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Herbal Medicine Chest In Your Back Yard

Don't kill, spray, tear up, or destroy the weeds in your garden, yard, and fencerows. Many of them are actually highly regarded, widely used, and extremely valuable medicinal herbs! What could be easier than growing an herb garden with no effort? Of course, you'll have to harvest your weeds, but you would do that anyhow: it's called weeding.

Spring is an especially fertile time for harvesting your weeds — roots and all — and turning them into medicines. Here then are some tips on how to find, harvest, prepare, and use a baker's dozen (13) of common weeds that probably already grow around you.

To make your medicines you'll need glass jars of various sizes with tight-fitting lids. And at least a pint each of apple cider vinegar (pasteurized), vodka (100 proof is best, but 80 proof will do), and pure olive oil (not extra virgin) or good quality animal fat such as lanolin, lard, or belly fat from a lamb or kid. You will also want a knife, a cutting board, and some rags to mop 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 are using them, and be sure to dry those well with a towel before putting them in your jar.) Then you will fill the jar with your menstruum — that is, the vinegar, the oil, or the alcohol. Label well and allow to stand at room temperature, out of the sunlight for at least six weeks before decanting and using. (See my book Healing Wise for more specific information on making preparations.)

A field guide is helpful for positively identifying your weeds. The one I like best is: A Guide to the Identification of New Zealand Common Weeds in Colour, compiled by E. A. Upritchard (available from the New Zealand Weed And Pest Control Society, P.O. Box 1654, Palmerston North). This book even shows you how the weeds look when they are emerging.

Ready? OK! Let's go outside and see what we can find.

Shepherd's purse (Capsella bursa pastoris) is an annual in the mustard family. Cut the top half of the plant when it has formed its little heart-shaped "purses" (seed pods) and make a tincture (with alcohol), which you can use to stop bleeding. Midwives and women who bleed heavily during their period praise its prompt effectiveness. Gypsies claim it works on the stomach and lungs as well. A dose is 1 dropperful (1ml); which may be repeated up to four times a day.

Cleavers (Gallium aparine) is a persistent, sticky plant that grows profusely in abandoned lots and the edges of cultivated land. The entire plant is used to strengthen 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. A dose is 15-25 drops (.5 - 1 ml); repeated as needed.

Chickweed (Stellaria media) has many uses, including delicious salad greens. I cut the entire top of the plant and eat it or use alcohol to make a tincture, which dissolves cysts, tonifies the thyroid, and aids in weight loss. A dose is a dropperful (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 native daisy (Lagenifera petiolata), the little English daisy is related to feverfew and has similar abilities. I use the leaves and flowers to make a tincture (with alcohol) or a medicinal vinegar that relieves headaches, muscle pain, and allergy symptoms. A dose is a dropperful of the tincture (1 ml), up to twice a day; or a tablespoon 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. (The native dandelion of New Zealand — Taraxacum magellanicum — is medicinal too.) Those who love a pure green lawn curse the sunny yellow flowers of common dandelion. But those (such as children and herbalists) who are willing to see beauty anywhere treasure this weed. 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, heartburn, and indigestion, as well as promoting healthy bowel movements. A tablespoon of the vinegar works well, too. More importantly, taken before meals, dandelion increases the production of hydrochloric acid in the stomach, thus increasing 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 for maintaining healthy breasts. (There's lots more information on dandelions in Healing Wise.)

Dock, also called yellow dock, curly dock, and broad dock, is a perennial plant, which my Native American grandmothers use for "all women's problems." The Maori call it paewhenua or runa. 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 tincture them in alcohol to use as an ally when the immune system or the liver needs help. A dose is 15-25 drops (.5-1 ml). I also harvest the leaves and/or seeds throughout the growing season and make a medicinal vinegar, taken a tablespoon at a time, which is used to increase blood-levels of iron, reduce menstrual flooding and cramping, and balance hormone levels. If the chopped roots are soaked in oil for six weeks, the resulting ointment is beneficial for keeping the breasts healthy.

Groundsel (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 world's most ancient healing plants, having been found in a grave 60,000 years old. You can use the flowering tops and leaves with your alcohol to make a tincture that acts slowly to tonify the reproductive organs, ease PMS, and stop severe menstrual pain. A dose is 5-10 drops (.2-.5 ml) per day, used only once a day, but for at least 3 months. (A larger dose is used to speed up labor.)

Mallows (Malva neglecta, M. parviflora, M. sylvestres) grow well in neglected gardens and are surprisingly deep-rooted. The flowers, leaves, stalks, 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 a medicinal vinegar. The starch is extraordinarily soothing internally (easing sore throats, upset tummies, heartburn, irritable bowel, colic, constipation, and food poisoning) and as an external poultice (relieving bug bites, burns, sprains, and sore eyes). These are the same ways Maori herbalists use the leaves, flowers, and bark (especially) of the native Hohere (Hoheria populnea).

