Thursday, March 29, 2012


Plants that promote tissue drainage (lymphatics) can play an important role in the treatment of many diseases. Infections, injuries, and dysfunctional organs heal faster with good circulation which provides improved delivery of immune cells and medicines. Some of the best lymphatics are there for the picking right in your yard.

Red clover in late spring
Red clover (Trifolium pratense) flowers can be plucked and dried from mid-spring until late fall. They contain isoflavones that improve circulation to promote healing, and are especially helpful for chronic respiratory and skin conditions. Red clover tincture or tea also stimulates estrogen receptors and can reduce menopausal symptoms. 

Violets (Viola sororia) in early spring

Violets (Viola species) are another lovely lymphatic in the yard. An infusion or syrup of the flowers is good for bronchitis with a dry cough. They have also been made into a tincture or a salve for treatment of skin cancers, though the mechanism for this longstanding application is unknown.

Cleavers is mid-spring

Look along fences, foundations, and outbuildings for cleavers (Galium aparine), the best of the backyard lymphatics. A tincture or infusion of the aerial parts improves circulation by constituent coumarins, reduces inflammation by salycylates, and stimulates diuresis by caffeine. Best of all, it works gently and without known risk for side effects or drug interactions.

One of these lymphatics can be added to a tea or tincture formula for a chronic illness to provide improved circulation for healing and to promote effectiveness of the other herbs.

Cleavers clings

HERBALIST'S NOTE: Don't confuse cleavers with the similar appearing but less active lady's bedstraw (Galium verum) which doesn't have sticky hairs.

DOCTOR'S NOTE: Avoid red clover with a history of estrogen receptor positive breast cancer or if taking blood thinners.

Friday, March 23, 2012


An herbal paste used for removing raised skin lesions is traditionally referred to as a black salve. There are many variations of such lesion eroding (escharotic) pastes but they most always contain bloodroot.

Bloodroot in early spring
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) buds out of the leaf litter of eastern U.S. forests in early spring. The puzzle-piece shaped leaf unfolds along with the bright white flower to soak up the sun before the emergence of the hardwood canopy. Below each leaf is a red tuber prized for it's escharotic, expectorant, and, once upon a time, erotic effects, the latter as a body paint.

Mayapple in mid-spring
Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) is another escharotic  for removing warts. Dig the root when it leafs out in mid-spring but be sure to wear gloves because it contains podophyllin, a resin that is why it works but is also severely irritating to normal skin. 

Replant the top

HERBALIST'S NOTE: 1) Help to sustain bloodroot by only digging a few of this declining plant from a large patch and by replanting a growth node from each root taken.


fresh bloodroot - 2-3 roots (substitute or add mayapple root)
fresh violets (Viola odorata) - 5 (optional)
olive oil - 1/4 teaspoon (substitute vitamin E oil)
chapparal essential oil (Larrea tridentata) - 2-3 drops (optional)
mortar and pestle
guaze bandages

Bloodroot paste
1) Dig bloodroot and clean off dirt with a vegetable scrubber and cold water;
2) Coursely chop the roots and place in a small mortar. Alternatively, use double the amount of dried bloodroots;
3) Add olive oil and optional violets or chaparral oil and mash into a paste with the pestle;

 4) Dip the skin lesion into this paste or spoon enough on to lightly cover it. Refrigerate the remaining paste;
5) Cover the lesion with sterile gauze or a bandaid;
6) Reapply black salve twice a day for 1-2 weeks until skin lesion is removed.

DOCTOR'S NOTE: Raised skin lesions with irregular borders, rapid growth, dark coloration, or bleeding should be biopsied to check for melanoma, a rapidly spreading form of skin cancer.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


Colt's foot in early spring

To use or not to use...that is the question for colt's foot, comfrey, borage, and life root. These and related species contain variable amounts of pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs) which are toxic to the human liver in concentrated doses.

Colt's foot in late spring
Colt's foot (Tussilago farfara) is one of the best herbal expectorants and cough suppressants. It's also called "cart-before-horse" because the dandelion-like flowers emerge in early spring and seed out before the hoove-shaped leaves unfold. It's this leaf that's harvested and dried in late spring for medicinal applications. Fortunately, the toxic PAs that it contains are poorly soluble in water so colt's foot can be safely used as an herbal infusion.

Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) is a prolific wound healer in part because it contain's allantoin, a chemical that stimulates cell growth. Comfrey also contains PAs which has resulted in it's sale being banned in some countries including the U.S. It's a good thing the vulnerary effects can be safely obtained by topical application of the leaves in a poultice or salve.

