Sit with a plant? The first time I was asked to “sit with a plant” by one of my herbal teachers I kind of rolled my eyes. Ok, it wasn’t so much of a blatant eye roll as it was a “you’re seriously going to take an hour of my REAL learning time and make me sit with a plant? Holy giant waste of time.”
But you know what? I learned something. A lot in fact. Without a book! And for someone that really loves – prefers, even – books and facts and reason, this was a huge eye opener for me. Even as I sat there, I didn’t realize I was learning. Afterwards, we discussed our observations, about the plant’s doctrine of signatures, and about our hypotheses about what its uses may be. It was only then that I learned that although I had no idea what my particular plant was, I was able to decipher clues as to what it may offer us.
The really interesting thing for me is that, as I continue to learn and study, I find that the plants that I create a relationship with by touching, smelling, planting, harvesting and yes, even sitting with them, I never forget what they’ve taught me. But those plants that don’t really grow here, that I can only see in pictures and buy dried? My book learning certainly doesn’t let me down, but it really is a different sense of knowing. Valuable and special, but just a little less personal.
As we finally start to see the early spring blooms around us, take a moment to forge a relationship with the herbs in your backyard, local park or hiking trail. Go sit with them. Draw them, and see the detail in each part of the plant. Touch them, smell them, taste them. Take some home** and dry them for tea, infuse them into an herbal oil, tincture them or add them to a stew. Then, read up on the herb, and see how much you were able to decipher. I bet you’ll be surprised how much you learned intuitively. I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments section!
**Be sure that you have permission to harvest from anywhere not in your yard, harvest only a few stems, and if you’re going to consume the plant be sure that you’re harvesting from a location that is away from the toxic fumes of traffic and/or is on land that hasn’t been treated with pesticides!
Here are a few of my favorite spring herbs that are great allies to get to know! Depending on where you live, you can start to see them as early as April, but definitely through May.
Nettle (urtica dioica)
Perhaps one of the most popular “medicinal weeds,” nettles are a wonderful spring tonic. They are a nutritional powerhouse, delivering an abundance of calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium and silica, and vitamins A, B complex, C, E, K1 & folic acid.
Widely used for centuries, there are very few conditions that nettle doesn’t support! It’s often cited for its anti-inflammatory, immune boosting and digestive support and is commonly used for conditions such as arthritis, gout, kidney stones, anemia, allergies and chronic skin conditions like eczema. When I was in herb school, my teacher often said “if you answer ‘nettle’ you won’t be wrong 99% of the time,” which shows you the power of this common backyard herb.
Nettles are perfect for those that feel depleted or deficient after a long, cold winter, or as a way to escort the body into Spring’s lighter foods and longer days by gently cleansing the residual congestion of heavy winter foods. Try sautéing the young, tender leaves with some olive oil and garlic for a lovely spring side dish, or replace nettle for basil in your favorite pesto recipe.
I prefer nettle as a tea, and use it in my blends for its skin and beauty benefits. With regular consumption I’ve found that the abundance of vitamins and minerals along with its gentle blood cleansing properties helps to reduce the dark circles under my eyes and virtually eliminates any possibility of a breakout. Given its ability to cleanse stuck “dampness” it may also be great support for cellulite.
Nettle is an extremely safe (and delicious!) herb for people of all ages…unless you’re trying to pick them with your bare hands! They’re called Stinging Nettles for a reason…and you could have a severe reaction to her prickly hairs. Be sure to wear gloves and use a clipper when harvesting. Don’t worry, these stingers lose their potency when dried or cooked, so it’s only a temporary danger.
A practice dating back some 2,000 years, these powerful stings can be used medicinally. In a process called urtication (from its Latin name urtica dioca), fresh stinging nettles are rubbed or swatted directly on areas of severe joint pain – typically due to rheumatism or arthritis. The stinging hairs contain histamine, which prompts the body to mount an anti-histamine response, thus reducing inflammation. While not a pleasurable sounding experience, many arthritis sufferers report that the relief offered is greater than the pain incurred from the stings.
Try: Drink a quart of nettle tea every day for a week, and notice the difference in your skin and how you feel overall. To ensure you extract all the nutritional constituents from the dried plant, steep covered for 4 hours or more. I use a quart size mason jar with 4-5 TBSP of dried nettle leaf and let it steep overnight with the lid screwed on tight. Sweeten with maple syrup or raw honey for a refreshing tea served at any temperature! To warm the tea simply add ¼ cup of freshly boiled water to your mug. Never microwave it!
Dandelion (taraxacum officinale)
The “weed” that people love to hate! If more people knew the amazing support she provides, we could surely grow love for this abundant spring herb. Used as a tonic herb for the liver and kidneys since at least the time of the ancient Greeks, dandelion can be used safely by young and old alike.
