Learn the Lingo
Knowledge is a huge confidence builder! After you learn ways to prepare herbs for consumption, you’ll feel better about preparing plants that will… make you feel better! The following is a list of common ways to draw out the medicines from the plants.
An infusion is a tea which uses leaf, flower, and/or stem. How to prepare an infusion: Per cup of boiling water, use 1-2 tsp. dry herb or 2-4 tsp. fresh herb. Place the herb in the boiling water. Cover and steep for 15 minutes. Strain.A decoction is tea which uses root, bark, berries, and/or seeds. How to prepare a decoction: Per cup of water, use 1-2 tsp. dry herb or 2-4 tsp. fresh herb. Place herb in a pot with water. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Strain.
A tincture is made with an alcohol extract. It is generally the most potent preparation. How to prepare a tincture: Steep leaf, flower, stem, root, bark, seeds, or berries for a minimum of 2 weeks in an alcohol extract (like brandy or vodka). Make sure the container is covered. This is a great way to reuse jars!
There are other ways to extract medicine from plants, including: glycerine, vinegar, oil, and honey. Don’t be afraid to be creative. For example, you can make salad dressings with vinegar or oil and herbs.
Plants can also be applied topically (to the skin) by means of: compress, poultice, oil, ointment, liniment, cream, and baths. Again, be creative! Think about taking a hot bath with aromatic plants…
Now, back to the basics. There are some general guidelines you should take into consideration when using herbal medicines.
First, follow these guidelines for harvesting plants.
Identify. Only use a plant if you are 100% positive of its identity. When discussing plants with others, use of the Latin name (scientific name) for the plants is the only way to be sure you are talking about the same plant. A valuable resource for plant identification is the Peterson Field Guide, “Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central Region”, which you can find at most local bookstores.
Harvest In-Season. Harvest each plant and each part of the plant in the proper season. You may not want to harvest leaves during the same season that is best to harvest roots.
Know the area. Make sure that the area from which you are harvesting plants is clean and free from contamination. The best way to do this is to grow the plants in your own garden.
Don’t be greedy. Harvest plants only from areas where the plants are abundant. Always, always, always leave some behind.
Be cautious. Know how to identify endangered or rare plants; and avoid harvesting or damaging them in any way. Avoid harvesting plants that are sensitive in the wild — if you want to use them, grow them in your own garden.
Quality counts. Medicinal quality and herbal quality go hand-in-hand. Be sure to select the highest quality herb for best results. The best way to ensure that you are using high-quality herbs is to grow them yourself or to harvest them from a healthy environment which you are familiar with (an uncontaminated site). You should also keep in mind that herbs have ‘peak seasons’; and it is best to harvest herbs during their season of harvest. Seasons of harvest vary from plant to plant, so do your research before you harvest.
Use whole herbs. An herb will work best when it is taken in its whole form. So, try to avoid using supplements.
Take on an empty stomach. Your body will absorb herbs better if you take them when your belly’s growling.
Taste it. Many reactions begin in the mouth. So, it is essential that you taste the herb. If you are taking herbal supplements in pill form, it is better to break open the capsule and taste the herb.
Be aware of proper dosage. Herbs have different strengths, from mild to moderate to strong. You must be aware of the proper dosage of the herb you are using. Don’t forget to take into consideration a person’s weight and state of health.
Take a break. If you continue to use a specific herb over a long period of time, it can lose its effectiveness. Use the changing of seasons and seasonal harvesting to help you ‘change it up’.
Close your eyes and be grateful. When you’re taking herbs, be sure to pause and be grateful for these herbs are doing for you. Visualize your healing.
By now, I’m sure you are itching to read about specific plants’ medicinal uses. Here’s the scoop on a handful of medicinal plants that are native to Nova Scotia.
Pearly Everlasting, Anaphalis margaritacea
This plant grows in open areas. Its white flowers are dry; and it is used to create dryness in the body. It is a good remedy for colds with phlegm or for diarrhea.
Goldenrod, Solidago canadensis
Goldenrod is one of the most abundant wild plants. It is helpful in treating seasonal allergies. It also helps to sooth inflammation. Perhaps best of all, it is tasty in teas!
Bearberry, Artocstaphylos uva-ursi
This forest-dweller grows among moss and coniferous trees. Its use encourages urine flow, so it is good for bladder infections and spring cleansing.
