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I like this plant. But it can be very poisonous, and looks like some other plants that aren’t poisonous and are edible so I thought I’d do an ID post.
Please read this post on IDing plants safely.
Hemlock, Conium maculatum, is a biennial of the Umbelliferae family. That family has a wide range of edible plants including carrot, fennel, and sweet cicely. Wild carrot and cicely in particular have leaves very similar to hemlock.
It can grow very tall (taller than me). Often you see the spent seed stalks amongst the new growth. It has feathery, fern-like leaves. There are two good ways to tell if it’s hemlock:
1. Hemlock has a distinctive smell, that to us smells ‘bad’ when crushed i.e. it’s stinky.
2. Hemlock has purple blotches on its stem (usually).
Because hemlock is so poisonous, it’s best to ID any similar looking plant two ways. Know how to recognise hemlock so you can exclude it, and know how to recognise each Umbelliferae you want to harvest i.e. don’t rely solely on looking at a plant and thinking it doesn’t have purple blotches on the stems therefore it must be edible. Go the next step and positively ID the plant you are looking at.
Young hemlock showing the stems with purple markings:
I had a cold last week, only it was a hot one. What I mean by that is that I had a rhino virus (a ‘cold’) where the symptoms were signs of heat in my body not signs of coldness. I had had a few days of coughing up gunk from my lungs following some dusty work earlier in the week. By mid week my face and head became hot, and my nose was very dry. I was also tired in the viral infection kind of way, and craving cooling foods and drinks. And I was coughing ‘unproductively’ (meaning phlegm needed to come out but wasn’t). This is quite different than a cold cold, where you might feel cold in your body and crave warming foods and drinks.
My two main remedies were sleep and mullein infusion. Sleep and/or rest is by far the most important thing to do to recover from colds or flu’s well. The body needs energy to focus on the immune response (both increasing immune cell responses and removing the breakdown products via the lymphatic system). If we keep up our normal level of activity it can make it harder for our bodies to fight the infection.
Mullein is a wonderful healer of many lung complaints, including colds, bronchitis and asthma. It’s useful for the whole upper respiratory tract as well, but seems particularly gifted when it comes to lungs. Nourishing, soothing and moistening to mucous membranes mullein helps expel phlegm from the lungs. It is cooling which made it perfect for this cold. I normally get cold colds and so don’t use mullein often as a cold remedy (I prefer thyme). But this week it was a blessing. I picked 5 large fresh leaves…
chopped them into a pot, covering them with 2 cups of boiling water…
and simmered gently for a while (with a lid on).
That pot has had some infusion taken out – the simmering shouldn’t reduce the amount of liquid much, but it provides enough heat to help break down the cell walls of fresh plants (not needed if the plant is dried). Mullein needs to be strained through a cloth to remove the fine hairs that can irritated the throat.
You could make an infusion like this without simmering, using fresh leaves, or dried. Dried leaves give a stronger medicine, but I’ve been partial to fresh plant infusions of mullein recently. It’s easy to make, and the plants are in full growth spurt, lush and abundant where I am, so it makes sense to use them for medicine at this time when they are so vibrant. I make mullein leaf tincture to use at other times and find it effective with many lung problems too.
I also made some calendula infusion (about a handful of whole flowers to a litre of boiling water, steeped for half an hour, preferably longer), which I drank later in the day to help my lymphatic system.
I drank several cups of the mullein infusion over the morning and afternoon, and the calendula in the evening. I had several naps during the day, ate a clove of garlic and vitamin C foods, and avoided exertion and stress. By the time I went to bed I felt fine. A few days later I got a bit chesty again (having been an idiot and overdone it work-wise), but another day of drinking mullein set me right.
If you have mullein local to you, try making an infusion and see what it is like. It’s good to get to know medicines before we really need them, and it’s good to be familiar with preparing them when we aren’t feel like crap. We’re much more likely to use them if we already have the practice.
