Meet the Plants
It’s easy to fall in love with store-bought herbs. They’re so easy, and often they are good quality. However, it is important not to forget the many healing herbs that grow wild in our very own backyards. These plants are there for us to appreciate and call on in times of need.
Wild Medicinals of Springtime
In spring, every new sprout of green or flower burst is cause for excitement! Look to the forest floor and trees for spring blooms. Also get to know our most useful weed medicines that appear as the snow melts (but won’t bloom til later in summer). Below, I’ve included pictures of these weeds throughout the season.
~ Evergreen Groundcovers ~
~ Weedy Medicine ~
Also On This Page
Evergreen Groundcovers with Spring Blooms
The forest floor awakens first of all when the snow melts. In late April and early May, the buds on the trees grow fat in anticipation of warmer temps, but our groundcovers bravely unfurl while the threat of snow and frost lingers. In spring, we are ecstatic with any sign of life. This is a good time to grab your field guides and identify every single flower you see that you don’t already know. Many of these plants aren’t appropriate to harvest (or at least harvest in any abundance) due to their small size and possibly threatened status, but they are worth appreciating and knowing. They also make wonderful flower essences, since this type of remedy can be made with just a few flowers and even without cutting the plants, if desired (for example with lady’s slipper). Evergreens are around all year but are at their most showy in spring.
This picture shows the typical scene in May in NH on the woodland floor.
Partridgeberry was once referred to as Squaw Vine in herbal medicine but is now referred to by its more PC common name. “Squaw Vine” lets you know it was used for women’s reproductive health, This is a very common groundcover in our area often used in “berry bowl” terrariums, so you might be surprised to find it on the United Plant Savers’ “To Watch” list. That’s because it’s a very slow-growing tiny plant and specific to our region. Rosemary Gladstar grows almost every plant on the UpS list on her land with great success, yet she simply can’t get partridgeberry to grow even though she’s in nearby Vermont. Many people mistake partridgeberry for wintergreen - they’re both evergreen with similar red berries, and they grow in the same places. You can tell them apart because partridgeberries have two “butt ends” (two flowers make one berry), giving them a somewhat ET appearance, the leaves are vines, and they don’t smell like wintergreen. Fortunately, if you accidentally eat partridgeberry thinking it’s wintergreen (aka checkerberry, teaberry), it is edible but bland. Partridgeberry leaves/vines are sometimes tinctured for a remedy that supports the specialization of uterine tissue/lining during the second half of the cycle (progesterone/luteal phase), and sometimes in the later stages of pregnancy to facilitate easy labor. It’s a plant I appreciate but haven’t found a need to use. If you do want to pick it, stick to very small quantities and be sure to pinch rather than pull the vines to keep the roots in the ground.
Wintergreen, as you might guess from the name of my business, is a favorite plant of mine and one of the first that I could identify in the wild. As a child I often ate the berries and nibbled on the wintergreen-y leaves. The wintergreen scent and flavor is from the compound methyl salicilate, which is incredibly toxic when concentrated (ie: in essential oil) but tasty and pain-relieving in small doses. It’s related to other aspirin-like compounds, and the strong scent helps the plants communicate with one another. If one is being munched, the scent tells other plants in the colony that they’re under attack, so they produce more bitter tannins in the leaves to make them less palatable to the forager. If you decide to make tea or tincture with this plant, stick to small quantities. Try quickly to prevent mold (for tea), and a fresh leaf tincture is quite nice for headaches and liniments. Due to methyl salicilate’s toxicity, I would only use it symptomatically as a single herb or as a small percentage (5-10%) in a daily pain formula to enhance the action and flavor. If you’re allergic to aspirin, you may want to be cautious and avoid wintergreen - it may or may not cause a similar reaction. When identifying winergreen, note that the leaves are leathery and evergreen, with just a few growing on each indivdual stick-like stem (almost like a tiny ground tree). Blossoms are similar to blueberry flowers; they are related. There is a single, star-like “butt end” to the berry (very botanical term, I know!). Of course, the most definitive way to identify wintergreen is by its scent! Look-alikes like partridgeberry and gaywings don’t smell like candy.
