By Holly Dunbar, LMT, RH (AHG), Certified Aromatherapist
Do you remember the first time a plant spoke directly to you in a way that proved life-changing? I often attribute a fleeting moment of childhood that inspired my lifelong relationship with plants, when I was four years old and burned my finger on a hot stove. My Mother split an aloe branch from a plant we had growing in a sunny window and rubbed it on my finger, explaining how it would soothe the pain and help the skin to heal. As the mucilage of the plant did exactly that my eyes widened in amazement, and the spark was ignited that set me on a course of discovery to unravel the mysteries inherent in leaf, flower, and fruit. I was so taken with the experience that I divided the plant and planted the divisions in plastic yogurt cups to distribute to friends and neighbors. What started as a spark, led to more discoveries and explorations of plants- eating berries in the woods, digging up roots, discovering fairy rings of mushrooms, and watching the leaves of Sassafras evolve into “mittens.” I was fortunate to have a wild child experience that I so wish every child could have- freedom to roam the woods, pick your dinner from the garden, raise animals, and ride your horse off into the sunset.
Although I had two sisters, both equally wild, their path went the direction of technology, and mine towards plants and natural healing, a relationship that continues to be mutually beneficial in that we can share our knowledge and I don’t have to be a techie whiz, thank goodness. While my ramblings in the woods and general life of living off the land were the foundation, the herb garden I planted in high school was my first classroom, with not every experiment harvesting an A grade. Traditional Chinese Medicine, its complex formulary, differential diagnosis, and elemental theories were a calling and the book learning began. Grateful as I am for the cornerstone of TCM, it’s refreshing to set the formulas aside and focus on single plants. The focus on a single herb strengthens the rationale of why it is in the formula in the first place and shines a light on all its attributes that may have gotten swept under the rug as clinical practices establish routines. As herbalism itself grows and evolves, one sees the trends of the industry wax and wane as well, and often there emerges an herb that is highlighted in kin to the Man of the Year, the Hot New Plant that promises to be the panacea! Herbalists are not wholly immune to the allure of trends as inquiring minds seek the truth among the hype.
Growing along the roadside, in neglected pastures, hedgerows, and weedy lawns are often the real answers to one’s health, not a pretty product manufactured in a lab to be presented as a pseudo-pharmaceutical. It’s an interesting correlation to see certain plants proliferate where there is a need for them in mankind. Why does the dandelion stubbornly regenerate in the American lawn? Why has mullein become such a ubiquitous herb that it is often mistaken for a native plant? Have you ever traveled anywhere and not seen Yarrow? These plants have accompanied mankind as we traverse the globe, spreading seeds and establishing colonies, and quietly offering their healing qualities to our benefit.
During the pandemic lockdown, when supplies were scarce, I scoured my woods and surrounding fields in a frenzy of wildcrafting and foraging, bolstering the lean apothecary of my practice with locally sourced herbs. In this ten-week space, without the daily responsibilities of running a busy practice, the herbs called to me in more personal ways. The freedom to observe a mullein plant in its metamorphosis from ground-hugging rosette to statuesque flower-studded stalk in a day-to-day observation was a liberating joy, a childlike wonder was rekindled. I discovered colonies of pink ladies’ slipper, not to be harvested but simply enjoyed undisturbed, harvested buckets of wineberries and blackberries, and used an abundance of yarrow in every way possible. If the herbal pantry was pared down to just five herbs, what would be your pick? If forced to choose just five herbs, I’d reach for my cornerstones in that time of limbo: mullein, yarrow, chamomile, lemon balm, and dandelion. While sometimes overlooked in the quest for the powerful and exotic remedies, these humble weeds provide an amazing range of healing attributes.
Mullein Verbascum Thapsus, has many so many attributes that are specific to lung problems, both acute and chronic. Tinctures and teas of the leaves expel and astringe excess mucus, calm spasmodic cough with its high mucilage content and anti-inflammatory/antispasmodic properties. (Foster/Duke) When making a tea, strain the liquid carefully as the tiny hairs can provoke a spasmodic cough! The demulcent and astringent quality of the leaves can be used as a poultice agent for healing wounds, skin irritations, ulcers, and hemorrhoids (Brill), either as a strong tea or dipping the leaves in hot water and applying to the affected area. The leaf tea is rich in nutrients, including B vitamins, vitamin D, sulfur, magnesium, mucilage, saponins, and other active substances (Brill). An oil infusion of the flowers, which is often combined with Garlic Allium sativum, and sometimes Rue Ruta graveolens, is an excellent treatment for earache (Tierra)The flowers of mullein have both anodyne and antispasmodic qualities, easing pain and sulfur-rich garlic inhibits infection and is antifungal (Ganora) My daughter Ivy was once called home with a piercing earache, and was back at school the next day, to the surprise of her teacher. In her expansive five-year-old dialogue she gave detail of the home treatment, using warm mullein and garlic oil in the ear, and then covered with a hot water bottle, which the teacher listened to with amazement, as no Doctors or antibiotics were needed! The root has traditionally been used as a febrifuge, decocted in wine, although I seldom see the root listed in parts used in herb texts. The seeds contain narcotic properties and were used to stun fish, thus making them easier to net.
