Here it is the first week in May. The weather is beautiful, the sunshine is warm and inviting, and all the little growing herbs are enticing us to go wildcrafting in the spring. I know now why people used to dance around the Maypole on the first of May – the sheer joy of spring!
As soon as the weather got into the 50s, I headed out to see what I could find growing in my yard. At first, I could only find the remnants of things that grew last year, but then new little plants started to poke their heads out of the dirt and unfold their green leaves. We’ve had temperatures in the 70s and 80s lately, and so many beautiful flowers are now blooming and brightening the view.
I’ve been out wildcrafting a few times in the last week – in my own yard, on a friend’s property, and at a couple parks. I want to share with you some photos of my finds and encourage you get out and see what you can discover too.
Chickweed (Stellaria media)
I have been searching for this little white flower for over a year. Last year, I looked so many places in three different states – and the only time I could find the elusive chickweed was in the Smoky Mountain National Forest, where I wouldn’t have dared to pick any!
A very kind friend of mine noticed some growing on her property a couple weeks ago and invited me out to gather as much as I wanted. It was so amazing – and fun! – to walk around her property and find patches of chickweed growing all over the place.
How to Identify Chickweed
Look for a low-growing plant bearing small white flowers with ten petals that grow in pairs – each pair resembles two fingers giving a peace sign. (The flower is actually considered to have just five deeply-cleft petals, but you’ll easily count ten so that’s the number I keep in mind.)
A distinguishing feature of Stellaria media is a row of hairs that run up one side of its stem and alternate at each leaf. If this row of hairs is missing, you don’t have chickweed.
Stellaria pubera, another variety of chickweed, has hairs on both sides of the stems. The two types are interchangeable medicinally.
Medicinal Uses of Chickweed
Chickweed is a cooling herb that is very useful for hot or itchy rashes. I currently have the chickweed I gathered soaking in oil to make a salve for just this purpose. If itching is widespread, a chickweed bath can bring relief. Wrap a big handful of fresh chickweed in a clean cloth and secure it under running water as you fill the tub. Soak in the bath for up to 30 minutes.
Its cooling and toning properties make chickweed tea helpful for burning sore throats and dry coughs due to the common cold or asthma. At least since the ancient Greeks, herbalists have known that chickweed can also soothe eye irritation, especially when the eyes burn or itch. Moisten a clean cloth with a chickweed infusion (tea) and place the cloth on the affected eye for 15 minutes 3-4 times a day as needed.
Harvest chickweed whenever its leaves are bright green. In midsummer, they often become dull and listless – just wait a couple months, and they’ll be back to their normal, lively selves.
Use all above-ground parts of the plant: leaves, stem, and flowers.
Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum)
When you were a kid, did you ever pull the pistil out of a honeysuckle blossom to suck the sweet nectar off of it? Mmm, I still love doing that.
We had such a warm April that the honeysuckles are already starting to bloom, though it will be a bit longer before they’re in full bloom and spreading their delicious fragrance through the air.
How to Identify Honeysuckle
In our neighborhood, we see honeysuckle bushes and vines along the road on our evening walks. They’re also pretty common at the edges of woods in parks and anywhere else nature has been allowed to go a little wild.
Look for the characteristic flowers, which may be white, yellow, or red. The buds are long and narrow, then open into deeply curling petals with the stamens poking boldly out of the center.
Medicinal Uses of Honeysuckle
Honeysuckle flowers contain salicylic acid (the natural compound originally used to make aspirin), which makes them useful for sore throats, fevers, headaches, and other minor pains. Make a tea from the fresh or dried flowers, sweeten to taste with honey, and enjoy 3-4 times a day.
The yellow flowers are especially cooling, which makes them beneficial in counteracting hot flashes during menopause. Brew a hot tea but allow it to cool before drinking. (After all, a hot tea is just going to make the hot flash worse!)
Though the name is a little redundant, a honeysuckle honey can be particularly soothing for a sore throat. Fill a jar with fresh honeysuckle blossoms and cover them with honey. Cap tightly and store in a warm place (like a sunny window) for 10-14 days, giving them a good shake morning and evening. Strain the honey and use a teaspoon 3-4 times daily to soothe a sore throat.
Collect honeysuckle flowers when they’re in full bloom – from late spring through early fall in most areas. Use them fresh or dry them on screens so they’ll have plenty of air flow to dry evenly. Store dried flowers in an airtight container for up to a year.
Burdock (Arctium spp.)
Considered one of the best blood purifiers in nature, burdock roots can extend almost three feet beneath the surface. Such a long taproot enables burdock to draw up nutrients and minerals from deep in the ground, making it an excellent source of nourishment for us.
How to Identify Burdock
Burdock is relatively common in America and grows along roads and in fertile, yet neglected areas. We found several plants growing in our neighbor’s yard in spots that haven’t been mowed in a while.
Look for curly, bright green, broad, heart-shaped leaves. A single veins runs up the center with smaller veins branching off of it. At this time of year (mid-spring), no stem will be growing up from the center.
In the plant’s second summer, purplish, thistle-like flowers form on stems that can grow six feet in height.
