Kiva Rose’s plant profile on using poplar as medicine. But really I just wanted an excuse to post this photo from July…

Last winter I did a post on how to tell the difference between the various chamomiles, mostly because both nursery chamomile plants and dried chamomile herb are rarely labelled by their botanical name when being sold and I wanted to be able to ID them so I’d know which one I was growing and using. But I also wanted to be able to ID the wild varieties of that family and learn which were medicinal. The most obvious of the wild ones here in NZ is the rayless chamomile, but while I have seen it off and on in the past I’ve not seen it locally and I’ve rarely seen it anywhere in abundance.

Then in December I couldn’t believe my luck when visiting a local organic farm I stumbled upon this beautiful swath of rayless chamomile in flower.

You can read about identifying the different chamomiles in the previous post, but the main keys for the rayless one are:

~ the absence of petals as the flower opens:

~ the finely cut leaves:

~ and the pineapple smell when the plant is crushed (it’s sometimes known as pineapple weed).

That last photo shows a lush and largish plant – most of the ones I’ve seen in the past are smaller than this and it can grow quite low to the ground in a spreading fashion.

I harvested some of the plants (leaves, flowers, stalks) last December, hanging some in bunches to dry and putting some up in vinegar. I’ve made tea a few times and found it interesting, with subtle chamomile flavour. There was a mild relaxing effect but not very strong (I’d like to experiment with a stronger infusion). But it was recent tastings of the vinegar that I had finally decanted that impressed me. The scent is strongly of the plant, and the taste is of the smell – distinctly chamomile with pineapple undertones, so those constituents extract well into vinegar.

I took 1 tablespoon of the vinegar in a glass of water one evening. Within half an hour I was yawning and barely able to keep my eyes open. This effect passed when I got up and moved around so it wasn’t so much sedative as strongly relaxing. I’ve had the same effect several times since. The vinegar is noticeably diuretic for me, so I’m not sure if it would make such a good sleep aid but your mileage may vary. I’d like to try the tea and tincture for the relaxing effect as well and will certainly be experimenting with this plant some more.

Chamomile resources:

It was one of Henriette Kress’ blogposts on using chamomile greens that tipped me off to the medicine of pineapple weed.

Kiva Rose’s plant monograph on chamomile.

This is an excellent opportunity for anyone wanting to learn more about flax roots herbalism (aka how to do herbalism for yourself). Kiva Rose is a practicing herbalist in the southern US with a focus on bioregional/local folk herbalism. There will be a bit of emphasis on US traditions, but many of the plants and all of the concepts apply here as well. I highly recommend Kiva’s teachings.

Herbalist Kiva Rose roots you in folk herbalism in 4 easy steps during this informative 90 minute class. Kiva covers: The 8 steps to a balanced approach, growing your materia medica, 6 tips for deepening your alliance with herbs, covers one of her favorite herbs in detail, and gives you two of her personal healing forumulas including “Evening Primrose Flower Elixir.” Learn why folk oriented herbalism is vital, and discover your own herbal traditions. PDF with class notes and recipes included.

Kiva Rose is a practicing traditional herbalist. Kiva organizes the Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference, is editor of Plant Healer Magazine, author of the Herb Energetics course, and is one of the fine folks that run the Anima Herbal School in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico.

The webinar starts on Thurs at 12.30 NZT. You need a broadband internet connection. You also need to preregister and can do that here. They try and put up a recording after, so keep an eye out if you can’t make it on Thurs.

A friend was asking me about this while back. There’s a folk remedy for treating cancer called Essiac. It was made famous by a Canadian nurse, Rene Caisse, who reputedly got the recipe from an Ojibwa medicine man. There are various recipes for Essiac, all based on using four herbs: burdock root, sheep sorrel leaf, slippery elm bark, and turkey rhubarb roots. Woodstock herbalist Susun Weed investigated this formula and came to the conclusion that the original instructions had been altered – turkey rhubarb wasn’t native or naturalised in Canada, sheep sorrel has no reputation for healing cancer, and the slippery elm was probably there to counter the harsh effects of the turkey rhubarb on the digestive tract. Only burdock seemed to fit, with its long traditional use against cancer. She also heard that the original formula had two herbs in it, so she came to the conclusion that it was likely to be burdock and yellow dock roots (yellow dock is a relative of turkey rhubarb’s, also has a traditional use against cancer, and is much gentler on the system).

