There are so many amazing – and usually overlooked -- plants that grow right at our doorsteps, in sidewalk cracks, and throughout abandoned city lots. Many of these plants, often condemned as “weeds”, are in fact wonderful examples of how plants can survive, and even thrive, in the harshest of growing conditions. Have you ever wondered how those tenacious dandelions manage to grow in sidewalks where soil and water are not easy to come by?....
Many of these so-called weeds are medicinal herbs that possess healing properties or are nutrient-rich wild foods. Humans have had a relationship with these plants for centuries, using them to stay healthy, strong and nourished.
So here’s a brief run down of four of my favorite urban street plants and their medicinal and edible uses:
With broad, fanning leaves and a stalk of magenta thistle-like flowers, burdock is a noticeable plant in many corners of Somerville. The root is much esteemed as a food and can be harvested in early spring or late fall to eat sautéed or roasted, much like carrots. It has a sweet, meaty flavor that is very fortifying. Medicinally burdock is a plant that is incredibly nourishing for the body and gradually helps to re-build overall strength and vitality, especially in cases where someone is depleted and run down from stress. It is also great for skin issues such as itchy, rashy skin, eczema and acne. Burdock helps to clear out toxins from the system (which can manifest as skin problems), and supports liver function. This herb is best taken consistently over the span of many months for noticeable results, as it is slowly building and nourishing.
The ubiquitous dandelion is found all over town. This cheerful yellow flower, the bane of many gardeners, blooms from early spring throughout the growing season. It seems that the more you try to weed it out, the more it will grow back. Dandelion is a persistent and prolific plant, but fortunately so, for it is one of the single most beneficial herbs for humankind. Both the leaves and the roots are used medicinally to support liver health. It is also a prime herb for digestion – with its very bitter taste it stimulates our gastric juices, prepares our bodies to digest food, and helps with the assimilation of fats and nutrients. I find that drinking a tea of dandelion over several days helps me feel fresh, happy and invigorated, as if my liver were thanking me for treating it so kindly. Dandelion leaves and flowers can both be added fresh to salads, a beautiful way to use the abundance of this plant during the growing season.
What an adaptable creature this humble weed is – you will see plantain growing in sidewalk cracks, waste lots, abandoned areas, places with poor soil, little soil, pollution, i.e. in places where most plants would not even think about growing. Fortunately for us this inconspicuous herb is a kind friend for humans, and many herbalists call it the Band-Aid plant or the First Aid plant. Indeed, plantain helps us with all sorts of minor issues and can be used topically as a poultice for wounds and scrapes, sunburn, itchy bug bites and even poison ivy. (It once helped me quite well with a bad case of poison ivy outbreak.) Next time you become mosquito food, try placing a crushed (or chewed up) plantain leaf on the area that has been bitten – see if you don’t notice that the itch and swelling is relieved almost immediately.
Mullein is a plant that you will see growing throughout much of the US, and although it is not a native plant it has now become naturalized throughout much of the country. Another name for this useful plant is Lungwort, which gives a clue that it has traditionally been used for all diseases of the lungs and upper respiratory system. It has helped people with asthma, coughs and pneumonia, mostly by use of an old-fashioned steam bath. Furthermore, the beautiful yellow flowers that bloom on the mullein stalk are still used to this day to treat ear infections, especially in children. This is one of my favorite plants, and at this time of year you can see the two-year-old mulleins blooming along the highways and in forgotten area.
When it comes to harvesting any plant material in the city, please do use your good judgement. Gather plants that you know are growing in clean areas, away from road traffic and pollution, and also consider the soil quality. As always, you want to be mindful of the health of the surrounding environment when you are collecting plants for edible or medicinal use. If you are unsure, do not collect. A win-win situation is to ask gardeners and farmers if you can come and collect their pesky (but useful) "weeds".
Happy plant harvesting!
This post was originally published on the Somerville Urban Ag blog
St. John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum) can now be spotted blooming along roadsides and railroad tracks, forest edges and in fields. This cheery plant, with yellow petals that embrace the sun, is one of my favorite herbs. Hypericum is a plant of ancient use, one that has been a protector and healer of people for centuries. Folklore dictates that the herb wards off evil influences and protects against harmful unseen forces.
