You probably already know this if you have attended one of my herbal classes, but I love weeds! Yes, I have a great fondness for the plants that everyone tries to get rid of and “keep under control” especially the tenacious ones that keep on growing where nothing else could…. the crack of a sidewalk, compacted and poor soil, the top of a bridge, along railroad tracks, etc.…
I love weeds because they are spunky and resourceful, and in some cases they are beneficial to the local ecosystem. These plants will hold down eroding soil, remove heavy metals, and/or provide greater soil fertility and organic matter. They grow in niches where more delicate plants cannot.
Additionally, many of these so-called weeds make for good foods and remedies for humans. So, before you decide to remove a weedy creature from your garden or lawn, please consider all of the above qualities and appreciate the vitality that is found in wild plants!
Now, onto Chickweed, one of our delightfully weedy plants that can be seen around town.
First and foremost, chickweed is an abundant wild edible. It makes for a refreshing salad green and is a traditional spring tonic. It is very nutritious, being high in chlorophyll, vitamins A & C, and minerals such as calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium. Chickweed is a wonderful herb to help support the liver and the whole lymphatic system. Traditionally it is used to remove metabolic wastes and excess fats from the body.
If you make a tea of chickweed you might notice an interesting property that it has: when you pour hot water over the dried leaves you’ll see a foamy substance that rises to the top. This is because chickweed contains saponins, which are soap-like substances that increase the permeability of cells. This quality helps our human bodies to absorb more nutrients while also helping us to break down waste products, including excess mucous, toxins and fat cells. This makes it a perfect spring herb to turn to when our bodies need to wake up — and lighten up — after a long winter.
On the herbal spectrum of actions chickweed is considered to be a cooling and demulcent herb. It is soothing and moisturizing for the body’s tissues, both internally and externally. Chickweed can be used for any sort of hot, inflammatory condition such as colitis, sore throat, itchy or inflamed skin, or even stings, burns and sunburn. I think it is especially wonderful for irritated and red eyes. A simple poultice of fresh chickweed placed over the eyes will bring cooling relief.
Now in early spring is the time to scope out wild chickweed; before too long it will start to fade in the hot summer sun. Watch out for its dainty white, star-shaped flowers, and brilliant green leaves. It may be an over-looked plant but once you learn how to identify chickweed you will be surprised to see it growing abundantly, spreading like tiny stars across the city.
HOW TO USE CHICKWEED:
Burdock is a beautiful, large-leafed plant that pops up in areas where humans live. You’ve seen it growing around our city environs in Cambridge and Somerville — I’m certain of it!
Burdock is generally called a “weed” since it likes to grow in places where it was not planted. Often overlooked, it is actually quite a lovely plant, when you take the time to admire it. The bright magenta flowers could easily be mistaken for a kind of thistle, and burdock is, in fact, closely related to thistles (a part of the Asteraceae family). The flowers are covered with prickly burrs, which interestingly were the inspiration behind the invention of Velcro! Get close to some of these clingy flowers and seed heads and you will see what I mean…
Burdock is a resourceful creature and can thrive in places where many other plants cannot. Part of its tenacity and strength is due to its long taproot, which burrows deeply down into the earth. With this advantage burdock can reach precious micro-nutrients that are often inaccessible to shallow-rooted plants.
Herein lies much of burdock’s goodness: Because of its deep earth diving, the roots contains many nutrients and minerals, as well as inulin, a special kind of storage carbohydrate (prebiotic). Inulin happens to be wonderful for the human digestive tract because it feeds and nourishes our beneficial gut flora. Taking burdock root is a good idea when there is any sort of digestive issue, especially when the good gut flora needs some support.
When taken as food, tea or tincture, burdock (slowly) acts upon the digestion and liver. It helps the system to better digest, and assimilate fats and oils — these are then more easily distributed to the skin, hair and internal tissues. Burdock is often a popular choice for helping resolve any sort of eruptive skin problem such as acne, rashes, or eczema. I will often pair it with red clover to help support the removal of waste products that may be improperly eliminating through the skin instead of through other channels. Traditionally this cleansing action led burdock to be known as a “blood purifier” because it helps to detoxify the body and blood by stimulating the release of waste products from the cells.
Burdock root is a gentle and nutritive tonic that helps to restore one’s natural energy and to overcome states of depletion. Not that long ago it was also used as a natural aphrodisiac! However, one important thing to know about burdock is that although it can have a very deep and profound effect on the body, it works slowly and must be taken with consistency over time. A few doses of burdock will not do the trick — this is an herb that needs to be used with commitment over several months. In exchange it will show you its ability to nourish depleted bodies, provide increased energy, and improve the function of the digestive system. Judith Berger — one of my favorite herbal writers — states, “The root’s style is almost tortoise-like as it patiently wades through tired organs, pulling poisons, chemical residues, and contaminants which slow down the lymphatic, digestive, and urinary organs.”
If you are looking to harvest your own burdock once the growing season returns, keep in mind that it is a biennial. Be sure to gather one-year-old plants in the fall, or two-year-old plants in the spring, i.e., any time before it has flowered. You want the energy of the root to still be underground rather moving upwards into the flowers and seeds.
HOW TO USE BURDOCK:
There are many ways to enjoy the sweet and earthy taste of burdock. You can eat the fresh or cooked roots, take it as a tincture, or drink it as a tea. If taking it as a tea, it will need to be simmered on the stove in order to draw out all of its benefits. Add 1 heaping tablespoon of the dried root to 1.5 cups of water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, cover with a lid, and let this cook for 15 to 20 minutes. Then strain and drink.
Another wonderful way to use nutritive burdock root is to steep it in apple cider vinegar. Vinegar is an excellent medium for drawing out the mineral contents of plants. Place 2 to 3 tablespoons of the dried root (or twice this amount of the chopped fresh root) in an 8 oz. glass jar. Cover with apple cider vinegar and let this mixture steep at room temperature for 2 to 3 weeks. Then strain out the roots, place the remaining liquid in a clean, dark bottle, and use this earthy mixture on vegetables or salads. I like to store my herbal vinegars in the fridge for the longest shelf life. Use this up within 6 months.
This post was originally published on Cambridge Natural's blog.
Urban Street Plants
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