Goldthread is a common sight in our forests. Even though it’s evergreen, you’ll see happy young green growth in spring and its tiny flowers if you keep a close eye for them. Find goldthread in acidic evergreen forests growing amongst the moss in damp areas. It is related to goldenseal and has a thread-like root with a bright yellow-orange-gold color that indicates the presence of the bitter berberine alkaloid responsible for its microbial action. The leaves have it too. My mother-in-law would go up into the mountains outside Manchester to harvest the roots for tea when someone in the family was sick, and I have used a poultice of chewed leaves on potentially infected cuts when needed. Although it has a broad range of use and is locally abundant, the teeny tiny size of this plant makes it impractical and unethical to harvest in anything but single-use amount. Harvesting a pound of roots would certainly decimate an area and drive you nuts! For this reason it’s on the United Plant Saver’s To Watch list.
Mayflower, also known as Trailing Arbutus, helped launch plant conservation in the United States thanks to its intoxicating perfume. Well-to-do people in days of old would wear the flower in their lapels, but this plant is highly sensitive to overpicking. A group of astute ladies founded what is now the New England Wildflower Society (based in Massachusetts and one of the first conservation organizations to exist) in the early 1900s to raise awareness and discourage picking. Look for it on dry hillsides in the woods, or, better yet, use your nose. It begins to bloom in the warmest spots in April and will continue through mid May in cooler areas. It’s a definite sign of spring! Although the leathery evergreen leaves can be used medicinally for urinary tract health and infections, this is a plant better appreciated than harvested. Get your your knees and inhale its sweet aroma!
These herbs are among the most sturdy plant medicines. They barely sleep in winter, arriving as the first bursts of green in a weedy lawn or vacant lot as shortly after snow melt. The greens are most tender and tasty in spring, and the roots can be harvested now or later in fall. These common weeds are available almost anywhere and can be harvested without much concern for harming a species population - in fact, you may want to eat them or make medicine with them as you intentionally weed them from your yard. They form the backbone of backyard medicine.
Violets: This common springtime wildflower is easily overlooked as a medicinal and culinary herb. It’s just so ubiquitous that we take it for granted. You don’t find it in commerce very often due to a lack of popularity as well as tedious harvest. It’s low to the ground and shrinks quite a bit on drying, so it’s tedious and costly to harvest and sell in quantity. Violet leaves (and flowers) are safe, edible, and pleasant-tasting - sort of like mild, slightly sweet lettuce. They don’t get bitter as the year goes on like most of the other wild greens do, however, they will get tougher and may taste (faintly) a little more like wintergreen, due to accumulating methyl salicylate. Violet leaves are rich in chlorophyll and minerals like most of our weedy greens are; however, they also contain appreciable amounts of vitamin A/beta-carotene and vitamin C. They’re also one of the few mucilaginous herbs in the bunch - they’re moistening, slightly slimy, and superbly healing. It’s great for folks who tend to be “dry” or find herbs like nettle too diuretic and drying. Violet leaves and flowers also have a gentle yet profound lymph-moving, detoxifying property, which has earned it a spot in holistic cancer care (though it’s a stretch to consider it a cure - cancer is a pretty complex set of diseases). Inspired to learn more about violet? Check out this great write-up by herbalist jim mcdonald Cautions: This is a pretty safe plant. The roots are less safe medicinally and laxative - stick to the leaves and flowers. Be sure not to over-harvest. Violets are common, but certain species can be threatened in a given area.