While we may not use it in the same way as it once was, St. John’s Wort continues to offer physical, emotional and spiritual protection for modern humans living in a world with its own challenges and harmful influences.
In recent times St. John’s Wort has been popularized for its ability to lift the spirits and to alleviate mild depression and seasonal affective disorder. In my experience it is indeed very useful when one feels melancholic, especially in the deep winter months. It seems fitting that such bright yellow flowers would be uplifting in darker days, especially Hypericum flowers that start to bloom right at the peak of summer, when the days are longest. If you are someone who suffers from seasonal melancholy or from “the blues”, you might consider bringing this joyful, light-filled herb into your life.
St. John’s Wort also has a great affinity for the whole nervous system. In particular I have found it most remarkable for its ability to help with feelings of nervousness, anxiety and vulnerability. I have used both the flower essence and the tincture with very noticeable results to help myself feel protected, safe and centered when I otherwise would have felt anxious. In general, I find that St. John’s Wort is an amazing support for sensitive people who tend to feel uncomfortable or overwhelmed in new social situations, or who need to feel deeply more protected in order to express their true selves.
St. John's Wort is a slightly bitter herb, which makes it beneficial for the digestive organs by stimulating gastric juices and bile flow. It also affects the liver, speeding up the metabolic process and removing toxins from the system. And so, a word of caution when using Hypericum: if you are taking any pharmaceutical medications it is best to avoid use of this plant. St. John’s Wort increases the activity of liver enzymes that metabolize drugs so using this herb in combination with any medications is not recommended.
Traditionally, this beautiful plant has also been used externally as a wound healer. The infused medicinal oil, red from the crimson-hued juice of the flower buds, can be rubbed into the skin. This oil has been used with great success to help with the pain of burns, sore muscles, sciatica, damaged nerves, as well as the excruciating pain of shingles, which I have seen it work wonders for.
To experience for yourself the medicinal qualities of a St. John’s Wort plant that you come across, crush an unopened flower bud between your fingers. It will leave a deep red stain on your fingers. This pigment is the bioactive compound hypericin, where much of Hypericum’s medicine resides. Then, take one of the plant’s leaves and hold it up to the sunlight. Can you see small window-like holes in the leaf? This is another good way to identify the plant--not many leaves are able to let the sunlight shine right through them.
St. John’s Wort may be used in tea or tincture form, but remember that if you are on any medications ingesting the physical herb is not recommended. The infused medicinal oil can be used topically, and is a wonderful addition to any home apothecary for use on minor wounds, burns and sore muscles. As a flower essence St. John’s Wort is especially beneficial for sensitive people, providing emotional protection, healthy boundaries, and the ability to share one’s own unique inner light with others. This beautiful plant, so abundant at summertime, has many gifts to offer us. I encourage you to seek out St. John’s Wort and to welcome it’s joyful, healing qualities into your life.
Last weekend I had the wonderful opportunity of being a part of a women's retreat on the beautiful isle of Nantucket. My dearest friend and yoga teacher, Jenn Falk, and I co-led this Summer Solstice retreat for an amazing group women, many of whom were meeting one another for the first time. For me it was a true honor to be a part of this circle, to teach about the herbs, and to hold the space for the women. It's a simple idea, the act of going on retreat, of getting away from the normal routine, but it can be so profoundly shifting. Time to slow down, time to play, time to reflect, time to connect to nature can be deeply healing for the modern spirit....
We were graced to have beautiful weather the whole trip, and our daily yoga practice led by Jenn had long views towards the sea, with plenty of beach roses to surround us. Indeed, we were so inspired by the gorgeous roses that they became a metaphor for our time together. We even made a flower essence out of the rose, calling upon it's ability to be open to love and to nurture self-love. There was an abundance of other lovely plants in the vicinity, which graciously lended themselves to our herb classes and wild flower bouquets.
It was such a beautiful weekend and it reminded me of the power that resides when women gather together in a spirit of openness. I thank all of the women who came to be fully present, to share of themselves, and to remind one another of our magic! I especially send my thanks to Jenn for envisioning it all and inviting me to take part in creating this retreat so many months ago. We are looking forward to many more collaborative events together, in order to weave together the practices of yoga and herbalism, and creating a space that allows for both connection and reflection.