Sometimes the daily grind (and grime) of living in the city gets me dreaming of a little cabin, a sprawling garden and some chickens clucking about. Luckily, there are many ways to get a down-to-earth fix even while setting up camp in an urban setting.
This week, Irina from Phoenix Botanicals instructs us in the fine art of foraging for herbs. Whether used for craft, tea, or herbal remedies, you can find these helpful greens right in your own backyard, city park, or other sunny patch of green!
Closer to the great outdoors than an urban center? Check out last week’s post on identifying salad fixings in the wilderness.
Hi, I’m Irina from Phoenix Botanicals. I’m delighted to introduce (or reacquaint) you with a handful of my favorite weeds. These abundant, common plants grow in disturbed sunny habitats: rural gardens, lawns, city parks, field and forest edges. Useful for their healing traits, these plants have been settled into many areas around the world. They’re fascinating, abundant and free of charge.
Come meet my green friends. Along the way, we’ll make an herbal band-aid, herbal tea, and a fragrant dream pillow!
For those of you based in NY, I am teaching a class at 3rd Ward on this very topic. Sign up here!
Making an Herbal Bandage
Plantain grows just about everywhere and makes for great herbal first aid. If you can’t find it, you may want to look underfoot. It’s important to note that this plantain is not to be confused with the banana relative (Musa sp.) of the same name.
Easily recognized by its prominent parallel leaf ribs, plantain’s leaves spread from the center and are usually 2-6 inches long, but with plenty of space and sunshine they can grow to over a foot. It may often avert your lawnmower’s blade by staying small and flat to the ground.
Apply the leaves (or a salve made from the leaves) to soothe itching from bug bites, posion ivy, and other skin irritations. Plantain also helps with wounds by staunching bleeding and drawing out dirt and infection. Great for kids’ scrapes and cuts in the yard.
Psst! The drawing-out properties can also help with acne. My friend used a plantain band-aid overnight and was quite proud of the results.
Making an Herbal Bandage
1. Pick a leaf of plantain.
2. Crush the leaf thoroughly to get the juice out. Even better, chew it up.
3. Stick the juicy crushed leaf to the bug bite, wound or itchy skin.
4. Leave on until it dries or you get the desired effects. Repeat with new leaves if needed.
Note: The photo on the left shows a sister variety to the common plantain, the long-leaved plantain (Plantago lanceolata), which works just the same.
How to Dry Plants and Make Tea
Yarrow is a household remedy around the world. You can spot it by its feathery leaves and hardy bunches of 5-petaled white flowers. Once you smell this plant, you’ll remember the nice, hardy fragrance from the volatile oils, which also serves as a natural insect repellent. The tea (made from stem, leaves and flowers) is good for fever, colds, and sinus infections. Harvest the upper third of the plant and dry it for the fall and winter ahead!
Both wild and cultivated roses make delicious tea that is good for the heart and circulation. Talk about aromatherapy! Just smell a rose and you can feel your heart open. The tea, made of fresh or dried rose petals, also makes a lovely tonifying face wash.
Even when not in flower, dandelion is recognizable by its familiar toothed, hairless leaves. The pleasantly tasting, slightly bitter leaves add lots of flavor, vitamins and minerals to your salad. The younger leaves are tender and less bitter. Did you know that among its many health benefits, dandelion is a digestive helper? Try chewing a few leaves 20 minutes before a big dinner.
1. Harvest herbs when they’re dry and do not wash (moisture can cause mold).
2. Group the stems in bundles of 5 or so; remove the lower leaves and tie them, together with string. Space the flowers and leaves and dry on screens or paper in a shady area with plenty of circulation.
3. When the plants are dry — crisp and easily crushed — store them in airtight jars or paper bags.
Red clover has oval leaves in threes, each with a lighter colored, v-shaped chevron. The flowers are a tasty sweet snack. Red clover flowers make a delicious nutrient-rich herbal tea. (However, make sure to only pick the fresh red ones.)
Making an Herbal Infusion
1. Boil water in a pot. Enamel and stainless steel pots lessen the metal interaction with your herbs.
2. Place the herb in a glass jar (or other pot). Use approximately 1 cup or 1 oz of herb for a quart or liter jar.
3. Fill the jar to the top with boiling water, place the lid on tightly and allow the herbs to steep from 30 minutes up to 8 hours, depending on the herb. Longer steeping time makes stronger, more nutritious or medicinal teas. Roots are usually steeped longer than flowers and leaves. Clover tea is ready after 1-2 hours. A strong yarrow tea takes 30 minutes.
4. Strain and enjoy! Stores fresh in the fridge for a day or two.
How to Make an Herbal Dream Pillow
Mugwort has deeply cut leaves, hairy undersides and is easily identified by its unique fragrance: a mysterious bitter spice. One of the most common herbs in the city, mugwort likes to form tight groups that prevent other plants from growing in the same spot. If unattended in a rainy spring, your backyard may turn into an army of mugwort over 6 feet tall (like mine).
Besides traditional medicinal uses, Mugwort has quite a reputation as a magical plant. This cousin of wormwood (Artemisia absinthium of absinthe fame) has long been used as a tea, incense, and dream pillow to intensify and remember one’s dreams.
Making a Dream Pillow
1. Harvest a few sprigs of mugwort. Pick the top third of the stem.
2. Dry herbs thoroughly. (See above.)
3. Crush dried mugwort leaves and any other herbs you wish to place in your dream pillow.
4. Mix the herbs in a pouch and close it. Your fragrant dream pillow is ready to enjoy. Place under your pillow and note down your dreams the next morning!
A Few Harvesting Tips
- Identify the plants correctly. Learn with a guide or join a local plant walk. Learning a few plants at a time is easiest.
- Indigenous cultures around the world have traditions of asking plants for permission before harvesting, then offering a gesture of thanks.
- Harvest only what you need. Carefully pick the parts of the plant that you will use. Pick up to a third of a plant stand in a particular area — no more — to ensure the plants keep thriving.
- As much fun as it is to meet and greet your local plants on the street, it is not the best place to harvest for consumption. Avoid busy roads, areas sprayed with pesticides, and otherwise polluted stands.
Enjoy your local weeds!
If you make this project, share photos with us in the How-Tuesday Flickr group.
Irina is a nature loving gal residing in Brooklyn. She often stops to smell the roses and has been sighted (more than once!) happily strolling about with yellow pollen on her nose.