My husband fell in love with me over Yarrow Achillea millefollium when we were walking in the woods and he pierced his thumb on a rose bush. I promptly chewed a wad of Yarrow leaves and applied them to his thumb, which instantly stopped both the pain and the bleeding. I like to use it as a poultice, finely chopped, and mixed with a drop of German Chamomile Matricaria recutita essential oil to draw out infected splinters and draw out infection to the surface. This mixture is applied to the affected area and wrapped with a Plantain Plantago major leaf that has been dipped in hot water. My husband’s admiration was renewed when I did this on a stubborn splinter on his thumb, that released in a rather gross yellow torrent the following day. Yarrow was used by soldiers in the battlefield, many different wars, but is sourced quite extensively in the American Civil War medical journals. Sometimes referred to as Wound Wort, it was used to plug up wounds and staunch bleeding in the heat of the battle. The Achillea refers to Achilles, as the legend is that he used the herb to heal comrades’ wounds in the battle of Troy before he himself succumbed to an arrow that pierced his heel. Yarrow can be used internally, ideally as a tea, to heal internal ulcers and bleeding, including excessive menstrual bleeding. (Hutchens) Possessing a mild bitterness similar to Chamomile, which it pairs nicely with, Yarrow can be used as a mild bitter agent for sluggish liver and gallbladder, in which it’s cooling, bitter, and astringent properties lend itself to a gentle cleansing action of these eliminative organs (Hobbs) A cooling diaphoretic, which relieves the surface, it can be combined with equal parts Elderflower Sambucus canandensis and Peppermint Mentha piperita, to make a tea which promotes sweating in the first stages of cold and flu, and to promote general detoxification. (Hobbs) The mild bitterness of the leaves lends itself to savory dishes as an edible green, mixed with milder greens such as Chickweed Stellaria media and Lambsquarters Chenopodium ambrosioides.
Chamomile Matricaria sp may not be thought of as a “weed” unless referring to the European species commonly called Pineapple Weed Matricaria matricarioides, but fortunately in my cultivated garden its exactly that, to my delight. A year after settling on our farm, I took note of a Springtime volunteer in my herb garden and identified it as Chamomile, probably germinating from a seed that survived the heat of the compost pile. This microscopic seed became the mother of all self-sowers to come in seasons since, and I always have an abundance to harvest. Freshly dried Chamomile has an apple-like scent, and brews a sweeter tea, perfect for children’s ailments as it is so palatable, as Peter Rabbit from the classic children’s book would surely agree. An anti-spasmodic herb, rich in assimilable calcium, Chamomile is perfect for easing menstrual pain, muscle cramps, and digestive griping. (Tierra) It’s nervine qualities make for a soothing bedtime tea, which I like to combine with rose petals and lavender. Older blossoms, and stronger decoctions, will bring out a more bitter taste, which provides gentle stimulation to the gallbladder and liver. (Hobbs) Strong decoctions can be used to bring out blonde highlights in fair hair. The essential oil of Chamomile will differ based on the Roman or German type that is distilled. German Chamomile essential oil will yield the constituent chamazulene, which makes for a beautiful blue hue. As the blue color suggests, the constituent azulene is anti-inflammatory, as is alpha-bisobolol, which also promotes granulation and tissue regeneration. (Mills and Bone) Roman Chamomile oil Anthemis nobilis, will distill to a lighter colored sometimes blue-tinged oil that is rich in ester components, which have antispasmodic and relaxant properties. (Buckle)
Lemon Balm Melissa officinalis should come with a “gardener beware” tag, as this Mint family member has a habit of establishing well beyond it’s intended borders. This abundant herb can be utilized in so many ways however, that its bounty becomes an appreciated asset, and the bees adore it. Melissa translates as “bee” in Greek, which comes from meli, meaning honey. Another extremely palatable herb, Lemon Balm’s pleasant taste lends itself to either hot or cold infused teas. A cold infusion of it, simply adding the leaves to a clean jar and covering with water, is an especially refreshing summer drink as it has a cooling, diaphoretic, and sour properties perfect for dispelling summer heat and inducing a sweat to break fevers (Tierra) Like chamomile, the pleasant flavor of Lemon Balm is well accepted by children and can be used to ease childhood fevers, colic, teething pain, and digestive complaints. (Tierra) Lemon Balm is rich in rosmarinic acid, an anti-viral and anti-inflammatory compound that is specific against Herpes Simplex 1 and 2, used topically. (Ganora) While the essential oil is often cited in treating these viral outbreaks, it should be noted that much of the research has used aqueous extracts. Lemon Balm has a sour, cool energy that supports the liver, as Traditional Chinese Medicine attributes the flavors of sour and bitter to the health of the liver and gallbladder. While not often cited as a “liver herb,” the sour flavor and cooling action lends itself as a reliever of melancholy, as TCM also associates liver function with melancholy and depression.
