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Posts Tagged ‘Medicinal herbs’

One day when I was volunteering at the elementary school, the children and I stood around a raised garden bed discussing what grew there and what we were going to do that day. One of my philosophies about weeds is—if they’re not doing any harm, let them be. Some may argue that they take nutrients from the vegetables, but if they’re not trying to take over, I let them live until they must be removed for a valid reason. Besides, they may be of some benefit we have yet to discover.

Ponysfoot grew in that bed. I pointed it out to the kids and said, “It’s not in the way, so let’s leave it for now. It’s probably good for something, I just don’t know what.”

That bugged me. I should know what ponysfoot’s good for, so when I got home I asked my friend Google. Google doesn’t know much, but it knows whom to ask.

If someone is selling something on the internet, that’s the first thing that pops up. There were several ads selling ponysfoot seeds! Why would anyone buy ponysfoot? Because it’s a good groundcover, used for erosion control. Silver Ponysfoot, which grows in the Southwest, is used in landscapes and even hanging baskets. The species that grows in Florida is Dichondra carolinensis, Carolina Ponysfoot.

Ponysfoot (Dichondra carolinensis)

The website “Natives for Your Neighborhood” said that although ponysfoot is a garden weed, as a groundcover it competes with less desirable plants, thus can be beneficial. So I was right to leave it in the garden bed. Among its uses are habitat restoration and as a butterfly plant. (So far I haven’t found any info on its use as a butterfly plant, although it does have flowers.) One site mentioned a Dichondra lawn, which may have been popular at one time because it was easy and inexpensive to maintain.

I was happy to learn that Carolina Ponysfoot is edible, if bitter, and surprised to find that it has medicinal properties. Among other things, it can lower blood pressure. As I ventured down this path of discovery, I learned that other common lawn weeds also have medicinal uses. Dollar weed, Hydrocotyle bonariensis, also called pennywort, is another herb that lower blood pressure. I’ve eaten Dollar Weed Slaw, which is delicious, but try though I might, I can’t get dollar weed to grow in my yard. Long before I discovered the virtues of this plant, my daughter Carrie had a lawn full of it. Unfortunately, although she did nothing to make it go away, it did.

I began to google plants that do grow in my yard. Chickweed (Stellaria media) was used in the past to treat scurvy and is still used for a number of ailments, including weight loss. I’ll have to try that. You can buy it in herbal capsules, but I take advantage of the chickweed growing profusely in my yard and use it in salads, cooked greens, and green smoothies.

Chickweed (Stellaria media)

When my daughter Amber lived in Virginia Beach, a neighbor had a lawn overgrown with wild violets (Viola sororia). When she remarked on the pretty flowers, the homeowner said, “Yeah, I’m trying to get rid of them.” Amber was aghast. She knew the blossoms and leaves are edible, but not if they’ve been sprayed with chemicals. Euell Gibbons praised the common blue violet for its high Vitamin C content. With the flu going around, I try to stay healthy, so once my violets started to bloom, I began eating them. My research revealed that violas have been used in Europe for centuries for everything from cough to cancer. Caution: don’t confuse Violas with African violets which are totally unrelated.

Wild Violet (Viola sororia). The leaves are similar to Ponysfoot.

A few years ago, we Master Gardeners were planting a butterfly garden in a local park. One container was full of bluish flowers all abuzz with honeybees. When told we had to clear those out and replace them with the prescribed butterfly plants, I protested, to no avail. I did manage to rescue a few of those wondrous wildflowers, take them home, and replant them. These are Stachys floridana, Florida betony, another weed hated by lawn enthusiasts. Not only edible, I now find that the leaves can be made into a tea to treat colds, headaches, anxiety, and diarrhea.

One of my favorite weeds, Bidens alba, aka Spanish needles, is one of the most cursed because of the seeds that hitchhike on your clothes. Butterfly enthusiasts like Bidens because it’s a great nectar plant. I’ve been eating it for years but never knew it had medicinal properties. It turns out that it’s said to cure just about anything, including MRSA! Other bidens species are also useful, and you can even buy Bidens pilosa tincture.

Spanish Needles (Bidens alba)

I can’t leave out Lyre Leaf Sage, Salvia lyrata, which grows all over the eastern US. It gets its name from the leaves that are shaped like a lyre and have a burgundy stripe down the middle. The blue blossoms, when grown en masse, make a lovely show. This is a nectar plant for butterflies and has the same properties as garden sage, just not as strong. One common name, “cancer root,” refers to its use as a folk remedy for cancer. It is certainly edible and makes a good tea for sore throats.

Lyre Leaf Sage (Salvia Lyrata)

Now tell me, does it make any sense to spend money on poisons to kill herbs on your lawn, then spend more money at the drugstore to buy potions prescribed by a doctor, when your yard, if left alone, will grow its own pharmacopoeia?

Always be sure of what you put in your body. Don’t go by common names. There are several different species called chickweed, for instance. Research any plant before you use it. Herbs can have side effects and interact with medications. If you have any doubts about a plant’s identity, ask someone who knows.

 

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Grandma Rogers loved flowers. On the south side of her house, where the winter sun warmed the cinder-block wall of the garage, she had a large flower bed. I could not name all she grew there, but I remember roses, and pansies, which she loved because they looked like little faces, and the bright yellow and orange blossoms we called snow flowers. We so named them because one autumn while they were in full bloom, we had an early snow. The snow flowers were undeterred. They did not turn brown and die, but continued to bloom through the snow, subsequent thaw, and past Indian summer, until winter claimed them at last. Later in life, I learned that our snow flowers are called Calendulas.

Last year I came across some Calendula seeds at a store. I remembered Grandma’s snow flowers and thought it would be nice to plant some. They grew and bloomed bravely in the cool weather. Calendulas like full sun and my yard is shady, but when the oak trees shed their leaves, the flowers enjoyed winter sunshine. Then came spring and the oaks’ new foliage cast shadows over the flower bed. With summer, my Calendulas seemed to melt in the Florida heat and humidity.

In the meantime, I learned more about these amazing flowers. Their petals and leaves are edible and Calendula officinalis, has medicinal properties. To my knowledge, my grandmother never used Calendula for food or medicine. This puzzles me. Dandelion greens were an annual spring ritual and, despite limited formal education, Grandma was a skilled practical nurse. I was a recipient of her herbal skills when, as a colicky infant, she soothed me with catnip tea. Catnip is still my favorite medicinal herb. One plant thrives in the same shady bed where the snow flowers melted.

Calendula is related to the marigold and called Pot Marigold because the Germans used the petals in soup. Other European and Asian cultures used them in various dishes, to color butter, for tea, and as a dye. The flowers are also an important nectar and pollen source for bees and other pollinators, including butterflies.

We planted Calendula in a butterfly plot at the local elementary school. The other day, the children and I surveyed the butterfly beds where cassia, fennel, and salvia had succumbed to frost. All that remained were dry brown sticks and a few seed heads. I explained to the children that the plants weren’t dead. Only the tops had frozen, but the roots, safe below the soil, were alive and would send out new growth come spring. I pointed out some leaves that had already emerged on brown stems and said we would wait a little longer to be sure what was dead before we cut them back.

Then, around on the south side of the school, in full sunshine, one Calendula stood against the brown of winter, bright yellow flowers and green leaves belying the season.

My grandmother’s Calendula came to mind and I told the children the story of her snow flowers. I am now resolved to plant more Calendula.

 

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