We had a great turnout yesterday for the Scenic Rivers Land Trust’s 7th Annual “Walk for the Woods” in Crownsville for which I led a medicinal plant walk. On the meadow portion of our walk, we talked about narrow-leaved plantain (Plantago lanceolata), clovers (Trifolium spp.), multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora), mullein (Verbascum thapsus), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), and dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). For those who wanted, we then walked the fern trail toward the wetland area to visit the skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus).
Here are answers to a couple of questions that arose on our walk:
Q: Can you use the root of plantain?
A: Yes. According to Matthew Wood in The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants, Richard Hool, who wrote an herbal about British plants in 1918, noted that all parts of plantain are medicinal. That said, among the American herbalists I know, it’s the aerial parts that are used.
Q: What’s this plant?
A: Red sorrel (Rumex acetosella), a.k.a. sheep sorrel. And like other sorrels and members of the Rumex genus, the leaves are high in oxalic acid. One gentleman on our walk was interested in the impact of such plants upon livestock. This is one that can be fatal to sheep, but that’s likely contingent upon the amount consumed. Too bad sheep can’t boil their greens! That would help to cut down on the amount of oxalic acid.
Other things I covered:
The highly sensual description of digging for skunk cabbage medicine, written by Stephen Harrod Buhner, appears in the “Prologue to Part Two” of The Secret Teachings of Plants: The Intelligence of the Heart in the Direct Perception of Nature. If you love plants and are interested in plant medicine, be sure to read—and savor—this book. It’s a gem.
Learning about plants as medicine is a dance. You want to be open, but you also want to be choosy so you can find worthy partners. Part of breaking in your dance shoes is learning which sources of information are credible. One invaluable source is Henriette Kress, who maintains the www.henriettesherbal.com site. Some health-related sites are supported mostly by various pharmaceutical companies. I generally do not trust them as it is not in their interest to share credible information about plants. Unfortunately, many reputable health sites rely on these other sites for their information. The point is, be careful what you take in—both in terms of information as well as the plants themselves.
Cultivate relationships with plants by spending time with them. I believe plants welcome this from two-leggeds. Start with plants you like. You don’t need to know why a particular plant calls to you—just be sure to answer the call. Go visit the plant. Sketch it. Note how its veins run, the shape of its leaves, how many petals its flowers have, how it reproduces itself, what conditions it thrives in—moist or dry, sunny or shady? Observe it at different times of the day, the year. By all means, talk with it.
“Invasive” plants. I dislike the term “invasive.” Let’s call them opportunists. They find a place they like and put down roots. Characteristics of the place allow them to get established and they proliferate. Kind of like humans, huh? Only with plant opportunists, we usually aid and abet. As with the “multi-deplora” rose and autumn olive we found growing in and along the edges of the meadow. I like the “natives” that I know just as much as anybody, but the general nature of ecology is change. Even if we did not intentionally introduce species from elsewhere, they may have come anyway, riding along on our clothing when we travel.
Another attendee brought up poison ivy. Poison ivy, as herbalist Jim McDonald once said, is “pay attention plant.” It may annoy the heck out of humans, but here again, spend some time with the plant (you needn’t touch it, of course!) and ask it: Why are YOU here? You will find poison ivy in highly disturbed places that probably are in need of a respite from human presence. Woods that have been logged, for example.
For those who did not get a copy of the handout, you may access it here. If you have questions, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.