Beyond the Garden Gates: Wild Plant Classification Part II

 By Allison Bachner
This is the conclusion of sustainability student Allison Bachner's two-part wild plant classification study. For Part I, click here.

We're continuing today with wild plant classifications as discovered on the Better Farm campus. 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 second installment of plants I discovered in the wilds of Better Farm.

The cattail is one of the most important and common wild foods, with a variety of uses at different times of the year. Whatever you call it, a stand of cattails is as close as you'll get to finding a wild supermarket. In spring, the cattail shoot has an odorless, tender, white, inner core that tastes sweet, mild, and pleasant. None of cattails' look-a-likes grows more than a few feet tall, so by mid-spring, the much larger cattail becomes unmistakable, even for beginners. They grow in marshes, swamps, ditches, and stagnant water—fresh or slightly brackish—worldwide. Finding them is a sure sign of water. Every part of a cattail has a practical use. The plant is easy to harvest, very tasty, and highly nutritious. It was a major staple for Native Americans. "Settlers" missed out when they ignored this great food and destroyed its habitats, instead of cultivating it. Before the flower forms, the shoots— prized as "Cossack's asparagus" in Russia—are fantastic. You can peel and eat them well into the summer; and will quickly discover they taste like a combination of tender zucchini and cucumbers (they're great in salads, soups, stir-fries, and sandwiches). You'll get the best yield just before the flowers begin to develop. A few huge, late-spring stalks provide enough delicious food for a meal. Some stalks grow tall, and become inedibly fibrous with developing flowers by late spring, although just before the summer solstice, you can often gather tender shoots, immature flower heads, and pollen at the same time. You can also clip off and eat the male portions of the immature, green, flower head. Steam or simmer it for ten minutes. It tastes vaguely like its distant relative, corn, and there's even a central cob-like core. Because it's dry, serve it with a topping of sauce, seasoned oil, or butter. When the male flowers ripen, just before the summer solstice, they produce considerable quantities of golden pollen. People pay outrageous prices in health stores for tiny capsules of the bee pollen—a source of minerals, enzymes, protein, and energy. Cattail pollen beats the commercial variety in flavor, energy content, freshness, nutrition, and price. To collect the pollen in its short season, wait for a few calm days, so your harvest isn't scattered by wind. Bend the flower heads into a large paper bag and shake it gently. Keep the bag's opening as narrow as possible, so the pollen won't blow away. Sift out the trash, and use the pollen as golden flour in baking breads, muffins, pancakes, or waffles. It doesn't rise, and it's time-consuming to collect in quantity, so generally mix it with at least three times as much whole-grain flour. You can also eat the pollen raw, sprinkled on yogurt, fruit shakes, oatmeal, and salads. Jelly from between a cattail's young leaves can be applied to wounds, sores, boils, carbuncles, external inflammations, and boils to soothe pain. (From Wild Man Steve Brill .)

New England Aster
Native American tribes on burning the flowers and leaves that is interesting, the smoke being used in Inipi (sweat lodge) Ceremonies, to revive the unconscious, to treat mental illness, nosebleeds, headaches, congestion, for smudging and as an additive to Kinnickkinnick smoking mixtures. The dried blossoms were also snuffed for similar purposes, or the vapor inhaled as a steam. Aster tea was used to treat earache, relieve gas pains, stomach aches and fevers. The flowers and roots were both commonly used.  (From Herb Craft.)

Purple Loosestrife
Purple Loosestrife possesses four principles: resin, resinoid, tannin, and alkaloid; and its properties are alterative, antispasmodic, diuretic, astringent, anti-febrifuge, tonic, and demulcent. Loosestrife is employed chiefly in fevers and hepatic derangements, constipation, diarrhea, dysentery, cholera infantum, cholera morbus, malignant cholera, hemorrhages or bleedings of all kinds, leucorrhosa, old wounds, sores, clouded vision, and so on. The whole plant is used either alone or combined with others of a palliative or soothing character. Purple Loosestrife may justly be considered one of the most valuable of all vegetable astringents yet known to man. It is its astringent effects on the mucous surfaces that renders it a most valuable remedy in fevers, especially typhoid; and in hepatic derangements of the liver and biliary ducts. In constipation it is a most useful herb to remedy that condition, as, by its promoting the secretive powers of the mucous surfaces and its astringent quality strengthening the muscular parts of the intestinal walls, it gives tone and energy to them, and by that means tends to remove constipation. It is also a useful agent in relaxation of the bowels, because of its powers of correcting acid accumulations in the stomach and intestines. These statements with regard to its utility in the treatment of the two opposite conditions—diarrhoea and constipation—may seem erroneous and inconsistent, but they are correct. (From Henriette's Herb.) An ointment may be made with the water 1 OZ. to 2 drachms of May butter without salt, and the same quantity of sugar and wax boiled gently together. It cleanses and heals ulcers and sores, if washed with the water, or covered with the leaves, green or dry according to the season. A warm gargle and drink cures quinsy or a scrofulous throat. (From Botanical)

