Spicebush

Spicy, lemony shrub with its rich history needs a reintroduction into the kitchens and medicine cabinets of North America.

It can be found from Maine to Florida, as far west as Kansas, and in parts of Texas. It is happiest just inside the edge of the forest but can successfully be grown out in the open with strong attention to its watering. The bush has a long American history that is enjoying a bit of a renaissance.

When European settlers first arrived in the Americas, they would have had to struggle with many elements of homesickness — particularly the loss of familiarity with the plants around them. Seeds were surely transported, and some even thrived in the New World, but many of the plants that colonists depended on for food, medicine, dye, and textiles had to be left behind. This meant that settlers needed to quickly understand which plants could serve as substitutes for lost staples.

If you’re in a strange place and need to know the landscape, the logical thing to do is to ask the natives. One of the important plants the Cherokee people taught early settlers about was spicebush. Spices have moved humans from place to place, started civilizations, and founded empires. Here on the temperate shores of the U.S., the bright spices cinnamon and ginger don’t grow, but we’ve always had milder and cooler substitutes. Spicebush berries can be used as a replacement for allspice, and the powdered bark makes a serviceable cinnamon.

Spicebush is known as fever bush, Benjamin bush, snap-wood, wild allspice, Appalachian spice, spicewood, and “forsythia of the forest” to name a few. Beyond its culinary use, Native Americans taught the settlers about the ways they used spicebush as a medicine. This native population used the leaves, bark, berries, and sap in various ways. Internally, they prized the plant for its diaphoretic properties, or its ability to induce sweating. Native people used spicebush to ease colds, cough, fever, and measles. Externally, they used oil from the pressed berries to ease the pain of arthritis. They used all parts of the plant interchangeably as compresses (external applications of cloth soaked in tea) for rashes, itching, or bruises, and they also used it to remove internal parasites.

Soon, the colonies began to expand, and many itching to explore the West. As they walked, they deepened their relationship with spicebush. Paul Strauss, in his book The Big Herbs, tells us that chewing on the twigs will quench thirst and moisten the mouth. In this way, spicebush walked with the settlers, many of whom were traveling with their families as they moved toward a farm they’d bought, sight unseen. Spicebush was associated with rich soil and easy access to the water table. If the surveyor said that the shrub was on the land in question, it was a safe bet for a successful farm.

Over time, the Americas’ access to the hot and intense spices of the East became easier. Medical advancements yielded awareness of plants with healing properties, and then modern drugs left the need for many plants behind. Spicebush was left alone in the woods to quietly feed the insects and animals that depend on it for survival. Only now are we coming back to an awareness of its presence?

Cultivating Spicebush

Spicebush is now a featured member of Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste. Many are stepping back into the dappled shade of the forest’s edge to become reacquainted with this shrub. Spicebush is fond of moist soils along streams or in rich woods. It grows between 6 and 12 feet high. At its base, one often finds some of the most endangered of our medicinal plants, such as black cohosh, ginseng, false unicorn, goldenseal, and wild yam. In March and April, just before the leaves emerge, it sports pale yellow blooms that are a great early source of nectar for bees. The male and female blooms arise on separate shrubs. When the leaves appear, they are opposite, simple, smooth, and oval to oblong with a spicy, aromatic smell when crushed. In fall, the leaves turn a beautiful yellow that contrasts sharply with the red spicebush fruit. This fruit is an oval-shaped drupe containing one large seed. It’s bright, glossy red, and spicy when ripe in August through September.

In winter, after all the fruit has been eaten, you can identify the spicebush based on the gray to an olive-green color of the stems, which have a spicy smell when broken. The leaf scars are crescent-shaped, and both young stems and old bark are dotted with pale lenticels (raised pores where oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged). Spicebush spreads as a colony, by its roots. If you have a friend with an expanding group of spicebush, late fall is a great time to dig up some of the colony and move it to your house.

Growing spicebush is relatively easy, provided you have a good spot. Plants can be grown in full sun if you water them often and provide a rich soil with plenty of leaf compost. After they get established, they require little in the way of pruning or animal-proofing (deer don’t like them). You can just sit and enjoy the constant visual interest and all the other wildlife your spicebush will attract. The real problem will be deciding exactly which recipe you’d like to use with the leaves, twigs, and fruit your shrub will provide.

