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The botanical medicine cabinet

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Ground Ivy Illustration: Brenda Jones

With a little care, you can find herbal remedies growing around you

Long ago while a student at the former Nova Scotia Agricultural College (now the Dalhousie University Agricultural Campus), I grew interested in wild plants, for gardening, culinary and medicinal purposes. A presentation I did on useful wild plants began with a quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson, in which he stated, “A weed is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.”  

Go outside and walk around in your back yard, and you’ll be fascinated—amazed, even—at the plethora of common plants that you may know as weeds, but which in fact have virtues as healing herbs. Take for example, broad-leafed plantain, a ubiquitous plant that grows just about anywhere—in meadows and ditches, on roadsides and beaches. Its fibrous network of roots make it oft-cursed by gardeners—including this one—but it is a valuable plant with a number of purposes. I have a jar of plantain cream, made by a friend who runs a small business, which I use on insect bites, assorted cuts and scrapes from gardening, and other injuries. It’s also useful as a sunscreen and a paw protector for dogs in winter—all this from a lowly “weed.” 

Among other wild plants that are known as beneficial herbs are the lowly dandelion, useful as a pot herb (leaves) and an ingredient in both jellies and wine (flowers); valerian, which is a boon to pollinators and to those struggling with sleep issues; and chickweed, useful as a potherb, in a poultice or in the bath.

Brenda Jones knows and loves wild herbs. The Charlottetown, P.E.I. woman published an exquisitely beautiful book in 2020, Medicinal Herbs of Eastern Canada. (Nimbus, $22.95). Not only is it highly useful and packed with information on how to use many common wild herbs of our region, but it’s also illustrated by the authors own artwork. Brenda meticulously created paintings of each herb profiled in her book, from the glorious blue flowers of chicory to the otherworldly pitcher plant, provincial flower of Newfoundland and Labrador. 

Brenda’s relationship with nature and with herbs goes back many years, but it wasn’t until she returned to her home province of P.E.I. a few years ago that she felt ready to share her knowledge of medicinal herbs with a wide audience. A longtime illustrator, she also decided to create botanical paintings of her herbs to make the book a field guide that could be slipped into a knapsack when going for a walk. She also wanted to draw attention to the fact that many people have become disconnected from nature, when there are so many valuable and useful plants “in the wild” that can be harvested. 

That’s the beauty of the plants profiled—they grow wild throughout our region, and most would never need to be planted in a herb garden (you don’t want to plant ground ivy or mint or Japanese knotweed in a garden, trust me). You can simply take a container and this book and collect a variety of easily found plants for specific purposes. Brenda does stress not to wildcraft certain plants, including bloodroot and goldthread—these, like Mayflowers, have been harvested in many places to the point of becoming very hard to find in the wild. However, plants like bloodroot can be purchased from reputable nurseries, where they have been grown from seed and not harvested from the wild. 

Wild Rose Illustration: Brenda Jones

A couple of caveats before you venture forth to collect herbs; make sure you know exactly what you are harvesting, by taking along a knowledgeable friend and/or a good field guide to plants of your area. And secondly, check for contraindications for medicinals—some are not recommended for pregnant women, for example, and others may be contraindicated for those with certain medical issues. Here again, Brenda Jones has meticulously researched and catalogued the uses of each of the plants she profiles. 

A handful of helpfuls

Nettles: Wear gloves when harvesting these prickly plants, but they make a good potherb and are useful in alleviating breathing issues. 

Burdock root: We love to hate burdocks, but their roots are a culinary delicacy to some, and they are useful in treating arthritis and skin diseases.

Red clover: Easily recognized, red clover is useful for skin diseases, coughs and congestion, and fevers.

Purslane: Soothing for skin irritations, bowel problems, and great in a salad, too!

Bedstraw: Another commonly cursed weed, it’s useful with skin inflammation, insomnia and as a diuretic.

Plantain: Truly ubiquitous, great for a bee sting or other skin wound. 

Preparing herbs for medicinal use

For the most part, you don’t just pick a handful of a particular herb and eat it for whatever purpose recommended. There are a number of different ways to prepare herbs, both to preserve them for later use and for best delivery of them. 

A tincture is made by adding fresh or dried herbs to 80-proof alcohol, apple cider vinegar or glycerin. This process takes a number of weeks to complete, and the resulting tincture should be stored in a dark (amber or blue) bottle in a cool dark cupboard.

An infusion or herbal tea is the easiest way to prepare and use medicinal herbs. Basically, you steep the herb in boiled water for 10-15 minutes, strain the liquid into a mug or glass, and enjoy hot or cold.

A syrup includes the use of honey, maple syrup or other sweetener to make herbal infusions or decoctions more palatable (some herbs are quite bitter in taste), especially for a cough syrup. Dried herbs are simmered in water with sweetener until the water is reduced by half, then covered and allowed to steep off the heat for another hour.

A decoction is similar to an infusion but uses woodier parts of the herb, such as roots or rhizomes, stems, and occasionally berries or other fruits. The herbal parts being used should be chopped finely before being brought to a boil with water, then simmering for half an hour or so. 

Infused oils are, as the name suggests, carrier oils with herbs infused into them. The process of infusing in this case takes several weeks minimum before the oil is ready for use.  Infused oils are for external use only, such as for massage to relieve sore muscles, skin itching, or as a bath oil. The least expensive carrier oil is cold pressed virgin olive oil, but you may also use sweet almond, coconut or grapeseed oil. 

East Coast Living