The Weeds Are Winning!

20130827_084135When I started studying plants and their medicinal value, I was always surprised to find it was some ugly plant or a bark or root. I wanted my medicine to be exotic and beautiful, not some scraggly thing by the roadside. I wanted the extraction to be complicated and expensive. I wanted to have knowledge of exclusivity and a feeling of finding something rare. 

Last year a comedian, Tony Hinchcliffe, was performing in my club. He had broken his tooth eating something and was in terrible pain. He’d taken a pain killer; squeezed on OraGel; smoked weed; put ice on it and still he was in pain. All this time I didn’t know, so when I heard of his situation I went next door to my shop and grabbed a bag of cloves. I told him to stick one between his teeth and let the juice flow and soak into the cracked tooth. I told him it would taste like Christmas and only work for 20 mins or so, but what did he have to lose? He came back to me a little while later totally amazed that it worked, to the point where he had to say something to his dentist. Now he has a new comedy bit about how when he told him, the dentist basically replied,”Yeah don’t tell anyone, it’s an industry secret.”

Years ago when I started studying herbs and their effects, it was because I was looking for a substitute for tobacco to start making quitter’s blends.  Customers were always asking, and the products available were sometimes sketchy with ingredients not listed, or ‘not for human consumption’ written on them.  I know it was to disclaim themselves in case of a problem, but I wanted to provide my customers with something purer. 

The first plant I was surprised at, but wasn’t the first I studied, was the greater plaintain plant (not to be confused with the plantain banana). When we were kids in Saskatchewan, I remember chewing this rubbery bitter leaf and smearing the paste onto bites and nettle rashes. I don’t know who’d actually taught me, we just did it as kids and went back to playing. I don’t remember even knowing its name, it just worked and it was fun having green smears on my legs.  When I moved to Ontario, the kids didn’t do it here and I forgot about it.  Years later when researching herbs, plaintain leaf came up as one that helps with skin irritations, asthma and tuberculosis and was used traditionally by natives for centuries. I laughed when I saw its picture, it should be common knowledge – growing in the cracks of sidewalks everywhere! I had a hilarious cartoon in my head of someone bitching about a rash, or taking their asthma puffer while standing on a plaintain plant sticking out of pavement. But that’s a joke before its time I suppose!
I heard a theory once that for every poisonous plant, there is a remedy growing next to it, I have a further theory that for every ailment we suffer as a people, there are plants growing right next to us that can remedy it. One day I was walking in a park and some workers were cutting down a hedge of nettles and complaining to each other what a nasty job it was. I had just been to the health food store and had bought some tea that had nettle as one of the ingredients. Nettle has a ton of nutrients, is high in iron and a fantastic anti-oxidant. I started chuckling to myself as I thought of all the anemics and people with cancer in the city with what they needed being eradicated as a weed right beside them and noone knows it! Then I stopped chuckling when I thought of the $7 I just paid for the tea when I could have picked it in the park.

When I moved to Toronto, I noticed that every morning in Riverdale Park, groups of older Asian women were always there picking the dandelions. I always knew I could eat it, but never thought of it as food. Now grocery stores are selling it for $5 a small bunch, and the Asian ladies get it free!  Another time in the store I saw Wild Canadian rice at $15 per 500g, and GMO rice from overseas next to it at $1.95.  How did that happen? Why is our indigenous rice or corn not cultivated? Why are we treating good food as a weed? So much food gets considered not food, and we eat crap from corporate fields from afar, and think its better cause the company paid to have the nutrients listed? Even those who can afford to eat well can still fall into that trap.

All medicine comes from plants or elements found naturally. They make pills, syrups and ointments, most of which are unpleasant. The stuff is never cheap either, and the packaging and marketing can be overwhelming. I hate taking pills and fighting down nasty syrups. Yet I love tea, so I figure its better to skip the whole process, save some money and drink something delicious!  I started foraging for plants and growing my own after that! 

20130827_073216Common Medicinal ‘Weeds’ in North America:

Most of these are considered weeds and have been part of an eradication system to help with food crops. You can still find most along roadsides, abandoned fields and naturalized areas. Check before you pick in case its not allowed there. All these herbs can also be found dried and cured at most herbalists or health food stores. Do your research before you brew these up! Some of them can compete with your food regime or medication. For example St. John’s Wort is a common remedy for depression, however it contains SSRI’s and will cancel or magnify certain anti-depressant medication. 

