Unintentional Medicine from Evolution’s Winners
By Dr. Orna Izakson
Back in the late ’90s and early aughts, a small but information-dense ’zine circulated in the Eugene area called “weed lover.” The premise was that weeds offend gardeners by growing where they’re not wanted, but that they nevertheless offer great value by way of food, medicine and pulling nutrients up from the subsoil to feed neighboring plants. They also may be physically useful: one gardener tied her tomatoes to their cages using bindweed.
One of the very best things about using weeds for medicine is that you rarely have to entertain the usual worries about overharvesting. It’s an interesting exercise for an ethical wildcrafter to try: Find a field full of an unkillable weed and keep picking it for a while after you feel like you’ve done too much. (Don’t worry, you can always find an herbalist who can use some, or mulch your garden with the extra.)
I’ve tried this exactly twice. The first time was picking blooming yarrow on a friend’s land in the Columbia Gorge. The second was picking St. John’s Wort on an Okanogan land trust. In that case, the plant wasn’t even native, but rather a European invasive. It technically wasn’t even overharvesting, but arguably just a feeble attempt at restoration.
Weeds are survivors in the game of evolution for many reasons. Here let’s consider a few that help humans be survivors, too.
Dandelion (Taraxicum officinale):
I love to please the neighbors in early spring by “cleaning up” my front yard dandelions — then steaming lightly and adding a squeeze of lemon and maybe some local feta. Dandelion greens have long been a dietary staple for good reason. Aside from being prolific, one cooked cup offers a third of the daily value (the new RDA) of vitamin C and a whopping seven times the daily value of vitamin K. It also provides 144 percent of your daily vitamin A needs, 10 percent of your daily calcium, 12 percent of your manganese and 10 percent of your iron.
Dandelion leaves are used medicinally in tea, vinegar or tincture as a bitter, taken before meals to improve digestion, and as a simple diuretic to reduce excess water in the system. The root is used in similar fashion as a bitter and also to nourish and optimize function of the liver, the body’s most important detoxification organ.
Chickweed (Stellaria media) and cleavers (Galium aparine):
Among the first garden plants to really take off as the days begin lengthening, I use these for internal herbal spring cleaning. Both are mild herbs supporting the lymphatic system — the back channel of circulation and also where much of the immune system resides. A daily tea of the above-ground parts in season will help improve circulatory sluggishness after the relatively sedentary winter season. Preserve these in vinegar, brandy or vodka to have on hand the rest of the year.
Plantain (Plantago spp.):
Absolutely ubiquitous in Oregon, it’s easy to overlook the power of plantain until they day you need it but can’t find it. That happened to me in the remote town of McCarthy, Alaska, when I needed an astringent to reduce swelling and suck out infection in a friend’s foot.
Plantain is a wonderful simple astringent, which, as Eugene herbalist Howie Brounstein explains, “dry, draw and shrink swollen tissues.” (Blackberry fighters take note: blackberry root is a great simple astringent, too.) It also has constituents that help disinfect wounds. Muddle the fresh plantain leaf as you would mint for a mojito. either with a mortar and pestle or chewed a bit, and apply directly to the site. You can add to hot water for a soak or wash or take internally for mouth sores or persistent diarrhea — after checking with a doctor to figure out the cause!
Common mallow (Malva neglecta):
Sometimes, however, one needs the opposite of an astringent. And that’s where mallow shines. The weedy relative of both marshmallow and hollyhocks, mallow root’s soothing and cooling demulcent properties are useful both topically and internally. Think of mallow externally for dry, itchy skin or to help a sun or other burn. Internally, mallow can help cool burning stomachs and acid reflux, protect and heal ulcers, moisten lung tissues and ease constipation.
To use mallow as a demulcent, make a cold infusion by adding cold water to some root in a cup or jar and letting it sit until the water starts to get slimy. That slime is the medicine you’re looking for.
A note of caution for weed gardeners: If you tend to encourage the growth of plants you love, you might want to think twice when it comes to the weeds. There’s little reason to fear you’ll eradicate your dandelions, but coddling them will just make it harder to achieve other garden intentions.
A version of this story appeared in In Good Tilth.