This Sunday, April 22nd is Earth Day. Join me and Trevor Childress from Outdoor Chattanooga at 2:00pm for a walk at Greenway Farms to identify edible and medicinal plants growing around Chattanooga. We will be meeting in the parking lot near the quarry. Wear sturdy shoes, and bring paper and pencil. This walk is free, and no registration is required.
Archive for the ‘The Urban Forager’ Category
Mixing in with other plants in the garden is a clumping, grass-looking plant with alternating leaves clasping around the stem. Only after the blooms begin would one notice the common Asiatic dayflower weed (Commelina communis).
Looking like a cute, three-eyed little mouse, this Asian annual has two, iridescent cornflower-blue petals spread like ears, and a small, inconspicuous white petal underneath. Three yellow staminodes with dark-red centers look like eyes, while the lower stamen and style resemble the nose and whiskers.
Behind many of the mouse-flowers, are two, oval leaves closed as if in prayer, preparing to open on the following day to expose another little mouse.
Apparently, Carl Linnaeus, who came up with most of the botanical names for the plant world, inserted his notorious humor when he named the dayflower, Commelina, after three sons. Two of the sons had become famous botanists — represented by the two large petals, while the third son chose a less admirable path — represented by the inconspicuous white petal underneath.
Growing in disturbed areas in full sunlight, the common dayflower appears in most regions of the Eastern United States.
Some folks call it a troublesome weed, but if you eat it, or use it medicinally, it’s not so troublesome.
I think it’s rather sweet to have in the garden.
Leaves and shoots are edible with a green-bean flavor, and can be used in salads, or minimally cooked with other greens. The flowers, which bloom only for a day from May until October, are adorable additions to salads, or as a decorative accent to cupcakes.
The small seeds taste like peas and also are edible.
In China, the above-ground parts are used to cool fevers associated with the common cold and flu. A recent study on cells from dog kidneys and in live mice found that the common dayflower had a protective effect against the H1N1 influenza A virus.
Other medicinal uses for the dayflower are as a diuretic, eliminating excess fluids or as a gargle for sore throats.
Topically, the plant can be mashed and applied as a poultice to cool inflammation on the skin.
Dayflowers collect excess copper in the soil, which makes them useful for phytoremediation, a process of restoring the soil after contamination from industrial pollutants.
As an annual, the best way to keep this plant under control is to use it, preventing it going to seed, which you can easily do either by eating it or using it medicinally.
Lavender, bottlebrush flowering tree-shrubs predominate the University of Georgia’s campus, buzzing with all sorts of pollinators.
In the past few decades, the Mediterranean-native chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus) has become a popular ornamental shrub or small tree in the South, and makes its twice-a-year flowering show in most landscapes.
Besides being a showy ornamental, this five-fingered leaf, drought-tolerant plant has an important role to play. Not only does the chaste tree increase fertility in the plant kingdom by attracting pollinators to fertilize our vegetables, it also addresses the issue of infertility among women, which is a growing issue among working women who are waiting later to have children.
Historically, the chaste tree’s spicy, aromatic, ripe berries, high in diterpenes and flavonoids, were used in small doses like pepper during the medieval period by young monks in the Mediterranean region to lower their sexual libido and excitability, helping them to honor their vows of celibacy.
This gave the plant two of its common names — chaste tree and monk’s pepper. Chaste tree’s botanical name, Vitex agnus-castus, refers to the religious use of the plant, as “agnus” is Latin for lamb, and “castitas” is Latin for chaste, or pure.
Even before the Middle Ages, Vitex was used by women for a variety of reproductive complaints, including infertility and irregular menstruation. Obviously by increasing fertility, one is not appearing chaste. This would seem contradictory to the way monks used Vitex, but Vitex works in a dose-dependent fashion, either raising or lowering hormone levels, which stimulate libido and infertility.
Several research studies using Vitex on small mammals and in clinical trials with humans successfully confirm the efficacy of Vitex for regulating the menstrual cycle by decreasing symptoms of premenstrual syndrome and increasing fertility, especially among women who have polycystic ovarian syndrome.
The mechanism in which Vitex works in correcting infertility is quite complex. When a woman is under stress, there’s an increase in the thyroid hormone TRH (thyroxin releasing hormone) that triggers prolactin, a hormone from the anterior pituitary. Prolactin can block ovulation by creating a progesterone deficiency and shortening the luteal phase when the egg follicle normally would be released.
