Weeds: Nature’s Pharmacy
Mar 04, 2016 04:13PM
● By Jody Eisemann, LAc
Where they were once the basis of any healer’s medical remedies, weeds—otherwise known as wild plants—have become useless, unwanted invasives with no economic value since the creation of the modern suburban lawn. Millions of dollars are spent each year to poison and destroy them. However, with some investigation and a different perspective, weeds can be viewed as nature’s free gift to heal, clothe and feed us; improve our health; and even repair our damaged soils.
The Northeast’s wet winters, rainy springs and hot summers help weeds to grow abundantly. Information on the many utilitarian, medicinal and culinary uses of weeds are all over the Internet and in numerous books. Here is a small sampling of some of our most common local weeds and their uses.
In the United States, the medicinal use of weeds was once popular and commonplace. In earlier times, every child playing outside with a minor scrape, cut or bug bite knew to chew the leaf of the plantain weed into a paste and put it on the wound for instant pain relief—and, as it turns out, its inherent antiseptic properties.
But plantain has many other uses; its leaves can be used to make tea that can help reduce hay fever symptoms, or be used as a soothing wash for sunburn, windburn, rashes and wounds. Scientific studies in Germany show plantain to be beneficial for reducing pain and heat from inflammation as well as effective for treating coughs, phlegm and colds as it is especially beneficial for weak lungs.
To make plantain tea, add a small handful of fresh or dried leaves to two cups of water, bring to a gentle boil, turn off the heat, cover and steep for 10-15 minutes, then pour off and enjoy the tea. Add a little honey for lung congestion such as with bronchitis and asthma. Leaves can also be frozen or sun dried in the summer and saved in a cool and dry location for winter use.
The common plantain (broad leaf) and English plantain (slim leaf) are both from the same plant family as the South American plantain; the latter’s psyllium seed husks are used in Metamucil and other natural bulk-forming laxatives that soak up water in the intestines, making for easier bowel movements.
New young plantain leaves are a tasty addition to a salad and plantain oil or spray can be an excellent remedy for diaper rash.
A word of caution, people who are using any kind of insulin should know that plantain seeds can lower blood sugar and therefore should not be taken internally.
The dreaded effects of poison ivy can be mitigated by the delicate jewelweed, which is often found growing right alongside. Liquid from the jewelweed contains chemicals that neutralize the poison ivy’s components causing the skin-irritating effects.
To treat exposure, immediately open up the jewelweed’s juicy stems, crush them a bit to release the liquid and rub directly onto the skin. Such quick action may be enough to prevent any irritation or, at the very least, provide significant symptom relief.
The versatile dandelion has so many benefits that it is an exhaustive list. It is believed that the dandelion is one of the richest herbal sources of vitamin K—which helps build bone mass—and is considered a general tonic for blood, skin and digestion. It’s high in vitamin A, B, C and D, and minerals such as iron, potassium and zinc. Its dried roots can be used as a coffee substitute and were once used to make a dark red dye. Dandelion flowers are still used to make wine.
The best dandelions to use grow in rich, moist soil and have broad leaves and large long roots. Young dandelion leaves can be used to add flavor to salads, sandwiches and teas.
Bitter foods and herbs have been used for centuries around the world as digestive aids and stimulants. Medicinally dandelion is classified as a bitter food. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), a balanced diet should contain sweet, salty, sour and bitter foods. Unlike the Asian diet, the U.S. diet has few bitter tastes besides coffee, wine and beer. Most Americans stopped using our forbearers’ practice of using digestive bitters, which may account for the high incidence of digestive problems here in the West compared to Asian cultures.
In TCM, the dandelion has been used to treat stomach problems and appendicitis. TCM uses it to “clear heat”—especially liver heat—indicated by red, swollen and painful eyes. It also can reduce abscesses and nodules, especially in the breast and intestines. Dandelion promotes lactation and can treat “damp heat” conditions like jaundice and painful urinary tract problems.
Dandelion’s relationship with sugar can be helpful for insulin dependent type 2 diabetics. Dandelion root and leaf combined together can support and stabilize blood sugar.
Native Americans boiled dandelions in water to treat kidney disease, swellings, skin problems, heartburn and digestive problems. In Europe, dandelion concoctions were used for fever, boils, eye problems, diabetes and diarrhea.
Dandelion’s other uses include indigestion, hemorrhoids, gout and high blood pressure. It can also be used as a mild diuretic for edema associated with heart conditions. Because of its high potassium content, unlike pharmaceutical diuretics, it can replace the potassium lost in normal urination.
When placed in a paper bag with unripe fruit, dandelion flowers and leaves will release ethylene gas that will ripen the fruit faster. Dandelion root and leaves can also be made into a spray liquid plant food because of its high mineral content.
Environmentally, the dandelion is critical for bees, especially in the spring as it flowers before many other flowers do. Its long taproot can help break up and aerate impacted soils. Dandelions can also “detoxify” chemically treated soils by concentrating toxic chemicals in its plant parts.
There are many other local weeds with innumerable health benefits, including stinging nettle, red raspberry leaf and red clover to help treat women’s fertility and gynecological issues. Japanese knotweed tinctures can help treat Lyme disease while clean and dried seaweed can be used as fertilizer for the garden. Sheep sorrel and lamb’s quarters are spinach substitutes and the regal great mullein—renowned for its curative properties for all kinds of bronchial conditions and treating ear pain—can be helpful to avoid antibiotics or ear tubes for children.
As weeds return this spring, think of them as the gifts from Mother
Nature, freely given to us each year just for the taking.
*This article is solely for informational purposes, it is not intended to provide medical advice.
**A note of caution: Weeds should only be harvested from safe un-sprayed areas, never from roadsides or ditches that are often sprayed with herbicides.
***Pregnant and breastfeeding women should always consult their doctor before taking any kind of herbal remedy.
Jody Eisemann, a licensed acupuncturist with over 24 years of experience, has offices in Norwalk, Trumbull and Southport. She loves both gardening AND weeds. Connect with her at AffordableAcupunctureCT.com. See ad, page 28.
Homemade Poison Ivy Spray
1. Clean the jewelweed by pulling off the leaves and roughly chopping the stalks. Place the plant material in a bowl of cool water and swish it around to clean.
2. Remove the plant material and pat dry.
3. Put the chopped jewelweed in a jar, use a spoon or pestle to crush it further (most of the juice is in the lower part of the stalk). Then pour witch hazel over it to cover all the plant material.
4. Seal the jar and let it sit in a dark place for 12-24 hours.
5. Strain the liquid into a dark- colored spray bottle to prevent light from breaking down the plant material.
6. Keep on hand as needed. Use topically only.
• You can also put chopped jewelweed in boiling water to produce an infusion, let it cool, strain it and place the liquid in a dark bottle, refrigerate and it will last for 3 or 4 days. This liquid could also be frozen into ice cubes and can be rubbed directly onto skin rashes for healing relief.