I’ve not had to deal with cancer in myself or helping others. Cancer treatments (conventional and alternative) can be contentious. I believe in respecting people’s right to make their own choices in health care and offer this post in that spirit.

I also believe that medicine should be cheap and easily accessible. To that end, here’s what burdock and yellow dock look like. Yellow dock is very common in most areas and can be harvested in quantity if necessary. Burdock is less common and is harder to dig up. If you need it in quantity it’s good to buy from a wholesaler. But it’s also good to have a direct relationship with any plant we use as medicine, and harvesting and preparing herbs is a good way to do that (not the only way though). It’s an good time of year to get to know and harvest both plants.

Note: the name ‘yellow dock’ isn’t commonly used in NZ except for when referring to herbal medicine. Mostly you’ll hear it called dock, or sometimes broad leaf dock and curly dock.

Burdock ID

Burdock, Arctium spp, is a biennial. This means it will put up leaves in the first year, and flowers and seeds in the second year and then it will die. If you want to harvest the root you need to harvest it before the plant starts to flower. Once it starts to flower, the plant uses the root energy for the flowering and seeding and by the end the root is spent.

Burdock leaves are large and look a bit like a furry rhubarb (although they’re not related). They have a large midrib and prominent veins. This isn’t the best photo, as most of the leaves are wrinkly, but the one in the bottom left corner is more typical:

If you turn a leaf over you will see that it is covered in white down. This down is on the stalks as well and is a key to identifying burdock. Also, look closely at the lower ends of the stalk (closest to where it is growing from) and you’ll see a reddy colour.

The leaves grow from a single tap root which has a reputation for being difficult to dig. It’s good to use a garden fork, loosening the soil around and around the plant. You’ll need to dig down quite a way if you want to avoid breaking off the root in the ground. There are also side roots or the main root splits, so take your time and take care – it’s worth getting all the root as harvesting is killing the plant and the root won’t grow back.

The closest look alike I can think of is foxglove (Digitalis spp), which is poisonous. Not likely to be confused once you see them together, but if you are new to IDing herbs then please use a good ID book or wildcrafter to help you with the ID.

Yellow Dock ID

Yellow dock, Rumex spp, is a perennial, meaning it grows back every year from the same root. It’s another large leafed herb, not as big as burdock generally, and the leaves are darker green and smooth rather than hairy.

There are two main docks in NZ – curly leafed dock (Rumex crispus)

and broad leafed dock (Rumex obtusifolius).

You can use them interchangeably for medicine or food. Broad dock is usually the more common. Both seem to like damp places (river beds, damp ground) but will grow on other places too. In a dry climate, the best places to look are where there is shade or damp, but in wetter climates dock grows everywhere.

Dock leaves grow from a crown above a root cluster that gets bigger with each successive year. Older plants yield more root and better medicine, and will have multiple tap roots. Because root harvest is best done in the late autumn or winter, when the leave have died back and the energy of the plant is focussed below ground, it’s good to find where your yellow dock grows earlier in the season so it’s easier to find when the tops have died back.

And the roots are indeed yellow (inside):

If you want to find yellow dock now for harvesting look for the seed heads. These are photos from the summer – the seeds now will be dried off and brown.

I’ll try and get some better photos this week but in the  meantime there’s a good shot of autumn dock seeds here.

The Wessiac recipe can be found here. Both burdock and yellow dock can be used in lots of other ways as medicine or food.

This post is part of the UK Herbarium blog party Gems from the Herbal Library.

dye note by India Flint

When I was young, like many of that age I loved dyeing clothing. There was a magic in the transformation of an old favourite or a new opshop find simply by immersing it in coloured water. As a teen I used Dylon dyes, bought in wee metal containers from the supermarket or chemist. They were easy to use, affordable and perfect for teenage experiments. I remember the excitement when we discovered Dygon, the chemical that stripped existing colour from most cloth so it could be redyed in the colour of our choice. In my early twenties I moved on to procion dyes and screen printing, both giving me a much wider range of things to experiment and play with.