Evolutionarily, it makes sense that a woman who is stressed, or already is nursing a child, would not ovulate because her biological resources to carry a child to term might be compromised.
A woman can have anovulatory menstruation cycles, which means she has a menstrual period but has not released an egg that could be fertilized, in which case, she would be infertile. Anovulatory cycles are often irregular, either occurring more or less frequently than the ideal 28-day cycle following the patterns of the waxing and waning moon or tidal rhythms of the ocean.
Other interesting current uses of chaste tree berries are in harm-reduction therapy with heroin addicts. The diterpenes in Vitex bind to opioid receptors in the reward center of the brain, which decreases cravings.
For addressing fertility or regulating the menstrual cycle, a typical dose for a woman is 500 mg of powered ripe berries once a day.
This article originally appeared in the Athens Banner-Herald, June 19, 2011.
In the most urban areas of Athens, one is unlikely to find a plant which once predominated along creeks. Soil disturbance and invasive plants have made yellowroot’s original home inhospitable. If you find a shaded or semi-shaded stream that isn’t covered in invasive plants, such as on the Orange Trail at the State Botanical Garden or on private lands, you’ll likely see yellowroot performing its ecological, streamside vegetation function of maintaining the integrity of a streambank, preventing erosion.
Yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima) is an eastern North American, native perennial shrub growing in thick mats with its long, thin root horizontally holding fast to the soil on the edge of the streambank. There is very little demarcation of where the root ends and the stem begins. Greyish, bark-covered stems stand between one-three feet, bare of foliage until a spray of attractive, bright green leaves erupt at the top. The foliage consists of deeply serrated, pinnately or bipinnately compound leaves, meaning several leaflets grow on one leaf stalk, or leaflets grow on smaller stems within a larger pinnately compound leaf.
In April and May, yellowroot’s inconspicuous, yet charming, clusters of brownish-purple flowers bloom, often dangling from under the leaves. As they become fruits, the clusters turn greenish-yellow.
Among the Appalachian and Piedmont area of the South, yellowroot is held in high esteem as a premier tonic herb for healing stomach complaints, such as ulcers, and canker sores.
Old-timey herbalist Tommie Bass provided yellowroot to many people for stomach ulcers with positive results. According to herbalist Darryl Patton’s book with Tommie Bass, the FDA instructed Mr. Bass to stop claiming yellowroot would cure stomach ulcers.
A mechanism behind yellowroot’s success with ulcers is due to an antibacterial, bitter alkaloid constituent called berberine, which is also found in other herbs of the Ranunculaceae family, goldenseal and coptis root. Research confirming a bacterial component to ulcers, from the Heliobacter pylori, gave insight into how yellowroot has traditionally healed ulcers for hundreds of years.
Other medicinal uses for yellowroot include cleansing the liver and gallbladder. Herbal medicines of a yellow nature are often used for liver complaints, which is either coincidental, or it’s an illustration of the Doctrine of Signatures at work: a theory that plants have features indicating what their use is for humans. The yellow color is associated with jaundice.
Catawba Indians used yellowroot for jaundice, stomach complaints and as a cold remedy, and Cherokee would drink its tea as a tonic for the blood and nerves, or just simply chew the bitter stem for mouth sores.
Around Georgia, rural roadside stands, country stores and the DeKalb Farmer’s Market are the only places where I have found harvested yellowroot available. In these markets, yellowroot comes either pre-brewed as a yellow tea, or as a bundle of one-inch twigs, which can then be boiled in water at home.
To make a tea of the roots, boil a cup of roots in 24 ounces of water for 20 minutes. Strain and either drink a cup of tea, or gargle with it. Alcohol extract tinctures are also very effective.
This article was originally published in the Athens Banner-Herald on Sunday, May 29th, 2011.
As a perennial herb offering food and medicine, yellow dock is a plant to know, especially during hard times. Native American tribes have considered yellow dock a panacea and survival food.
Yellow dock (Rumex crispus), also known as curly dock due to the wavy edges of its long, narrow leaves, is an introduced plant from Northern Africa, Europe and Asia. It’s currently found all over North and South America, and has become a staple in traditional American herbal medicine practices.
To recognize yellow dock from late spring and throughout summer, look for the tall seed stalks ranging from greenish-pink to dark rust as they dry along roadsides, in pastures, and wherever else the ground is compacted. As a member of the buckwheat family (Polygonaceae), the seeds can be ground and added to ground cornmeal for porridge, also known as mush, or it can be added to a base of ground maize and herbs to make pinole – a Mexican and Central American food or beverage, depending on the preparation.
