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 Summer
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.
~ June Blooms ~
~ Weedy Medicine ~
~ May Blooms, Autumn Berries ~
Also On This Page
Black Elder Flower & Elderberries (Sambucus canadensis, syn S. nigra)
Elder is in bloom in July here in New Hampshire, with black/purple/blue berries forming around September. ID: Black elder flowers look like saucers of white flowers growing from robust shrubs along waterways and in drainage ditches. They're very easy to ID = A robust shrub with divided (compound, pinnate) leaves arranged opposite (not alternate) on the stem, white flowers in flat-topped clusters, blue-black berries in fall, often growing in damp spots. In fall, the stems often turn purple and droop with the weight of small blackish-purple-blue berries. Beginners could mix it up with other plants if you're not paying attention. Please do not confuse black elder with red elder (which is poisonous, flowers in a spike-shape earlier in the year and has bright red berries that form in mid/late summer), water hemlock (DEADLY poisonous, a less robust plant that also has divided leaves and white flowers. The leaves are more frequently divided than elder and arranged alternately on the stem rather than opposite, and the flowers come out from the center in a starburst/firework/umbel shape. No berries in fall.) Less poisonous white-flowering shrubs with opposite leaves (and sometimes fall berries) that might be confused are those in the Viburnum or Cornus genuses, but those shrubs have entire rather than divided leaves. Then there is the Bristly Sarsaparilla, which has divided but alternate leaves, white but “starburst/firework” shaped flowers, and blue/purple but larger berries that almost look like blueberries in shape. Bristly Saprparilla is usually a smaller plant found in dry, recently logged land and is most easily identified by the bristly throrns (most prevalent on the bottom of the plant) that elder doesn’t have.) Harvest & Prep: Flowers can be harvested in summer when they look most vital and used dried or perhaps fresh. Berries are harvested when they hang heavy and are deeply dark colored and safe when cooked or dried. The stems and leaves are poisonous and intensely nauseating. You can harvest the cluster, then pull the flowers or berries off with a fork one dried or before cooking. The leaves (in spite of internal toxicity) can be used topically for bruises and pain; they would be harvested whenever the leaves look vital. (Note: Stephen Buhner states that the leaves and stems are simply nauseating and safe once dried, but I would err on the side of caution.) Use: Elderberry syrup is by far a tastier remedy than echinacea; however, its uses are different. We use elderberry for the first achy, feverish signs of the flu. It can also be used for a cold. In order for a virus to truly wreck havoc on your body, it needs to get into your cells to replicate. Elderberry makes the outside of your cells more resistant to viral replication. Elder flowers can also send a flu virus packing by spiking the fever response. Fevers fight viruses because as your body warms, iron becomes less available in the bloodstream. Viruses need iron, so this lack of iron helps kill the virus. In my opinion, elderberry is most effective as a syrup. (The recipe I love and make is from Darcey Blue and can be found here.) It can also be taken in a liquid extract, liquid capsule, capsule, tea, lozenge, dried berry, or jam. Take as directed on the label. Elder flowers are often combined with other herbs like yarrow and peppermint to make you sweat (diaphoretic) and spike a fever. Use caution in any fever over 102 degrees. Gypsy Cold Care tea by Traditional Medicinals is an excellent diaphoretic tea for those who don’t want to do their own blending. Cautions: All parts of the elder plant have mild cyanide-like compounds and can also be quite nauseating. Cooking (berries) or drying (berries or flowers) will avoid mild poisoning or stomachache, as will straining seeds from a remedy (as you would in tea, syrup, or tincture. If you properly prepare the berries and flowers, they are extremely safe.
St. John's Wort
The best SJW medicine is bright red. To encourage stronger medicine, harvest at the end of a sunny, hot week, use only fresh buds and flowers (the leaves are weaker), and let it infuse in the sun. If you harvest early in the season when it’s wet or cool, your medicine probably won’t be as potent. Dry SJW tends not to come out as well as fresh, especially for oils.
