Don’t forget about Dandelions

This article is not just about dandelions but all those plants that most people have growing under their feet or if not under at least near their feet. Dandelions, plantains, chickweed, red clover, nettles, yarrow infact the list is endless.

Being an earthy, planty kind of a person, the first and often only place I go to  when looking for remedies is where I live or in the near vicinity. I am very much of the belief that using what grows where we are growing and living is the best basis for ecologically sound coherent herbalism.

I am aware that many people are in cities and do not have pollution free, wild plants on hand and this problem brings me back to the understanding of how ‘herboristeries’ as they are known here in France or apothecaries in English grew in the cities. In these densely populated areas, there was a demand for medicinal plants, the apothecaries bought them from wild-crafters who lived in rural areas and sold them, often with medicinal advise to city dwellers.

The problem now is that large apthothecaries need large quantities of plants, these often come from Eastern Europe, no-one knows by whom, when or where they were harvested. As the vibratory level of humankind and earth increase, so too must the substances used to heal, feed cloth and heat ourselves with. What I mean by this is that a medicinal plant that has been harvested in a well chosen spot with intention, care, respect and thankfulness for the plant and its surroundings is in my humble opinion much more likely to ‘heal’ or help someone ‘heal than a plant that has been harvested on the other side of the planet in huge quantities by someone paid by the weight of the plant that he or she collects……every ounce of energy that has touched the plant from the picking to the packaging is held in that plant, we definetly need to be aware of where our plants are coming from.

I am an idealist,  I thought I better tell you before I go any further as my views are tainted strongly by this aspect of my personality.

I believe that one of the roles of herbalists today is not only to see patients and prescribe but to educate and teach people to know the plants around them.

By learning the basics about the ten most common plants in any given area people can take steps in their own preventative health care. As a herbalist I try and teach people how to become autonomous and at ease regarding their local flora and how it can not only help them keep healthy but also help heal the first signs of sickness. Even city dwellers can find natural areas on the outskirts of large agglomerations where they can walk and collect plants for their home herbal chest.

Just the very fact of going out to the plants with one’s basket and carefully selecting what to take home to make into teas, tinctures or salves is a healing act in itself. Fresh air, walking, being close to nature and repeating a traditional act of harvesting local herbs, yes it is this ancient gest that has been so much part of us and our tradition and that is everyone’s birthright that is so healing. The time is no longer when local plant knowledge and family recipes where passed on from grandmother to daughter to granddaughter but as herbalists we can still do our bit to teach the basics about the commonest, local plants. By helping people see the value of the so called ‘weeds’ that grow next to them, they will start to want to protect them rather than obliterate them with weedkiller thus helping to protect local areas of wildness both in the countryside and in more urban areas. Our common hedgerow and ruderal plants are a great resource and amongst some of our most precious plant allies.

Plantain, for example is a very powerful healing herb for a number of complaints and can be found everywhere and often in great numbers, we walk on it regularly but often give it no thought at all….too familair and un-exotic to be of interest. The three most common species are Plantago lanceolata commonly known as Ribwort, Plantago media known as hoary plantain and plantago major or common plantain and all three are interchangeable in terms of their medicinal qualities. Plantain is best known for its capacity to heal insect bites by rubbing the leaf on the affected area regularly and this antihistamine action is now being used for seasonal allergies with successs. Drink lantain tea throughout the day, it is a good idea to make up a thermos and a month before the allergy season starts drink at least three cups per day, when the season begins drink loads of the stuff, even having a thermos full by the bed for those night time attacks….don’t give up, this treatment needs time but it works. Plantain is very interesting in term of its constituents as it contains both mucilage and astringents making it extremely beneficial for inflammations of both the respiratory and intestinal tracts, gently calming and tightening inflamed tissues. Indian plantain seeds (Plantago ovata) are known for their mucilage content and are widely used for easing constipation, if you go walking on a rainy day, you will see that our common plantains are also packed full of mucilage as they go all slimy and mucilaginous in the rain. As with many of our ruderal plants, plantain is also good to eat, the young leaves can be eaten in a mixed wild leaf salad, they have a distinctive mushroomy taste, when they get older and less tender I fry them lightly with onions, garlic and other wild leaves and then make a quiche out of it…yummy. So all that benefit from common all garden plantain – and no-one needs to buy it or even get into the car to find it in many cases, what could be better.

