In addition to lectures and workshops, Chris also offers herb walks. The parks and wild spaces in and around Toronto are bursting with medicinal plants. Check here, or sign up for notices of upcoming herb walks in the area. Here are some examples of plants that Chris found on nature walks this past summer.
***Please Note: While there is a small amount of general information about the medicinal use of these plants, it is never advisable to self-diagnose, or self-medicate. If you have a health issue or concern, it is important that you seek the advice of a professional practitioner who is trained in the use and safety of medicinal herbs.
Latin Name: Borago officinalis
Borage is native to the Mediterranean, but grows all over the world now. It grows in any garden soil, prefers open, sunny spaces and grows to about 1 metre in height. It's covered with stiff, white, prickly hairs and has beautiful bright blue, star-shaped flowers. It's very popular with bees, and as a result, self-sows well. It has been used medicinally for centuries in Europe for fevers and respiratory complaints, but more recently, has become recognised for its application in cases of stress and to improve mood.It has a faint cucumber flavour and has a cooling effect when combined with water, lemon and sugar.
Latin Name: Calandula officinalis
This is a plant that is well known to many, both to the eye, and by medicinal reputation. It has brilliant yellow and orange flowers that open by day and close at night, and grows to 15-50cm tall. This herb has a rich history and more medicinal uses than can be listed here.
It's known for its first aid use, where burns, cuts and scrapes are concerned, but has a wide variety of internal uses as well.
Calendula has been used in many parts of the world to make soups and broths, and was even used for a time to give cheese a yellow colour. Poets form days past have referred to it as the 'herb of the sun'.
Latin Name: Chelidonium majus
This herb is a perennial which prefers light soil and will grow in sun or semi-shade. It came to North America via Europe and now grows wild all over the world.
Celandine is extremely bitter to the taste (one of the reason it is such good medicine!), and produces a bright yellow/orange latex (juice) when a leaf or stem is broken. This juice was used centuries ago to wash film from the eyes and clear vision - a trick humans learned from observing the habits of birds. This is one reason the plant was so named, from the Greek word Chelidon ("a swallow"). It is now mainly used in the treatment of digestive complaints, particularly of the liver and galbladder.
Latin Name: Echinacea angustifolia
This pretty prennial is also known as Purple Coneflower and has been a favourite of gardeners for many years as an ornamental beauty. It likes open, sunny situations and slightly alkaline soil. The root is mainly the preferred part for medicine, and it's taste leaves a tingling sensation in the mouth.
Echinacea has had many uses over the centuries. First nations people used it to treat rabies, snake bites and serious infection. These days, it is a prime herb for infections of all types, both through enhancing the immune response as well as directly via it's anti-microbial action. It is also well known for it's alterative action, which means that improves the elimination of metabolic waste.
The fresh root (or when chewed if it is dry) leaves a tingling sensation on the tongue.
Latin Name: Escholzia californica
This non-narcotic and extremely safe cousin of the opium poppy produces yellow or orange bowl-shaped flowers, each with four petals. It prefers open, grassy areas and grows all over North America.
California Poppy acts as a relaxing nervine, a sedative and an antispasmodic. It is particularly useful in treating insomnia and safe for use with children where over-excitement and sleeplessness are a problem. It has also been used to treat pain as well as insomnia and depression.
The term 'poppy' may raise concern for some, but there have been no reports of toxicity or narcotic effects in experimental studies or anecdotal reports on Escholzia californica.
Latin Name: Eupatorium perfoliatum
This amazing plant is a perennial that is native to Eastern North America. It grows from 50cm to 1.5m tall and prefers moist, wooded areas. One of its characteristic traits
is that the stem appears to be growing right through the middle of the leaf pairs, which is where the name 'perfoliatum' comes from.
Boneset's use is not for broken bones, as the name might suggest. It is mainly used as a respiratory herb where influenza, fever and bronchitis are present. It was used historically to treat 'bonebreak fever' (aka Dengue fever, which resulted in intense joint and muscle pain), which is where it's name comes from.
Boneset also has applications for the immune and digestive systems, and was a popular medicine of First Nations people of North America.
Joe Pye Weed
Latin Name: Eupatorium purpureum
This tall, slender plant is native to North America from the east coast to the midwest, and from Canada all the way down to Florida. It is a perennial that grows to 3 metres tall and is frost-resistant, but sensitive to drought as it prefers swampy, rich low ground.
The name Joe Pye weed is thought to come from a Native American named Jopi, who treated Typhus with it. As you can guess, this plant was often used in a similar fashion to its cousin Eupatorium perfoliatum, listed above, in treating respiratory infections where fever is present.
Another common or folk name for this plant is 'gravel root'. This is due to the fact that it has been used for many years to treat kidney stones (or urinary gravel). In modern times, the urinary system is the main area of focus for this medicine, as it is also of use with edema, and chronic kidney and urinary complaints.
Latin Name: Urtica dioica
This tenaceous perennial originates in Europe and has a reputation which precedes itself. As we brush up against this plant, the tiny hairs that cover it break, releasing formic acid which creates a burning feeling on the skin. This results in irritation, redness and welts which can last for several hours. Interestingly, people with arthritic joints can find relief from this, as the irritation stimulates blood flow to the area of contact.
This herb has tremendous medicinal value, whether the seed, leaf or root is used. The leaf and seed stimulate the excretion of metabolic waste through the kidneys and is therefore used to treat conditions such as gout, arthritis and chronic renal insufficiency. It has also been used to treat allergic rhinitis and eczema. The root is a well known herb for prostate problems.
