In my kitchen there’s a cookbook published in the late 19th century, dedicated to “the plucky housewives of 1873.” In its well-worn pages are recipes that are a bit liberal with ingredients (a handful of this, a “right good measure” of that), but there is a lot more in there too, like directions for everything from how to get together with your neighbors on hog processing day (including rendering lard, making soap, and what to do with the guts) to how to set up a “sick room.”

Not everything that it contains is the greatest idea; some things have been shown to be pretty bad, such as the practice of “bleeding” people to rid them of infections and other maladies. One thing you’ll notice in this book, however, are a lot of plants being used for medicine. Back then it wasn’t a New Age thing where people “ask permission of the plant before harvesting,” like some texts advise now, or doing little ceremonies with the plants while making medicines with them. It was simply seen as “this plant, when used in X way, helps with Y problem.”

Two years ago I started researching herbal medicine from a variety of sources, including medical journals and studies, herbalist courses, and even some trial and error. I found, for instance, that while the feverfew herb is excellent with some types of migraines, it doesn’t work as well with sinus migraines; in that case, you’d need a sinus-affecting herb. I learned that if you’ve cut yourself, chewing some yarrow leaves and making a poultice will stop the bleeding almost instantly–and I’ve seen it work with a few cuts that should have probably gotten a few stitches.

I’m not a medical professional, but I have learned to be a huge proponent of natural remedies out here in Nowhere, Montana. We as people tend to use medicine as a reactive proposition — something goes bad, so we look for a remedy. In herbal medicine, it’s sometimes about fixing a problem, but it’s also about managing overall health, or working to prevent the condition from occurring.

That’s where your weeds come in to play.

Recognizing What You Have

Take a look around; in road ditches and fields, parks and all kinds of wild places, there are weeds growing. Unless you’re running some kind of hydroponics system or containers, you probably spend a fair amount of time in your own garden pulling them. Are we giving weeds a bad name? Would you still want to pull weeds in your garden if you found out that one of them calms stomach issues and another is a powerful sedative, painkiller and sleep aid? Would you still get rid of them if you learned that they can keep your blood pressure stable, help with digestion, and even act as a natural antibiotic? If you knew you had a whole medicine cabinet in your backyard, wouldn’t you want to keep some of it around or even cultivate it?

Visit any tea aisle in a store and you’ll see some of the more well-known herbs: chamomile and lavender, ginseng and ginger and even peppermint. Each has a specific use, and a solid medicinal purpose that works.

You may be somewhat familiar with the following herbs, and you may not be. You might not have any use for the things they can do, and you might find them to be things you can’t live without. Knowing these five, however, could get you started on all kinds of adventures in making your own remedies and being able to handle more medical issues on your own as opposed to running to the doctor for everything.

Dandelion

In many parts of the world, dandelions are grown and eaten as food or medicine. In the U.S., however, most people put a fair amount of work into trying to eradicate them from their lawn. Interestingly enough, dandelions are excellent sources of Vitamins A, B, C, and D, as well as iron, potassium, and calcium. It can also be used as a mild diuretic if you have kidney or bladder issues as well.  The roots can be made into a “liver tonic,” and help with bile production. As a tea, the leaves are a bit bitter but can be sweetened with honey; if you’d rather eat them in a salad, they’re best when mixed with other greens.

Spearmint

Like most mint plants, spearmint has a number of excellent properties. It’s a bit milder than peppermint, but is extremely easy to grow (and not necessarily easy to contain to one area!). The leaves are perfect for teas and extracts, and can help calm an upset stomach or be combined with ginger to aid in digestion.

Lemon Balm

Lemon Balm is an incredibly easy plant to grow, and attracts bees when outside — which helps with fertilization elsewhere on your property. It’s a strong antiviral as well, especially when combined with licorice leaves. It smells fresh and amazing, and is generally an excellent plant to have around. I use it in teas often, but it is equally useful in a tincture or other form.

Licorice

Speaking of licorice, it’s one of the most famous medicinal plants around. It’s good for everything from sore throats to stomach irritation and even ulcers. It can be used in teas, syrups, and even raw. Combined with dandelion root and burdock, it can be made into a mild laxative that also soothes the digestive tract. Chopped licorice root, mullein leaf, wild cherry bark, and honey together make an excellent cough syrup as well.

Mullein

Out here in Montana, mullein is literally everywhere. Growing to 8 feet tall or even higher, it stands out — and spreads. As medicine, it’s an antispasmodic and expectorant, which makes it uniquely suited for cough medicines, chest colds, allergies, and more. It’s also used for hemorrhoids and ear infections. In other words, it’s good to have it on hand.

A few other herbs, plants, and even kitchen spices that have medicinal properties you should be familiar with:

  • Cinnamon – warming herb that works to aid in circulation and clears congestion.
  • Basil – works on the digestive and nervous systems, stomach cramps, indigestion, and nausea or vomiting.
  • Garlic – stimulates the production of white blood cells, which boosts the immune system. Is also a strong antiseptic, anti-bacterial, and can work against antibiotic-resistant infections.
  • St. John’s Wort – Mood elevator and anti-depressant.
  • Thyme – Anti-fungal, disinfectant, and good in rinses for sore throats and oral infections.
  • Turmeric – Warming herb used for liver and gallbladder issues; in 2009 the British Journal of Cancer also found that one of turmeric’s major elements is effective against esophageal cancer cells.
  • Ginger – is anti-nausea, anti-inflammatory, and aids in digestion. Also is a warming herb.
  • Cayenne Pepper – circulatory stimulant and warmer; rich in Vitamins A and C, supports immune system.
  • Oats – excellent for skin maladies such as rashes or insect bites.
  • Rosemary – improves memory and concentration, as well as easing headaches and stimulating circulation.
  • Valerian – sedative properties; excellent in a painkilling or relaxing tonic.

A few books you should own or check out at your local library:

  • Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide
  • The Physician’s Desk Reference of Herbal Medicine

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