Yellow dock’s long, slightly-yellow taproot breaks up the hard clay soil, and is very difficult to remove from the ground. People who cultivate yellow dock for the commercial herbal trade have deep pits of loose soil so the taproot grows particularly long and straight, and is much easier to remove.
A primary action for yellow dock root is to heal digestive complaints. Having both astringent tannins and laxative anthraquinone glycosides, specifically emodin and chrysophanin, yellow dock can dose-dependently act as an astringent for diarrhea, or as a gentle laxative, also known as an aperient. Smaller doses are used in loose stool patterns, while larger doses, containing a higher quantity of anthraquinones, are indicated in constipation.
A specific indication for yellow dock is when someone has an elongated, deep-red tongue which narrows into a point. The tongue indicates constriction and heat in the bowels. Yellow dock can be taken in low doses over an extended time as a tonic herb for low-grade gut inflammation, particularly associated with gastrointestinal imbalances, sometimes called leaky gut.
As a mildly bitter herb, it stimulates the actions of the liver, which gives yellow dock its other traditional use as an alterative – called a blood purifier by old timers and Native Americans – which is a cleansing agent for toxicity often manifesting as itchy skin, known as pruritis, or as eczema, psoriasis, acne or joint inflammation.
A decoction of yellow dock root can be taken internally, made into a salve, or used as a wash. For athlete’s foot, yellow dock root decoction – the root is boiled for 20 minutes – is used as a foot soak.
Yellow dock root is often provided with iron supplementation for women because it is thought to increase iron assimilation.
Throughout Southern winters and into early spring, yellow dock leaves are an excellent sour-tasting wild green to add to salads, stews, or cooked like spinach. When eating them raw, the younger the leaf the better. The stems can be peeled and eaten raw or roasted.
Yellow dock leaves do contain some oxalates, as does spinach, so if you’re prone to kidney stones, refrain from yellow dock leaves. Though a mild plant, yellow dock is contraindicated in pregnancy due to its laxative effect, and cautioned with young children, as in during lactation.
This article originally appeared in Athens Banner-Herald on Sunday, June 5th, 2011.
Vibrant-orange clusters of blooms dotting Southeastern roadsides beginning in early June and lasting into late summer attract more than just the human eye. Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), a native host-plant to Monarch, Gray Hairstreak and Queen butterflies, is a fabulous garden addition for both beauty and use.
Considered the most medicinal of the milkweeds, butterflyweed stems also can be used for cord, as with other milkweeds. Cherokee used the cord stems for belts. Butterflyweed, however, is not edible as are other milkweeds.
Butterflyweed’s other common name, pleurisy-root, indicates its medicinal value for the respiratory system. Pleurisy is a painful inflammation of the pleural lining of the lungs. Butterflyweed has long been held in high regard as a traditional lung remedy among Native Americans, and as an official drug among pharmacists and physicians.
One of the best-selling, populist-inspired books in America during the 19th century was the “New Domestic Physician or Home Book of Health” by the Scottish physician Dr. John Gunn.
Gunn says butterflyweed “is a very popular remedy for pleurisy in many places.” Dr. Benjamin Smith Barton, author of “Collections for an Essay towards a Materia Medica of the United States” that also was published in the 19th century, viewed butterflyweed as one of the most important of our indigenous species.
Acting as an expectorant and diaphoretic, butterflyweed induces sweating without being overly heating to the system, as are most sweat-inducing sudorifics. Therapeutically, butterflyweed downwardly disperses inflammatory heat occurring in the lungs, or sometimes in the head.
To me, the blooms symbolically indicate that they disperse upward heat, as the center, upwardly reaching petals range from dark orange to red, and the opened petals pointing downward are lighter orange.
Of the Native American tribes that utilized butterflyweed, the Omaha tribe placed the prized plant, used for wounds and lung problems, in a sacred, ceremonial context. Within the Omaha tribe, a selected member of the Shell society was the sole keeper of the remedy. After four days of ceremonial digging, preparation and consecration of butterflyweed, the authorized keeper would distribute bundles of the herb to other members of the society, according to the early 20th century pharmacognosist H.W. Youngken, of the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy.
