment for drawing infection from boils and abscesses.
The leaves are reported to be diuretic, liver and digestive tonic containing high levels of potassium, and other minerals as well as vitamins A, B ,C, and D.  The leaves can be harvested throughout the growing season.  They can be used fresh in salads in early spring, before the sap turns bitter white or juiced for a tonic drink. There are numerous recipes that use spring dandelions including my Dandelion wine, which uses only the yellow flower heads, and dandelion fritters...wilted greens with bacon dressing.  An infusion of the freshly dried leaves is also tonic and helpful in eliminating toxic conditions by clearing excess uric acid (which causes gouty inflammation) from the body.
The roots are tinctured fresh for toxic conditions, promoting liver stimulation and elimination of constipation which is helpful in many illnesses.  Bear in mind that while the plant is widely available, to provide for winter use, other methods of extracting the healing properties can be useful.  The roots can be used in a decoction as well.  Roasted dandelion root makes a tasty cleansing hot drink that could be used as a coffee replacement.

Coltsfoot - Tussilago farfara - the Latin name means "cough dispeller"  Harvest the flowers, which bloom in early spring before the leaves appear.  The antispasmodic, expectorant properties attributed to this common, roadside weed  are great for calming coughs and reducing phlegm.  Alone or combined with horehound, cough drops made from coltsfoot are a great herbal remedy.  Methods of preparing the flowers include decoctions, tinctures and syrups.
The leaves are a good source of zinc.  Apply fresh leaves to sores and skin injuries as a poultice. They can also be made into a decoction and tincture for coughs.

Caution: this herb contains alkaloids that have been reported to cause liver damage in rats.  These alkaloids are destroyed by the heat used to make a decoction.

Plantain - Plantago spp. - not to be confused with the tropical fruit, plaintain is a widespread plant that grows all over the world.  It's often called "ribwort" because all the veins run parallel from stem to leaf tip.  There are several varieties with Plantago major which has rather broad oval shaped leaves and P. lanceolata whose leaves are long and narrow, being the most common. Both grow in rosettes which produce a long flower shaft with tiny flowers covering the tip like a cattail.  An infusion of P. psyllium and P. ovata seeds make a mucilaginous bulking laxative that is soothing to irritated bowels and constipation.  The leaves, which can be harvested year round, offer healing properties. Applied externally, they are healing to sores and wounds.  It's an instant first aide that can be applied right in the field!  Simply chew up the leaf and apply is as poultice to just about any skin irritation or inflammation including insect bites. It helps stop bleeding, stimulates healing, it's antimicrobial and the lanceleaf variety is also anti-inflammatory.  It's cooling and drawing for infection.  Make the leaves into juice for healing inflamed membranes as in lung infections and diarrhea; a tincture for heavy mucous in allergies or as an astringent; a poultice (as mentioned above) for wounds and bee stings; an ointment for wounds, burns and hemorrhoids; a wash for inflamed sores and wounds; a gargle for sore throats and mouth and gum inflammation; and a syrup made with the juice for coughs associated with throat irritation.

Chickweed - Stellaria spp. - one of the most common weeds growing all over the world.  Traditionally harvested for food, the greens are a wonderful addition to salads and the roots make a good tonic which was used, in hard times, to feed the poor.  The leaves are very healing and drawing making it a perfect candidate for first aide creams or salves.  Even into modern times, it is a known healer for eczema.  The low growing leafy tops can be made into a cleansing decoction which can reduce digestive irritation; a tincture for rheumatism; a poultice from the plant or compress from the decoction or tincture for boils, abscesses and joint pain; a cream to reduce itching, sooth burns or draw splinters; an infused oil to be used like a lotion for rashes.   The roots can be decocted to reduce fever.

Red Clover - Trifolium pratense - the familiar pinkish purple flower, a favorite of rabbits, contains a sweet necter that is fun to suck out when the blooms are fresh.  Gerard called it meadow trefoil and the medieval Christians associated it with the Trinity.  The flowers can be used fresh for insect bites and stings; as a tincture taken internally for psoriasis or eczema; as a compress for painful joints and gout; as an ointment for swollen lymph glands; as an infused (be sure to strain very well before use) eye flush for pink eye (conjunctivitis); as a douche for itching and as a syrup for dry coughs.

Yarrow -  Achillea millefolium - lore tells that the Latin name comes from the Greek hero Achilles because yarrow has been used to treat wounds even from ancient times.  Also known as the nosebleed plant because of its styptic qualities.  Yarrow is a very useful back yard herb. The flowers can be used as an infusion to reduce phlegm and applied externally to cleanse eczema and inhaled through stream for hayfever.  The essential oil can be added to a salve or ointment or carrier oil to relieve chest congestion.  The fresh leaves can be inserted lightly into the nostril to stop a nosebleed or as a poultice on cuts and scrapes.  The leaves and stems can be infused to reduce fever and made into a compress to sooth varicose veins.

Caution: yarrow may cause allergic reaction in rare cases.  Long term use may reduce photo sensitivity.
This herb is a uterine stimulant and large doses should be avoided in pregnancy.

Traditional wisdom surrounding the use of plants as medicine goes back to the beginning of time and the spread of plants from one continent to the other has blessed us with lots of wild herbs, some of which are even available in urban communities, parks and city lots.  See Steve Brill's Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places. Steve is known for his identification and occasional "sampling" tours through Central Park. Who knew we had such a wealth of choices right outside our door?   Here's a list of several other plants that can be wildcrafted from yards, wayside fields and woodlands:

Shepherd's Purse
Stinging Nettle
Wild Strawberries
Hops - if you're fortunate
St. John's Wort
Ginseng - If you're very fortunate
Sweet Violet

So, after you've gathered your plants, now what?  If you're not going to use them fresh, you need to dry them for storage.  The best way to do this is to bundle the plants loosely in groups of 3-6 stems and secure with a rubber band.  Hang the bundles upside down in a warm, dark place with low humidity.  If you are using the seeds, you can tied a brown paper bag over the bundle to catch the seeds as they fall.  Or spread the plants in a single layer with lots of breathing room on an old window screen. Place the screen over the backs of chairs to provide ad equate ventilation. Depending on the climate of the room, this can take a few days or a week.  It's important to dry them relatively quickly to preserve the properties but not at such high temps that they are destroyed.  You can use a dehydrator if you have one but be sure to use low heat.

When the herbs are crackly, like corn chips, transfer them to tight sealing glass jars.  If you're concerned about remaining moisture, put a teaspoon of rice in a little muslin bag and put it in your container.  Store the jars in a cool, dark place until you're ready for the next step.  Heat, light and moisture will all dimish the potency of the dried material.

If you're going to use the herbs fresh, have all your ingreidents on hand so you can prepare those remedies as soon after harvest as possible because the longer they are harvested without being preserved in some way, they less potent them become.

It's really satisfying to go wildcrafting.  Much like picking wild berries, which have medicinal properties of their own.  It gives me a sense of wellbeing just knowing that I can use what others call weeds to make such useful, healing remedies.

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