Some of us think of medicinal wild plants as weeds—unappealing plants that grow where they’re unwanted. But shift your perspective—and possibly your taste buds—in a different direction for just a moment.
Weeds grow without our help; they’re usually native or naturalized to their home environment. They thrive without fertilizer and usually without supplemental watering. Best of all, many common “weeds” are actually therapeutic, nutritious, or both. And usually, they’re yours for the taking, although you may have to ask a landowner’s permission or be careful to avoid roadsides and sprayed areas.
Harvesting medicinal wild plants is known as wildcrafting; it’s a tradition with a rich history both in Europe and the United States. Unfortunately, as the market for herbal products has heated up, some species of less common herbs have been overharvested in the wild. Arnica (Arnica spp.) and goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) are two examples.
But harvesting the more common plants, ones that grow in untended abundance, to eat or use in easy, healing recipes, can be a wonderful way to reunite with the outdoors, and an excellent introduction to using medicinal herbs. Here are eight to try.
Believed to be native to Greece or Persia, dandelion now grows throughout the United States in most lawns and fields. It’s a perennial with a basal rosette of jagged leaves up to nine inches in diameter. Succulent stalks that grow from the rosette’s center are from three to nine inches long and exude a milky juice when cut. Dandelions are one of many herbalists’ favorite herbs to wildcraft; they’re so easy to find!
Eating dandelion: Leaves are collected in the spring, before flowers appear, and can be consumed raw or cooked. (The older leaves become bitter, but if you cook them in several changes of water, the bitterness is removed.) Roots can be collected throughout the year. Try scrubbing them and steaming as you would carrots. They can also be dry-roasted, ground, and made into a coffee substitute. Flowers may be added to muffins or battered and stir-fried. And dandelion wine from the flowers is a delight! One hundred grams (about 1/2 cup) of the fresh leaf yields about 14,000 IU of beta-carotene (more than carrots), 35 mg of vitamin C, 187 mg of calcium, and 397 mg of potassium.
Medicinal dandelion: All parts of the plant are used. The leaves are a diuretic, but they don’t upset the body’s potassium balance the way diuretic drugs do. Dandelion has been used to treat anemia, arthritis, high cholesterol, diabetes, gallstones, hepatitis, jaundice, kidney stones, menstrual problems, and rheumatism. In folk medicine, the sap from the stem was applied to get rid of warts.
This member of the Chenopodiaceae (“goosefoot”) family also goes by the names of wild spinach and pigweed. Lamb’s-quarters is native to Eurasia and grows nearly everywhere in North America, except extreme northern regions. It pops up in vacant lots and parks in rich, disturbed soil. It’s an annual with an erect stem growing one to eight feet tall. Some mature main stems bear reddish markings. Its leaves are roughly toothed, either oval or triangular in shape. The flowers are tiny, inconspicuous ones, growing in spikes at the top of the plant; they produce tiny black seeds. Stems, leaves, and seeds are all used.
Eating lamb’s-quarters: This relative of spinach and beets is much easier to grow! It’s historically used as a spring green. Ideally, collect the leaves when the plant is young and tender and between six and ten inches high. Its seeds can be eaten raw or dried; they can also be ground into a flour and added to breads, muffins, and pancakes. Leaves and seeds can be dehydrated for winter use.
One hundred grams (about 1/2 cup) of lamb’s-quarters greens provide 4.2 g of protein, 309 mg of calcium, 11,600 IU of beta-carotene, and 80 mg of vitamin C. In 100 g of seeds are 1,036 mg of calcium, 64 mg of iron, and 1,687 mg of potassium.
Medicinal lamb’s-quarters: The herb has been used as a diuretic and to treat anemia. However, lamb’s-quarters contains oxalic acid, so avoid eating excessive amounts (such as 2 cups daily for months at a time) because it can inhibit calcium absorption.
Chickweed is a delicate annual with a sprawling stem, covered with minute hairs. It grows in low, dense patches and has small, untoothed oval-shaped leaves that grow opposite and come to a point. Tiny, white, five-petaled flowers grow singly on the axils of the upper leaves; they’re about one-fourth inch in diameter. Each petal of the flowers is deeply cleft, which gives them the appearance of having ten petals.
