Wisdom of the Weeds | General Wellness | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Wisdom of the Weeds 

Last Updated: 08/13/2013 4:19 pm
Standing in the middle of what used to be the front lawn, I wonder how much the property value has decreasedbecause of my less-than-perfect yard maintenance (actually, an outright rebellion against mowing weekly or using chemicals). Just now it's a field of foot-high spikes topped with tufts of tiny seeds-plantain ready to further crowd out any remnant of lawn.  A month ago it was an equally high crop of dandelion puff-balls.  The landscaping has become a wild one.

On the other hand, this humble village plot has transformed into an herbalist's bounty of nearly four dozen edible or medicinal plants.  The edible ones include plantain, dandelion, sweet violet, garlic mustard, garden sorrel, purslane, onion grass, chickory, woodsorrel, wild strawberry, raspberry, and grape along the back fence.  Medicinal treasures include yarrow, feverfew, mullein, St.  Johnswort, wild rose, and two kinds of plantain.  And morning glory is winding up the lamppost, making those hallucinogenic seeds that were eaten in sacred Aztec rituals.

Herbalists would champion this transformation.  "Millions of dollars are used to eradicate these common 'weeds,' but they are useful," says Dina Falconi, the herbalist behind Falcon Formulations in Stone Ridge and author of Earthly Bodies and Heavenly Hair.  "We have lost the capacity to take care of ourselves when we know nothing about what's growing around us."


To really delve into the vast world of foods, medicines, and personal-care products using local plants, seek out an herbalist.  She will be an expert in the traditional uses of plants, thanks to a combination of Native American teachings, lore of the European settlers, self-discovery, reading of scientific literature, and apprenticeships with today's herbal elders, like Susun Weed, founder of the Wise Woman Center in Woodstock.  Women from all walks of life and economic backgrounds seek her expertise.  Weed's books are the bibles for relearning the ancient ways of "listening" to what plants have to offer.  Her workshops and classes have been the cornerstone of many an herbalist's training.  She also sponsors a free herbal/health hotline and offers writings, recipes, tutorials, and much more on her Web page.

Susun Weed's approach in teaching herbal wisdom is to focus on one plant at a time.  An apprentice will experiment with it (rather than read about it) for a year or more.  Some of her favorite plants, each of which have a chapter of their own in her book, Healing Wise, are burdock, chickweed, dandelion, nettle, oatstraw, seaweeds, and violet.  And she adores local plants (guess which one in the preceding list is the only nonlocal plant), both for their vast healing properties, and because using them is empowering on several levels.

She gives this example: Years ago she had to face a lot of frustrated women whose access to dong quai, an herb used to treat a variety of reproductive conditions, was cut off when "the powers that be" decided that Chinese herbs needed to be evaluated before they were made available to everyone.  "Need I tell you how many angry women I had?  So I turned around and taught myself how to use motherwort and several other plants that grow in our area.  By giving dong quai, not only had that disempowered those women, but made them vulnerable to whatever the Big Boys decided."

Herbalists also are our link to the healing properties of whole plants.  It's an art, not a product.  So while herbal "remedies" have gained such a huge following that they are widely available on store shelves, there are problems.  Often they are not organic, may contain dangerous contaminants, aren't reliably available, or are prepared in a way that degrades their potential activity.  There is also a trend to isolate, mass-produce, or standardize the "active ingredient" of medicinally useful plants-something very different from creating with the whole plant.  (See Monarda Herbal Apothecary's Web page for an erudite commentary on the problem.)

By contrast, says Jennifer Costa, herbalist at Monarda Herbal Apothecary in Phoenicia, "the training of an herbalist is crucial to producing superior quality extracts and is based on thousands of years of practice.  The strength of an extract comes from well-nourished soil, careful organic growing, proper harvesting, and premium traditional extraction techniques.  No one can improve on Nature's own creations or dispute the fact that our bodies have evolved for thousands of years using these plants in their whole form as food and medicine."

And herbal treatments are not just for the occasional rash or headache.  Farah Shaw Kelsey has been in practice as a clinical herbalist in Rhinebeck for over 25 years.  "I specialize in working with women who are having difficulty getting pregnant or choosing later-in-life pregnancies, need to manage blood sugar disorders, or are fighting life-threatening illnesses."


To ingest the nutritious or medicinal properties of a plant, herbalists make (and teach others how to make) infusions, decoctions, tinctures, and concentrated distillations of fresh or dried plant parts.  There are also external preparations like salves, lotions, and infused oils, for healing and pleasure.

"One way for people to take their health into their own hands is through teas," says Isa Coffey, an herbalist in Livingston who has created four acres of organic medicinal herb gardens and fields, called Dancing Crow Farm.  "Not only are teas excellent for healing, they also increase our nourishment when we aren't treating a specific ailment.  Local herbs like stinging nettle are packed with nutrients.  Everybody I teach in my classes becomes a nettle tea drinker."  By "tea" an herbalist usually means an infusion: soaking plant leaves, stems, flowers, or in some cases the roots, in water that has just been boiled and letting it sit at least four hours.  The liquid is poured off and ready to drink.  (A decoction is like an infusion, but made from tough plant parts like bark or root that are actively boiled for some time.)

