I teach two Southern Oregon University classes face to face — as opposed to online — each week, and I routinely take my fall and spring classes to the Ashland growers market. We identify the nutrients and health benefits of foods and talk to the farmers about their growing practices and what it's like farming nowadays.
I also teach a Wednesday afternoon class at the RCC/SOU Higher Education Center in Medford. I'd been considering options for a field trip for the Wednesday group for a while, and in the spring, we finally took a plant-identification walk along Bear Creek. I explained that a number of native plants live along the creek, but it's a "disturbed area" where many nonnative plants have found a home. Some seeds may have floated downstream, been transplanted by birds or animals, such as ourselves, and surely some flew off trucks or cars passing above the creek, as well.
One of the first plants we came across was wild lettuce. The ancestor of our domesticated lettuce, which pops up in places where it's unwanted, looks like a picture-perfect weed. When we tear at the leaf, we see a small amount of white sap that helps to identify it. Wild lettuce, though very bitter, has some medicinal value as a pain reliever and cough suppressant when prepared as a liquid extract.
The second plant we came across, also generally regarded as a weed, was shepherd's purse — Capsella bursa-pastoris, whose triangular seedpods (if we're imaginative) look like a shepherd's purse. This plant has historically been used for controlling prolific menstrual bleeding, known as menorrhagia. It also has been used in childbirth. I recently spoke to a midwife in training who witnessed one of her first births. The mother was experiencing quite a bit of postpartum bleeding, and they administered shepherd's purse, which the midwife trainee said helped slow the bleeding.
We saw other plants, including mullein, whose fuzzy leaves can be prepared as a tea to allay coughs. Mullein starts as a rosette and then becomes a tall plant with sometimes chandelier-like, bright-yellow, flowering stalks that are quite lovely at their peak in the late summer and early fall. Mullein often is found in disturbed fields and is no stranger to corners of gardens, as well.
Some companies, including herbal-extract producer Herb Pharm in Williams, blend mullein-flower oil with garlic. The oil can be used for otitis media, the ear infections kids commonly get from overtreatment with antibiotics. When my friend told me his yellow Lab, Stella, had an ear infection and mentioned that the medication costs $35, I suggested trying garlic-mullein oil, which may be just as effective for a quarter the price.
These are the kinds of inexpensive, safe and effective local remedies more people need to know about and hopefully learn how to prepare and use. Then we'd perhaps stop looking at useful plants as mere weeds.
Michael Altman is a nutritionist at Ventana Wellness and teaches at Southern Oregon University. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.