Many of the tree, shrubs, and weeds we take for granted are actually herbal time capsules, treasured by our ancestors and waiting to be rediscovered. Take a look around your own neighborhood. You may be surprised how wealthy you are.
Euell Gibbons, the forager extraordinaire who sent thousands scurrying after wild asparagus in the late 1960s and 1970s, was once asked how he came to know so much about living off the land. “Poverty,” he replied, with characteristic modesty. People who can’t get food elsewhere, he explained, rely on what’s in their own backyard.
Few take the master at his word, it seems. Most people assume that wild herbs are best gathered in forests and country meadows, never realizing our own yards are packed with promise. Suburban herbalists can expand their harvest considerably without hoeing an extra foot of ground if they take a page from Gibbons and reacquaint themselves with a few herbs that are ordinarily written off as weeds or considered only as ornamentals.
A checkered past
Because it roots readily in the poorest soil, resists pests and diseases, and thrives almost anywhere, common juniper (Juniperus communis) has been a landscaping standby for centuries. I’ve even identified the sites of houses long vanished by the junipers still guarding their foundations. Suburban foragers should get to know these useful, ubiquitous shrubs.
Juniper’s gray-green (when unripe) to blue (ripe) “berries” are actually tiny cones whose scales are so tightly clenched that they appear round. Only female plants produce berries, and only in the presence of male plants, so if you have a lot of junipers but no berries, you probably don’t have both sexes.
Juniper berries are the source of gin’s characteristic bitterness. In fact, the English word “gin” is derived from the Dutch word genever, which comes from genièvre, the French word for both the plant and the beverage, which comes from the Latin juniperus. Gin is thought to have been invented about 400 years ago by Franciscus Sylvius, a professor of chemistry at the University of Leiden in Holland who was trying to make a cheap medicine with the diuretic properties of juniper oil. This new version of an old herbal remedy was eagerly adopted for recreational use, and a noxious bathtub version became the drug of choice of eighteenth-century Londoners. The alleged power of juniper berries to cause miscarriage ensured gin’s popularity in bordellos, earning both liquor and herb an unsavory reputation that neither has completely lived down. Even today in some backwaters, folk wisdom warns that “evil women drink gin.”
That’s a nasty bit of luck for the honorable juniper, which is prized in traditional medicine throughout Europe, Asia, and the New World. Many cultures believe that the foliage of this and other species of juniper has antiseptic properties. Native American healers in the Rockies light the ends of tightly braided juniper fronds and ritually cleanse people and places with the smoke. Europeans use the steam from boiling juniper boughs to purify sickrooms and ease cold, bronchitis, and asthma symptoms. Infusions of juniper berries are taken internally to treat kidney and urinary tract disorders, as well as menstrual complaints and nausea.
As a seasoning, dried juniper berries contribute to the complex flavor of the
Rhineland’s succulent sauerkrauts and are an ingredient of distinctive herb vinegars.
Roasted in a slow oven until black and then ground fine, they add a smoky, resinous bite to meats and stews. An intriguing coffeelike beverage can be made from the spice, though picking enough little berries to brew a pot full is a saint’s labor. Less patient foragers mix the ground, roasted berries with real coffee or make tea by steeping them with cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. Stir honey and heavy cream into either beverage for a luxurious after-dinner treat.
Though the berries contain resins that are toxic in large quantities, the bitterness of most species effectively limits consumption. The large blue berries of the California juniper (J. californica) are less bitter than those of other junipers and can be eaten out of hand but should be enjoyed in moderation.
She’s got everything delightful
Although frequently associated with America’s Deep South in the popular imagination, magnolia trees flourish worldwide. Southern magnolias need a warm, humid climate to survive, but other species endure the harsh winters of the North and the Midwest. Magnolia’s large, often fragrant blossoms make it a favorite yard and street tree.
One Chinese species, Magnolia officinalis, has been a staple of Asian medicine for thousands of years. Even its specific name, which means “of the storeroom,” reflects its ties to the pharmacy. The bark and flowers of this species are used in traditional Chinese medicine to counter about forty maladies, including anorexia, malaria, and sexual dysfunction. Chinese practitioners use other species to treat seasickness, stress, and alcoholism.
Magnolia is also a tasty culinary herb. Chinese cooks stir pickled magnolia seedpods into rice to add flavor. Fresh flower buds of saucer magnolia (M. ¥soulangiana), common in the northern United States, lend a subtle horseradishlike zing to soups, salads, and sandwiches.
Ever eat a pine tree?
While most people eat only the fruits of trees, many other parts are also edible, as Gibbons demonstrated. Those who have the courage to try the following tree-born suburban herbs will be richly rewarded.
Tender new leaves of Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) are delicious in salads, where they contribute color and a surprisingly clean, tart flavor. They also lend an artistic touch when floated on soups or used as a garnish. Pick just-opened leaves and use them immediately. If refrigerated for more than an hour or two, they lose their tang and begin to taste like, well, leaves.
The soft new growth of some needle-bearing evergreens is both delicious and nutritious. Firs, spruces, and hemlocks (not to be confused with the parsleylike plant that killed Socrates) bear tasty buds that are high in vitamin C. Spruce beer was once enjoyed throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Sweet young spruce and hemlock tips also make excellent tea. Simmer in water for 5 to 10 minutes, strain, sweeten, and serve. Conifer tips are delicious on meats and in sauces and may be dried for year-round use.
Herbs on the lam
Curiously, many of our most hated weeds were intentionally introduced to this continent by our European ancestors, who valued them as herbs. As society’s values changed, those orphaned plants were forced into a life of crime. Today, valuable herbs routinely suffer poisoning and uprooting in suburbia as they await political rehabilitation.
Chickweed (Stellaria media) is a particularly deserving candidate. Thriving in soft, fertile earth, this annual herb is green year-round in mild climates, making it particularly vexatious to gardeners. Chickweed is readily identified by its small, tongue-shaped leaves and tiny, starlike white blossoms. Its luxuriant mat of foliage grows from a single weak stem.
Topical uses alone might have earned chickweed’s passage on those crowded sailing ships of yore. A warm poultice of chickweed was the early European colonists’ treatment of choice for cuts, scrapes, infections, swellings, hemorrhoids, sties, eczema, boils—you name it. The simmered pulp was applied warm to the skin and the water used to wet the bandages further. Patients might also eat chickweed or drink chickweed tea while their wounds healed.
High in potassium, vitamin C, and other nutrients, chickweed was valued as a restorative for victims of famine or malnutrition and as a diet food. It has also been used to treat colds and constipation.
Fresh chickweed gives flavor and color to soups and sauces. A few sprigs make salads and sandwiches more interesting, too. Dried chickweed has an earthy, alfalfalike scent similar to parsley but more pronounced. Crumbled and kept in an airtight container, it’s a terrific parsley substitute. A strawberry jar with chickweed spilling voluptuously from its pockets, placed on a doorstep not far from the kitchen, is as beautiful as it is useful.
Robert Henderson of Chilliwack, British Columbia, has spent most of his life chasing wild herbs and backwoods lore in the Pacific Northwest and around the world. He is currently working on a book on this subject, tentatively titled Subherbs, to be published by Chelsea Green later this year.