Denise Vaught of Kingston is a licensed practical nurse (LPN) and herbalist, or Green Witch.  "The Green Witch refers to traditional healers, the wise women who would take care of everyone.  The green world was their ally and friend, and they would turn to it for guidance and answers.  Today we usually call ourselves herbalists because many people are so hung up on the word 'witch.'" Vaught drinks a simple plant infusion each day.  "Simple" means using one plant only.  "That gives you a chance to see how each might be working," she explains.  "What works for one person might not necessarily work for another."  She alternates among her favorite plant infusions like red clover blossom, oatstraw, nettle (a great calcium source), and comfrey mixed with bergamot (also known as bee balm). "Red clover helps lower cholesterol and blood pressure, is used as an anticancer herb, and is great for menopause.  When I ski in the winter, I take a bottle with me."

Tinctures are extracts of plant pieces treated with alcohol (like vodka or brandy!)  or vinegar.  These are concentrated medicines that contain a smaller subset of a plant's active compounds than do infusions.  Many tinctures are available to treat a host of ailments and to maintain health, and they are potent for several years.  Our local herbalists harvest their own plants at the height of the season to create these popular liquids.

Herbalists' creations also include luscious, aromatic salves, lotions, and oils.  These external-use products are sensual delights, as well as healing concoctions.  Isa Coffey's products at Dancing Crow include a popular plantain-containing salve to treat and protect against diaper rash.  She also created a calendula-and-comfrey breast massage oil (both plants grow locally). "It helps transform the task of breast self-exam into a pleasure while increasing lymph flow to keep breast tissue healthy and promote healing after surgery."  There's also a Sweet Almond Sensual Lubricant, a perennial favorite that combines several yummy oils and other nourishing plant extracts.

There are also first-aid remedies among our local plants.  Yarrow is a must in the herbalist's first-aid kit.  It reduces swelling and promotes healing in wounds.  Plantain can replace Arnica (which doesn't occur locally and can't be used on broken skin). Dina Falconi of Falcon Formulations describes instant treatment for bee stings or mosquito bites: Make a "spit poultice" of plantain leaves by munching on them to break into the leaves, then apply the wad to the bite.  (It is said that using one's own saliva is better than someone else's, so chew your own preparation if you can.)

There are many other first-aid tips and external remedies you can use or make yourself.  Peruse an herbalist's products (check the resource list at the end of this article), or take a class and learn how to do it yourself.


We may sample from wild blueberry or raspberry on a day hike, or chew a sprig of mint or onion grass, but for most of us there's a hole-or even a fear or aversion-that fills the spot where cultural wisdom about feeding ourselves used to be.  Some folks don't even recognize grocery store produce when it's growing in a garden-we've gotten that far away from knowing our food in its natural state.

Learning to forage in the wild can be very satisfying emotionally, culturally, and nutritionally.  "I love to grab the harvest basket and go out collecting for a salad," says Dina Falconi.  "A summer salad might include chickweed, violets, wild lettuces, lambs quarter, garlic mustard, wild sedums, purslane, mallow, and dandelion.  Put on a good dressing, and chew it properly, and the nutrients in the wild greens are really powerful.  And wild edibles tend to have a much higher nutritional value than even organically raised produce.  That's what really turned me on to eating natural green."

Then there is the deeper spiritual sustenance it provides.  "You are directly nurturing yourself from the earth," says Falconi with delight and reverence.  "No one is coming between you and your food.  It's your time to be peaceful and directly nurture yourself.  It's your time to go into this very simple, ancient ritual that virtually no one does anymore."

Marie Summerwood, who cooks at the Wise Woman Center, describes cooking in the Wise Woman Tradition.  "It is a sacred recognition of the cycles of our lives, and the will to bring to it what will best nourish.  It uses any food, any technique needed for the right nourishment of the moment."  Susun Weed elaborates: "Using local plants moves us into the rhythm of where we live.  When we eat the produce and herbs that are grown right here right and now, we are in better health because we are giving our bodies 'the message of the day.'  What message are you giving your body when you consume strawberries in the middle of the winter?  It interferes with your health, because you are telling your body you're living in the tropics!"

There are recipes galore and personal favorites for incorporating local plants into meals and snacks-like making "pesto" out of catnip or chickweed instead of basil, as Denise Vaught does.  You'll find ideas for foraging and preparing local (and nonlocal) wild plants in Susun Weed's books and Web page, among the resources listed below, and in any good bookstore.

In my ignorance I've cursed and uprooted delicious burdock because of its tenacious burrs, dug up plantain and dandelion invading the lawn (to no avail), ripped up tender, tart garden sorrel that's taking over the veggie garden, ripped out prolific garlic mustard that keeps trying to get my attention.

No more.  I've been going out first thing in the morning, munching plantain seeds-a tasty, chewy, nutritious treat-with my morning coffee (a non-nutritious habit). I crunch on sprigs of purslane, nibble the velvety, minty blossoms of Johnny-jump-ups which jump up from the barren spring soil every year.  As for the lawn, yes, the resale on the house may be less because of my scruffy lawn.  The words "Mow the damn thing" nag at my conscience, but the plants are whispering ever louder, "Come and know us."

DISCLAIMER: Information provided in this article is not intended to replace the advice and expertise of a qualified herbalist, medical practitioner, or other health professional.

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