Somewhere in all that I remember collecting dandelions from the lawn of one memorable flat – the lawn was completely covered in brilliant yellow blossoms and I was sure there must be a way to get that brilliance into cloth. I don’t remember the technique I used, but the results were disappointing. The reading I did at the the time and the people I consulted all seemed to be saying that wool was relatively easy to dye, but cotton wasn’t, and either still needed chemicals of varying degrees of toxicity to make the dye take. I was already finding the procion dyes and screen printing chemicals came with impacts on human health and then when it dawned on me that those dyebaths and cleanup chemicals we were pouring down the drain at the end of the day had to actually go somewhere… well it was easiest to just stop. Occasionally I would read up some more on using plants to dye with, but it still seemed that overly toxic chemicals were needed and I could never reconcile that with the idea that people have made beautiful clothing for eons before we had those chemicals.

So it’s been my utter delight to discover the work of India Flint and other natural dye artists. Flint is an Australasian* fibre artist who has been working with plant dyes for twenty years, building up an impressive body of knowledge on what works and what we can experiment and play with successfully. What makes her work so exciting is the low level of toxicity of the substances she uses (many can be found in the kitchen), and her ecological sensibility – we can have beautiful fabric and clothing without damaging the land.

*Born and living in Australia but has connections into NZ and a deep understanding of the land here.

Flint has pioneered ‘eco-printing‘ on fabrics (using plants), and has specialised in the dye properties of many of Australia’s eucalypts (animal fibres will take eucalypt dyes without the need for any mordant).

roseleaf print by India Flint

The book Eco Colour is both a showcase of natural dyeing and an instructive on how to. A large format book, it’s is beautifully presented, with copious colour photos. These include examples of Flint’s work, the plants and the processes.

Flint has a clear communication of the problems with chemical dying – from the effect of what goes down the drain, to the impact on the dyer, and the impact on the wearer of having chemicals next to our skins (I can still sometimes pick the smell of dygon-like chemicals on commercial clothing that has obviously been through a predying process, especially wool).

I also love her ecological sensibility. On the issue of colourfastness, where commercial dyes are meant to last years and so strong, very toxic chemicals are used to achieve this, she advises that if naturally dyed cloth fades, you can simply re-dye it. For those of us that love simplicity and the magic of the dying process this is perfect.

Perhaps closest to my heart is the concept of bioregionalism. I’m a bioregional herbalist (I believe that most of our medicine can come from where we live) and Flint focusses on dying with the plants that grow around her. It’s hard to describe the importance of this sometimes, but on an obvious, practical, post-peak oil level the skill to create beauty from our landbase is invaluable.

More than that though, bioregionalism takes us into such a direct relationship with the land that it becomes impossible to not see the connections between the land, ourselves and how we treat the world. Flint’s work demonstrates and reflects that relationship, for which I am profoundly grateful. It’s not just the ability to craft fabric without excessive chemical use, it’s that the craft, the art and the play are taken back to their natural source in the land, and so are we.

prunus dyes by India Flint

In more practical terms Flint outlines many techniques: how to prepare dyes, the various mordants and what they can be used on, how time affects the process, the plants themselves and the colours they yield, health and safety (natural dyes and mordants need careful handling too), how the metal of the dyepot or resist can change colour etc. This is probably not the best book for an absolute beginner – it helps to know what a mordant is for instance, and basic dyeing techniques. Flint does explain each concept and technique as she goes, but she doesn’t give actual recipes. Natural dyes can be used by beginners more easily than harsh chemical dyes, so Eco Colour would sit well alongside a basic dyeing primer for those not used to the techniques (try the internet or library).

Many of the substances used in natural dyeing can be found at home or in the supermarket – soda, vinegar, milk – and Flint explains how these can be disposed of at the end of the dye-ing process. She also introduces the basic chemistries involved.

Although she has done extensive work with the native eucalypts, most of the plants in the book are common in many parts of the world. Further, the techniques are imminently transferable to any plant. I’m already eye-ing up plants in my neighbourhood wondering what dye would result.

 

red dyes by India Flint

There is an abundance of techniques to try out, ranging from the simple and known ordinary dye baths to the intriguing (ice dyeing) and the even more intriguing (compost dyeing). Flint intersperses the book with historical accounts, both from her own life and family traditions, her natural dyeing antecedents, and general plant dyeing background.

There are many things here to delight the herbalist. Flint talks about how plants high in alkaloids can be used as mordants and notes that many medicinal herbs will be useful in dyeing because of this. Tannin rich plants is the other obvious one.

I should point out that I’m not an artist. I have some craft skills but my experiments with plant dyes are mostly for practical purposes – how to transform the colour and look of fibre and cloth in ecologically sensitive ways, so that I can use them in my own life. While Flint is an artist and the book is for the artist’s eye, the techniques in the book are adaptable for more mundane projects too.

