The Forager’s: Foraging for Summertime Herbs

Go beyond the confines of the garden and into the wild to find some of nature’s most valuable medicine.

Summer is the perfect time to stock up on nature’s healing gifts. But all too often we walk right by these treasures, not recognizing them as valuable plants. Learning how to identify and then use a variety of edible and medicinal plants in your region can open up a world of botanicals, not only providing you with access to important medicine but also helping you familiarize yourself with the wilderness that abounds.

Five Rules for Sustainable Foraging

Before you head out into the fields and forests to harvest plants, you need to know a bit about foraging ethics, as well as the dangers that certain plants can pose. In an environmentally fragile world, you want to proceed without taking from nature in ways that are harmful.

  1. Properly identify the plant. When in doubt, seek confirmation! Nature is full of abundant goodness, but also some poisonous look-alikes. Make sure you know with 100 percent certainty that you have the correct species.
  2. Harvest in safe places. Avoid roadsides, dog parks, or places that might be tainted with pesticides, herbicides, or industrial run-off.
  3. Never harvest endangered species. This includes those on the “watch” list. In fact, some species are legally protected. If you’re not sure what’s endangered in your region, check out United Plant Savers {unitedplantsavers.org}. This important nonprofit works to preserve and protect native plants of North America. {You can even find out about ways to help its mission.}
  4. Harvest no more than a third. If you see only one or two plants in a group, leave them be! Harvesting from a stand that has limited growth will endanger the species ability to reproduce.
  5. Leave the healthiest behind. It may be tempting to harvest the largest, most robust plant in the group, but to support the species, you want to encourage the reproduction of the strongest plant.

Need a great place to forage? Ask your local organic farmer if you can visit and explore the farm property. They’re often happy to be rid of some “weeds.” National parks and other conservation areas also host herb walks; check your local listings.

Plants in the Wild

With so many climates and plants across North America to consider, it’s hard to refine a specific list here for every region, but some plants occur fairly commonly across the country –  and they make great additions to the medicine chest.

plantain herb

Plantain {Plantago spp.}

This is one of nature’s most common summer weeds and my personal favorite. Both the broadleaf {Plantago major} and the long or lance-leaved {Plantago lanceolate} varieties are beneficial. Known also as white man’s foot {it followed the path of colonization} and ribwort, its leaves contain its healing attributes.

Plantain likes to grow in disturbed soils and actually thrives in these areas thanks to its deep taproot, which it sends down to draw up nutrients well-below the ground’s surface. It flourishes everywhere, from the backyard garden to city sidewalk cracks.

Plantain is pretty easy to identify from a photo. It has a red color at the base of the stem that travels along the vertical veins through its leaves. We harvest them when the leaves are full but the seed stalk has not yet begun to grow. You can snip off some leaves at the base with scissors or hand-harvest them. We like to dry the leaves in our dehydrator or let them wilt for a day or so before making a tincture.

In medicine, plantain is perhaps known best for its astringency and ability to draw out infection and toxins. Ayurvedic medicine recognizes three types of astringency; the ability to staunch bleeding, the ability to dry up bodily secretions, and the ability to tighten and heal tissue. These three actions together make plantain a powerful vulnerary herb.

How to Use:

  • For a spit poultice to apply to bug bites, bee stings, and splinters, pick fresh leaves, chew, and cover the affected area.
  • To dry up diarrhea and take advantage of plantain’s bitter properties, which strengthen digestion, combine it in a tea with other digestive herbs like chamomile.
  • Use it in a salve on red, swollen cuts, splinters, or on insect bites.
  • In a tincture, plantain can be taken for digestive upsets or used to draw out splinters.
  • A tincture made with apple cider vinegar is also great for bug bites or other itchy skin irritations.

ground-ivy

Ground Ivy {Glechoma hederacea}

Despite its name, this herb is a mint-family {Lamiaceae} member and not related to English ivy. It enjoys many common names, including creeping Charlie, catsfoot, field balm, and gill-over-the-ground {which some believe derives from the French guiller, “to ferment beer,” since it served as an ingredient to flavor gruit, an earlier iteration of beer}.

Ground ivy will grow just about anywhere, from full sun to full shade, in disturbed soils or in the middle of a well-maintained lawn. A prolific grower, it sends out a long stem from which roots and runners spread. Pull up what appears to be one small piece and you may end up with a stem several feet long in your hand. Like all plants in the mint family, the stem is square and the leaves grow opposite each other. Leaves are scalloped and spade-shaped. Several small purple flowers grow at the tops of the stems and, at first glance, resemble itty bitty irises, though the plants share no relation and have several distinct differences. As for harvesting, pull up as you want. We guarantee it will return next season.