Uses for Spicebush

As a supplement, almost all parts of spicebush can be used in food and medicinal preparations. Spicebush bark’s antifungal capacities were demonstrated in a 2008 study that showed its activities against both Candida albicans and the fungus that causes athlete’s foot. To use the bark in this way, either make a tincture or simmer (decoct) the root in water for 15 to 20 minutes.

The entire shrub is high in volatile oils, making all parts of the plant likely effective at settling the stomach when made into a tea. The leaves are especially good as a tea and should be picked while glossy and green. The twigs can be picked to add to a tasty medicinal brew at any time of the year. If you’re hoping to have a cleansing sweat or break a fever, brew your tea for 30 minutes (4 ounces twigs to 1-quart water) and serve hot.

If you wish to use the berries, the possibilities for food as medicine are endless. Berries are ripe around the same time as apples, so think of the potential combinations! Dry berries in a dehydrator, and store them on a shelf or immediately freeze them. Some people cut the seed out of the middle before freezing, but I think that’s unnecessary and potentially removes some of the flavors. You’ll need to run unblanched, frozen berries through the food processor before adding them to a dish. Dried spicebush berries can be ground with a spice-dedicated coffee grinder. Try adding the resulting powder or pulp to coffee, cookies, chai tea, cobblers, curries, and more.

Spicebush is a strong part of our country’s past — but why keep it there? With so much to offer our landscape and even more to bring to our pantry and apothecary shelves, it deserves another look by all who enjoy a little history in the garden.

Spicebush Seed and Plant Sources

Strictly Medicinal Seeds (listed as “spice bush”)
Gurney’s Seed & Nursery Co.
Fedco Seeds

Fever Chai with Spicebush

spicebush teaRelieve typical fever symptoms, or make without milk to soothe fever caused by respiratory illnesses.

Total Hands-On Time: 1 hr

Cook Time: 1 hr

Yield: 5-7 cups

Fever Chai can bring some relief to fever symptoms, but you may make it without the milk for someone who’s experiencing a fever related to a respiratory illness, as milk can exacerbate symptoms of congestion.

Ingredients:

• 8 whole cloves
• 8 spicebush berries
• 7 twigs spicebush (broken to equal about 2 ounces)
• 2 sticks cinnamon (smashed)
• 1 cardamom pod
• 1 tablespoon fresh sliced ginger
• 1/2 star anise
• 2 cups water
• 4 to 6 cups milk (or almond milk)
• 2 tablespoons black tea
• Sugar or honey to taste

Instructions:

1. Crush all the spices lightly with a mortar and pestle and place them into a saucepan.

2. Cover the spices with water and bring to a boil.

3. Reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes or until the water has reduced by half.

4. Add the milk to the saucepan and bring back almost to a boil.

5. Remove from heat. Add the black tea, cover, and steep for 5 minutes before straining.

6. While still warm, add sugar or honey to taste, and then use a milk frother to whip your chai.

7. Serve immediately.

Wild Allspice Java Rub with Spicebush

spicebush rubThis sweet and spicy rub is the perfect addition to steak, brisket, or pork.

Total Hands-On Time: 5 min

Preparation Time: 5 min

Yield: 1 cup

This rub is best on a grilled steak or brisket but also works well with pork.

Ingredients:

• 5 tablespoons ground coffee
• 2 tablespoons coarse salt
• 2 tablespoons brown sugar
• 2 tablespoons paprika
• 2 teaspoons freshly ground pink peppercorns
• 2 teaspoons garlic powder
• 2 teaspoons ground spicebush berries
• 1 teaspoon ground cumin
• 1 teaspoon unsweetened cocoa powder

Instructions:

1. Combine all ingredients and place in an airtight container.

2. This mix is shelf-stable but should be used within 6 months.

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Flowers for Food and Medicine