Catnip – Flower – sedative – edges of fields and forests, Canada and USA
Chamomile – Flower – sedative, anti-bacterial – under small trees and partial shade, usually domesticated, Canada and USA
Coltsfoot – Leaf – stomach and lung mucilage – in fields and meadows, Canadian shield
Dandelion – Leaf – anti-oxidant, mineral and vitamin rich, in meadows and open fields, Canada and USA
Echinacea – Flower – immune booster, in meadows and open fields, Canada and northern USA
Hibiscus – Flower – temperature regulation, vitamin rich, along roadsides and edges of forest, southern USA
Horsetail – Leaf – stomach and bowel relief, found in meadows and fields, Canada and northern USA
Irish or Icelandic Moss – lung or throat relief, found on rocks near tundra, Canadian Shield
Lavender – Flower – anti-septic, anti-bacterial, sedative, found in fields and meadows, Canada and northern USA
Marigold – Flower – anti-septic, immune booster, in fields and meadows, Canada and USA
Mullein – Leaf – stomach or bowel relief, mucilage, along roadsides and in fields, Canada and northern USA
Nettle – Leaf – anti-oxidant, mineral rich, in fields and edges of forests, Canada and USA
Plantain – Leaf – mucilage, in fields and meadows, cracks of the pavement, Canada and northern USA
Peppermint – Leaf – stimulant, anti-septic, in fields and meadows, Canada and USA
Raspberry – Leaf – systemic boost, found in woodlands and edges of forests, along the Canadian Shield
Red Clover – Flower – throat and stomach relief, in fields and meadows,  Canada and USA
Rose Hips – vitamin and mineral rich, in fields and edges of forests, Canada and northern USA
St. Johns Wort – anti-depressant, anti-oxidant, found in fields and meadows, Canada and northern USA
Yarrow Flower – stomach relief – in fields and meadows, Canada and USA

20130827_084617Some tips on medicinal tea brewing:

– Unless otherwise instructed, traditional british seeping method in a clay or porcelain tea pot with strainer in the stem is best. Pour boiling water in the teapot and swish it around til the pot is hot. Place the herbs loose in the pot and pour boiling water over them and cover with the lid right away. Cover the teapot with a cosy or a tea towel to keep in the heat. Serve in 5 mins with your favourite fixings!
– Roots and bark teas tend to need a little more brewing time than leaves and flowers. To make work easier, I sometimes simmer the bark or roots in a small pot, with the lid on, for 20 mins or until the water has color. I strain and squeeze out the herbs with a cheesecloth and drink the brew right away. The rest can be saved in the fridge for later.
– Most leaves and flowers only need a few mins to steep in order to release the chemicals locked in the plant cells. Roots, bark and stems need more time, and may need to be brought to boil, especially if the elements present are more complex, anywhere from 20 mins to sometimes 2 hours. 
– Once unlocked though, these brews don’t necessarily need to be drank hot, they can all be cooled and drank as an iced tea, great on a hot day, in fact roots and bark teas are often bitter and taste better cold as an iced tea with sweetener or a lemon wedge.
– Its discouraging when the medicine is harsh tasting and hard to get down the hatch. Mixing strong tasting herbs can work like licorice, or a lemon squeeze, chopped mint leaves, chai spices and flowers like bergamot or berries like black currant. For sweeting, I use honey or cane sugar for light floral tasting teas, and buckwheat honey, demerrera sugar or maple syrup for heavy or earthy tasting herbs, usually barks, roots or dark leaves. Some herbs match better with different sweeteners.
– Make sure you drink the right herbs at the right time of day. Chamomile or Scullcap can make you very relaxed and are better in the day. Some herbs like chinese mallow will make you fart or more, you want to take that one when you’re at home! And try peppermint instead of caffeine for a quick wake up!
– Sometimes tea can get boring, but the brew can be used in place of water in many things. Some can be made into soup or sauces.  Or how about using the tea instead of milk or water in your smoothies!

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