Dandelion leaves are perfect for harvesting in spring! (You can harvest the roots, too, but they are best in the fall.) ID: Everyone recognizes dandelion, but it’s worth noting that not all weeds with the composite fluffy yellow flowers are dandelion. Dandelion only has one flower on a stem, and no branching leaves. The stem is hollow and has a milky latex when cut. The leaves are serrated like the teeth of the lion (dent de lion). If your plant doesn’t fit this bill, it’s not a dandelion. (Hawkweeds are a common “look similar.”) Harvesting & Prep: If you can get to your dandelions before they flower, the leaves will taste a little bitter (less bitter); however, it’s also fine to harvest them while they’re flowering. In fact, they’re easier to identify while in flower. Tear off the leaves as you like them - there’s no concern here about over-harvesting the herb! If it’s easier, feel free to use clean scissors to cut the leaves from the plant. For the root, dig it up with a garden fork, digging stick, whatever works best for you. Wash the dirt off under cold water with a potato scrubber. Use: Dandelion greens are bitter, but this makes them a gourmet green. If you’re new to bitter flavors, combine dandelion with milder greens like lettuce and spinach. Enjoy dandelion fresh in salads, or toss them into stir fries, pastas, etc. at the tail end of cooking. They pair well with bold flavors like lemon, garlic, vinegar, honey, and parmesan. I love, love love, love this dandelion pumpkin seed pesto recipe, especially with tortilla chips. Nutritionally, dandelion leaves are a powerhouse of minerals including potassium. Medicinally, they act as a volume diuretic (make you pee) and nudge your digestive and detoxification (liver/bile) systems back into gear. Dandelion roots are chopped into small pieces and dried for tea (or dried and roasted for tea). You can also make an alcohol extract or powder it up in capsules. Dandelion root is more of a sodium-leaching diuretic and has a stronger detoxifying action on the liver than the leaves. The fresh or tinctured fresh root also seems to help decrease inflammatory allergy-related compounds in the body. Also check out this blog for lots of great dandelion pictures and cool recipes! Cautions: Generally pretty safe, but it does make you pee a lot, shouldn’t be used if you have a bowel or gallbladder obstruction (if you have an obstruction, you’re probably not out in the field harvesting dandelion, though), and should be used with caution in pregnancy.
PS If you’re wondering what the purple flower is in the third photo, it’s a common weed called ground ivy (aka creeping charlie, gill over the ground...). The Latin name is Glechoma hederacea, and while it *does* have medicinal and edible uses, it’s not a plant I have used a lot of (yet).
(Arctium lappa. A. minor)
Burdock root can be used somewhat similarly to dandelion, tastes somewhat similar, and thus is often used in formula with it. Burdock tastes less bitter, more sweet, and slightly woodsy. ID: Burdock has broad leaves that resemble rhubarb. In the summer, they put up tall flower stalks with thistle-like purple flowers. Flower turn to velcro-like, round, brown burrs. Harvesting & Prep: In spring, you can harvest the second-year plants that are popping up with big rhubarb-like leaves but have not yet put up the flower stalk. Dig and clean like dandelion (above). Be warned, it’s a bugger to dig. Use: It is delicious sliced thinly or into matchsticks and sautéed with sesame seeds, soy sauce, and a little honey. It also makes a pleasant earthy tea (just dry chopped root slices). You can buy the fresh root in natural food stores, or in Asian markets as “gobo.” Like dandelion root, burdock is diuretic and a mild liver and digestive stimulant. It is often used for skin conditions including chronic skin eruptions, acne, psoriasis, eczema, boils, and sties. Many herbalists and systems of traditional medicine consider the liver and the skin to be closely linked; work on the liver, and skin conditions are expected to first break out and then clear up. Burdock root is also used to regulate lymphatic fluid (the “back alley” garbage system for sorting toxins, immune system trash, and fat) and improve excretion of toxins. Cautions: Not recommended during pregnancy. To be safe, it should not be used in gallbladder disease or bile duct obstruction unless under the guidance of a practitioner.
Chicory: This common, morning-flowering weed has similar properties as dandelion and burdock, but it is not as strongly medicinal. ID: Leaves are dandelion-like at the base but smaller as they grow up the flower stalk. The flowers are light corn-flower blue and surprisingly showy for a scraggly weed. They bloom in the morning and usually close up by noon. Chicory loves crappy soil along the median strips of roads and highways (don’t pick there!) as well as in fields. Harvesting & Prep: See burdock and dandelion, above. Use: The roasted root has a coffee-like flavor that has earned it a primary place in coffee substitute ingredient lists. It can be used as a digestive bitter, mild liver stimulant, and mild sodium-leaching diuretic. Young tender leaves can be eaten—they are also bitter and resemble dandelion greens in flavor and use. In fact, most “dandelion greens” you buy at farms or the grocery store are actually a variety of chicory. The gourmet green endive is really just chicory that has been chopped to the ground, then regrown in the dark. Radicchio is a close, cultivated relative.