Different people have different methods for this. Here’s what I do:
1. use more than one source of information (and that means please don’t use this blog as your sole method of IDing a plant). I usually refer to two or three different books, and the internet if that’s handy.
2. buy some good weed ID books. You can often pick them up in secondhand books stores and sometimes on trade me. Libraries often have useful books too.
3. ID plants by botanical name. Common names are often used for several different (and often unrelated) plants eg milk thistle can be Silybum marianum or Sonchus spp (aka puha). This is especially important if you are using the internet or books from other countries, as common names vary even more between continents.
4. cultivate relationships with people who know plants: gardeners, botanists, and farmers are all good sources of knowledge and often love to share it. They speak different languages, so become multi-lingual.
5. learn plant ‘keys’. These are structures of plants that help limit what the plant can be eg whether the leaves grow opposite or alternately along a stem. Leaf shape, texture (eg hairy, leathery, smooth), flower structure, colour etc etc are just some of the things that can help ID a plant. Good ID books will specify keys for individual plants as well as give a general guide to plant keys.
6. use different parts of the plant to help ID eg leaf, stalk, flower, root, seed. The more parts you have the easier it is. Take some of the plant home with you if that’s where your books are.
7. don’t eat or make medicine from any plant until you are certain what it is.
To give you an idea about the value of having different sources of information, here’s chickweed in three different books.
Common Weeds of NZ has a black and white photo of a straggly, sparsely growing, older chickweed plant. There are two close ups, one of the flower, and the other of the hairs that grow on one side of the stem (a key).
Weeds of Crops and Gardens in NZ has a black and white photo of lush chickweed showing leaf, flower and seed. There is also a good sized paragraph on the structure of chickweed and how to specifically ID. The second paragraph is about where and how it grows – these paragraphs are aimed at people wanting to control weeds, and there is usually a bit about herbicide use but you can ignore that ;-)
Wild Herbs of Australia and NZ has a simple line drawing of chickweed in seed or bud that shows the distinct characteristics of the plant, alongside a short description. There is also a colour photo relatively close up.
Chickweed is relatively easy to ID, and you could probably get away with one good reference. But it can be confused with mouse-eared chickweed, and the weed books also show that, so you can tell the difference.
Learning new edible and medicinal plants in the wild is fun and satisfying. Enjoy!
The first of the californian poppies are blooming. The stunning flowers are so orange yellow they’re almost psychedelic:
Californian poppy, Eschscholzia californica, is used in herbal medicine as a remedy for insomnia, anxiety, and pain.
Tasting the leaf, it is quite bitter. Not overwhelmingly so (I didn’t need to spit it out), but you wouldn’t want to eat alot. This suggests that it’s a medicine with some strength to it, but not immediately toxic. It’s generally considered a safe plant when used in moderation.
You can make a tincture from the whole plant in flower (including the root).
Finnish herbalist, Henriette Kress, says cal poppy helps people coming off opiates, by diminishing cravings – the alkaloids are similar to opium poppy but not the same. Cal poppy is related to the opium poppy but isn’t addictive. High doses of cal poppy may alter consciousness somewhat but not in a recreational way.
Cal poppy grows in hot, dry climates, and stands out in many sparse places. The flowers vary from orange to yellow to, more rarely, cream. Here’s a close up of the flower bud with its pink lower edge. Not sure if you can see this but there is also a delicate pink edging to the leaves as well. The leaf colour is a bit off (I really have to get a decent camera), but it does show the bluey green grey tone that is characteristic of this plant.
I swear up until a few days ago when I was driving round, there were no dandelions on the side of the road. And then suddenly, boof, there are zillions of them:
This is wildcrafter’s heaven:
As soon as we get a full day with no rain and some wind to dry things out, I will be harvesting dandelion flowers to make an infused oil.
Myherbcorner blogger, Brigitte, wrote about dandelion oil recently here. I use dandy oil as a general massage oil especially for gentle pain relief.