This St. John's wort is so potent that you can actually see the red pigment dots on the flowers, buds and leaves!
Tincture of St. John's wort turns vivid red almost immediately. It takes longer for oil to extract the pigments.
Note the opposite leaves (and stems, on taller plants), which alternate directions making a cross if you look straight down the stem.
A nice burgundy smear from a St. John's wort bud helps you ensure identity and quality.
The Klamath beetle is an introduced pest. Early season, you’ll find it growing in bare sunny patches of the ground, and you can move it to a different spot. This plant will move around the yard at will, dying off and reseeding, with good and bad years. It likes poor, compact, well-drained, sandy, dry soil in sunny spots and will not tolerate a lot of competition.
St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum)
St. John's Wort will begin to bloom around summer solstice in late June. In so many ways this is a SUN PLANT. ID: SJW has yellow flowers (5 petals with a “crown”) that will stain crimson if you rub a fresh bud between your fingers. It grows in sunny places and has opposite stems with small, oval leaves. If you hold up a leaf to the sun and look closely, it looks perforated with little dots. There are other hypericum species that are native (SJW came with the Europeans), but these are the signs that you have our primary SJW. If you have another species with crimson “juices,” you can probably use it similarly. Harvest & Prep: Harvest the buds and flowers (it’s ok if a few leaves get in, but they are not the primary medicinal part) after the plant has been blooming in very sunny, hot weather. It’s best fresh, though it can be used dried. I extract the fresh flowers/buds in olive oil for topical use or in alcohol (whole grain or vodka) for internal or external use. Let your remedy infuse in a sunny spot to best extract the reddish pigments that hold much of SJW’s power. Use: SJW is used externally for burns, nerve pain, wound healing, rashes, herpes, as a light sunscreen, and as a remedy for sunburn. Internally, it’s used for mild to moderate depression (regular use for several weeks/months) to “bring the sun in” and for mild to moderate Seasonal Affective Disorder. Many herbalists also use it as a gentle antiviral. Cautions: SJW is extremely safe for most people; however, it can interact with many medications (it improves liver detoxification, which clears many drugs out of the system more quickly). Check with your pharmacist before combining SJW with pharmaceuticals. There’s also a very rare chance for phototoxicity where consumption of SJW combined with exposure to sunlight causes a bad sun rash/burn for fair skinned individuals. (I’ve seen this happen once, but it’s really not a very common occurrence.) There are no concerns with topical use - it’s even great for babies or for those who are very old or very sick.
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.
May Blooms, Autumn Medicine
In May, spotlights shine on the trees as they bloom. This is a great time to find and identify your useful plants to go back to for making fall medicine.
Flowers in Spring ~ Berries in Early Autumn
Autumn Olive trees dot many open spaces, landscapes, roadsides, and the like throughout NH. This INVASIVE small tree was encouraged a couple decades ago because it’s pretty, fixes nitrogen, grows quickly, and produced edible berries much loved by herbs. Unfortunately, it really took off and is now quite problematic and invasive. I would not recommend planting the tree, but you can find a stand of it pretty easily in the wild or a friend’s yard. ID: In May it produces small, off-white, deliciously scented flowers that resemble the scent of honeysuckle. In autumn, it has red, gold-speckled fruits with a tart, puckery flavor. The leaves are silvery, and the tree has thorny spikes reminiscent of hawthorns. (The above photo doesn’t look as silvery as it is, but you can see another photo on the below link.) Some trees produce better tasting fruit than others, although none of them are extremely sweet. They more closely resemble the flavor of pomegranate or raspberries. Harvesting & Prep: It’s pretty easy to harvest large quantities of these berries by hand since they are so prolific. Taste a few to see if you like their level of ripeness. The color should be a nice