Monday, December 12, 2011

Identifying Medicinal Plants

Teas and tinctures – these are the two main internal delivery methods for herbal medicines and we are about to learn how to make them both from common plants in the yard, garden, fields, and woods. But before any plant is taken internally, it's identity must be certain. 

Do you know the common yellow flowers in the picture to the right?

Now look at it's foliage in the picture below and you'll see that it isn't dandelion (Taracum officinale), a safe herbal diuretic and digestive tonic. It's really colt's foot (Tussilago farfara), an effective cough suppressant but with potential liver toxicity if incorrectly prepared.

Tussilago farfara

Precise plant identification is essential before using it to make a tea or a tincture. This is easy in the garden when you've planted from a seed or seedling identified by genus (i.e. Taraxacum) and species (officinale) (don't really plant this one in your garden, it will arrive of it's own free will). Many plants in your yard will be familiar too, though you should always look them up in a field guide to medicinal plants for potential poisonous look-alikes. For example, the young leaves of wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa) look  like those of dandelion but can induce hallucinations in concentrated extracts. Any plant wildcrafted from fields or woods needs to be identified to genus and species using a reliable field guide before use in an internal remedy. My favorite is Newcombe's Wildflower Guide (Little-Brown 1989) because of it's simple key based on flower and leaf types. Peterson's field guides to the wildflowers, shrubs, or trees are also very reputable. Or you can buy dried medicinal herbs for tinctures or teas from your local natural foods store. To do anything other than specific identification is to risk poisoning those who you love and take care of.

Taraxacum officinale

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the reminder to be precise with identification.