Ever since the first cave dweller got the first stomach ache, people have looked at plants to relieve their aches and pains. Which plants would cure which ailments? The question is ageless. Answers first came from {probably often painful} trial and error.
Eventually, though, this was backed by experience and knowledge passed down from one generation to another. Different civilizations, even though they were separated by time and great distances, used similar plants to cure the same ills. People in primitive societies believed, and still believe today, that sickness was a punishment from the gods. They assumed that their discomfort was a direct consequence of their actions. In these societies, no one knew why plants were able to cure many ailments. The men and woman who were knowledgeable about plants and able to treat various illnesses with their herbs were held in special esteem and took an honored place in the social order. Perhaps some of this distinction were based on fear, for the plants could harm as well as heal. An angry herbalist could do great harm. Because superstition was a strong factor in the cures they obtained, herbalists included many rites and rituals along with their magical herbs. One of the first writers to address the field of plants and medicine was Dioscorides, a Roman who published De Materia Medica around A.D. 60. He was a contemporary of Pliny, who wrote Naturalis Historia, a work much admired and used by both ancient and medieval peoples. During the Dark Ages and Middle Ages, monks were the primary instruments for keeping alive the medical and herbal writings of the Greeks and Romans. Outside the cloister, herb men and woman, bone setters, and healers prevailed, and superstition and folklore reigned. During the years A.D. 400 to 1500, the Church had great power. Since Christians believed that illnesses were caused by sin, they also believed that the greatest cures were obtained through prayer and repentance. It was, however, part of a monk’s duty to care for the sick, and these men were able to use many of the herbs growing in their gardens. Monks during the medieval period were in a very good position to perpetuate the teachings of the Greeks and Romans. Not only were they excellent copyists, able to transcribe the classical writings, they were also wonderful gardeners, for they had the time and opportunity to learn a great deal about herbs while working in the cloister gardens. Communication between monasteries allowed for an exchange of information about plants as well as religious matters.
floral-medicine-1738214_1920
The first herbal published in English was written by a monk, John of Gaddesden, between 1314 and 1317. Entitled  Rosa Medicinae, it combined Greek, Arabic, Jewish and Saxon writings about plants and medicine. In the mid-sixteenth century, an Italian physician proposed the doctrine of signatures, a method for choosing medicinal plants. Giambattista Porta  suggested that the “creator had marked out a path for mankind in the treatment of disease and injury by placing a sign or hint on plants which would be useful in healing them.” In other words, whatever a plant physically resembled, that is what it would cure. For example, plants covered with hairs were used to treat baldness or to wash and clean hair. The overlapping scales of lily bulbs were used to treat scaly skin. The bright red sap of bloodroot was used to treat blood disorders, and the liver-shaped leaf of hepatica was used to treat problems of the liver. This simple method of selecting the right plant for various ailments became quite popular, and a Phyto gnomonical {a book of plant indicators} was published explaining the different plant signs. Science and magic, truth and superstition competed to dominate the minds and souls of men until the seventeenth century. In the late 1500’s an Englishmen, John Gerard, published his Herball or Generall Historie of Plants. For centuries, it was prized for the mass of information it contained, and even today it is popular, in spite of its blatant errors and inconsistencies. The use of garden flowers in natural remedies enjoyed great popularity during the 1930’s. An English physician, Dr. Edward Bach, was one of the first “holistic healers” treating the body as a whole and not simply dealing with separate parts. His book The Bach Flower Remedies includes recipes and instructions for using thirty-eight different flowers. Each flower was used to treat a different emotion that, Dr. Bach felt, could cause disease. Oils from flowers were extracted, mixed with water, and preserved with brandy. Two or three drops of this mixture were drunk several times during the day. For example, pink impatiens were thought to be useful to those suffering irritability, gentian was good for those who were easily discouraged, and clematis was for those who were oversensitive. The use of plants as medicine and folk remedies gradually lost favor. As man became more sophisticated, he came to rely on synthetic drugs and became more and more removed from natural remedies.
healing flower garden
Today, however, some suspect that the very purity of laboratory-made drugs may cause harmful side effects within the patient. Perhaps many of the plants used for medicines contain “checks and balances” that prevent some of these side effects. Modern medicine is beginning to take another long look at the folk remedies that have been used for centuries. Many of the herbal remedies have proven to be effective, and scientists today are learning a great deal from the still-existing herb healers. The World Health Organization has created a Collaborating Center for Traditional Medicine at the University of Illinois to learn from those healers. Most in the Third World, still depend on traditional medicine for their primary healthcare. The World Health Organization’s center hopes that in these countries where “modern medicine” has not intruded, solutions to many health-care needs can be obtained from plants that grow there naturally. This provides a powerful incentive for strong conservation practices. Though some plants have been used for centuries for healing purposes, scientists throughout the world have just begun to discover the treasures contained within our native flora. To lose even one plant species might mean the loss of ingredients that could prove to be essential to our survival.

