By Nathaniel Whitmore
As a gardener, I have always wondered at the practice of pulling “weeds” to make room for vegetable seeds or seedlings. Many of the common garden weeds are choice edible vegetables: chickweed, purslane, burdock, dandelion, lambsquarters, galinsoga, amaranth… the list goes on and on. I can understand pulling these abundant plants to make room for cabbage, carrots, and other delicious vegetables, but why not take your harvest basket along so that the “weeds” can become dinner long before your vegetable plantings produce anything?
Many of these edible weeds are also medicinal, and many weeds that are not edible are medicinal too. In fact, it can be argued that any plant is medicinal. Native Americans used practically every plant in their given area for one thing or another. Chickweed and purslane are used for eliminating inflammation from the body and supporting healthy body fluids. Burdock, dandelion, yellow dock, and many others are used to clean the blood of toxins, fats, and inflammation. Common mallow is used like its more famous relative, marshmallow. Celandine is used for liver ailments. Mints are used for fevers and digestive problems. Mustards are used to rid the lungs of mucus.
In order to support a more sustainable existence and a local economy, along with health and happiness, it is vital for individuals to make choices toward responsible use of local natural resources and a way of life that is close to the natural world. Consider a pharmaceutical medication. You likely do not know what a given medication is made of or where it comes from. What are the raw materials? How far did they travel? How far was the pill shipped after manufacture? How much human effort went into such a medication? Compare this with a medicinal plant that grows in your yard or in the forest nearby. It grows by the grace of the natural order, requiring neither money nor human effort. You can walk out your door and pick it. Many would argue that herbs are not strong enough and that they are not regulated by the FDA. I will let you think about the FDA point yourself, but I do want to mention that herbs have been used by human beings since before recorded history.
In comparison, chemical medicine has an extremely short history that could still be considered experimental. It’s inaccurate to say that herbs are not as strong or as effective as pharmaceuticals. Granted, it is generally the case that pharmaceuticals are more concentrated, but this has just as many drawbacks as it does benefits.
The problem concerning the successful use of herbs as medicine is not the effectiveness of the plants themselves, but our understanding of how to use them. Many people, even so-called herbalists, are overwhelmed by the selection of herbs and the detailed knowledge required to employ them properly—yet another symptom of a way of life that is based more on a global economy than on an intimacy with the natural world.
The beginning of herbalism is the beginning of medicine—the use of a plant to remedy or correct some imbalance. Since the early times, local herbs have been the foundation of medicine. Even in modern times there are many places in the world where people depend on medicine that comes from the earth. Even in places with the most “advanced” medicine available, people—seeing the problems associated with pharmaceutical and surgical medicine—are beginning to turn to the plants grown nearby to heal their ills.
Eat the “weeds.” Use herbal medicines.
Nathaniel Whitmore, Master Herbalist, began his study of wild herbs with a Native American medicine man, then trained in shiatsu, martial arts, and Chinese herbal medicine. Founder and president of the Delaware Highlands Mushroom Society, he regularly offers walks and classes about medicinal herbs, plant and mushroom identification, foraging, and preparation of medicinal herbs. He also offers herbal consultations and shiatsu (acupressure) treatments.