The medicinal root, which resembles a small sweet potato, is dug when the plant goes dormant. Old-timey herbalist Tommie Bass suggests slicing large roots to dry and store. For a tea infusion for the lungs, steep or simmer a handful of dried roots in water, and take a tablespoon as often as needed.
For wounds, powder the root, and apply to the sore topically. Some Native American tribes would blow the powdered root onto the wound, which was thought to activate the medicine.
Butterflyweed’s flowers contain cardiac glycosides, the constituent found in foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) that for centuries was used to treat congestive heart failure.
Monarch butterflies ingest this toxic compound, which does not harm them, but serves as protection against various bird predators. Birds poisoned by monarchs with high cardiac glycosides vomit for up to half an hour. Some birds will sample the tip of a Monarch wing for the distinctive taste of the cardiac glycosides before preying on the butterflies. Studies have found female butterflies have a higher content of the glycosides than males.
Current research on butterflyweed offers exciting prospects in sustainability. In May, the “Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry” published a study utilizing the seeds of butterflyweed as a renewable source for industrial lubricants, an alternative to nonrenewable petroleum-based sources.
This article was originally published in Athens Banner-Herald on Sunday, June 12th, 2011.
A medicinal powerhouse of the cultivated garden and wild spaces alike, Yarrow carries within its botanical name a recommendation from antiquity. Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is named after the Greek hero Achilles who healed the bleeding wounds of his soldiers with its foliage. Millefolium means thousand-leaves, referring to its ferny foliage.
According to the Lady Bird Johnson Native Plant Database, yarrow is native to the U.S., but there also are introduced Achillea species. It appears to be a gift to the globe.
Yarrow’s reputation as a first-aid hemostat has spread throughout the world with the herb, and its common names – soldier’s woundwort, knight’s milfoil, carpenter’s weed – reflect those who were most appreciative of its powers.
I can attest to yarrow’s fast-acting blood-staunching properties. Once, when I sliced my palm open on a yucca leaf – it’s called Spanish bayonet for a reason – I quickly found yarrow growing nearby, as it often does, and applied a poultice of leaves to my wound. Within five minutes or less, the pain and bleeding were gone, and within 24 hours the cut was completely healed. A couple days more and all evidence of my suffering had disappeared.
Some of the hemostatic, blood-staunching properties come from the bitter sesquiterpene lactones specific to yarrow, achillian and achillicin. Like chamomile, yarrow also contains asulenes, which contribute to its anti-inflammatory actions. Several essential oils lend yarrow its antiseptic qualities: pinine, borneal, camphor, eugenol, saponine and terpineol. With loads of polyphenol flavonoids, yarrow is great as a tonic for depression and memory maintenance.
When studying herbal medicine at Tai Sophia Institute in Maryland, my instructor, Simon Mills (who is Senior Teaching Fellow in Integrated Health Care, Peninsula Medical School, Universities of Exeter and Plymouth, the first medical school in Britain to establish a program in Integrated Health Care) said of yarrow, that with hundreds of complex constituents, it is “a pharmacy in itself.”
Mills frequently used yarrow in his formulas as a “top up,” a British term for adding a bit more to someone’s drink. He became convinced that yarrow, with its synergistic compounds that we are only beginning to understand, was often the key ingredient of his formulas.
When he neglected to “top up” the formula with yarrow, filling the formula with herbs more specifically indicated for the condition, returning clients reported the formula was less effective.
Yarrow is particularly suited for healing the predominant ailments of cold, damp climates, bestowing upon it a type of panacea status in Ireland and the British Isles due to its efficacy for reducing rheumatic pains, soothing flatulent bowel complaints, healing colds and fevers, and countering depression.
Usually, in contemporary herb texts, yarrow is known as a diaphoretic, an herbal action that causes one with a fever to sweat, thereby bringing down a fever instead of suppressing it.
With yarrow’s complex chemistry, its uses are far more extensive than merely fever management. Native American tribes all over North America widely used yarrow, perhaps more than any other plant, for ailments ranging from digestive cramps, wounds and colds to neuralgia, venereal disease, as a blood purifier, to revive an unconscious person who had fallen, and as a remedy for multiple infant sicknesses – just to name a few.
Likely, if Achilles could have had only one herb to use on the battlefield, it would have been yarrow. But his legendary application begs the question: Did Achilles apply it to the mortal blow to his heel, or was it just out of reach?
Originally published in the Athens Banner-Herald on Sunday, May 29, 2011.