Originally native to Eurasia, chickweed now grows coast to coast in the United States but prefers cool, shady, moist areas of rich soil in lawns, along roadsides and pastures. Chickweed flourishes in spring and by midsummer is usually dried up.
Eating chickweed: Because chickweed may bloom as early as March, it was once collected on the plains of India and later in Greece and Rome to bring healthy greens into the diet through the colder months. Chickweed has a pleasant, salty flavor—sweet, cool, and juicy, with a flavor reminiscent of cabbage. Young, fresh leaves are best (dried leaves lack flavor). Fresh leaves will keep well in the refrigerator for several days. One-half cup of chickweed leaves (100 g) provides about 350 mg of vitamin C, 29 mg of iron, and 243 mg of potassium.
Medicinal chickweed: All aboveground parts of chickweed can be used. It has been used to treat asthma, bladder irritation, bronchitis, cough, fever, hoarseness, rheumatism, sore throat, tuberculosis, and ulcers. Chickweed is thought to cleanse the kidneys and liver after a winter of heavy food; it has a long history as a diet aid. It has traditionally been given to strengthen the frail. Topically, chickweed can be used as a poultice and salve for arthritic limbs, burns, itchy skin, diaper rash, nettle sting, psoriasis, and eczema.
Tips and cautions: Excess internal use of chickweed may cause diarrhea. Avoid eating plants that grow next to water, as they may harbor giardia.
This member of the Malvaceae family is a relative of marshmallow, cotton, hibiscus, and okra. It’s native to Eurasia, has been cultivated since the Roman Empire, and now grows wild over much of North America.
An annual or biennial, malva is a low-spreading plant that grows up to twelve inches tall. Its roundish leaves have scalloped edges up to four inches wide. Flowers are about one-half inch wide and striped in pink and white. The fruit is round, like an old-fashioned cheese wheel. Malva grows in disturbed soil, close to human habitation.
Eating malva: The leaves, flowers, and young seeds all are edible and have a mild, mellow flavor. The leaves can be eaten in salads, added to soups as a flavorful thickener, or simply made into a tea. The green seed capsules, also known as “cheeses,” can be eaten in salads or pickled. Flowers can be used to decorate a salad or cake. A related species was once used to make the confection marshmallow.
Medicinal malva: The plant has been used to treat constipation; it contains mucilage, a healing, slippery substance that helps lubricate the bowel and soothe ulcers and sore throat. Malva leaves can also be used in a poultice for insect bites, stings, and swellings.
Mustards, all from the Brassicacaea family, include black mustard (Brassica sinapiodes), white mustard (Sinapsis alba), brown mustard (B. juncea), garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata, A. officinalis), pepper grass (Lepidium perfoliatum), white top mustard (Cardaria draba), tansy mustard (Descurania spp.), and hedge mustard (Sisymbrium officinale).
Black mustard is native to Asia Minor, brown mustard to the Himalayas, and white mustard to the eastern Mediterranean region. All three varieties now grow wild in most of the United States and southern Canada in vacant lots, urban areas, and hillsides in rich, moist, disturbed soil. Mustard is an annual, growing anywhere from one to eight feet tall. Its flowers come in a variety of colors, but all have four petals in the shape of a cross, with four sepals, six stamens, and one pistil.
Eating mustard: Since 1984, The American Cancer Society has suggested eating foods in the Brassicacaea family as part of a diet to prevent certain cancers. Mustard greens can be cooked like spinach or chard; flowers are edible in salads and as a garnish. Young seed pods can be added to salads and stir-fry dishes. Mustards do contain some irritating essential oils, so indulge in moderation.
One hundred grams (about 1/2 cup) of mustard greens provide 183 mg of calcium, 377 mg of potassium, 7,000 IU of beta-carotene, and 97 mg of vitamin C.
Medicinal mustard: When eaten, mustard stimulates the appetite and the production of gastric juices. The ground seed has been used medicinally to treat chilblains, cough, and respiratory congestion. A mustard-seed poultice can be used for chest colds, bronchitis, pneumonia, and rheumatism. Never apply such a poultice directly to the skin, however; cover it with a clean cloth first to avoid burning or blistering. Check the skin frequently.