Ancient Herbal Remedies:

  • Arthritis: violet
  • Blood circulation: marigold
  • Bronchitis: primrose
  • Colic: verbena
  • Complexion: rose water, corn poppy
  • Coughs and convulsions: iris
  • Cuts and wounds: yarrow
  • Epilepsy: peony
  • Eye disease: cornflower, marigold
  • Gout: mallow
  • Head lice: larkspur
  • Heartburn: yarrow
  • Heart disease: foxglove, carnation
  • Infertility: wallflower
  • Influenza: pansy
  • Intestinal disorders: vinca
  • Jaundice: wallflower
  • Liver disorders: daisy
  • Nosebleeds: yarrow
  • Poisoning: columbine
  • Rheumatism: saffron crocus
  • Stomach aches: verbena
  • Sunburn: iris
  • Vertigo: primrose
  • Whooping cough: poppy

Edible Garden Flowers

In addition to their medicinal value, plants and flowers have also been indispensable throughout the ages for seasoning food. Many of the plants we grow in our gardens today for their beauty were at one time grew for their flavor. Many are still useful. Be creative, but be sure you know the identity of the plants you work with. Remember that some of our favorite garden plants are poisonous and should not be taken internally. Gather plant material in the early morning before the sun gets on it. Wash it gently, pull off the petals, and blot them dry. Store them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. To make syrup; Place the desired amount of petals in one cup of water. Boil one to three minutes. Strain through cheesecloth and add two cups of sugar. Boil this mixture ten minutes, or until syrup forms. Do not overcook. To flavor honey; Add the desired amount of finely chopped leaves or petals to a jar of mild honey. Place the jar in a warm-water bath and boil gently for thirty minutes. Cool and store for several days before using. This can be strained or used unstrained. To flavor vinegar; Chop fresh petals or leaves, or use dried ones. Pour room-temperature vinegar over the plant material and let it stand one week. Strain and store the vinegar in a cool place. To flavor stock {vegetable or meat}: Simmer stock with fresh or dried leaves or petals. The longer you simmer, the stronger the herb flavor. To flavor butter: Place chopped petals in between layers of softened butter. Refrigerate at least one week before using. To pickle flowers: Place layers of buds or flowers in a glass or ceramic bowl, putting sugar between each layer. Pour boiling vinegar {cider or white} over the layers, add a piece of mace, and store for one week before using. To make jam or jelly: Chop petals and add them to water. Boil gently to extract color and flavor. The length of time you boil this depends on the plant material used. Strain and measure the resulting liquid, add one cup of sugar. Boil this mixture until the jelly stage is reached {a drop of the liquid should form a ball in cold water}. sure-jell can be used if desired. Pour into hot jelly jars and refrigerate or seal properly. To make tea: Use two to three teaspoons of dried {or sometimes fresh} leaves or petals for every cup of water. Steep the plant material in boiling water for three to ten minutes, depending on the type of plant material and personal preference. To make flower fritters: Chop up flowers into the fritter batter. Fry the fritters as you would pancakes.

The following flowers are considered edible. Their flavors vary from quite sweet to hot and spicy. Experiment with different blossoms and leaves in your favorite recipes. Most of these will add an exotic flavor and extra color to any dish. Use large open flowers such as hollyhocks, tulips, and day lilies to hold dip for a party. Use smaller flowers such as Johnny-jump-ups or violets to make candies. Be sure of the identification of each of these before you eat it.
Chrysanthemum, Daylily, Geranium, Gladiolus, Hollyhock, Jasmine {not the Carolina jessamine, which is poisonous}, Johnny-jump-up, Nasturtium, Pansy, Peony, Poppy, Rose, Sunflower, Tulip, Violet

Medicinal and Herbal Wildflowers

From the beginning of human history, man has considered plants “useful.” Of course, the most obvious use is as a food source, but in all cultures, plants have also figured prominently as medicines. From prehistoric rites to modern medicine, plants have been shown to possess curative properties. Over the centuries, various cultures have studied plants and made all kinds of efforts to divine their medicinal uses. Some experiments have proved disastrous, even fatal. Others seemed miraculous. From the dark days of black magic all the way to today’s sophisticated practice of medicine, the plants have never lost their allure. In fact, today we live in a time of renewed interest in herbal remedies. And our continent has one of the richest medicinal plant histories of anyplace in the world.

