A few years ago, I discovered poison ivy growing in a woodland patch in my front yard, where I accidentally brushed up against it. It was the last place I expected to find it.
Recently, I discovered something else about poison ivy I didn't know. Thanks to "The Herbal Handbook for Homesteaders" (Voyageur Press, 2019) by Abby Artemisia, I've learned there's a "super soother" natural herbal remedy for the awful, oozing rash caused by poison ivy, oak and sumac. That revelation led to yet another surprise: Two of the three plants that make up this remedy are growing in the woodland garden behind my house!
One of those is a yellow-flowering witch hazel I planted on the edge of a woodland ravine. The other is jewelweed, which pops up every spring in an open area in the woods. The plant I'm missing to complete Artemisia's formula — which also includes one of two types of alcohol and a little water — is plantain. No, not the banana's bigger cousin, but the plantain that's a small-growing plant with leaves that look like spinach. It's such a commonly found herb in North America that it's often found in suburban yards where most homeowners consider it a weed. Some weed! It has a drawing power strong enough to pull out bee venom and, Artemisia writes in the book, some people even swear by it as a treatment for snakebites.
That herbal remedy is just one of many packed into this informative book, which focuses on growing and ethically harvesting herbs and utilizing them for such medicinal purposes as salves and oils for skin rashes, to bring relief from sore throats, allergies and pains, to boost and protect the immune system, to make teas and tinctures or to create a first aid kid. Artemisia even offers medicinal recipes for pets and farm animals and, for good measure, includes a chapter on integrating herbs into your diet.
Before reading the book, I never knew how many herbs — which in the book include many types of native plants you might not think of as herbs — you can grow or easily forage that can be used in so many natural and healthy ways. Best of all, the book offers numerous pictures to aid readers in identifying plants. It's also filled with easy-to-follow recipes for just about every ailment you could think of.
An interesting journey
Artemisia took what she calls "an interesting journey" to becoming a botanist, herbalist and professional forager that gave her the background to write a book about how herbs can improve your life. She grew up in Cincinnati where she spent time in the woods as a kid climbing trees, attended several colleges looking for a niche in environmental science, moved to the West Coast where she worked on organic farms, lived with a Native American family who introduced her to the medicinal applications of plants and finally found her calling when she returned to her home state and enrolled in a field botany class at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
Even with a botany degree that gave her a foundation in plants, she describes herself as mostly self-taught in their medicinal and edible aspects. "Nobody was really teaching that then," she said. "So, I went out in the woods on my own, bought books and taught myself about those things." She also apprenticed with an herbalist and drew on the time she spent with the Native American family and the lessons they had taught her about how to connect with plants in spiritual and practical ways. The combination of these experiences led her to the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina where she lives on the edge of Pisgah National Forest. Once there, she established the WANDER School, which is an acronym for the Wild Artemisia Nature, Discovery, Empowerment and Reconnection School.
Connecting with plants
For Artemisia, the two most important words in that title are empowerment and connection. "So many of the symptoms and diseases we have today, in my opinion, are the result of a disconnection with nature, whether that be a lack of exercise or an increase in stress. Many of these things can be relieved by spending five to 10 minutes a day outdoors. I really encourage people to do that. Get out every day and eat wild food, pick wild medicines, take kids outside. I just think that this is super important."
Artemisia lives what she preaches. "I live that kind of lifestyle. To me, a lot of it is about how can I feed myself and my family and provide our medicine and as many of our resources as possible off the land, whether that be through foraging or through growing."
Either way, Artemisia has a philosophy about plants she thinks is worth sharing. She never talks about "using" plants as either food or medicine. "I try to see and honor plants as living beings, just like we are. They are giving pieces of themselves or their whole life for our food and medicine. That makes me stop and think and have gratitude for those plants and realize that they are not objects. They have a life force and a lot of healing power. My favorite thing to say is how can I work with plants or this is how I work with this plant. I see that as more of a cooperative interaction than a consumer interaction of how can I consume these plants."
5 'starter' herbs
To show people how easy it is to get started growing or foraging herbs for edible or medicinal uses, here are five herbs anyone could easily grow in a garden plot or a patio pot or a few steps outside their back door.
Mint spreads aggressively so it's best grown in pots unless you want it to take over your yard. (Photo: Edsel Little/Flickr)
Spearmint and peppermint are the most familiar. Artemisia calls the various mint species her go-to herb: They are super safe; they're familiar to most people; they're easy to grow (maybe too easy since mints are often best grown in a pot because they are an aggressive spreader). No matter how you grow them, Artemisia says mints are a nice comforting herb, especially in a mint cooler or a hot tea. They are wonderful for aiding digestion and providing comfort from the misery of colds and flus.
You're probably familiar with thyme as a flavoring for chicken, pork and other foods, but Artemisia says it's one of her favorite spices because of its antimicrobial qualities. She likes to infuse it with honey and says that combination is especially effective if you're starting to come down with just about anything. She thinks it's especially useful in soothing sore throats. Thyme is in the mint family and is easy to grow in full sun.
This is what Artemisia calls a tonic herb, which means that it's nourishing to the whole body and is safe for most people to consume daily. It contains a lot of iron and magnesium. She finds that a lot of folks have success with using it in teas to treat allergies such as hay fever or to add extra vitamins to soups or stir fry. However, it gets its name from the plants' stinging hairs, so be sure to grow it in an area that can be fenced off from children and pets. Woods nettle is a wild version that grows in some parts of the country and has similar qualities.
Yes! That white pine growing right outside your back door. It's packed with vitamin C — more vitamin C than in citrus fruit, according to Artemisia. She uses pine needles in tea, infuses them into vinegar to help keep her healthy in winter and as a vinaigrette on top of cooked greens. Pine sap is also medicinal for wounds because it can draw out toxins and act as a band aid. Artemisia said the needles from any kind of pine will work.
This one can be a little confusing, she said, because people will interchange it with bergamot, which is a different species in the same genus. "When I am talking about bee balm, I am talking about the one with the red flower," she said. The flowers, which are beautiful and look lovely in a garden, also grow wild. The native version is sometimes called wild oregano. The plants don't need a lot of sunlight, which makes them easy to incorporate into many home gardens. The flowers and the leaves are anti-microbial, and they can be used to make a spicy tea or tincture. "I make them into a cough syrup and throat spray," said Artemisia, pointing out that it can also be used as a gargle.
Herbal hacks and resources
One of the great things about working with herbs, said Artemisia, is that it doesn't take a big investment. About the most expensive thing you may want to buy if you get serious about herbs is a dehydrator for drying them, but there are even hacks for that. She explains in the book that it's possible, with care, to dry them in a car or an attic, for example.
If the book inspires you to learn more about what's growing naturally in your area that you can use as an edible or to start your own apothecary, she says there's plenty of help for that as well. In fact, she said "My biggest suggestion would be to look around and find someone who is teaching it in your area, especially if they lead plants walks." A good resource to find that person, she added, is Eat The Weeds, a website that lists foragers who teach in lots of different areas of the country.
Another benefit to herbalism, she pointed out, is that it's something parents can do with their children as a family activity. Artemisia thinks it's important to teach children about herbs at an early age and has found that they are quick learners. "They are also closer to the ground, so they notice things that are growing and they are better at finding them," she said. "They are more observant than we are, so I would recommend finding a class or plant walk where they welcome kids." A great online resource that will introduce children to herbs that includes what she calls "super awesome artwork" is Herbal Roots zine.