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