Dandelion is a powerful, but gentle herb perfect for the busy, stressed out person who is overworked, not eating well and/or who drinks alcohol regularly. It’s also a great choice for teens suffering from acne, and could be combined with burdock root for enhanced benefit. As a bitter herb, it helps to stimulate the digestive system and can be taken in tea or tincture form before or after meals to help regulate elimination – a necessity for clear, healthy skin!
Like Nettle, dandelion also offers an abundance of vitamins – including A,B,C and D – plus minerals such as iron, potassium and zinc. You will notice the bitter and diuretic effects of this plant after a cup of dandelion tea, so I recommend mixing it with other tasty herbs such as chamomile, peppermint or red clover, as some may find its bitterness unpleasant.
The anti-inflammatory benefits of this plant also offer relief for sore or aching muscles, and can help to reduce joint pain when used internally or topically as an infused oil or poultice. As an added benefit, the milky white “sap” you see when you pick one is nature’s antidote for warts.
Every part of this plant is edible, from her roots to her bright yellow flowers. The root has an affinity for the liver, while the leaves target the kidneys. The leaves make an excellent addition to salad or stir-fry’s and provide more beta-carotene than carrots. The flowers can be added to salads, or used to make an infused oil, while the roots are excellent as a decocted tea or tincture.
Try: Apply the milky white sap from the stem or leaves directly onto warts several times per day and cover with a band-aid. Warts should soon disappear!
“What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
Plantain – plantago major
Plantain is a wonderful first aid herb that grows abundantly in the wild all over North America. This soothing, anti-inflammatory plant ally should be at the front of your herbal medicine chest when seeking help for any kind of wound, inside or out.
Plantain is one of the best first aid herbs for on-the-spot use, offering rapid relief for pain, itching and burning associated with bug bites, scrapes, splinters, rashes (including poison ivy) or stings from nettle or other plants! Plantain leaves when bruised can rapidly draw out toxins from bites or stings, while its rich allantoin content stimulates tissue regeneration. It is also naturally analgesic (pain relieving) and antibiotic which help to solidify its place in your spring medicine bag.
Just as it soothes external irritations, plantain offers similar relief to an irritated respiratory, digestive or urinary tract. The leaves may even be eaten as a wild green for wonderful internal healing. You can harvest and store a supply of leaves in the refrigerator for a week or more when wrapped in a damp paper towel inside a container or Ziploc bag for fast medicine making.
There are two different species of plantain commonly found in the US, one is the broad leaf plaintain (plantago majus), the other is the narrow leaf species (plantago lanceolata), but both species are used the same medicinally for the purposes described.
Try: After a bee sting or brush with poison ivy, chew one or more leaves slightly – just enough to bruise them (like you would with a muddler), and then apply them to the affected area. Leave on for 10-20 minutes and repeat as necessary.
Cleavers (gallium aparine)
Cleavers are a long, vine like plant with clusters of pointy leaves spaced every few inches that pushes through gaps in bushes or hedges and use their sticky, hooked hairs to latch on to their neighbors (or you!) to spread farther.
If you’ve ever tried to clear your hedges from cleavers, you’ll know that they will spread furiously from spring through fall. Now you can clear your hedges and your toxins with this wonderful cleansing spring herb.
Cleavers have traditionally been used as a lymph and blood cleanser, supporting the elimination process and helping to relieve areas of congestion or stuck ‘chi’ (energy). As primary organs of elimination, the bladder and kidneys are well supported with cleavers, and have been used from everything to kidney stones to cystitis.
She is a cooling plant, and her cleansing nature supports the clearing of chronic skin conditions like eczema, acne, boils, rosacea and psoriasis, which are often conditions associated with too much heat in the body. For these reasons, cleavers and red clover pair nicely. Cleavers are best when used fresh instead of dried.
If you’re up for it, this may be an excellent plant to experiment with in a meditative sense. If you are feeling “stuck” or as though you have specific areas of blocked energy, try drinking some cleaver tea (or taking cleaver tincture) and see if you can tune in to your body and feel as those areas of stagnation are lifted (repeat as necessary). Let me know in the comments what you experience!
Try: As a natural dandruff remedy, try a hot water infusion or infused herbal vinegar and use as a hair rinse. When using an infused water, make this the last step in your shower routine and do not rinse afterward. For the infused vinegar, fill a mason jar with chopped up fresh cleavers and fill with raw apple cider vinegar and let infuse for 2 weeks. When ready mix 1 part vinegar to 4 parts water and use this as described above. You’ll have shiny, flake free hair with regular use!
Disclaimer: This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease and is for educational purposes only. This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.