India Flint workshop

India Flint has a blog, and there are links there to other natural dyers the world over. Eco Colour is available from many online booksellers, and in NZ it’s also available in libraries (by interloan if your local doesn’t have it). Amazon in the UK has a Look Inside! preview that doesn’t do justice to the visual splendour of the book but does show the contents, index and introduction. Flint also travels extensively giving workshops.

I picked this up from the US herbalists. Sumac is a small tree that’s often planted in NZ gardens for ornamental value. It has distinctive red flower/fruit heads that last on the tree well after all the leaves have dropped. The trunk and branches are elegant, lending to the sculptural look.

sumac in late winter

This sumac is also known as staghorn sumac, Rhus thyphina, which helps differentiate it from related poisonous species*. The best way to ID sumac is by the ‘berries’. It took me a while to be sure that I had the right plant because sumac berries aren’t very berry like. Instead they are a horn-shaped cluster of small, red, furry bits:

I still haven’t found out if those are flowers, fruit or seeds, but the Americans call them berries.

The leaves are quite distinctive too, being obviously symmetrical:

the underside of the leaves

Additional ID keys are the furry stems, and when you break them they ooze a white substance.

*If you read US sources of information about this plant there are cautions about not confusing it with poisonous sumac (a related plant). I don’t think this is an issue in NZ because (a) the poisonous sumac is rare (not sure if it even exists in NZ), and (b) it doesn’t look like staghorn sumac – poison sumac has drooping white berry clusters, not upright red ones. The leaves also look different.

Sumac Lemonade

Once you are sure you have the right plant, pick a few heads. It’s best to not pick straight after a rain, as rain washes off some of the tasty bits.

Pull the seeds off and put into a container.

Cover with cold water (yes, cold. Hot water makes the brew too strong) and squash the seeds a bit into the water.

I left mine overnight which made a very strong brew too, which I watered down. Subsequent batches I’ve made with 1 seed head to 2 cups of cold water, steeped up to an hour. Play around and see what works for you. When ready, strain the brew well to remove the fine hairs and bits of seed.

The taste of sumac is refreshingly sour and astringent. You can add honey or sugar if you like, but I’ve been happy drinking it as is. Drink a small amount the first few times to see how your body reacts – sumac is also medicinal and can make you pee more. I didn’t notice anything obvious and have been enjoying a glassful at a time.

You can dry sumac heads for later use (infusion or spice).

Things I want to try:

~ a longer infusion for maximum vitamin C extraction
~ a sumac berry vinegar (‘cos I have to try most things in a vinegar)
~ sumac as a dry spice (sumac is a traditional middle Eastern spice. A local forager told me to mix ground sumac, thyme and salt).
~ sumac honey
~ sumac and berries or other seasonal fruit (there’s a local company making sumac and plum relish).

Sumac resources

Matt Wood discusses on video different species of sumac, its use as a spice, and as medicine.

Susun Weed video on Euell Gibbons’ washing machine method for large batches of sumac lemonade!

Don’t know which is worse, wearing socks in the garden or growing biddybids on the side of a path. But who can resist such a beautiful wee plant that plays such tricks?

I’ve been walking past them all week, watching the seed heads mature, and telling myself not to get too close. I feel for my mother now for all the time during my childhood holidays she spent pulling biddybids from socks and trousers, and even tops because throwing biddybids at each other was great sport (I do seem to remember biddybid removal was a punishment for such games though).

Biddybid/piripiri is a NZ native of the rose family (Rosaceae). Traditionally it’s a kidney and blood cleansing herb. It’s related to the potentillas, and especially agrimony. If you want to explore piripiri’s medicinal gifts, look also at those introduce herbs.

It’s a good ground cover, growing quickly and seeding itself readily. In the wild it grows in some of the harshest places, so it’s a restoration plant – I see it growing near kanuka and the introduced weeds that grow on overused land where not much else can get a hold now. I also see it growing along creek and river beds in the bush so it must have a good tolerance for water (not wet feet perhaps) and a wide range of conditions.

At the very least it has something to teach us about paying attention.

I’m currently reacquainting myself with stinging nettle. For many years I made nettle leaf infusions, and then my body and tastes changed and I haven’t used it for a long time. Now with the wet spring there are nettles everywhere I go, so it’s hard not to be thinking about medicine again. I’ll do some posts about nettle as food and medicine, but first I want to talk about the plants themselves.

