Master herbalist Ellen Evert Hopman has researched and written about various flowers, trees, and weeds for use in food, medicine, and spiritual growth. In her book Secret Medicines from Your Garden (Healing Arts Press, 2015), she explores the properties of these plants and how you can incorporate them into your life. Combining ancient wisdom, folklore, and modern research, Hopman presents to readers the power of wild herbs and their healing benefits.
Herbs of Spring
A weed is a plant whose uses have yet to be appreciated.
I live in an oak forest in New England. There is very little light here for growing things, so I mostly rely on wildcrafted roots, barks, leaves, flowers, and berries, but I follow a few cautions before I pick.
• The first is expressed by an old Native American saying: “Walk by the first seven, leave the eighth for the animals, and you may take the ninth.” Always leave enough plants behind to feed the wild creatures and to make seed for next year’s crop.
• Gather plants at least one thousand feet from a roadway to avoid the pollutants that abound there, such as those from car exhaust and brake linings.
• Act fast, because Nature doesn’t wait: there is usually just a short window of opportunity for gathering from the wild.
• Know your herbs: be sure you have a good guide or a teacher to point things out to you, and never pick endangered species in the wild.
Every season brings its own moment of opportunity. In the spring there are already an abundance of edibles and medicinals available in fields and forests, for those with the eyes to see and the determination to seek them out.
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)
The delicate white flowers of Bloodroot are among the first flowers to appear in woodlands in spring. The root of the plant was once added to tinctures and syrups for lung conditions such as asthma, bronchitis, and fevers. As it is now considered a toxic irritant, a better way to deliver the medicine is to put the tincture or tea of Bloodroot into a vaporizer and inhale the mist. It helps open the capillaries in cases of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and other lung disorders. As it is an antiseptic, Bloodroot is still used in toothpastes and mouthwashes.
Cattail, Bulrush (Typha spp.)
Cattail is delicious in spring. Cut off the new green growth and peel back the outer layers to reveal the pale green center, which is something like heart of palm. Steam the tender center and serve with butter. The hardest part about gathering Cattails is finding a pond or a swamp that is not polluted by runoff from farms or roadways.
Chickweed or Starwort (Stellaria media)
Stellaria media thrives in cool weather. It can be cooked like spinach, added to healing salves, or made into a tea. Very high in vitamin C, it is a good food for invalids; use it in salads, sautéed, and in soups. The plant is also added to herbal salves for itchy skin conditions.
The tea can help ease constipation and bladder and bronchial problems.
To make the tea: Steep one tablespoon per half cup of water for twenty minutes. Take up to one cup a day in quarter-cup amounts.
Chicory (Chichorium intybus)
Chichorium intybus is a familiar bright blue wayside flower. Gather the young leaves before the blossoms appear and add them raw to salads or cook them like spinach. The leaves are also used in poultices for inflammation. Later in the season you can sprinkle the open flowers onto salads, open-faced cream cheese sandwiches, and cakes. Try freezing them into ice cubes for festive occasions.
The roots can be gathered from March to May. Sauté the roots when fresh, or dry them, grind them, and add them to coffee. A tea made from the roots will aid the digestive tract. A tea can also be made of the leaves and flowers (don’t pick after blooming); it will clear mucus, aid in passing gallstones, and improve digestion. Acne, liver problems, eczema, rheumatic complaints, and gout may also benefit from the tea. Tea made from the leaves can also be used as a mouthwash for gum conditions.
To make the tea: Simmer one teaspoon of chopped root per half cup of water for ten minutes, or steep one teaspoon of herb per half cup of water for twenty minutes. Take one tablespoon three times a day in separate doses, in water or milk.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Dandelion greens are at their best in the early spring when they first appear. Then rinse the leaves and eat them mixed into a salad, or cook them like spinach with a little butter, sea salt, and lemon juice. You can also dust them with flour, salt, and pepper and then fry in butter. A classic way to cook Dandelion greens is to sauté them with onion and bacon.
The flowers are used to make Dandelion wine. Add the petals (but not the green sepals, which are too bitter) to salads for a calcium boost.
Dandelion root tea is used for acne and eczema and for liver issues.
To make the tea: Simmer two teaspoons of root per half cup of water for about fifteen minutes. Take up to one cup a day in quarter-cup doses.
Daylily (Hemerocallis fulva)
The classic orange Daylily is found in many gardens, and every part of this plant (except maybe the stem) is edible. Gather the new leaves in the spring and cut them up into salads. Once the roots have been carefully cleaned, they can be sliced raw into salads or cooked like potatoes.
Later in summer, when the buds appear, you can sauté them with other vegetables. The open flowers are added to soups as a thickener.
Caution: There is considerable disagreement about whether other types of Daylilies are edible, so be sure to research other varieties carefully.
Forsythia (Forsythia spp.)
Yellow Forsythia flowers are some of the first spring blooms. Add a few to your salad.
Ground Ivy, Creeping Charlie, Gill-over-the-Ground (Glechoma hederacea)
Ground Ivy starts to proliferate in spring and can be made into a tea for colds, diarrhea, bronchitis, sore throat, gout, gravel, stone, and liver problems.
To make the tea: Steep one teaspoon of fresh leaves per half cup of water for twenty minutes. Take up to one cup a day in quarter-cup doses.
Caution: Do not take Ground Ivy in large amounts or for long periods.
Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis)
Hemlock is probably the tastiest conifer to eat, although the new growth of most conifers can be munched right off the tree, added to salads, and simmered into teas. The twigs and needles can be used year-round to make a slightly antiseptic, vitamin C–rich cold remedy. (See chapter 15 for more ideas on how to use conifers.)
Japanese Knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum)
Considered an invasive pest by many in the northeastern United States, the root of this plant has been shown to be useful in diseases such as Lyme. In fact, it has spread to exactly the areas where Lyme is proliferating (I think Mother Nature knows something we humans have yet to understand). Japanese Knotweed proves the old adage, “A weed is a plant whose uses have yet to be appreciated.” I have noticed that this plant is a great favorite of the bees.
Gather the spears of new growth in the spring and use them in pies, in crumbles, and as a rhubarb substitute.
Ellen Evert Hopman has been a teacher of herbalism since 1983 and is a professional member of the American Herbalists Guild. A Druidic initiate since 1984, she is a founding member of The Order of the White Oak, an Archdruidess of the Druid Clan of Dana, and a member of the Grey Council of Mages and Sages. The author of several books, including A Druid’s Herbal for the Sacred Earth Year, she lives in Massachusetts.