Yellow dock’s bitter, yellow root is a digestion and bowel stimulant. It has both laxative and binding properties, and is often recommended as a gentler laxative than senna or cascara. Herbalists also use it for the liver, including improved fat absorption, chronic skin conditions like acne, and liver congestion. It has a modest amount of iron and also may improve the release of stored iron from the tissues into the bloodstream. While you could drink it in tea (1 tsp per cup hot water, simmered, or in a blend), it’s rather nasty tasting. Most people prefer liquid extract (tincture) or pill. Some herbalists use Broad Dock (R. obtusifolius) interchangeably. We usually harvest yellow dock roots in fall; however, it can also be harvested in spring before it blooms and used as a spring detox herb. Cautions: High doses can cause rebound constipation due to the herb’s tannin content. It is rich in oxalates; do not use if you have a history of oxalate kidney stones unless under the guidance of a practitioner. Note: Yellow dock is also called curly dock.
Nettle: You may curse stinging nettles when you walk through a patch of them, but they are one of our most useful weeds. ID: Nettles are trickier to identify than you would think. They have heart-shaped, opposite leaves with jagged edges that closely resemble mint-family plants. The stems and undersides of leaves are covered with tiny hairs that sting. When they bloom, the flowers are seedy, greenish, and long. (Click here for a photo of Nettle in flower.) This is the best time to identify nettles: when they’re in flower. But, we prefer to harvest them for food and medicine before they flower. If you’re unsure, watch for a year, then harvest the second year. Nettles closely resemble Lamium “dead nettle” species in the mint family, which are not toxic, but they don’t have the same medicinal uses, either. (Lamium spp don’t sting, but their bristly hairs sometimes give a false sensation of stinging. Once they flower, their identity is immediately realized. Purple, white, or pink mint-family flowers.) There are also some other nettle relatives that can be confused. Consult a good ID guide and don’t be afraid to wait a year to see it through the growing season. Harvesting & Prep: Once you’ve correctly IDed your nettles in spring, harvest with scissors, leaving some sets of leaves behind. You may want to wear gloves and longsleeves/pants since stinging nettles DO sting like fire ant bites. (This can be therapeutic for arthritis, though.) Or, use the scissors to carefully snip and transfer the plant to your harvesting basket in one fell swoop. Use: Once you cook, dry, or juice the plant, the sting goes away. Spring greens taste like spinach (actually, better) and are more nutritious. My teachers Nancy Phillips and Rosemary Gladstar both make fabulous nettle spanakopita. I have used it as an impromptu vegetable on camping trips, cooked with couscous and canned salmon. It is a great addition to soups and broths, both dry and fresh. You can also dry the greens for use in tea. Nettle tea makes a great base for any nutritive tea and blends well with mints; it is particularly high in calcium, potassium, magnesium, and iron. Simmer nettle greens to get the most out of its nutrient content. Nettle greens may also reduce seasonal allergy symptoms when taken regularly as food or in freeze-dried capsules. Nettle is diuretic and may help eliminate uric acid. Like many leafy greens, nettle is used as an alkalizing beverage. It is also used for asthma, gouty arthritis, edema, and chronic illnesses. It needs to be used long-term for truly therapeutic effects. The fresh nettles are sometimes used to whack arthritis joints; reportedly eliminating the inflammation after the initial swelling. The root may help reduce prostate inflammation, and herbalist David Winston uses the seeds to treat kidney disease. (There is some disagreement on this, though. Other herbalists state that the flowering/seeding plant is irritating to the kidneys.) To top it off, autumn-harvested stalks of dry, dying nettles can be broken up and woven into sturdy fabric or rope. Cautions: Of course, be careful handling the fresh plant, as the sting can be very irritating. While often used in pregnancy nutritive teas, excessively large doses are contraindicated due to an emmenagogue effect. It is generally recommended not to harvest greens after the flowers/seeds appear. They are not as tasty and nutritious, and they may cause urinary inflammation.