Joe-Pye Weed
Joe-Pye Weed has been used for ages as a diuretic, stimulant, tonic, astringent and relaxant. This plant offers a terrific remedy for gravel in the gallbladder; and can dissolves stones while healing chronic urinary and kidney disorders. The plant can help with bed-wetting, poor appetite, dropsy, neuralgia and rheumatism. Joe-Pye is also very soothing and will relax the nerves. Combined with uva ursi, marshmallow, blue cohosh and lily root, it can help deter female troubles, bladder and kidney infections, diabetes, and Bright’s disease. The plant has also been used for headache, hysteria, impotence, indigestion, intermittent fever, sciatica, sore throat, urine retention, vomiting, asthma, chronic coughs, colds and typhus fever. Cough syrup can easily be made out of Joe-Pye Weed by steeping and boiling down blossoms and leaves, adding molasses, and boiling the whole mixture into a syrup.

All parts of a thistle plant can be used for culinary and medicinal purposes, including the root, leaves, flowery tops and seeds. According to the beliefs of many Native Americans, any object that sticks or pricks an individual will also alleviate the hurt when an ointment prepared with the same substance is applied on the affected area. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, different types of thistles are used to prepare decoctions to alleviate inflammation. In addition, an infusion prepared with the leaves and roots of common thistle is believed to heal stiff neck, seizures and nervous disorders. Common thistle roots have been employed as a poultice and a decoction prepared using the plant too is used as a poultice to treat aching jaws. A hot infusion prepared with the whole common thistle plant has been traditionally used to treat rheumatic joint pains and bleeding piles. The inner bark of common thistle yields a fiber sometimes used in paper manufacture. High-quality oil can be obtained by extracting the seeds of different species of thistles. The thistle down is excellent as firewood which can be lit without difficulty even by a spark from a stone. In addition, the Cherokee, a Native American tribe, used the down of the plant for the tail on blow guns. Tender leaves of the plant can be soaked overnight in saline water and cooked for consumption. Leaves of common thistle may also be added to salads after thorns are removed. Even the roots of common thistle are cooked and they have a flavour akin to Jerusalem artichoke. In addition to consuming the roots fresh, they may also be dried and stored for use when necessary. Some people also cook and use the young flower stems of common thistle as a vegetable. Even the flower buds of the plant are brought to culinary use. These flower buds are used akin to round artichokes, but they are comparatively small and even more difficult to prepare. The dehydrated thistle flowers are used as a rennet alternative to curdle plant milks. At times, even the seeds of thistle are roasted and consumed by some people. (From Herbs 2000.)

The species Solidago canadensis and S. odora are considered the most medicinal (and the tastiest) of goldenrod, but all species of goldenrod are safe and beneficial and can be used to help the immune system get ready for winter. Goldenrod tonics are easy to make. Harvest any goldenrod by cutting the top third of the plant in full flower on a sunny fall day. Or, respectfully pull the entire plant, roots and all, in the late autumn or early winter. Then follow these simple directions. Note: You can use any size jar when making a vinegar or a tincture, so long as you fill it full. To dry flowering goldenrod: Bundle 2-3 stalks together and hang upside down in a cool, shady room until thoroughly dry. When the stalks snap crisply, store the dried herb in brown paper bags. One or two large handfuls of crushed leaves and flowers, steeped in a quart of boiling water for thirty minutes makes a tea that can be used hot, with honey, to counter allergies (especially pollen allergies), fevers, sore throats, coughs, colds and the flu; or taken cold to relieve colic in babies, and gas in adults. Dried mint and/or yarrow are tasty, and useful, additions when making goldenrod flower tea. To dry goldenrod roots: Rinse dirt off the roots, then cut away all the stalks, leaves and dead flowers. If possible, hang your roots over a woodstove to dry; if not, place them on racks and put them in a warm place to dry until brittle. Store in glass jars. Depending on the difficulty you are addressing, goldenrod root tea may be made with large or small amounts of the roots brewed or decocted in boiling water. Or the roots may be powdered, alone or mixed with flowers, and applied to hard-to-heal wounds and sore joints. To make a goldenrod vinegar: Chop the goldenrod coarsely, filling a jar with chopped flowers, leaves, stalks (and roots if you have them); then fill the jar to the top with room-temperature, pasteurized, apple cider vinegar. Cap it tightly with a plastic lid. (Metal lids will be eroded by the action of the vinegar. If you must use one, protect it with several layers of plastic between it and the vinegar.) Be sure to label your vinegar with the date and contents. Your goldenrod vinegar will be ready to use in six weeks to improve mineral balance, help prevent kidney stones, eliminate flatulence, and improve immune functioning. To make a goldenrod tincture: Chop the goldenrod coarsely, filling a jar with chopped flowers, leaves, stalks (and roots if you have them); then add 100 proof vodka, filling the jar to the very top. Cap tightly and label. Your goldenrod tincture will be ready to use in six weeks, by the dropperful, as an anti-inflammatory, a sweat-inducing cold cure, and an astringent digestive aid. Medical herbalists use large doses (up to 4 dropperfuls at a time) of goldenrod tincture several times daily to treat kidney problems -- including nephritis, hemorrhage, kidney stones, and inability to void -- and prostate problems, including frequent urination. The colonists called goldenrod tea "Liberty Tea," for they drank it instead of black tea after the Boston Tea Party. In fact, Liberty Tea proved so popular, it was exported to China! Let goldenrod liberate you, too. Herbal medicine is people's medicine, a gift from Mama Earth to us. (From Susun Weed.)