Medicinal Uses of Burdock
Burdock is possibly one of the greatest tonic herbs known. Its root is a powerful alterative, which means that it helps the body to better digest food, absorb nutrients, and eliminate waste. This slowly but surely restores vibrancy and health to the entire body.
Both the root and seeds have a special affinity for skin conditions like acne, boils, eczema, and psoriasis. Sometimes, these conditions are caused or aggravated by the skin’s efforts to rid the body of excess waste in the blood. By helping the body to properly eliminate wastes, burdock relieves the burden on the skin and can minimize or eliminate the skin problems.
Burdock root can be prepared as a decoction or tincture for medicinal use. Use the seeds, which also act as a diuretic, as a tincture or in a salve for applying directly to skin problems.
Burdock is a biennial, which means that the plant lives for just two years before dying. In the first year, it puts all of its growth into the root and leaves. The leaves die back in the winter and then re-emerge in the spring. In this second year, the plant sends up leaves and stems, bears flowers and seeds, and then dies.
The root, which holds the best alterative characteristics, should be dug in the first fall or second spring. Collect burdock seeds in the fall after they have fully ripened. The seeds are best used after being crushed to a powder.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
This herb is so important that I try to point it out whenever I may see it. For anyone who spends time outdoors, yarrow is essential to learn to recognize.
How to Identify Yarrow
Yarrow has bright green, compound leaves that are feathery and almost fern-like. In summer, it produces two-foot high stems with white flowers. At first glance, the flowers resemble common Queen Anne’s lace, but there are distinct differences.
Yarrow’s flower heads are composed of countless white flowers, each with its own yellow center and distinct petals. Queen Anne’s lace, on the other hand, bears a mass of white “flowerettes” that are hard to visually separate and often bears a single black flowerette in the center.
Medicinal Uses of Yarrow
Yarrow’s primary use – at which it excels! – is as an astringent and vulnerary that stops bleeding. When fresh or dried yarrow leaves are applied to a bleeding wound, they stop the flow of blood almost instantly.
This is why I say that everyone needs to learn to recognize yarrow. When spending time outdoors – in the yard or on a hike – cuts and other wounds can happen suddenly. Being able to grab a handful of yarrow starts the healing right away.
Taken as a hot tea, yarrow is considered one of the best herbal treatments for the common cold and fever, especially when combined with peppermint and elderberries.
A tea or a tincture can also help to regulate menstrual bleeding (by slowing a heavy flow or increasing a scanty flow) and to improve cardiovascular health (by lowering blood pressure, toning blood vessels, and reducing the risk of blood clots).
To stop bleeding, pick yarrow leaves any time you can find them. They begin to grow in early spring and last through the end of fall.
To make a tea or tincture, use the leaves by themselves or harvest the entire plant (except the root) when the flowers are in bloom.
Comfrey (Symphytum officinale)
In my backyard, I have two comfrey plants that my sister gave me last year, and they are the fastest-growing plants I’ve ever observed. After dying to the ground over the winter, the leaves poked their heads above the dirt in late March. By the third week of April, they stood over three feet tall and are now covered in beautiful purple blossoms.
How to Identify Comfrey
Though I’m blessed to have comfrey in my garden, the plant does grow wild, particularly in moist soils. Look for long, bright green leaves that feel soft and slightly hairy. Its unique purple flowers appear by mid-spring – they look like tiny bells or upside-down cups.
Medicinal Uses of Comfrey
Traditionally called knitbone, comfrey is well known for helping to heal bone injuries. While I don’t advocate avoiding the emergency room if you break a bone, after the bone has been set, applying a comfrey poultice or salve can help speed healing.
A comfrey oil or salve can bring relief for arthritis, rheumatism, sprains, and other joint problems. Comfrey salve also helps speed the healing of minor cuts and scrapes.
A couple cautions:
Do not apply comfrey to a bone that has not been set. It will cause the bone to bind together in the broken position!
This plant must never be used on deep or puncture wounds. Its healing abilities are so powerful that it will actually draw together the surface of a wound while the deeper wound remains open and can become badly infected.
Collect comfrey leaves any time they are green to make comfrey-infused oil or salve. Blend fresh leaves with a small amount of hot water to make a poultice.
The root can be dug in fall to make a poultice as well.
Wildcrafting has become one of my favorite activities. I feel like I’m on a treasure hunt to find the bushes, vines, trees, and flowers I read about in my herbal books. When I finally find one – jackpot! Then I get to take them home and lovingly turn these blessings of nature into gentle yet potent medicines for my family.
What will you be wildcrafting this spring?
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Bruton-Seal, Julie and Matthew Seal. Backyard Medicine: Harvest and Make Your Own Herbal Remedies. Skyhorse Publishing, 2009.
Christopher, John R., Dr. School of Natural Healing. Christopher Publications, Inc., 2014.
Green, James. The Herbal Medicine Maker’s Handbook: A Home Manual. Crossing Press, 2000.
This information has not been evaluated by the FDA and is intended only for educational purposes. It is not intended to diagnose, prevent, treat, or cure disease. Always consult a healthcare professional before making significant changes to your healthcare routine.
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