Sheep Sorrel (Rumex acetosella) & Wood Sorrel (Oxalis corniculata, O. stricta)
Sheep sorrel, a wild relative of garden sorrel (R. acetosa), as well as the yellow-flowered, clover leaf-like wood sorrel are great eats! They’re deliciously sour eaten fresh from the field and rich in vitamin C and other vitamins and minerals. I typically enjoy them in salads, but feel free to use them in soups, sautés, spinach pies, etc. for a lemony tang. Like rhubarb and spinach, sorrel is high in oxalic acid, which is hard on the kidneys and unfortunately reduces your absorption of the calcium in the greens. If you have kidney stones or other kidney issues, you may want to avoid sorrels, especially in excessive amounts. However, most of us can enjoy them as a nutritive and tasty wild food as long as we don’t go nuts (ie: juicing them every day).
Yarrow is a common weed with many uses. ID: Find white yarrow flowers along roadsides, in fields, or even in your garden. It begins to flower in early summer with its white blooms and soft, fern-y leaves. You may find the distinctive leaves (which resemble the shape and softness of a squirrel tail) even if the plant is not flowering. Harvesting & Prep: You can harvest the leaves and/or flowers to tincture it fresh or dry it for teas. Use: This is an herb of many uses. I like to tincture it in vodka to use as a bug spray (a trick I learned from Susun Weed). However, it’s better known as a diaphoretic (makes you sweat) to help break a fever or get you over a cold more quickly. Taken in hot or warm water, it gets the juices of the body going – whether it be sweat, digestive juices, or circulation. Drunk cold, it has more of a tonic, tightening effect on tissues. The herb is also famous for its topical use as a hemostatic. The mashed or chewed leaves can be applied to cuts and wounds to stop bleeding. For this use, it was favored amongst ancient soldiers and named after Achilles.
Wild Strawberry is a pleasant sight in my yard where it takes advantage of my acidic soil and unkempt garden beds. Wild strawberry leaves are mildly astringent (yet another rose family astringent!) with a blandly pleasant pucker of flavor. It has a range of application in tea blends (perfect “base note” with a somewhat similar flavor profile as mild green tea but none of the caffeine) as well as for internal and external remedies where some gentle tightening is needed: mouthwashes and gum health, facial toners, boggy GI and uterine tissues, etc. Wild is better than cultivated. The fruits are also a delight, far more flavorful than cultivated berries but very time consuming to pick because they’re so tiny. Try them atop a salad of tender lettuce greens and some sour sorrels with a sweet-vinegar dressing.
It takes some practice, but harvesting your own herbs for medicine is an enjoyable, rewarding, and often simple experience.
Click here for Maria’s basic tips for harvesting and processing roots, barks, leaves, flowers, and berries from wild and cultivated medicinal plants.
Attend a Plant Walk
One of the best ways to learn how to identify and use medicinal plants is to attend plant walks.
Area Plant Walks
Search around, and you’ll find them! Check out...
- My Education page for upcoming herb walks
- NH Herbal Network meetings, workshops, herb days, and events
- Local Audubon centers
- D Acres in Dorchester
- Misty Meadows in Lee
- Lion’s Tooth Herbals in Newmarket
- Historical gardens like Canterbury Shaker Village, Strawbery Banke, Kirkwood Gardens , Tarbin Gardens, The Fells, and Enfield Shaker Museum in New Hampshire
- New England Wildflower Society’s Garden in the Woods, Tower Hill, and the Arnold Arboretum, and Mass Hort in Massachusetts
- Avena Botanicals and Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in midcoast Maine
- Schedule a private consult/walk with Maria - email email@example.com
Keep looking around, you’ll find them!
Note: unless the walk is led by an herbalist, it will probably not cover the medicinal uses of plants, but it should still offer useful information about how to identify the plants.
Safety & Identification
• Always make sure you have correctly identified the plant you are harvesting. Cross reference ID books (see recommendations, below), information from herb walks, etc. You’ll have the best luck identifying a plant with ID/field guides, and then learning how to use it from herbals or foraging books. Don’t try to get *all* your information from just one book. It *will* be lacking.