Queen Anne's Lace
Also called wild carrot, Queen Anne's Lace has many medicinal properties. The wild carrot is an aromatic herb that acts as a diuretic, soothes the digestive tract and stimulates the uterus. A wonderfully cleansing medicine, it supports the liver, stimulates the flow of urine and the removal of waste by the kidneys. An infusion is used in the treatment of various complaints including digestive disorders, kidney and bladder diseases and in the treatment of dropsy. An infusion of the leaves has been used to counter cystitis and kidney stone formation, and to diminish stones that have already formed. Carrot leaves contain significant amounts of porphyrins, which stimulate the pituitary gland and lead to the release of increased levels of sex hormones. The plant is harvested in July and dried for later use. A warm water infusion of the flowers has been used in the treatment of diabetes. The grated raw root, especially of the cultivated forms, is used as a remedy for threadworms. The root is also used to encourage delayed menstruation. The root of the wild plant can induce uterine contractions and so should not be used by pregnant women. A tea made from the roots is diuretic and has been used in the treatment of urinary stones. An infusion is used in the treatment of oedema, flatulent indigestion and menstrual problems. The seed is a traditional 'morning after' contraceptive and there is some evidence to uphold this belief. It requires further investigation. Carrot seeds can be abortifacient and so should not be used by pregnant women. Ancient folk lore said that to cure epileptic seizures you should eat the dark coloured middle flower of Queen Anne's Lace. The flower is also used in ancient rituals an spells, for women to increase fertility and for men to increase potency and sexual desire! (From The Carrot Museum.)

Motherwort earned its nam from its traditional use in relieving trauma and tension during pregnancy, childbirth as well as motherhood. In addition to be a useful remedy for the reproductive system disorders among women, motherwort also possesses properties that invigorate as well as strengthen the cardiac system. Hence, it is also popular as a remedy that is beneficial for the heart. It has already been established that motherwort plays a vital role in the intensification of the heart, particularly during pregnancy and child birth when more pressure is forced on the heart. Many herbal practitioners recommend the use of motherwort to treat anomalies like arrhythmia and heart palpatations—both of which are closely related to nervousness and stress. On the other hand, the bitter glycosides present in motherwort have been found to possess temporary capabilities to reduce blood pressure. (From Herbs 2000.)

Lady's Thumb
Anglo-Saxons used lady's thumb as a remedy for sore eyes and ears. The leaves are edible and some members of the smartweed family possess a "peppery" flavor. Native Americans used the leaves in treatments of stomach pains and poison ivy. They also rubbed the plant on their horses as an insect repellent. (From Brandeis.)

Red Clover
Red clover is used for cancer prevention, indigestion, high cholesterol, whooping cough, cough, asthma, bronchitis, and sexually transmitted diseases. Some women use red clover for symptoms of menopause such as hot flashes; for breast pain or tenderness, and for premenstrual syndrome. Red clover is applied to the skin for skin cancer, skin sores, burns, and chronic skin diseases including eczema and psoriasis. In foods and beverages, the solid extract of red clover is used as a flavoring ingredient. Red clover contains hormone-like chemicals called isoflavones that seem to cause reproductive problems in certain animals. Experts think a diet high in isoflavones may have been responsible for reports of reproductive failure and liver disease in cheetahs living in zoos. In large quantities, red clover can cause sterility in livestock. Red clover contains “isoflavones” which are changed in the body to “phytoestrogens” that are similar to the hormone estrogen.
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Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.