Below, you’ll find just a few of the wildflowers that man has used from ancient times forward to aid in his health and provide cures for his illnesses and diseases. It is provided as a source of information and not intended for prescriptive purposes. In fact, many of the same plants used as medicinals are also poisonous if not used properly. (Wildflowers mentioned that pose a serious danger are noted.)

Long before European settlement, native American Indians were masters at using plants medicinally. And today’s modern medicine proves many of their ancient cures. Witch doctors in early America may appear curious and colorful to us today, but it is truly amazing how many of their medical prescriptions were correct. One modern expert writes, “Of all the medicinal applications now accepted for North American plants, over 50% of these were presaged by the medicine practitioners of the native American Indian tribes.”

Meanwhile in Europe, during the Middle Ages, the Herbalists worked to advance the plant studies that had been going on there since the time of the ancient Greeks. During the Middle Ages, with more superstition than science, the herbalists offered their cures, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

The famous Doctrine of Signatures. One of the more bizarre pseudo-sciences that flowered during the early medieval period was medical treatment based on plant structure and appearance. Certain herbalists decided that one could prescribe an herbal cure or treatment based on a relationship between plant parts and body parts. This wild course of the study noted, for example, that parts of the plant Hepatica could be made into a curative concoction for liver ailments. Why? Because the plant has three-lobed leaves that reminded the herbalists of the human liver. Today, Hepatica , the beautiful early spring wildflower we enjoy still carries the name based on its connection to the human liver, yet it’s been shown to have no medicinal value. (Hepatica is the Latin word for “liver”, as is hepatitis.) Most prescriptions based on the Doctrine of Signatures probably only made people sick, since ingesting various non-food plants is usually upsetting. However, others, when poisonous plants were unknowingly used, were fatal.

As medical science progressed and Europeans settled North America, the advancing European medical knowledge of plants was combined with the traditions of Native American medicine. This led to an active exportation of plants from North America, as the settlers learned the new plants’ “secrets” from the Indians.

But this was only the beginning. As modern medicine evolved, plant values were studied and tested, and the results have been amazing.

Today, flowering plants provide almost 25% of the basic ingredients for our modern drugs. This little-known fact makes the study of medicinal plants even more interesting today than ever before. North America has tens of thousands of native plants that have yet to be studied. As Lady Bird Johnson has said, “Surely there are others like digitalis waiting out there.” She was referring to the famous English medicinal wildflower commonly known as Wild Foxglove, but botanically, “Digitalis purpurea.” This is the now-famous plant that is widely used today to treat heart disease. The medicine derived from this plant is usually called, simply “Digitalis”, and has saved untold lives worldwide through its modern applications.

How at least one medicinal plant was “discovered.” The story of the Foxglove is a classic. In 1775, an English physician and botanist named William Withering were asked to treat a patient suffering from dropsy, a broad term that at the time meant “fluid retention.” He had heard of an “old woman in Shropshire” who knew a secret cure which included the foxglove plant. Dr. Withering, after using the secret remedy, which was a concoction of over twenty herbs, found it amazingly successful, but also quickly perceived that only one plant in the mix was working the cure. The whole stew was said to be a diuretic, but Dr. Withering knew that the major cause of dropsy was congestive heart failure. He also knew that foxglove, with its powerful toxic properties in the proper quantity, could strengthen cardiac contraction and enable the heart to pump more efficiently, delivering blood to the rest of the body. Ten years later, Dr. Withering published “10 years of clinical data on patients treated with foxglove.” The rest, as they say, literally, is history–medical history.

From an old woman’s secret cure, through the careful work of an early physician, we have a “wonder drug” direct from a plant that is used today to treat almost every kind of heart disease.

The cure for spider bite becomes environmental monitor. Other stories in herbal and medicinal plants take various paths, as the scientific use of a species is accidentally discovered. Spiderwort, Tradescantia virginiana, a common North American native wildflower with three-petaled purple flowers, was once considered a cure for the bites of spiders, but during modern times has offered scientists other advantages. Botanically, the plant is unusual, being a historic link between the sedges (grass-like wetland plants) and lilies. Moreover, the plant has relatively large chromosomes, making it useful for lab studies in cytology (the structure of cells).

