Beyond the Garden Gate: Wild Plant Classification Part I

It was a day as fine as any to bushwhack through the Better Farm wilds in order to classify some native plants! Putting aside their pesky tendency to pop up in the garden rows, wild plants have value that make them well worth knowing. Here is the first installment of the plants I discovered on my romp.

Wild Plant Identification:

Staghorn Sumac
Sumac is native to the Mediterranean, but now grows in abundance throughout the Northern United States. Sumac flowers contain calcium, potassium, magnesium, citric acid and antioxidants; while the bark is useful medicinally as an astringent tea for anti-diarrhea purposes. Staghorn sumac is also antibacterial. Middle Eastern chefs dry the berries, and then grind them up into a spice powder that lasts all year without refrigeration. The spice can be sprinkled on rice, hummus, or kebabs. Sumac tastes slightly sour, tart and citrus-like, very similar to a lemon. Sumac fruit can also be turned into lemonade: Simply put the berries in cold water, rub them to release the juice, and then leave them for several hours to soak and infuse into the water. Strain and drink it. The liquid can also be frozen in ice cube trays and used year-round like lemon juice. (Information from

Red-Panicled or Grey Dogwood
Historically, American dogwood has been used to treat malaria instead of the drug quinine. American dogwood is still used today as medicine for headaches, fatigue, fever, and ongoing diarrhea. It is also used to increase strength, stimulate appetite, and as a tonic. Some people apply American dogwood directly to the skin for boils and wounds.

Elderberry Tree
Elderberry juice was used to treat a flu epidemic in Panama in 1995, and has historically been widely used for its antioxidant activity, to lower cholesterol, improve vision, boost the immune system, improve heart health, and as a remedy for coughs, colds, flu, bacterial and viral infections, and tonsillitis.  Bioflavonoids and other proteins in the juice destroy the ability of cold and flu viruses to infect a cell. People with the flu who took elderberry juice reported less severe symptoms and felt better much faster than those who did not. Elderberries contain organic pigments, tannin, amino acids, carotenoids, flavonoids, sugar, rutin, viburnic acid, vitaman A and B and a large amount of vitamin C. They are also mildly laxative, a diuretic, and diaphoretic. Flavonoids, including quercetin, are believed to account for the therapeutic actions of the elderberry flowers and berries. According to test tube studies2 these flavonoids include anthocyanins that are powerful antioxidants and protect cells against damage. In Israel, Hasassah's Oncology Lab has determined that elderberry stimulates the body's immune system and they are treating cancer and AIDS patients with it. The wide range of medical benefits (from flu and colds to debilitating asthma, diabetes, and weight loss) is probably due to the enhancement of each individual's immune system.

Butter-and-Eggs serve as a diuretic, purgative and astringent. Leaf tea can be used as a laxative, strong diuretic for dropsy, jaundice, enteritis with drowsiness, skin diseases, piles, liver and bladder problems. Ointment made from the flowers is used externally for piles, skin eruptions, sores, and ulcers. A “tea” made with the plant's milk may also be used as an insecticide. (From MedicinalHerbInfo.)

Toadflax, Common Toadflax, Yellow Toadflax, Butter-and-Eggs, Wild Snapdragon -

Spotted Touch-Me-Not
Jewelweeld has been used as a treatment for eczema, insect bites, rashes, and spring tonics. It is also an effective cure for poison ivy. Flowers can be rubbed on skin as a natural insect repellent.
Burdock Root contains a number of medicinal properties that have been used for hundreds of years. Most traditionally, herbalists use it as a blood purifier. The root also overs relief from abscesses, acne, carbuncles, psoriasis and eczema. The herb increases circulation to the skin by helping to detoxify epidermal tissues. Burdock Root has additionally been reported to destroy bacteria and fungus cultures. It is a popular detoxifying agent that produces a diuretic effect on the body which aids the filtering of impurities from the bloodstream. By promoting perspiration, Burdock Root eliminates toxins through the skin. Burdock Root contains inulin, a carbohydrate that strengthens the liver. The high concentration of inulin and mucilage aids in the soothing effects on the gastrointestinal tract. The high concentration of inulin is helpful for individuals afflicted with diabetes and hypoglycemia as it provides helpful sugar that does not provoke rapid insulin production. Inulin is aromatic, stimulant, expectorant, tonic, stomachic, and antiseptic. Burdock Root can also be used as a mild laxative that aids in the elimination of uric acid or gout.  