We have a handful of nettle species here in NZ, most are native and several are introduced.

native:

Urtica ferox, ongaonga, tree nettle: endemic (grows only in NZ).

Urtica incisa, dwarf bush nettle, scrub nettle: non-endemic (grows in Australia too).

Urtica linearifolia, swamp nettle: endemic.

Urtica aspera, grows in the South Island: endemic, rare.

Urtica australis (aka U aucklandica) ongaonga/okaoka, onga, taraongaonga, taraonga (I’m guessing the number of Maori names is due to the mix of Northern, Southern and Chatham Island dialects), Southern nettle: endemic, rare, found in coastal Fiordland, Stewart Island, the Chathams and the sub-Antarctics. Originally grew as far north as the bottom of the North Island (probably).

introduced:

Urtica urens, stinging nettle, small nettle, nettle: common throughout most of NZ, but uncommon in places (West Coast, Fordland, Taranaki, North Auckland).

Urtica dioica and subsp gracilis, stinging nettle, perennial nettle, tall nettle: uncommon.

Urtica membranacea, a Mediterranean nettle: I’ve not seen it but it’s listed as naturalised in Canterbury at least.

I’m going to write about the most common species. Nettles are plants of the disturbed ground. They grow in places where the soil has been bared, and so are common along roadsides, tracks and where land is overgrazed or otherwise cleared. Nettles love nitrogen and grow in places where the nitrogen is very high eg animal manure. I suspect that nettles play a crucial role in breaking down animal manure in places where the soil is marginal and struggling to re-establish other plants.

Nettles are most notable to the general public for the hairs on leaves and stalks that sting, sometimes quite painfully. Nettles are good medicine and food (being very dense in nutrients), and are useful in the garden and for fibre. As such they are another important plant to know well in preparing for the powerdown/post peak oil future.

Urtica urens is our most common weed nettle and was introduced in the 1800s, most likely from the UK (first recorded in NZ in 1860). It’s an annual, grows in disturbed soils, and seems to especially like sheep shit. I find it most often under and around stands of trees that sheep like to shelter under (manuka, kanuka, pine etc) but it will also sometimes grow in the open where the rabbits have been digging or where the soil has been disturbed in another way. My ex-neighbour always had a great crop of annual nettles in her garden because of the chicken manure and digging. Unlike some of the other nettles, urens has an affinity for dry ground.

annual nettle ~ urtica urens

Urens will often grow on a single stalk, but it can also grow multiple stalks and fan out into a small bush. It is a darker green than the other nettles (getting darker as it ages) and has a more rounded and textured leaf than the perennial. It’s sting is less painful than the perennial nettle but it has more stings and on both sides of the leaf (as well as the stalk). Most of the references you see to nettle as a medicine and food are not to this plant (more on that in a later post). They’re to its sister the perennial nettle:

Urtica dioica, a perennial nettle, was also introduced in the 1800s. It’s uncommon enough in NZ that I’ve never seen it growing wild, despite looking hard. In the US people talk about it growing near water. It has a pointier leaf than the annual nettle and looks similar to lemon balm in shape.

perennial nettle/urtica dioica ~ Henriette Kress

Unlike the annual, the stings on the perennial are predominantly on the top of the leaf, which is why some daring folk will eat them raw.

It’s considered a pest plant in NZ (what used to be called a noxious weed), mainly because its strong, spreading root structure can be difficult to contain once established. In some parts of NZ it’s illegal to distribute any part of this plant, so be careful, eh? If you want to grow it best to plant it somewhere reasonably contained like you would mint.

Urtica ferox, aka ongaonga/tree nettle, is one staunch plant. This native is large – up to several metres high, and grows in the bush, especially along margins of river and roads or in clearings. It also grows on farm land, having that same affinity for sheep shit and cleared land, but unlike the annual nettle (Urens) it often grows well out in the open.

ongaonga/urtica ferox ~ Oratia Native Plant Nursery

The sting of this native is so strong that bad enough exposure can kill horses (eg where horses have been ridden through a stand of ongaonga. Humans too, but that’s incredibly rare. The sting is much worse than ordinary stinging nettle, and contact from even a single hair can be very painful for hours.