Plantain, also called ribwort, pig's ear, and the Band-Aid® plant — and kopakopa or parerarera by the Maori — is a common weed of lawns, driveways, parks, and playgrounds. Identify it by the five parallel veins running the length of each leaf. You may find broad leaf plantain (Plantago major) with wide leaves, or narrow leaf plantain (Plantago lanceolata) with lance-thin leaves. Either can be used to make a healing poultice or a 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, chafed skin, boils, bruises, chapped and cracked lips, rough or sore hands, baby's diaper area, and burns.

To make a fresh plantain 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 plantain leaves and carry them in your first aid kit. Chew as you would fresh leaves.)

To make plantain ointment: Pick large fresh plantain leaves. Chop coarsely. Fill a clean, dry, glass jar with the chopped leaves. Pour pure olive oil into the leaves, poking about with a chopstick until the jar is completely full of oil and all air bubbles are released. Cap well. Place jar in a small bowl to collect any overflow (no matter how tightly capped, oils do ooze). Wait six weeks. Then strain oil out of the plant material, squeezing well. Measure the oil. Heat it gently, adding one tablespoon of grated beeswax for every liquid ounce of oil. Pour into jars and allow to cool.

St. Joan's/John's wort (Hypericum perforatum) is a beautiful perennial wildflower that sheep farmers may hate, but herbalists adore. The flowering tops are harvested after they begin to bloom (traditionally on Solstice, June 21) and prepared with alcohol or with oil, to make two of the most useful remedies in my first aid kit.

Tincture of St. Joan's wort not only lends one a sunny disposition, it reliably relieves muscle aches, is a powerful anti-viral, and is my first-choice treatment for those with shingles, sciatica, back pain, neuralgia, and headaches, including migraines. The usual dose is 1 dropperful (1 ml) as frequently as needed. In extreme pain from a muscle spasm in my thigh, I used a dropperful every twenty minutes for two hours, or until the pain totally subsided.

St. Joan's wort oil stops cold sores in their tracks and can even relieve genital herpes symptoms. I use it as a sunscreen. Contrary to popular belief, St. Joan's wort does not cause sun sensitivity; it prevents it. It even prevents burns from radiation therapy. Eases sore muscles, too.

Self heal (Prunella vulgaris), a scentless perennial mint, is one of the great unrecognized healers of the world. The leaves and flowers contain more antioxidants — which prevent cancer and heart disease, among other healthy traits — than any other plant tested. And as part of the mint family, self heal is imbued with lots of minerals, especially calcium, making it an especially important ally for pregnant, nursing, menopausal, and post-menopausal women. I put self heal leaves in salads in the spring and fall, make a medicinal vinegar with the flowers during the summer, and cook the flowering tops (fresh or dried) in winter soups.

Usnea (Usnea barbata) is that many-stranded grey lichen hanging from the branches of apple trees, the Monterey pines, or in almost any native tree in areas of the South Island Alps, where it is known as angiangi to the Maori. If in doubt of your identification: Pull a strand gently apart with your hands, looking for a white fiber inside the fuzzy grey-green outer coat. To prepare usnea, harvest at any time of the year. Be 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 usnea and water into a jar, filling it to the top with plant material. (Water should be no more than half of the jar.) Add the highest proof alcohol you can buy. After 6 weeks this tincture is ready to work for you as a superb antibacterial, countering infection anywhere in the body. A dose is a dropperful (1 ml) as frequently as every two hours in acute situations.

Yarrow (Achellia millefolium) is a lovely perennial weed grown in many herb gardens, for it has a multitude of uses. Cut the flowering tops (use only white-flowering yarrow) and use your alcohol to make a strongly-scented tincture that you can take internally to prevent colds and the flu. (A dose is 10-20 drops, or up to 1 ml). I carry a little spray bottle of yarrow tincture with me when I'm outside and wet my skin every hour or so. A United States Army study showed yarrow tincture to be more effective than DEET at repelling ticks, mosquitoes, and sand 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.

Legal Disclaimer: This content is not intended to replace conventional medical treatment. Any suggestions made and all herbs listed are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, condition or symptom. Personal directions and use should be provided by a clinical herbalist or other qualified healthcare practitioner with a specific formula for you. All material contained herein is provided for general information purposes only and should not be considered medical advice or consultation. Contact a reputable healthcare practitioner if you are in need of medical care. Exercise self-empowerment by seeking a second opinion.

Graphics Credits

  • yarrow, courtesy of Anja.
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