Modern scientific studies of Spiderwort recently rendered an unexpected discovery. Attentive botanists noticed that the plant is extremely sensitive to pollution and radiation which cause its blossoms to change color from blue to pink in a very short period of time! What happens is that the number of cells mutating when in contact with severe pollutants, correlates directly to the level of pollution. So this plant is now used as an inexpensive, but a very accurate device for testing pollution. Where dangerous pollution is expected, spiderworts are planted, and their flower color is closely monitored for changes.

Of course, man cannot exist without plants (since they provide the very oxygen we breathe), so it is no wonder that this interdependence has produced a very long and fascinating history which continues today.

Here are a few examples of various wildflowers and how they’ve been used over the centuries for herbal and medicinal purposes. Plus a few that are stars of the very active boom today in herbal remedies and supplements.

turtlehead plant

Turtlehead (Chelone glabra)
The genus name, Chelone, of this rather odd wildflower, means “head of a tortoise” which refers to the flower’s shape. Glabra means smooth and refers to the leaves. Turtlehead’s natural habitat is moist areas and-and eastern woodlands, where it blooms from August to September. It’s one of the hundreds of native plants that were used for medicinal purposes by American Indians. They used preparations made from Turtlehead for “eruptive maladies” such as skin disorders.

Sanguinaria canadensis

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)
The genus here, obviously, refers to blood (“sanguine”), and that’s because of the brilliant reddish-orange juice that is emitted from this beautiful wildflower’s root. Bloodroot, with its magnificent, snow-white poppy-style blooms and large waterlily-like leaves, is found in rich, moist woods and blooms from March to June. It is more famous as a source of Indian face paint and dyes, but they also used the plant medicinally. It was a treatment for rheumatism and lung ailments. Though this wildflower has been shown to possess some potential as an anesthetic and antiseptic, it remains an experimental work in progress. Warning: This plant is toxic and should not to be ingested.

boneset-flowers

Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)
This relatively common native plant blooms over most of the east during August and September, mostly in wet sunny meadows. It is tall and rather coarse, with fluffy, grayish-white flower heads. It’s been used medicinally throughout the history of the United States. Its name is probably derived from the famous “Doctrine of Signatures”, used by early physicians when medicine was more superstition than science. The idea that the physical appearance of a plant bore witness to its potential ability to cure human maladies, cures or body parts that resemble it. On Boneset stems, opposite leaves are joined together around the stem, so it was believed that a poultice could be applied to assist the fusion of broken bones, much like the fused pair of leaves. The species name, perfoliatum, also reflects this oddity, since the stems seem to pierce these pairs of leaves. (folium means leaves, and of course perf reflects the same word derivation of words such as “perforation.” Boneset was also supposedly used with some success during the flu epidemics of the 19th century. Warning: This plant may contain potentially harmful alkaloids which adversely affect the liver.

trout lily

Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum)
Also called Adder’s Tongue.The leaves and juices of the Trout Lily have had many medical uses while the young bulbs have been used for culinary purposes.The leaves also can be cooked and eaten as a vegetable.A tea was made to help cure hiccups.

Marsh-marigold-Beàrnan-Bealltainn

Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustrus)
Its natural habitats are wet meadows, marshes, and swamps where it blooms from April to June. Another popular name is Cowslip s. The species name is Latin for “swamps”.In medieval times the leaves were rubbed on insect bites. The Ojibwa tribe mixed a tea made from this wildflower which they mixed with maple sugar for use as a cough syrup. It can cause skin irritations.It has been used as a potherb.

primroses

Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis)
Most of the wildflowers in this group open their blooms after sunset This tall plant, widely distributed over North America as a roadside weed, blooms with yellow flowers from June to September. American Indians used it for many medical purposes including treating obesity and sore muscles. Today, we know Evening Primrose oil is a natural source of gamma-linolenic acid, and this plant is one which is under intense research for its true medicinal properties today.