red. Some are sweeter than others, and puckery astringency is common. As they ripen further, they get juicier. I run them though a food mill (see picture, right) fresh. The pulp and juice separate more easily later in the season, which you may or may not want. Removing twigs is tedious but results in a smoother finish. You can freeze fresh or processed berries for later use. Use: You can eat these berries - and, if you like, the seeds - fresh, or you can use them in recipes, to make cordials, etc. They appear to have no toxicity (this is still a “new” food to us in the Western part of the world) and are extremely high in antioxidants, including the red pigment lycopene (~15 times more than raw tomatoes and 5 times more than cooked tomatoes!). Lycopene is particularly famous for its ability to protect the prostate from cancer. I suspect that autumn olives are a neglected “superfruit” in our own backyards, unfortunately overshadowed by exotics like acai, gogi and mangosteen. Really, most edible berries are “superfruits” such as blueberries, concord grapes, hawthorn, mulberries, and blackberries. Also check out the Autumn Olive Chapter by Sam Thayer in his book Forager’s Harvest, which he has graciously posted online; it includes harvesting and ID tips as well as how to make juice and leather. (I highly recommend Thayer’s Forager’s Harvest and Nature’s Garden books if you like foraging.) Recent research on the closely related Russian olive berries (with seeds) found that they were profoundly useful for arthritis. Preliminary (mostly lab) studies on both Russian and autumn olive leaves show antibacterial/antimicrobial activity. As taught by Christine Tolf of Lichenwood Herbals, I use autumn olive flower essence to help people adjust to and thrive in new ventures, including a new move, job, relationship status, peri/andropause, etc. Cautions: None known, but it is still “new” to us, so there’s not a lot of information or research out there. Always be 100% sure of your identification before consuming a plant. (Not all berries are edible, some are toxic.) But, autumn olives are quite distinctive and abundant once you get the eye for them. Because they are invasive, DO NOT plant them or encourage their growth, and be sure to dispose of the seeds in the trash, not the compost. Also know that it is technically illegal to harvest invasive plants in New Hampshire because of the concern that you might propagate it. Most people are happy to have you pick it, though Also note that some years are better for harvests than others, and some years the birds get to it all, too.
Learn More: Autumn Olive Chapter by Sam Thayer in his book Forager’s Harvest | Cornell University Monograph | PSA Rising Autumn Olive Monograph | Osteoarthritis (Russian Olive) Research | Antimicrobial Research | Flower Essence at Lichenwood Herbals
Wild Black Cherry & Chokecherry
(Prunus serotina & P. virginiana)
Wild black cherry (a small to large tree) has longer, thinner leaves (though this can vary) and blossom clusters. This can be a shrub and grow to become a very large tree. It begins blooming shortly after/during the choke cherry bloom time. In fall, the berries are small, blue-black, with one pit. Leaves can vary to be longer/narrower or somewhat shorter/wider. Look for the fuzzy midrib (see above) - this is distinctive for this species. They also have more than 13-15 pairs of leaf veins and are blunt toothed. Lots of white lenticels gradually turn to a shaggy bark on older trees. Bud scales are pointed. Tent caterpillars and webworms are common.
Chokecherry has a similar appearance but tends to be a shrub or small tree, growing in stands along the wood edges. Flower clusters also shorter and thicker overall, sometimes pointing up, sometimes drooping. The leaves are shorter, more egg-shaped (widest in the middle), less than 13-15 pairs of leaf veins, sharp toothed, no fuzzy midrib. The autumn berries tend to be more reddish than black cherry. Notice how the lenticels (white dots) on the bark become more like dots and longitudinal wavy lines as it gets older. Bud scales are rounded. Black knot fungus is common. This is a shrub or very small tree. Because chokecherry is both prolific and shorter, it's often easier to harvest in quantity than wild black cherry; however, I prefer the flavor of the young wild cherry tree bark when I have the option.