The best part about stinging nettle is that it is extremely nutritious. Don't worry, when the leaves have been steamed, cooked or even left to wilt, they lose their sting. They can be made into a soup, pesto, or any dish where you might use spinach. It nourished many people in times of famine throughout the ages.
Latin Name: Plantago major
This perennial originates in Eurasia, but is now naturalised throughout North America and many other locations. It is a 'weed' that grows freely and as such, does not need to be cultivated. It can be found growing in almost any location under almost any circumstances.
Internally, this plant is an excellent anti-inflammatory, whether it be for the digestive or respiratory systems. It is known for it's cooling and soothing properties. Externally, it has a similar action and when the fresh leaf is bruised and applied to burns, bites and stings, it can offer quick relief.
Plantain was brought to North America by European settlers and it spread so quickly that Native Americans nicknamed it "white man's foot".
Ancient Arabs and Persians took Plantain as a tea to treat stomach and intestinal trouble.
Latin Name: Rumex crispus
This perennial plant has a stout taproot and grows up to a metre high. It was brought to North America from Europe and grows mainly in damp places, but sometimes in drier pastures or cultivated ground.
The fruit is a deep red or rust colour, which demonstrates it's use as an iron tonic (depending on soil content), although modern opinion has changed slightly. It is thought that, as well as supplying iron itself, it also increases the absorption of iron offered by other sources. Yellow Dock, combined with Blackstrap Molasses and/or Stinging Nettle, for example, can work well to improve iron levels.
Also, Yellow Dock is used as a laxative to relieve constipation and an alterative for use with chronic skin conditions and psoriasis.
Historically, it has also been used to treat skin ulcers and burns, shigles and itching skin.
Latin Name: Solidago canadensis
This herb is native to North America and prefers well drained soil and open, sunny situations. It is an easy one to spot, as it tends to grow in large groups and near the end of summer, produces many bright yellow flowers that turn fields a brilliant golden colour.
It's a herb that is widely used, both for urinary and respiratory complaints. It is anti-inflammatory and aniseptic and is often used to help with colds, flu and allergies, as well as urinary tract inflammation and cystitis.
Golden Rod was traditionally used to treat weak stomach, kidney stones and tuberculosis. Externally, it was quite a well known wound healer. First Nations people of North America would boil the leaves and use this as a lotion on wounds and ulcers, as well as for healing saddle sores on their horses.
Also, as it can induce sweating, it has been used to treat fever.
Latin Name: Symphytum officinale
This very useful herb, also traditionally called 'bruisewort', 'knitbone', and 'healing herb' has a very long history of use as a wound healer. It contains a compound called Allantoin, which has the remarkable ability to stimulate tissue regrowth. As soon as you feel how cool and mucilaginous (slimy) the root is, or the juice of the leaves, you can imagine how soothing and restorative it will be to tissue damage. It has been used for centuries to heal all sorts of injuries from bruises, cuts and scrapes to broken bones and torn ligaments. In fact, it works so well it requires caution. If applied to a deep wound, it can cause the skin to regrow before the wound itself is completely healed!
Traditionlly, it was found that when the gummy root was spread on muslin and wrapped around a sprain, torn ligament or broken bone that had been set, it stiffened into a cast.
This is a controversial herb, as some believe it to be toxic to the liver. While there is no convincing evidence of this, the distribution of this plant is controlled in Canada and should be used with the guidance of a professional practitioner.
Latin Name: Tanacetum vulgare
This strongly aromatic perennial is native to Europe and grows in any soil in sunny situations. It can be found in waste places, along roadsides, riverbeds and in pastures. It flowers in July and August and is easily recognizable as it appears that all the petals have been removed, leaving only the flower heads, which look like gold-coloured buttons.
This herb has a storied history. It was used by the Danish in cooking, both as a spice to flavour puddings and omelettes, and by the English in the baking of cakes for cleansing the stomach after lent. These old traditions are long gone, but recipes including tansy can still be found.
These days, Tansy is mostly used to expel worms in children. It is a strong herb that can be irritating to the digestive system in large doses. In smaller doses, however, it can improve digestive function, and help to bring on menses when that is needed.
Externally, it can be made into a lotion to treat scabies.
Latin Name: Tussilago farfara
Coltsfoot is a low-growing and spreading perennial, which produces bright yellow flowers resembling dandelions. It has flat, green leaves with a white, downy underside. The shape of the leaves is similar to that of a horse's hoof, hence the name. It prefers damp soil, and can be found in swampy areas and along riverbeds.
As the latin name Tussilago implies, this plant has been used for many years to treat cough, or 'tussis' in latin. The early Romans used to inhale the smoke from coltsfoot through a reed to stop chronic coughing, and it has been a favourite ingredient in 'herbal tobaccos'. It was brought by European settlers and now grows wild all over North America.
These days, it is still used as a cough suppressant, but also as a soothing expectorant and respiratory anti-inflammatory.
Latin Name: Prunus virginiana
There seems to be quite a bit of confusion in the herbal literature about the difference between Wild Cherry (Prunus serotina) and Choke Cherry. Prunus serotina is the one used most commonly in modern herbal medicine and is usually a large tree. Choke Cherry is more shrub-like and is one of the most widely distributed species of tree in North America. The fruit is smaller than the cherries we have grown to love and taste sour, bitter and extremely astringent. This means that it leaves a drying feeling in the mouth, which is where the "choke" part of the name comes from.
Chokecherries were the most important wild fruit to the First Nations people of the North American prairies. Aside from using it to treat a host of ailments, they also crushed the cherries and mixed them with fat and dried meat to make Pemmican.
Although this herb is not often used as medicine these days, it's still a valuable asset where respiratory complaints and fevers are found. The fruit, bark and leaves have all been used in different circumstances.