Briar Patch Medicine

The herbal treasury that grows in hedges.

| July/August 1997


I had just completed my sophomore year of college, and my nerves were stinging from the stress of final exams. As I steered my car onto the freeway that would take me to my home in Bellingham, Washington, a rich cloud of wild rose perfume drifted through my open window from an embankment hedge. Tension immediately evaporated from my body, as if I had taken a powerful tranquilizer, and I nearly closed my eyes. Such was my first inkling of the power of peripheral herbs.

Whether they stand as a garden hedge, a living fence around a pasture, or unkempt brush growing beyond a manicured yard, “peripherals” (plants that function as borders) often labor in obscurity. But some of these plants are more useful as food and medicine than the pampered crops they protect.

Genera Rosa, Rubus, Ribes, and Rhus—the “four Rs” of the peripheral fraternity—divide most of the world’s perimeter work among them. They contain high levels of vitamin C and are widely enlisted in the war against the common cold. They also contain tannin, an astringent used to treat diarrhea, skin disorders, and sunburn, as well as to tan hides and set dyes.

Hedges have marked European property lines for millennia. When ­installing such partitions, peasants ­favored plants whose medicinal and culinary value equaled their merit as a boundary. Today, Europe’s venerable hedges rival the tropical rain forest in biodiversity per yard. Although only a few feet wide, these impenetrable tangles (Normandy’s hedgerows halted tanks in their tracks during World War II) are refuge to several endangered species in an ever-urbanized ­environment.

Many North Americans might chafe against such permanent boundaries, where land changes hands almost as readily as coins. Yet, the abundance of unmanaged land in this part of the world supports a wealth of “peripherals without portfolio”, scrappy plants that thrive uninvited on roadsides, railroad embankments, and vacant lots.

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