Scientists are looking at ground ivy as a potential treatment for various cancers and HIV. Some herbalists turn to it as a spring tonic to improve liver and kidney function and as a decongestant to relieve spring allergies, perhaps due to its astringent properties. It also has a history of use in helping to remove heavy metals, such as lead or mercury, from the body. Finally, it’s great for digestion and seems to have antacid properties that help with reflux or heartburn.

How to Use:

  • Make a tea, infusion, or tincture with glechoma’s leaves and blossoms to use as an antiviral, decongestant, heavy metal detox, blood purifier, or digestive aid.
  • As a poultice, it can relieve skin irritations.

SONY DSC

Wood Sorrel {Oxalis spp.}

There are several species within the wood sorrel family, including Oxalis stricta and Oxalis acetosella. {Common or garden sorrel, Rumex acetosa, belongs to the Polygonaceae family.} Oxalis actually means “sour,” a nod to the genus’s puckery flavor – and really, what’s not to love about a cluster of heart-shaped leaves with a sour lemon flavor? Atop its stem, wood sorrel sports three of these heart-shaped leaves that grow similarly to the way a cloverleaf grows. In fact, it’s often mistaken for clover {one common name for wood sorrel is lemon clover}, but if you look closer, you’ll see its shaped more distinctly; a perfect heart that looks as though it has been folded to leave a crease down the middle. Flowers range from yellow to white, with white or purple veins.

Sorrel leaves provide a cooling, antipyretic property, helping to reduce fever. They also contain a significant amount of vitamin C. Traditionally, wood sorrel has been used to treat mouth ulcers and to stimulate the appetite.

How to Use:

  • I love to use it as a pick-me-up while hiking. There’s nothing better than some tart, lemony refreshment straight from the soil while enjoying a forest ramble.
  • On a salad or atop a stir fry, wood sorrel provides a healthy dose of vitamin C, iron, and calcium, and tastes delicious.
  • In his book Edible Wild Plants, John Kallas, Ph.D., recommends tossing wood sorrel in salsas, throwing it in soups at the last minute, or topping desserts with it.
  • Try an infusion of sorrel leaves to cool the body and provide refreshment {and an extra dose of vitamin C} during a fever.

Wood sorrel is high in oxalates, a chemical that occurs in many foods that the human body doesn’t actually require. Too much in the diet can lead to kidney stones, so avoid using large amounts of this herb if you’ve been warned to avoid oxalates due to gout, kidney stones, or other conditions exacerbated by oxalates.

garlic-mustard-plant

Garlic Mustard {Alliaria petiolata}

Native to Europe, garlic mustard is considered an invasive species in the U.S. Its roots send out substances that inhibit the growth of our native forest species.

Garlic mustard is a bit more difficult than other plants to identify. Stems may or may not have hairs, and leaves vary in shape between rounded and triangular. Botanist Thomas J. Elpel, the author of the invaluable Botany in a Day, says that one can identify plants in the mustard family by their sepals, four petals, and a central pistil surrounded by six stamens {four tall and two short}. All 3,200-plus species of mustard are edible – just find the one with the garlic flavor and you’ve found garlic mustard.

A member of the Brassicaceae or cabbage family, garlic mustard provides a wealth of nutrients. Garlic mustard is one of the most nutritious leafy greens ever analyzed. There are no greens higher in fiber, beta-carotene, vitamin C, vitamin E, and zinc. Garlic mustard beats spinach, broccoli leaves, collards, turnip greens, kale, and domesticated mustard for all of these nutrients, and it’s very high in omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, iron, and manganese. Garlic mustard also induces sweating and has antiseptic and vulnerary action.

How to Use:

  • Sautee garlic mustard in olive oil alone or as part of a stir-fry, or add it to a quiche, frittata, or omelet, which will mask its bitterness.
  • Use the seeds to make mustard.

yarrow white

Yarrow {Achillea millefolium}

With its gorgeous, delicate white flowers, feathery leaves, and distinctive fragrance, this daisy family {Asteraceae} member is an all-time favorite.

