There's a veritable pharmacy out there, and when you stroll the woods and fields, you're standing in it.
You've heard the names: Oregon grape, California poppy, lemon balm, wild oats, nettle, yarrow, horehound, plantain, even dandelion — but did you know these wild herbs are age-old tonics and remedies for a range of ailments, including low energy, depression, lung congestion, bleeding, holding water and the common cold?
- Use a cutting tool. Don't overharvest. Take what you need for now, not what will last all year. Take part of a plant, if you can, not the whole thing. Dry in a cool, shady place.
- Learn plant identification and preparation from an herbalist, as some plants of similar appearance can be toxic or fatal. You should learn contra-indications, possible side effects and results of misuse. There are many classes and herb walks available locally.
- Don't pick herbs near polluted streams or places where toxic waste may have been dumped. It defeats the purpose of the herbs' health benefits.
Walking the ethnobotanical trail at Ashland's North Mountain Park, herbalist Tracie Sage points out these "magical medicines," which look suspiciously like a bunch of weeds, the kind we usually ignore and whose names we never bother to learn.
Most are harvested and made into teas by pouring a cup of boiling water on one or two teaspoons of the useful part of the plant. Many are made into tinctures in an alcohol solution and ingested in small amounts. Or they may be blended into sun teas, that is, placed in water in a big jar and set in the sun for many hours.
Users should be careful to educate themselves with a professional; learn your plants, learn how to avoid toxic plants and consult field guides and Web sites of authorities, such as Michael Moore (not the filmmaker) or Gregory Tilford.
The ethnobotanical trail at North Mountain Park is home to a range of favorite useful herbs — for demonstration, not picking — and you can often find herb walks on their calendar at www.northmountainpark.org. Here are some of the main native, medicinal herbs of our region:
Oregon grape (root)
A bush with hardy, prickly, shiny leaves. "It's a wonderful bitter and a liver stimulant. If you're getting a cold, use the root in combination with echinacea, instead of doing goldenseal, which is now overharvested," says Sage.
Oregon grape is an anti-microbial that can be used both topically and internally. You can dip a compress in a tea of Oregon grape and apply to an infected area, says Aimee Napolitano of Alchemy Botanicals in Ashland.
It looks like mint, has an amazingly pleasant smell and taste and, says Sage, is "a wonderful, refreshing plant, good for depression and digestion. It's uplifting. A lot of times, when people are sick, there's an emotional component, and this helps. It's good to help children sleep, too."
A digestive bitter. It stimulates digestion when there aren't enough digestive juices and the digestive tract contents start to ferment, causing indigestion, says Sage. It's a mild "nervine," meaning it soothes the nervous system. It's good for stress and tension, she adds, and goes good with lemon balm and wild oats.
"It's a tonic that nourishes the nervous system, encourages bile and eliminates toxins," says Napolitano. The leaf goes in teas or tinctures.
Looks like wheat or grass, on thin stems, with seeds drooping down. The seeds, which have a milky juice, go in a tea.
"It's very soothing and healing for skin irritations," is high in calcium and is "the most amazing nervine," says Sage.
"You can use it to sleep or when you're sick. Who couldn't use some? There's a lot of stress in our society, and it's at the root of most ailments," Sage says.
Napolitano adds that wild oats are an excellent nerve tonic and is nourishing to the nervous system. It's used, she says, for anxiety and malnourishment."
The whole plant, dried, is used as an anti-anxiety herb and is also good in a blend with wild oats and lemon balm, says Sage.
"It's a wonderful relaxant, with leaves and flowers used in tea or tinctures," says Napolitano. "It's not a sedative but is good for mild sleep disorders."
A great expectorant, meaning it's good for lessening phlegm and congestion in colds, flu and pneumonia. Not nice-tasting (as with many herbs), but Sage says she's seen "miraculous" results in one day.
It supports the natural process of fever, which is "the healthy immune system burning out a bug" and detoxing itself, says Sage. "It's a miserable process, but it will lick anything."
It's good as a digestive bitter, for making you sweat and break a fever, for slowing bleeding, including heavy menstrual flows, says Sage. It's also good in vinegar, topically, for varicose veins and cystitis, Sage says.
Napolitano says yarrow is called "warrior's herb" because Achilles carried it into battle. "It's excellent first aid, one of the best plants on the face of the earth. It takes toxins out of the environment. It's styptic, anti-bacterial and will stop bleeding and infection."
It's a very common, flat, scruffy-looking weed, and it's great as a skin salve or for stings or poison oak. Drink as tea or make a poultice in a blender and apply topically, says Sage, who calls it "nature's Band-Aid." You can also chew it and put the pulp on a sting, then tie another plantain leaf around it.
"Kids love that and, it calms them down," says Sage.
Napolitano adds, "It's enormously healing, often overlooked, extremely nutritious to eat, good for digestion, good internally and externally."
Painful to brush against, this useful herb is good as a liver tonic, as a nutritional herb and as an anti-allergen, says Sage. "It strengthens all the body. Use it as a daily tea."
Napolitano says nettle is "one of the most nutritional plants in nature." It's great in tea or tinctures and nourishes the nervous system, she notes, and has many minerals, including iron and calcium. It builds strength, and you can cook with the tender tops.
"Nettle spanakopita is great," Napolitano says, and the plant is also a good antihistamine. A "superior blend" for pollen season is nettle, yerba mansa and horseradish.