Echinacea02

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
Perhaps the most famous medicinal species among North American native plants, this brilliant purple to pink, daisy-like wildflower is a native of the American plains, and quite common in fields and thickets. It is also so handsome, that it’s now popular in perennial gardens nationwide. The American Indians used this wildflower medicinally more than any other, recognizing the properties we value today from the plant. The Indians chewed on the roots for snake and insect bites and also used it for burns, toothache, sores, colds, and flu. Today, better known by its Latin genus name “Echinacea” this is the No. 1 medicinal plant among those used for the current boom in herbal remedies and supplements. Modern research claims to have proven that some of its extracts stimulate the immune system, and even ward off the common cold. All parts of the plant contain medicinal potency—leaves, buds, stems and roots. But the most potent value is found in the thick black roots, which, along with other parts, are ground and formed into tablets, liquids, and other preparations.

blue vervain plant

Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata)
One of our wildflowers with a very long and rich history, Vervain is a quite common roadside plant over most of the continent. The flowers, while small, are a deep vivid blue, blooming up stems in a candelabra shape. The Druids used this wildflower in their rites of purification. The Romans used it as a ceremonial herb and fashioned it into torches, often placed on their altars. Roman ambassadors once carried Vervain as a peace symbol on their visits to other countries. But yes, with all this ceremony, it had ancient medicinal uses, too. According to the early herbalist, Culpepper, it was used to help “bodily swelling” and “cause a good color in the face and body.” It was also used in medieval times as a tranquilizer.

Self-HealWeb

Self Heal (Prunella vulgaris)
One of our very common “weeds” with small purple flowers, Self Heal thrives in fields and woods, largely unknown for its incredible history. This herb was used in medieval times to heal warrior’s wounds, thus the common name. Medicinally, it was once used for mouth and throat diseases as well. The most famous medieval herbalist, Gerard, in his landmark work, “Gerard’s Herbal” declared that there is “not a better wound herbe in the world.” Culpepper, another herbalist, said of it, ”The juice used with oil of roses to anoint the temples is very effectual to remove a headache.” Self Heal is one of the many common wildflowers that traveled to North America from Europe as weeds in the crop seed sacks of early colonists, and even today, it is the focus of medicinal research. Today’s scientists report it may have potential antibiotic capabilities.

HOW-TO-GROW-St-Johns-Wort_mini-e1444459143451

St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum)
This now-famous European native plant is a common naturalized wildflower in North America. St. Johnswort is a common roadside weed in most states, unknown and anonymous. Its “frothy” yellow flowers are lovely, but the whole plant is what gardeners call “weedy.” It is not a beauty, but of all the wildflower histories, this lowly weed has one of the most glamorous. And it’s still making history today.

First of all, about the name. St. Johnswort blooms in summer; in fact, it’s always in bloom in late June. That’s when “the Day of St. John” happens, June 24th. And that’s why in medieval Europe, this plant was all-important. The herbalists, who offered a wild mix of religion and natural medicine, decided it was good for almost everything, and not just medicinal cures. For example, a young girl could toss a sprig over her shoulder, and soon know the name of the man she’d marry.

But most of all, when St. John’s Eve rolled around, everyone had to have some of this plant. It was hung in windows to ward off evil spirits. It was burned to protect livestock and farms from “devils, goblins, and witches.” And it was central in religious festivals and services. The herbalist, Bankes, wrote in 1525: “This is called saynt Johannes worte. The virtue of it is thus. If it be put in a mannes house, there shall come no wicked spyrte therein.” Later in 1863, a Dr. Porcher wrote that the plant “was greatly in vogue at one time, and was thought to cure demoniacs.” Dr. Porcher would be stunned at how the plant is used today!

Medicinally, during the medieval period, it was prescribed for practically everything, but mostly as a “healing herb.” This meant hapless soldiers used it to try to heal their wounds. Though it surely did not work, this reputation led to another common name for the plant: Balm-of –Warrior’s-Wound.

But after centuries of crazy magic and imagined cures, this lowly weed has become one of the mainstays of today’s herbal medicine. Check any drugstore, and you’ll see it available in elixirs, tablets, and more. St. Johnswort today, is often called the natural Prozac, after the popular tranquilizer. Because modern herbal studies have shown that the medicinal properties of St. Johnswort actually do have a relaxing effect when ingested. So today, after a couple of centuries of forgotten existence, this once-again-famous plant is produced commercially, and its medicinal derivations are valued once more, worldwide.