Urtica incisa and Urtica australis both have the potential to be useful as medicine if cultivated or reintroduced into native or non-native ecosystems and gardens. The seed of both those native nettles is available on Trade Me if you want to try them out, and the plants are available from Oratia Native Plant Nursery (as well as ongaonga).

Incisa I’ve seen in the bush and it’s always quite small so I’ve chosen not to harvest it (better to leave it for the bush anyway), but it would probably grow bigger in a garden (descriptions of the plant in Australia are much bigger than the ones here). I always see it growing near creeks so it’s one of the wet footed nettles.

dwarf bush nettle/urtica incisa

The Chatham Island nettle (U australis) in particular looks interesting with its large heart shaped leaves (one report says they’ll grow as large as a lunch plate). It’s a perennial which means you can harvest the plant and it will regrow another crop. I don’t know how bad its sting is but online sources suggest its milder than most nettles.

Chatham nettle ~ Oratia Native Plant Nursery

 

All the nettles are becoming popular in NZ gardens because nettle is a prime food for the caterpillar of the Monarch and Red Admiral/kahukura butterflies.


I’ve gotten into the bad habit of starting to write posts and not getting them finished. Here’s one I started in the winter and am adapting to the spring.

I’m talking about chickweed ;-)

Some people think chickweed’s a nuisance, but really this is such a superb food and medicine that not only do I encourage it in my garden, I am also this year growing some in a pot. Chickweed is one of those plants that responds to being eaten by growing back lushly as quickly as possible. So if you cut it with a pair of scissors, then you will get another crop, and another etc until it manages to go to seed before you get to it. But once it seeds you can start again. Very lucky people have abundant chickweed in their garden, and can harvest most of the year. If you grow miner’s lettuce as well you can replace regular lettuce entirely for many months of the year, and be getting much better nutrition (chickweed is much more densely nutritious than lettuce).

Chickweed ID

Chickweed is a low growing annual, most notable in moist, damp places. There aren’t too many plants it can be mistaken for, mostly the mouse ear chickweed which is furry. Here’s an excellent photo of the edible chickweed, with ID labels from Wildman Steve Brill:

chickweed ID ~ Steve Brill

There’s no seed in that picture, but the seed capsules look similar to the ovoid flower buds.

Growing Chickweed

You need some seed. The easiest way to get this is off a late growth plant. Chickweed seeds quite quickly after flowering and usually has flowers and seeds at the same time. Here’s some chickweed that is flowering and seeding. It’s a bit straggly especially on the ends, and the stalks are more visible at this stage. If you open up one of the small capsules you’ll find an orange seed in side.

If you want to save some seed, put the whole above ground plant in a plastic bag and store it in the fridge. If there’s lots of seed it will drop out into the bottom of the bag. The last time I tried this, it didn’t work (there wasn’t much seeding, and maybe it was too early), but impressively the plant itself lasted a good month in the fridge and then when I put it out at the back door it started growing again.

But if you have seeding plants, you don’t need to remove the seeds individually, you can just use the whole top of the plant to grow some more.

I often get chickweed growing in pot plants (because I use garden soil in my potting mix) but if you don’t have any in your garden already you can usually find it in the wild.

I’ve not grown it intentionally in a pot before, so here’s my trial system. I got an old fridge box from the recycle centre. Because it was mid winter I kept this on the porch, and so I didn’t drill any holes in it. I’ve been keeping an eye on the watering so it doesn’t get waterlogged but chickweed does like a moist situation (and shady in the summer, it doesn’t like to get too hot). I filled the box with some soil and compost, and divided it into three sections:

The bottom one is a layer of chopped, seeding chickweed. The middle is the same, but with a layer of soil on top. The top one is empty (despite a few leaves). Originally I was going to sow this with seed from the fridge, but it’s ended up being the ‘control’. If I’m really lucky I’ll get some interesting other salad weeds appearing in a timely fashion. I planted this out at the start of June.

8 weeks later and it looks like this:

And at another 2 weeks later, ready to eat:

As you can see, the middle section, which was chopped seeding chickweed covered in soil, has done the best. The bottom section, where the chopped weed was uncovered is only just starting to grow, and the top section (nothing sown in it) has nothing growing in it (damn, but I might get lucky with the longer days and spring arriving).

That was quite slow for chickweed, being over the coldest months. Inside I’m sure it would grow faster. In less cold places, I’ve grown and eaten chickweed during the winter, spring and autumn. If you want to in the summer you need somewhere shady and moist.

