Learning the names and identities of the plants and trees in your home area, and how to use them for food and medicine is part of the journey of connecting yourself with wildness and a sense of becoming native to the place you live. The title of this article Stay Together, Learn the Flowers, Go Light derive from a poem by Gary Snyder, For the Children from his book Turtle Island, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1975. It is a teaching poem about the times we live in, and a path we can choose that can lead to a better future for our children.
There are hundreds of edible and medicinal wild plants growing in most biomes where people live. Especially, these are found in wild areas, but they also grow in feral pockets of nature tucked along railroad tracks, around old cemeteries, abandoned lots in the city, hedgerows along fields, and in backyards. There was a time when I relied nearly entirely on wild plants for almost everything: food, drink, shelter, tools, and numerous other uses. I got to know the plants and trees very well. For me, plants like Stinging Nettle are like old friends. For many winters since that time I’ve made what has become known in my house as ‘Brent’s Green Goodness’ – a strong infusion of dried Stinging Nettle, Oatstraw, and Red Clover that provides deep nourishment with minerals, vitamins, and phytochemicals for the body. I start drinking a cup or two of this during the long dark days of winter. It was just yesterday that I acknowledged that my body and mind were simply exhausted. I instantly remembered my good friend Stinging Nettle and decided to brew up an infusion.
What’s an infusion? And, what does this concoction of plant matter do for me? An infusion like what I’m describing isn’t a simple 5-minute tea. An herbal infusion is essentially a large amount of dried plant material(s) (~1 ounce/per quart of water, 1 ounce is roughly a heaping cup of dried plant material) steeped in hot water (a quart to half gallon size typically) for a period of time anywhere from 2 hours to 8 hours, depending on the plant and part of the plant used. Flowers require only 2 hours, leaves 4 hours, and roots/bark need 8 hours minimum of steeping time. The liquid is then strained off and also squeezed from the plant material leaving you with a strong herbal infusion. You can include an herb from the Mint family to lighten the taste if you like. Adding a bit of salt to your cup of infusion can also help the taste. The discarded plant material can be added to the compost pile, or simply thrown out to biodegrade and nourish soil microbes. The infusion will last for around 3 days in a refrigerator, or at cold temperatures before it starts to spoil.
Many wild plants require intimate knowledge of how to prepare them properly for food or medicine. However, there are a number of plants that are very easy to prepare that have many benefits and few precautions such as nettle. If the time to gather or lack of access to the actual growing plants is a hurdle for you, then there are a number of commercial sources of these dried plants that you can purchase for a relatively low cost. It does take a lot of time, experience, and knowledge to harvest and properly dry wild plants so that they don’t mold in the process. Although I still harvest small amounts of these plants in spring and summer for direct consumption, I rely on purchased bulk herbs these days.
What does this concoction of plant matter do for me? There is a slowly growing body of science-based information regarding the constituents of plants like nettle and red clover, but unfortunately, there is little-published science regarding the long-term use of herbal infusions. There is, however, a long history of use by indigenous cultures, healers, and doctors passed down from hundreds of generations with the knowledge of using plants and the Earth energy that they contain. I am not advocating here that modern medicine should be disregarded (and this article isn’t intended as medical advice, and you should consult your physician before you ingest herbal medicines, especially if you are taking other medications, as there can be serious interactions between some medications and herbs). Rather, the use of local herbs as infusions can potentially aid your daily health.
The information below is drawn from the lifelong experience and knowledge of herbalist Susan S. Weed, and from the science-based summaries of Web MD online. Susan’s books contain a wealth of knowledge of these types of easy to use and plentiful herbs including Healing Wise.
Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) is one of my favorite plants. Although it is not considered a native plant to the Americas, it is very similar to its cousin from the Nettle family, the native Wood Nettle (Laportea candadensis), and has many of the same properties, including stinging hairs (carefully plucking newly grown top leaves will prevent you from getting much of the stinging hairs against your skin). The Stinging Nettle has only opposite leaves that are narrow and grows much taller vs. the Wood Nettle that has broader alternate leaves on the lower and middle part of the plant and doesn’t grow as tall. Nettle assists the adrenals and the kidneys, keeps the blood vessels flexible, shines up the hair, improves skin tone, and nourishes the immune system. Nettle is known to reduce inflammation in the body and provides protein, all macro- and trace-minerals in excellent amounts, and most vitamins that humans need.
Red Clover (Trifolium pratense) is known among herbalists as an anti-cancer and cancer-preventative herb. Cows and horses eat quite a lot of this plant. Some herbalists also think of Red Clover as the herb of fertility. An infusion of Red Clover blossoms, leaves, and stems is high in protein, macro- and trace minerals, and vitamins (except B12). It is also a source of phytosterols. Phytosterols are hormone-like substances found in many plants that can be bio-converted in the human gut into active anti-cancer estrogens and other helpful anti-stress hormones.
Oatstraw (Avena sativa) is the herb of longevity in the Auryuvedic system of India. It restores nervous system integrity, emotional flexibility, and sexual flow. Oats and oatstraw are good at nourishing heart health and moderating cholesterol. Oatstraw infusion provides protein, all macro- and trace-mineral in high amounts, and very high amounts of B vitamins – excepting vitamin B12. A cup of oatstraw infusion contains more than 300 milligrams of calcium plus generous amounts of many other minerals. Its steroidal saponins nourish the pancreas and liver, improving digestion and stabilizing moods. Oatstraw is best known however for its ability to enhance libido and mellow the mood.
Drinking my ‘Green Goodness from the Earth’ isn’t a fast-acting miracle. Just as it takes time for a plant to grow, it takes several weeks for a daily ingestion of infusion to do its thing. I think of it as a steady assistant not unlike a daily multi-vitamin – working to give me a bit of boost and maintenance during the cold, cloudy days of the winter season. I hope this article has encouraged you to investigate the plants growing in your area, and to stay together, learn the flowers, go light.