Burdock root helps the kidneys to filter out impurities from the blood very quickly. It clears congestion in respiratory, lymphatic, urinary and circulatory systems. Burdock  releases water retention, stimulates digestion, aids kidney, liver and gallbladder function.  It also functions as an aperient, depurative, and antiscorbutic. Decoctions of Burdock have also been historically used for soothing the kidneys, relieving the lymphatic system, rheumatism, gout, GI tract disorders, stomach ailments, constipation, catarrh, fever, infection, fluid retention and skin problems. An article in Chemotherapy identified the chemical arctigenin contained in Burdock as an “inhibitor of experimental tumor growth.” European and Chinese herbalists have long considered burdock root's "lightly warming, moistening effect an excellent tonic for the lungs and liver.  It reportedly stimulates toxic waste through the skin and urine, improving digestion and is good for arthritis and rheumatism.
A recent study showed that Burdock blocked dangerous chemicals from causing damage to cells, suggesting to the possibility that burdock may help decrease the risk of developing cancer from toxic chemicals. And finally, despite Burdock’s reputation as a noxious weed, it is the source of several very palatable foods. Edible components of the Burdock plant are its roots, seeds, and its young stems. Young stalks are boiled to be eaten like asparagus, raw stems and young leaves are eaten in salads. Both the root and leaves are used in herbal remedies, but most recipes call for the root which has a sweetish and mucilaginous taste. Fresh burdock root also has a distinct aroma. It has been used, after chopping and roasting, as a coffee substitute. Originally cultivated in China for medicinal purposes, this unique root has become a sought-after specialty in Japan. Flavorful and crunchy, burdock is an excellent source of fiber, along with the vitamins and minerals. Its nutty taste is delicious sautéed in combination with carrots or just some soy sauce and a bit of sugar, or it can be deep-fried in a tempura batter. Avoid rinsing this brown-skinned vegetable until you're ready to use it.  In markets, it's sold with the dirt still lingering on the roots because it is quick to wilt when washed. The white flesh immediately discolors once peeled. You'll want to soak it in a mild vinegar solution until you're ready to cook it to maintain the color. Its hearty flavor is a little like that of potatoes, although it’s related to artichokes. Mashed roots can also be formed into patties and fried.  The white pith can be added to salads or simmered in syrup to make candy or soaked in vinegar  to make pickles. (Information from Herbal Legacy.)

Chicory as a homeopathic remedy is used for sluggish digestion that may lead to headaches. Herbally, chicory is a bitter used to increase appetite and promote digestion. As a culinary herb, young chicory leaves are used in salads. Chicory root is best known as a coffee substitute. (From Holistic Health Careers)


Milkweeds secrete latex containing cardiac glycosides that are medicinally valuable in the treatment of heart disease. This same latex is an old home remedy for warts. These compounds are also part of a chemical defense that the butterflies deploy against birds who would prey on them, explaining in part their fascination with these plants. Milkweed serves as a major nectar source for butterflies and bees; both of which have been in rapid decline in large part because of herbicides like Roundup, which kills virtually all plants except crops genetically modified to survive it. As a result, millions of acres of native plants, especially milkweed, an important source of nectar for many species, and vital for monarch butterfly larvae, have been wiped out. One study showed that Iowa has lost almost 60 percent of its milkweed, and another found 90 percent was gone. The agricultural landscape has been sterilized. You can help! Become an active participant now. Make a difference today. It all starts with one seed...and you to plant it. (From Annie's Remedy)

To read Part II of this study, click here.