Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Herbs in Your Backyard

I keep trying to write herb profiles and finding myself utterly unmotivated, and I finally figured out why: It's been done a thousand times before! Anything I could write about each individual herb has already been written – probably more thoroughly than I could present to you. So instead, I shall share a brief summary of several local herbs – and perhaps encourage you to read someone else's profile of the plant! Also, keep in mind that while many of these plants grow elsewhere, the 'backyard' of which I speak is the Pacific Northwest – specifically, the Willamette Valley and Cascade or Coastal mountain ranges & foothills.

It is my opinion (and one shared by many experienced herbalists) that herbs from your local bioregion are many times more effective than herbs harvested elsewhere – I have heard some say as many as a thousand times more powerful. Whether we realize it or not, we are attuned to our environment – and that includes the plants and animals that share said environment with us. There are exceptions to this, of course – our ancestral and genetic heritage, herbs that resonate with us on a spiritual level, etc. If you are living in Oregon but your ancestry is primarily East Indian, for example, you will probably resonate with Ayurvedic herbs in addition to the local herbs.

Some of my favorite wild herbs to find in the springtime throughout the Northwest include Nettle, Burdock, Dandelion, Cleavers, Chickweed, and Plantain. Most Northwest residents will choke at this list – they are all considered horrible weeds! But how can anything as useful, as plentiful, and as able to thrive as these plants possibly be bad? These herbs are traditionally used as springtime tonic and cleansing herbs, and here is an overview of each…

Nettle is one of my favorite herbs by far. It thrives in woodlands and semi-marshy places, often taking over large patches of damp woods. While not fun to brush up against, Nettle is incredibly nutrient-dense, containing high amounts of protein, vitamins A and C, calcium, potassium, iron, choline, magnesium, boron, iodine, silica, sulfur, chlorophyll, histamine, serotonin, glucoquinones, bioflavonoids, tannins and amino acids. Phew!! That's quite the list! Nettles are used to "build the blood", balance PH, lower blood sugar, and generally strengthen and tonify the body. They are also excellent for relieving allergy symptoms, and useful in treating bronchitis. Fresh, freeze dried, in soups or teas; you name it, Nettle can do it! Nettles are great in your compost, make a superb fertilizer and weed-killer for your garden, and can even be used for making paper or cloth. Just be sure to use gloves when you harvest! J

Burdock can be found at the edges of woodlands and in disturbed fields; it seems to like areas that have been trampled upon – paths, pastures, that sort of thing. It looks something like rhubarb, with soft and almost fuzzy leaves that can reach a couple feet in length, but the most unforgettable characteristic is the several-foot-high flower stalk that develops in late summer and eventually produces gigantic and horribly sticky burrs (they were the inspiration for Velcro, in fact). The roots are the most useful part of the plant, although they are a serious pain to dig up, as they easily reach 2-3 feet deep. Burdock is excellent as a vegetable, and is high in calcium, potassium, flavonoids, iron, inulin, and mucilage. It is one of the very best cleansing herbs, and is considered an "Alterative", enhancing the performance of the elimination organs (kidneys, liver, colon, etc.) and purifying the blood. One of its best-known uses is to help treat acne – by drinking the tea! It is also useful for helping to stabilize blood sugar and as a remedy for "leaky gut syndrome".

Dandelion – who doesn't know (and generally despise) this wonderful weed?? High in calcium, potassium, iron, Vitamin A, and other nutrients, Dandelion is incredibly useful as both a liver tonic and cleansing herb and as a digestive "bitter", encouraging the secretion of digestive enzymes and making meals easier to digest. Both the leaves and the root are useful, and the flowers are also edible. Much could be written about the benefits of Dandelion, but suffice it to say that it is an absolute must in any cleansing or springtime herbal regimen! And hey, it's easy to grow…

Cleavers are one of the most effective diuretics and blood/lymph purifiers, and should also be included in any cleansing formula. They are also useful in treating urinary tract infections, kidney stones, and skin disease (such as eczematous rashes). This is another herb that you can't really avoid – it grows EVERYWHERE, and is typically considered an irritating plant, as both the leaves and seeds are "sticky" and will cling to your clothes as you pass! Look for cleavers pretty much anywhere, but especially under trees and around bushes – they like a bit of shade.

Chickweed also grows everywhere – lawns, along sidewalks, next to paths in the woods; generally all over! It is a very pleasant-tasting plant, and makes a great salad green. Cooked, it tastes something like spinach. Chickweed is a good source of iron, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, zinc, manganese, sodium, copper, silica, and Vitamins A, D, C, and B complex. It acts as a mild diuretic and is, like the rest of the herbs in this article, a wonderful cleansing herb for the kidneys and urinary tract. Chickweed has traditionally been used to treat respiratory problems such as bronchitis, coughs & colds, and the like – it even helps to dissolve mucus! It is also useful used externally for soothing irritated skin, minor burns, cuts, rashes, and eczema.

Last but certainly not least is Plantain. This herb loves places that nothing else will grow – heavily-trodden paths, sun-baked meadows, roadsides, backyards, in the cracks of sidewalks… Rich in potassium, Plantain is a gentle and soothing diuretic, good for alleviating intestinal inflammation and mild urinary tract infections. It is also useful in treating bronchial irritation. Plantain really shines, however, when used externally – chew or crush the plant and place directly on bee stings, bug bites, rashes, and mild injuries; it is mildly pain-relieving and antiseptic, and also helps to draw out toxins and stem bleeding.

Hmm. Funny, it seems like all the good springtime herbs are useful for similar things! I do highly recommend a good springtime cleansing, although herbs should only be one portion of that effort – diet and exercise are crucial in supporting your body's health! No matter how seriously or frivolously you pursue your herbal education, remember to harvest (and use) with care and respect. Also, because I have to say it, the information presented here is intended for educational purposes only. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA, and the information I present to you is not intended to prevent, diagnose, treat or cure any disease. Please consult a medical professional about actual health concerns!

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