Comfrey in late spring

Life root has purple buds but golden flowers

Equal care must be taken with use of other PA containing herbal medicines. Borage oil (Borago officinalis) is a source of the essential fatty acid gamma-linolenic acid and can be purchased in pyrrolizidine-free capsules. Life root or golden ragwort (Senecio aureus) has safer alternatives for it's astringent and menstrual stimulating effects (see Herbs for Female Problems). The key to safe use of any herbal medicine is your knowledge - about the plant's actions, it's risks, and, if too risky, it's alternatives. 

HERBALIST'S NOTE: Use other topical wound-healing herbs (see Making an Herbal Poultice) instead of comfrey when slow healing is desired or scar prevention is a priority.

Thursday, March 15, 2012


Burdock has a two year life cycle
Most medicinal plants are either annuals with pharmacologically active aerial parts or perennials which may also have medicinal roots. A few important and accessible herbal remedies, however, are made from plants with a two year life cycle. The roots of such biennials need to be harvested either in late fall after the first season of growth or before flowering in the second spring.

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) leaves and flowers are common herbal medicines, the former as a tea or tincture for hydrating the respiratory system, the latter as an oil infusion for middle ear infections. The root tincture is also beneficial, calming urinary tract inflammation and helping mechanical back pain.

Flowering mullein

Young mullein

Tincture of teazle root (Dipsacus sylvestris) is one of the few medicinal plants that can strengthen tendons in hypermobile joints or after an injury. It's also specific for Lyme arthritis, a joint infection caused by a tick bite, but should be used in conjunction with or after appropriate antibiotic treatment.

Young teazle
Flowering teazle

Burdock root is the most widely applicable of the biennials, acting as an alterative for gastrointestinal, respiratory, circulatory, and renal systems. Such widespread normalizing actions would usually merit the designation of adaptogen, though burdock isn't currently recognized as one.  It is, however, well known to bind herbal tincture formulas together, making the combination more palatable and improving the overall therapeutic effect.

Flowering burdock
Young burdock

Mullein, teazle, and burdock all grow in unmowed fields and disturbed ground by the side of roads. For these and other biennials, the root develops it's potency after the first summer and retains it until flowering in the second summer. Harvest these deep taproots in the first fall or second spring by using a root digging tool when the earth is moist after a rain.

HERBALIST'S NOTE: When harvesting medicinal plants near roads, be sure they are not within eyesight of the road surface to avoid toxicity from carbon monoxide, oil residue, and road salts.

Thursday, March 8, 2012


Plants have been used as medicines from time immemorial so it should be no surprise that some of the most time tested topical remedies are also the most accessible for a home medicine chest. A poultice delivers those plants directly by applying them as a wet compress on top of bruises, cuts, abrasions, absesses, crampy muscles, or sore joints.

Self-heal (Prunella vulgaris) is right there at the untrimmed edges of your garden, flowering from late winter to early fall. Once known as wound wort, the lovely spikes bruise into a healing poultice for stings, strains, burns, or cuts.

Another old external vulnerary (wound healer) is plantain or waybread (Plantago major). The leaves of white-man's-foot, so-called because it appears wherever Europeans settle, can also be infused or tinctured for it's emollient (moistening), astringent, and diuretic effects. 

Common plantain in the spring lawn

Cleavers (Galium aparine) crawling across the edges of fields also makes you pee but is better known for it's alterative effects on blood and lymph. Fine hairs on the thin shoots and leaf whorls cling to passersby, distinguishing cleavers or goosegrass from it's cousin lady's bedstraw. Young shoots can be juiced as a spring circulatory tonic but it is the mature flowering plant that is poulticed or infused as a wash for skin lesions.

Cleavers sprouting along the foundation in early spring


HERBALIST'S NOTE: The recipe below is for a fresh plant poultice. To make a dried plant poultice, layer the ground plant material between two double layers of cheesecloth, place the cheesecloth in a large strainer over a pot of boiling water to moisten the herbs, and place on the skin for 20-30 minutes covered by a warmed towel.

 1) Gather a large handful of the fresh flowering tops and spread them between two double layers of cheescloth folded over to be a little larger than the size of the skin to which the poultice will be applied;

2) Place the cheesecloth on a countertop or cutting board and use a rolling pin or wine bottle to crush the flowers into a moist mash. If the plant material isn't wet enough, add a few drops of hot water;

3) Fold in the sides of the cheesecloth and place the poultice over the injury, covering it with a moist warm towel until cool (20-30 minutes);
4) Reuse this poultice every 2-4 hours as needed for one day before discarding.

DOCTOR'S NOTE: Clean all cuts, abrasions, or bites with warm water and soap before adding a poultice to promote healing. Cuts for which the skin doesn't stay together need to be held closed with a butterfly bandaid or stitches before poulticing.