• I like to watch a plant for at least one full year to make sure I am comfortable with its identification. Look at leaves, flowers, seedpods, fruits, growing patterns. If something you see doesn’t quite match with the identification patterns put forth in a book, don’t pick it. Wait and keep researching.
• Most plants are easiest to identify when they are in flower, even if this isn’t the primary harvesting time. Keep an eye out for flowers to find the plant, get to know it (this may take a year or so – no rush), and then go back when it is time to harvest.
• Try to ensure that you are picking from a clean area. Keep away from roads and nearby highways. Make sure the land does not get sprayed with chemicals. If picking by waterways, ensure that the water is clean. Many plants are known to concentrate chemicals in the ground or water.
• Don't be afraid to "borrow" someone's land (with permission). Most of my wildcrafting is done on the land of organic or semi-organic farms. If you know a family that has lived on the same untouched land for 50 years, then ask them if you can walk around to identify and pick weeds or pay/trade for cultivated plants.
• Avoid sickly plants that seem to have diseases or bug infestations. If it doesn't look "happy," don't harvest it.
• Never harvest a plant unless it is abundant in that area. • Never harvest more than 1-10% of the plants.
• Be a good land steward. Return to a stand frequently, at the very least annually, to ensure that your harvesting is not harming the plant population.
• When possible, harvest in a manner that promotes the growth of a plant. For instance, pinching off mint-like plants, carefully pruning small branches of trees for bark. Make sure to leave some flowers to go to seed, fruits for wildlife, etc.
• Consider an act of gratitude and repayment for your harvest: help the plant sew more seeds, pick up trash, neaten the trails. On a grander scale, work to conserve land in your community and the world.
• Leave the land looking untouched. If you dig a root, mulch the above ground parts and fill in the hole. No matter what you pick, it should be unnoticeable (or barely noticeable) that you were there.
• Harvest only what you need. • Harvest small or sensitive plants sparingly, or not at all. (Ex: lobelia, bugleweed, partridgeberry, goldthread) Be particularly cautious with wild, native, perennial roots. (Ex: Trillium, goldenseal, ginseng.)
• Opt to harvest weedy and invasive plants rather than native and sensitive ones. You can generally harvest as much dandelion, burdock, autumn olive, plantain, Japanese knotweed, etc. as you like!
• Refer to lists made by United Plant Savers and other groups to ensure that you are not picking a plant that is at risk of being endangered. www.unitedplantsavers.org
• Step lightly when going off-trail to harvest plants.
• Get permission to pick plants in an area that you do not own.
• If you are harvesting from someone’s land, offer to give them something in return.
• Never pick in protected lands.
• Don’t pick near trails.
• Botany in a Day, Thomas Epel – A good start to medicinal plant botany. Learn by plant families. Great illustrations, easy to understand.
• Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide – THE best ID guide for our area. The keys make it easy to find plants quickly, and the illustrations are excellent. However, always cross-reference with at least a couple ID guides. There are many & all have advantages/disadvantages.
• Trees and Shrubs of New England; Spring Wildflowers of New England; Summer & Fall Wildflowers of New England, all by Marilyn J. Dwelley – Dwelley’s books are specific to our region and have interesting information about the plants that most guides don’t share. Unfortunately some illustrations are poor. Generally organized by flower color, and within flower color by plant family.
• Peterson Field Guide: Wildflowers, Peterson & McKenny – Organized by flower color & relatively expansive. A good second book when Newcomb’s fails to ID your plant.
• Another great thing you can do to confirm ID of a plant is to do a Google Image search. Go to www.google.com, and click on “Images.” Then search for common or Latin names & compare the photos to your plant. Not everything on the web is accurate, but it’s a great link to millions of plant photos.
To get to know the plants in your area, walk the same spots at least once a week and see how the plants and landscape change. Try to ID every flowering plant you see.
• Go to botanical gardens now and then to see a variety of plants already identified for you. Locally, we have Strawbery Banke (herbs) in Portsmouth, NH; Garden in the Woods (wildflowers) in Framingham, MA; and the Arnold Arboretum (trees) in Jamaica Plain/Boston, MA.
• Attend a plant walk. Many herbalists host herb walks and events on their properties. Several of our local Audubon centers offer plant walks led by herbalists.