Another amazing ruderal and one that many unknowing people treat as plant enemy number one because of its sting is nettle of course, Urtica dioica. However I must say that here in France since the national uproar over the attempted banning of fermented nettle extract for use in gardening and agriculture it has become the hero that it deserves to be. Nettle likes nitrogen rich soils and so tends to grow near human activity, its uses are many from fertiliser and immune stimulant for plants to nettle thread used for making material and rope. Medicinally I use it as one would an adaptogen, except that the majority of adaptogenic plants come from far afield, it may not be quite as powerful as ginseng or Rhodiola rosea but its steady, sure and anchored action and its high protein content are defintely beneficial to the organism that needs someting to help deal with physical ‘fatigue’ due to overwork or convalescence. Nettles are rich in all the things we are often lacking, minerals such as calcium, iron, bore and beta-carotein as well as the oligo-elements copper and zinc and loads of vitamins including A, C B2, B5, B9, K…together with horsetail they make an unbeatable pair for helping heal broken bones, articulation problems and strengthening fragile nails, hair etc. Infact I use nettle regularly with Rosemary and Calendula at the moment to help boost and strengthen hairgrowth. As for nettles in cooking, what a delice, well made nettle soup, when I say well made, I mean plenty of nettles so it isn’t too watery, a potato or two and maybe a touch of cream to be added at the end of cooking. So what better than encourage everyone to nurture a nettle patch in their gardens so they can have nettle on tap so to say…if you cut them back regularly  they provide a constant supply of young shoots.

To end these examples of the riches of our local plants lets look at Dandelion (Taraxacum officinalis), commonly known as Pissenlit  ‘Piss on bed’ in French referring to its strong diuretic action. Dandelions grow everywhere, espeically on lawns and grassy areas, the leaves, flowers and roots are used depending on the time of the year and the action we are looking for. This evening I wanted to eat salad and as we didn’t have any fresh lettuce in the house, I spent ten minutes in the garden collecting young dandelion leaves, plantain leaves and chickweed, I added some cruhed brazil nuts, garlic and shallot, made a dressing of walnut oil and balsamic dressing and it was better than any lettuce and far more nutritional. Dandelion roots stimulate the kidneys but unlike many diuretics rather than creating a deficiency in potassium, it is full of the stuff and so increases potassium levels. Dandelion roots also decongest the liver and gall bladder making an effective digestive tonic and also very interesting as an autumn cure with the idea of detoxifying the digestive system before the onset of winter. The leaves are often used as part of a spring cure, here in rural France, the habit of eating huge dandelion leaf salads in spring still (thankfully) exists among some local people, the leaves help move the waters in the organism, stimulate bile, unblock build up of crystals in joints and are extremely nutritive as very rich in vitamins. The flowers make a great jelly, which is called dandelion honey here, although it is made with sugar the dandelion flowers give it a uncanny taste of honey.

So all those possibilities, and those are just a few of them, from several of the plants that we often forget to consider as in some ways they are too familiar. We walk past them everyday, we see them at each season of the year yet the problem is that in many cases, although they are always there we don’t see them at all. A bit like, the familiar scenario between couples where the woman cannot understand why when she goes out with her husband he is charming, funny and interested in everyone but back at home he barely says a word, is either reading the newspaper or watching television, she might as well not exist.

I strongly believe that before we start prescribing or buying plants that come from far afield we should check carefully that there is not a local plant that might well suit the situation. By using our local flora and teaching in local communities we as herbalists are helping to reconnect ouselves and others with the earth on which we live and by reconnecting with this earth we will begin to realise we are part of it and by realising we are part of it we will want to protect it.


1 Comment

  1. Kate said,

    May 26, 2014 at 4:37 pm

    I love your blog ! Thank you !!

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