A forgotten history
Our relationship and understanding of the natural world are evolving all the time. As scientific instruments and methods are refined and previously inaccessible environments open up to us, our species’ understanding of the natural world expands.
However, on a person by person basis, we have never been more disconnected. We are already detached from the way that our food is produced, with many children unable to identify potatoes as the source of chips nor where eggs come from.
The same can be said of our relationship with medicine, the vast majority of our medicines are derived from raw plants which are then dissected and synthesised into the tablets and injections we find so easy to recognise. But what if the plants themselves?
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be unpacking the history of our species relationship with medicinal plants, how they have influenced our development, and how they might be harnessed in the present and future.
Today though, we’ll be focusing on a group of plants that you might otherwise have neglected, or even outright resented. All the plants on this list are possessed of powerful medicinal properties but are often treated as weeds to be rooted out and destroyed rather than used.
One of the most common weeds in UK gardens, this golden flower is chock full of vitamins A, C, and D and every part is edible – even the roots. Drying and grinding those roots will give you a hearty replacement for your morning coffee.
The leaves make for great salad fare, and the flowers themselves can either be chopped in for a little added colour or left alone for the bees to pollinate. Dandelions are also an excellent source of vital minerals like Zinc, Iron, and Potassium and have been used historically to treat a variety of ailments including indigestion, colds, and PMS.
Not to be confused with the Caribbean fruit whose name it shares, Plantain produces ribbed, blade-like leaves about two inches long and is another common bugbear of British gardeners. The younger leaves can be eaten raw and the older ones can be blanched or steamed to make them more palatable.
Plantain also contains enough Vitamin A to give carrots a run for their money as well as a high amount of Vitamin B1 and riboflavin. In the past, these weeds have been used to treat everything from sore throats and fevers to simple pain relief.
On a personal note, stinging nettles were my first introduction to plant medicine, but even that wasn’t because we used the nettles themselves. As a child, I was taught to treat the irritation caused by nettles with Bitter Dock leaves. However, nettles themselves are among the oldest herbal remedies used popularly in the UK.
They are rich in A, B2, C, D, and K vitamins as well as being a powerful antioxidant. Joint pain, Kidney stones, and Hay Fever have all been treated using this versatile plant whose most common preparation involves drying and grinding the leaves to make tea.
Disclaimer: Make sure to wear gloves when harvesting nettles, or that you have a lot of ‘dock leaf’ on standby!
Often considered the twin to Dandelions, not least because of their comparable and aesthetically pleasing appearance. Every part of daisies is edible however it may have a slightly bitter flavour if eaten raw, we recommend either steaming or frying them with some of your favourite herbs. Alternatively, you can dry and boil them to create a tea that can be used to treat both stomach aches and respiratory tract issues and also has anti-inflammatory properties.
Not dissimilar in looks to Daisies, Yarrow AKA Devil’s Nettle has been used as a clotting agent in the past when crushed into a paste, employed in stemming the flow of blood from open wounds. Moreover, the leaves can be chewed to relieve toothache pain or brewed in tea to relieve cold symptoms.
Disclaimer: The nickname of this plant no doubt comes from the difficulty foragers might have distinguishing it from Poison Hemlock. The two have a very similar appearance however the latter can be fatal if consumed, be sure you have the right plant before starting to harvest and always err on the side of caution.
So before you tear out every weed in your garden in a pre-summer frenzy, give them a closer look and see if there’s a better use for them than just taking up space on the compost heap.