This plant has been harvested fresh for thousands of years to staunch bleeding, and scientists have identified several clotting mechanisms among its active constituents. Soldiers used yarrow to stem battle wounds, and through the years it’s been fondly known as militaris, soldier’s wort, nose-bleed herb, and woundwort. In Greek mythology, the great Achilles owed his death-defying ability to this plant. Alas, his mother held him by the foot as she dipped him in her magical herb bath, and this unprotected heel became his downfall. Now we remember him not just in legend but in the Latin name for this herb.

Find yarrow dancing merrily in the breezes of summer meadows, intermixed with grasses, St. John’s wort, raspberries, and other seasonal delights. It prefers full sun but can handle a bit of shade along the edges of forests and farm fields. Yarrow is often cultivated for perennial gardens, and bright pink, yellow, and red varieties are available. The white variety is the most medicinal.

Millefolium refers to the number 1,000 and the many individual teensy blossoms each yarrow flower head contains – but 20 to 25 flowers per head is a more accurate count. Leaves are thin, delicate, and resemble ferns or feathers. The stem of yarrow has white, fuzzy hair.

How to Use:

  • Fresh or dried in teas, it can serve as a styptic to stem internal bleeding from Crohn’s.
  • In a pinch, rub dried leaves on the body to ward off mosquitos. Adding some yarrow tincture to homemade bug spray works even better.
  • Tincture or tea works can help some women lighten menstrual flow {for some it may make menstrual bleeding stronger}.
  • Combine yarrow with plantain in an apple cider vinegar base for a highly astringent sting-stop spray.
  • Use it fresh on scratches or wounds; yarrow has many antiseptic and antimicrobial properties in addition to styptic ones.
  • Yarrow is also great for bringing on sweating or fever when one has a cold or flu.

St JohnGÇÖs Wort is it for you 1260x542

St. John’s Wort {Hypericum perforatum}

St. John’s wort’s merry, yellow blossoms open to the June summer solstice sun. They can be found shining brightly in meadows and along highways.

St. John’s wort is fairly easy to identify. The Latin word perforatum, which refers to the tiny perforated dots in the leaves. Hold them up to the sun to see through them. Pinch a yellow blossom between your fingers and you’ll see the plant’s red juices. This red color gives the herb its common name, after the story of John the Baptist, beheaded for his faith and celebrated on St. John’s Day around the summer solstice. Harvest blossoms when they are fresh and open after the morning dew has dried.

How to Use:

  • Infuse the blossoms in oil for a lovely muscle and joint rub, one of this herb’s oldest uses.
  • The oil can also be applied to soothe burns, but only after they have begun to heal. {Don’t put oil on a fresh burn ever.} Use the fresh plant juices {again, not the oil} directly on a burn.
  • St. John’s wort oil also has a long history of use on injuries involving the nerves, such as sciatica, or injuries to the extremities, teeth and gums, tailbone, and so on. Alternately, you can tincture blossoms in vodka or rubbing alcohol to make a liniment.
  • The herb’s blossoms tinctured or as a tea are a longtime remedy for depression. Scientists have more recently discovered that hypericin, the herb’s active ingredient, may not be the only medicinal compound at work. Nonetheless, some studies have found it as effective or more so than pharmaceutical antidepressants. In large doses, St. John’s wort can cause photosensitivity, and it’s contraindicated with a variety of medications {including antidepreesants}, so speak with your doctor before using.

Morello Gadren - 608 Peddie St  Houston, TX

Violets {Viola odorata; spp.}

Many species of violets grow across the United States, blossoming in early spring through later summer, depending on region and species All are edible, but only harvest the more prolific varieties. Odorata specifically refers to the large, dark-purple ones. Pick all the blossoms you want, as the only blossom that goes to seed is hidden beneath the plant’s leaves. Violets prefer dark, shady spots with dappled light, such as edges of forests or along woodland paths.

Violets provide a range of benefits, most specifically as an expectorant, anti-inflammatory, and diuretic.

How to Use:

  • Tincture or infuse blossoms for use in cough remedies or for urinary tract infections.
  • Infuse in oil. Violets are an excellent herb for promoting the healthy flow of lymph, and this alternative property has given violets somewhat of an anti-cancer reputation. Violets can be added to breast butter formula with other lymph herbs such as calendula and cleavers.
  • Violets are also delightfully delicious tossed into salads or as edible decorations on cupcakes.

If you’re brand-new to foraging, try mastering just one or two plants to get started. As you grow more comfortable, you can branch out into lengthier adventures in meadows and forests with the help of a reliable wild edibles or wild medicinals field guide.

Happy herb hunting!

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