Dandelion’s cheerful buttony flowers are the herald of warm weather to come, and children delight in spreading this abundance as they blow the seedheads to the wind. Dandelion Taraxacum officinale, may be the bane of the quest for the perfect green lawn, or the answer to much of what ails us, it’s all a matter of perception. Most of the medicinal qualities concentrate in the root and leaves. A member of the composite family, the yellow flowers do make for delicious Spring fritters lightly fried in a batter, and brew into an interesting wine. The deep tap root brings up deeper minerals from the soil, and contains inulin, a “pre-biotic” that acts as substrate for pro-biotic establishment in the gut, discourages the growth of bacteria and fungus in the colon, and plays a role in regulating blood sugar, among other benefits. (Ganora) Both the leaves and roots’ bitter flavor benefit healthy liver and gallbladder function, as well as the spleen, kidney, and bladder, and eases digestive distress especially associated with ingestion of excessive fats and poor assimilation. (Brill) It can be incorporated into bitter tonics for this effect, combined with other bitter and carminative herbs such as Gentian Gentiana lutea, Orange peel Citrus sinenis, and Fennel seed Foeniculum vulgare. The combination of carminative herbs, possessing a warmer energy and often rich in essential oils, prevents the cold, bitter herbs used in bitter compounds from being too constricting and causing griping pains. I like to use dandelion as an example of the wisdom of nature, as both the root and leaves have diuretic properties but it’s natural quantity of potassium prevents cramping, a perfect synergy! Nutritionally dense, the leaves are loaded with a range of B vitamins, vitamin A, C, as well as phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, and zinc (Brill). Picking the leaves in early Spring, before flowering will yield a less bitter green, suitable for salads. The more mature leaves can be mellowed by cooking or mixed with milder tasting foraged or cultivated greens. With its ability to regulate blood sugar, assist in the digestion of fats, improve overall digestive and gut health, and cleanse the organs, is it any wonder dandelion is the ubiquitous American lawn weed, as it so effectively addresses so many ailments that accompany the modern lifestyle?
Recently I ran into an old friend, who said she would always remember me pulling the dandelions out of the thick mulch beds where we worked at a plant nursery. I had forgot about that experience until she reminded me of the bounty- those dandelion roots as big as carrots, easily yielded, which I took home and roasted for my coffee substitute. Nineteen years old, I was a budding herbalist dipping her toes in what would prove to be an endless ocean of knowledge to traverse, drink in, and just keep swimming. What an honor and humbling experience to be led by these humble “weeds,” a journey that thirty years later still feels fresh, awe-inspiring, and appropriately, mysterious.
Foster, Steven/Duke, James A.; Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston/New York, 1990
Brill, Steve “Wildman”; Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plant in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places, Harper Collins, New York, 1994
Tierra, Michael; Chinese Traditional Herbal Medicine Vol. 2, Lotus Press, 1998
Ganora, Lisa; Herbal Constituents, Foundations of Phytochemistry, 2nd Edition, Herbal Chem Press, Louisville, CO 2021
Hutchens, Alma, R., A Handbook of Native American Herbs, Shambhala, Boston/London, 1992
Hobbs, Christopher, Foundations of Health: Healing with Herbs and Foods, Botanica Press, Capitola, CA
Mills, Simon/Bone, Kerry; Principles and Practices of Phytotherapy, Churchill Livingstone, 2000
Tierra, Lesley; The Herbs of Life, The Crossing Press, Freedom, CA 1992
Buckle, Jane, PhD, RN; Clinical Aromatherapy, Elsevier, St. Louis, MO 2015