(Urtica dioica, U. urens)
This European native grows throughout the United States in shady areas and damp soil. A perennial, it grows up to six feet tall with oblong tapered leaves growing on opposite sides of the stem. Tiny stinging hairs cover the sharply toothed margins of the leaves, giving this weed its name.
Eating nettle: This plant is a fairly rich source of protein and minerals. However, to get to them, you have to get past the stinging hairs! Wear gloves, long sleeves, and long pants to collect them. If you do get stung, crush some leaves of yellow dock (Rumex crispus), which usually grows nearby, and apply to the area. Obviously, you don’t want to consume raw nettles. Cooking the leaves disarms their sting. They can be steamed or stir-fried, made into a tea, or cooked in a soup. Young tender shoots of nettles are also edible. One hundred grams (about 1/2 cup) of nettles provides 4,900 IU of beta-carotene and 790 mg of vitamin C.
Medicinal nettle: Nettles have been used to treat acne, anemia, asthma, bronchitis, urinary infections, eczema, swelling, allergies, and many other disorders. Tops of nettles should be harvested in spring before the plant flowers, using gloves and scissors. Tops, which include the youngest, most tender leaves, are considered less fibrous than the lower portion of the plant.
A double-blind study conducted in Portland, Oregon, documented nettles’ ability to help hay fever sufferers. Sixty-nine patients with allergies were given either freeze-dried nettles or a placebo. Those given nettles showed a 58 percent improvement while the placebo group had only a 37 percent improvement.
(Portulaca oleracea, P. sativa)
Also known as wild portulaca or verdolaga, purslane is native to Persia, Africa, and India. It was introduced into Europe by Arabs in the fifteenth century as a salad herb. Purslane is now found all over the Americas in gardens and vacant areas in damp to dry soil.
Purslane is an annual, low-growing, fleshy herb, up to eight inches across, with prostrate reddish stems. The leaves are succulent, smooth, and paddle-shaped, about one-half to one-inch long and arranged alternately. Tiny yellow flowers open when the sun shines.
Eating purslane: Thoreau ate purslane while he lived at Walden Pond, and the herb is reported to have been one of Mahatma Gandhi’s favorite foods. Purslane has a pleasant, slightly sour flavor that can be enjoyed raw or cooked. It can be used in salads, pickles, stir-fry dishes, and soups. The dried seeds can be ground and added to flour.
One hundred grams (about 1/2 cup) of purslane contains about 2,500 IU of beta-carotene, 103 mg of calcium, and 25 mg of vitamin C. In 1986, purslane was discovered to be a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, which help reduce the risk of heart disease and can help lower cholesterol levels.
Medicinal purslane: Purslane has been used throughout history in the treatment of a wide variety of conditions. Topically, purslane has been used as a poultice for bee stings, boils, burns and hemorrhoids. Avoid large dosages of purslane during pregnancy, and the herb is also not for those with weak digestion.
Violas go by a number of charming nicknames, including heartsease, wild pansy, and Johnny jump-up. This perennial grows no taller than twelve inches; leaves are heart-shaped and vary from one-half to five inches wide. Flowers can be purple, white, yellow, or pink, about one-half to three-quarters-of-an-inch wide. Violets usually grow in colonies in shady damp areas. (Do not confuse violets with arnica, which should not be eaten.)
Eating violet: As long as the leaves are heart-shaped, violet leaves are edible in salads or as a cooked green. The flowers are edible and make a beautiful garnish. You can also freeze flowers into ice cubes for a touch of elegance.
Medicinal violet: Violets contain salicylates, saponins, alkaloids (violene), flavonoids, volatile oil, beta-carotene, and vitamin C. Violet leaves and flowers have been traditionally used to treat acne, boils, cysts, eczema, fever, fibrocystic breast disease, headaches, lymphatic congestion, mastitis, psoriasis, sore throat, and ulcers.
Brigitte Mars is an herbalist from Boulder, Colorado. She is the author of Dandelion Medicine (Storey, 1999), Addiction Free Naturally (Healing Arts, 2001), and Natural First Aid (Storey, 1999). She teaches at the Rocky Mountain Center for Botanical Studies and also hosts Herb Camp for Kids.