Backyard Medicine

Turns out discovering prickly ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) a month or so ago was a gateway non-pharmacological substance for me.

(Like, a “drug”, except not a drug, because it’s an herb.)

Researching prickly ash led me to this article, which in turn led me to the book Herbal Medic by Sam Coffman. Yes, I have seriously cheated on my “no book diet” this year!

My most recent book splurge: Herbal Medic by Sam Coffman
My most recent book splurge: Herbal Medic by Sam Coffman

I’ll be honest.  Many herbal medicine books are a tad too non-conventional for my tastes, including crystals and chants along with the herbal medical practice.  Which makes it a little harder for me to buy into it. Plus, some books make it sound like every single plant is good for every possible ailment, which also stretches my credulity. I’m also skeptical of the “Doctrine of Signatures”, which suggests that the shape or characteristics of the plant reveal what medicinal value they provide to the human body.

And how do you know if they “really” work? Most of these wild medicines haven’t undergone rigorous research studies to evaluate their effectiveness. And two plants growing in different conditions might have different amounts of the alleged healing phytochemicals. The herbal medicine preparation – whether used fresh or dried, hot water infusion (aka tea) or tincture – all plays a role as well.

Despite my hesitations and misgivings, I find myself drawn ever further into this new world of backyard medicine. Sam Coffman seems like a very credible source to me based on his background and experience. I found another book as well, Northeast Medicinal Plants, which has just enough overlap with the Midatlantic region to be very relevant. (Thankfully that one is available for free as an ebook through my local public library’s Hoopla subscription.) Those two books, plus The Lost Book of Herbal Remedies, and the internet have basically revealed to me the following: everything in my yard is medicinal.

Well. Almost everything. In no particular order, these are the wild medicines I could forage right now, in early spring, from my less-than-two-acre yard:

  • Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea)
  • Purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum)
  • White Pine (Pinus strobus)
  • Blue spruce (Picea pungens)
  • Wild Lettuce (Lactuca serriola – not as effective as L. virosa, but according to Coffman it still works)
  • Red maple (Acer rubrum)
  • Cleavers (Galium aparine)
  • Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)
  • Chickweed (Stellaria media)
  • Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale – “officinale” in the scientific name indicates the plant had historical use as a medicine)
  • Common mallow (Malva neglecta)
  • Catnip (Nepeta cataria)
  • Burdock (Arctium minus – okay, maybe not as potent as the more famous Arctium lappa, but it’s what I’ve got!)
  • Field garlic (Allium vineale)
  • Violet (Viola spp., mostly sororia in my yard)
  • Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata)
  • Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica)
  • Carolina Cranesbill (Geranium carolinianum)

This doesn’t include the items I planted on purpose. Or plants which won’t be in a foragable state until later in the year. Or the myriad other potential wild medicines available half a mile from my home, in the woods by the creek. And I’ve blogged about many of these plants before, because a lot of them are also edible.

But do they work?

So far the only “backyard medicine” I’ve tried is a decongesting tea of flowering dead nettle tops and white pine needles. Pro tip: use kitchen shears to cut the pine needles, rather than trying to chop them with a kitchen knife. Trust me on this one.

A fistful of dead nettle tops for tea
A fistful of dead nettle tops for tea

To make this decongestant tea, I boil about 12 ounces of water, let it cool until boiling stops, and then pour it over the herbs loosely packed into a French press. I’ve read that pine needles could be less effective if boiling water used, because of the volatile oils, and if you make a cup of pine needle tea you can actually see tiny bubbles of oil floating on top. No, I don’t measure the herbs – I just grab what’s available. After ten minutes, I strain the plant matter out, reheat the tea gently, and then enjoy.

Decongesting Tea made from dead nettle and white pine
Decongesting Tea made from dead nettle and white pine

OK, the resulting tea tastes slightly like lawn, but I’ve learned to like it. And, more importantly, it works for the minor nose and chest congestion I’ve suffered this spring. Many sources say local honey helps as well and could make the tea more palatable. Granted, this is “just” minor allergies – a slight tickle in the chest and slow drip from the nose. Enough to be annoying but not enough to reach for the over-the-counter allergy medicine. My research suggests that adding garlic mustard and field garlic would help even more, except then it would taste like a broth for soup rather than tea!

All this to say, you will probably see more posts from me in the future regarding herbal medicine. Remember that I am not a doctor or trained herbalist, and none of this information is FDA-approved. But I will also only post things I have personally tried and found to work. Stay tuned!

Note: I am not an affiliate marketer and I do not get commissions if you buy any of the books mentioned in this blog post, whether from Amazon.com or directly from the authors. I highly recommend looking for them at your public library. If you would like to support my work, you can hire me to perform a wild edibles assessment for property in the northern WV, central MD, northern VA, or southern PA areas; hire me to speak or write about foraging, permaculture and sustainability; or consider making a donation.

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