The chickweed is now growing fast and is covering 2/3rds of the box. I can harvest about twice a week. I’ve been watering and feeding occasionally with worm whisky.

Chickweed as food and medicine

Chickweed is at its best raw. Use abundantly in salads, or chop onto grain dishes as a garnish. Chickweed pesto is famous on weedy circles. Johanna Knox has some other great ideas about eating chickweed.

The taste of chickweed varies a bit, maybe because it has so much water in it that it’s more affected by growing conditions. Generally it is bland, slightly salty and fresh with a slight bitter taste at the end – basically a standard green. When it’s older it gets stronger.

It has pretty decent amounts of minerals and vitamins, making it a good food for increasing nutrients in the diet. It also has a range of medicinal offerings and is especially good at cooling overheated conditions. Chickweed extracts well into alcohol (for medicine), vinegar (for nutrition), oil (for external use) and spit (also for external use but ingesting is good too).

I’ve always found the different chamomiles a bit confusing, mainly because I’ve not grown it enough myself to make the connection, and the dried herb on sale in shops is not usually identified by species. This post is my attempt to get them clear in my head. Input from anyone familiar with the plants is welcome.

A friend once gave me some dried flowers she had collected from her own plants and it made the most amazing tea. I only needed four or five flowers per cup of water, and the taste was better than any commercial chamomile I’ve had. So I’ve been on a bit of a mission to find out which chamomile it was. As it turns out the chamomiles have a confusing array of names and synonyms so it’s not just me. I’ve finally decided my friend’s tea is the German chamomile, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s not.

This is the plant:

The chamomiles are part of the Asteraceae family, which is a large family of plants with daisy-like flowers – a composite centre (the family is also called Compositae) with petals around the edge. Botanically the flowers are actually the many minute parts that make up the often yellow composite centre.

There are two main genera of chamomile: Matricaria and Anthemis.  Common names in this post are the ones used in NZ references unless noted otherwise. Common names vary from country to country and even within a country – botanists, farmers, academics and herbalists can all use common names differently – so it’s always best to ID a plant by the botanical name of genus and species. Having said that, the chamomiles seem to have more than their fair share of botanical synonyms as well.

I haven’t had the chance to try this yet, but Weeds of Crops and Gardens in NZ (p 97) has this to say on the differences in the flowers between the two genera:

As with all Anthemis spp, the bristles remain on the centre after the rest has been rubbed away, whereas in all the Matricaria spp no bristles remain.

Matricaria spp

Matricaria recutita (aka M chamomilla, M suaveolens, Chamomilla chamomilla, and C recutita): German chamomile. This is an annual native to Europe and the temperate parts of Asia. It is naturalised in some places in NZ although I’ve not seen it growing wild. More commonly it’s grown as a garden herb.

German chamomile ~ wikipedia

Matricaria dioscoidea (aka Matricaria matricarioides, sometimes mistakenly called M discoidea): Rayless chamomile, also an annual it smells a bit like pineapple (and in some parts of the world is known as pineapple weed). According to Henriette Kress it can be used like the more well known medicinal chamomiles (both the leaf and flower). This is fortunate for us as rayless chamomile is well naturalised in NZ. ID keys are here.

rayless chamomile ~ http://www.missouriplants.com

Tripleurospermum inodorum (aka Matricaria maritima and M perforata): Scentless mayweed/scentless chamomile. Looks similar to Anthemis cotula (see below).

Matricaria inodora (scentless chamomile), and Matricaria suaveolens are illegitimate names.

Anthemis spp

Anthemis nobilis (aka Chamaemelum nobile) Lawn chamomile, Roman chamomile: a perennial, this is the chamomile grown for a ground cover. The medicinal herb does flower, but I gather there is a hybrid that has no flowers.

roman chamomile ~ Henriette Kress

Anthemis arvensiscorn chamomile.

Anthemis cotula - stinking mayweed, stinking chamomile, mayweed. Less common in Canterbury, Otago and Southland. ID here.

stinking mayweed ~ Massey University

Anthemis tinctoriadyer’s chamomile

dyer's chamomile ~ wikipedia

Anthemis mixta – invalid name.

Anthemis cupaniana – synonym Anthemis punctata subsp. cupaniana


I’m looking forward to things growing again and going out to hunt down the rayless chamomile.

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