Sweetfern, Comptonia peregrina
This plant is very aromatic, with a tree-like scent. This scent is calming and it soothes nerves. A great way to use this plant is to crush the leaves and put them in your bath water. You may also crumple up the leaves and inhale the aroma; and it tastes good in teas. Sweetfern grows in open areas, on the edges of forests, along roads and along driveways. You may harvest Sweetfern anytime of year.
Bunchberry, Cornus canadensis
Bunchberry gets its name honestly — it grows in bunches of red berries on forest floors. The berries have little flavor, but the leaves are medicinal. It is used to treat muscle aches and pain as well as urinary- and respiratory infections. It can also be prepared to use as an eyewash.
False lily of the valley, Maianthemum canadense
This plant grows in big sprawling patches. It is characterized by two big leaves and white flowers. Early in August, the flowers disappear and berries appear. These berries are first red, but later become purple. The berries are edible and they have a unique flavor, similar to cranberries. The leaf and flower may be used in tea form to treat headaches.
Horsetail, Equisetum arvense
Horsetail is a prehistoric plant that is high in minerals and silica. It is used medicinally to restore tissue in the body and to heal lung and urinary ailments.
Wild Strawberry, Fragaria virginiana
The leaves and roots of wild strawberry are full of tanins. They are also an astringent, which means they promote dryness. Harvest the leaves before the flower and berry appear. The roots are helpful in treating diarrhea. Harvest the roots in autumn.
Blueberry, Vaccinium angustifolium
Blueberry leaves are used to manage blood sugar levels. They taste good, too. Prepare the leaves fresh or dry in tea.
Balsam fir, Abeis balsamea
This coniferous tree can be identified by its flat stem and flat leaf; and white stripes on the backside of the leaf. It also has boils, or pockets, all over its trunk. These pockets are full of medicinal sap, which is very strong and potent. The sap, which has antibacterial compounds, is used as a dental remedy for people with mouth infections. To use this sap, simply locate a Balsam fir, pop one of the sap blisters, and rub the sap on the gum that hurts. This sap can also be used to aid with infection and bleeding on cuts, scrapes, or wounds. The same medicine can be derived from the leaves, especially new growth. These are high in vitamin C. They are good for seasonal allergies, for coughs and cold, and to improve digestion. You can prepare the leaves in a tea, which needs to be steeped only 5 minutes in boiling water. You may also boil the leaves and inhale the steam to relieve sinus infections and lung congestion.
Labrador tea, Ledum groenlandicum
Labrador tea can be used for drying things up. So, it is good for respiratory ailments, lung infection or congestion, a diuretic, and urinary issues. It forms a nice brown tanin, making it rich when prepared as a tea. You can find Labrador tea in damp places, by the sea; and the underside of its leaf is fuzzy orange or white.
Evening primrose, Oenothera parviflora
Seeds from evening primrose can be harvested and collected to help with hormonal imbalance and acne. The root can be used as a pulpice.
Jewel weed (Touch-me-not), Impatiens capensis
Juice from the leaf and stem of jewel weed is good for mosquito bites.
Here is a list of additional plants that are native to Nova Scotia and which can be harvested for medicinal use.
Herbs for Harvest, Native To Nova Scotia
Wild sarsaparilla, Aralia nudicaulis
Hairy sarsaparilla, Aralia hispida
Horsetail, Equisetum arvense
Boneset, Eupatorium perfoliatum
Bayberry, Myrica pensylvanica
White pine, Pinus strobus
Plantain, Plantago major
Wild rose, Rosa virginiana
Blackberry, Rubus allegheniensis
Elder, Sambucus canadensis
Rowan, Sorbus americana
Bluebeed lily, Clintonia borealis
Cinqeufoil, Potentilla canadensis
Self-heal, Prunella vulgaris
Mark your calendar with these dates if you are interested in following medical herbalist, Savayda Jarone, on one of her herb walks from 6:30 to 8:00 pm:
June 25: Point Pleasant Park
July 5: Seaview Park Lookoff
You can find more information about herb walks and herbal medicine at Savayda Jarone’s website, http://www.mayflowerherbs.ca
On July 22, the Herb Society will host its annual Herb Fair. This is an all day event.
Also, check out the online database created by Wolfville’s Harriet Irving Botanical Gardens: http://botanicalgardens.acadiau.ca/.
Written by Alexis White