What these wild cherries lack in perfectly plump fruit they make up for in medicinal amaretto-like bark. Wild (aka black) cherry forms the backbone of many a cough syrup and was probably the origin for cherry-flavored cough drops. Chokecherry offers an abundant substitute for the backyard herbalist. They both enjoy disturbed, open ecosystems and can be found along roadsides, yards, and abandoned lots. The bloom early in spring (following the pin-cherry), first the low-growing, egg-leafed chokecherries and then the taller, narrow-leafed (with fuzzy midveins) black cherries, both with clusters of white flowers hanging down like gooseneck blossoms. They are weak trees that attract a variety of diseases and hosts, particularly tent caterpillars and black knot, which can help you identify a stand. In fall you might also be lucky enough to find drooping clusters of fruit on your wild cherries (darker blue/black for black cherries, reddish for chokecherries). These vary in edibility as they are a bit astringent and tart, but they were an important food crop for Native Americans and are a fall favorite for bears. Of course, opt for healthy-looking branches to harvest, which are generally the younger plants. If you’re harvesting in another season, opt to harvest after the plant has flowered. I recommend the “scratch & sniff” test as part of your identification: the scratched cherry bark smells like tobacco and amaretto. Harvesting & Prep: The inner bark is the part medicinally. This layer is green and aromatic, between the protective dark brown outer bark and structural white-ish inner wood. If you harvest large limbs of trees, you’ll need to remove and discard the outer bark. However, I prefer to harvest twigs and younger branches up to one and a half inches in diameter. The outer bark is young enough that I don’t need to worry about separating and removing it. First, prune the twigs and/or branches from a healthy tree or use branches from fresh trees that have recently fallen from natural causes. (Never harvest bark directly from a living tree; this can damage or kill it.) Then use a knife to peel off the bark (both outer and inner); you can use the inner wood for crafts or toss it into the woods to decompose – this isn’t the part we’re using. For smaller twigs, you don’t need to shave the bark at all. Just chop the twigs up. Cherry is unusual among medicinal barks in that it should be thoroughly dried before it is processed further (see cautions). Use: Cherry bark is famous for coughs. It helps calm an irritated cough reflex and is best for those annoying, incessant, unproductive coughs. (Opt for horehound in wet, productive coughs.) It nicely quells various respiratory spasms and irritations, lending a hand for folks who live with excess wood smoke and hypersensitive lungs. I like to combine wild cherry bark with another cough remedy: honey. I generally make the tincture of freshly dried cherry bark and then bottle it half and half with honey. Reportedly, cherry bark loses potency once cooked. Freshly made cherry bark tincture (from recently dried bark) tastes divine. (I’m less impressed with that made from store-bought cherry bark, which tends to be less flavorful and more astringent, perhaps because it’s older and coming from aged trees.) It blends well with other lung herbs like mullein leaf, elecampane root, and yerba santa leaf. Although I haven’t used it in its way, cherry bark was used by the Eclectics as a mild cardiovascular sedative for palpitations and the like. Different cherry species yield different flower essences, but a common theme is illumination, clarity, and calm. Learn more about wild cherry in this great monograph by jim mcdonald on the HerbRally site here. Caution: Cherry trees (especially pits and bark) contain small amounts of cyanide-related compounds. These are most problematic in bark/twigs consumed in their wilted state (ie: by livestock) and potentially problematic in extracts made from the pits. It’s a rare but potential risk for people; however, I was taught to harvest bark after the trees flower and to thoroughly dry the bark before further processing it as medicine to eliminate any concerns. Note: Black and chokecherries are the primary medicinal wild cherries. Pin cherries grow around here, too, and are not the primary medicinal species used, though some Native Americans have used it. Pin cherries are obviously different when in flower or fruit – they don’t hang in a long cluster. No flowers or fruits to look at? Check out the leaves (narrow without a hairy midrib underneath) and distal branches (usually covered in spurs/small twigs, with clusters of buds at the ends – which the more medicinal cherries don’t have).
RECIPE - Cherry-Honey Syrup
This gives you the syrup benefit and flavor without cooking the cherry bark and potentially reducing its potency. Loosely fill a jar with freshly dried cherry bark. Cover halfway with alcohol (100- or 80-proof vodka), then fill to the top with honey. Shake regularly and strain after about one month. A typical dose would be 1-4 squirts/dropperfuls (equal to 1-4 ml or up to 1 teaspoon) as needed.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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.