Healing Herbs, Flowers, and Weeds
By Susan Meeker-Lowry
I love summer.
Not everything about it — the mosquitos here in Fryeburg are a bit much this year, and it seems that each year the severe thunderstorms become more frequent, which is stressful — but when the sun is out and the sky is so very blue it takes your breath away, well, it just doesn’t get any better than that.
So in honor of summer, I thought I’d write about the healing qualities of some my favorite common garden flowers and “weeds.” If you’re at all intrigued, there’s lots of information available in books and online. I particularly recommend anything by Rosemary Gladstar or Susun Weed, and do check out Plant Healer Magazine online.
One of the best skin care herbs is Calendula officinalis. Often called “pot marigold” because in days past it was often added to the soup pot, calendula is easy to grow and blooms prolifically from summer to frost in sunny yellows, oranges, even reds and maroons. Calendula has anti-viral, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, antiseptic, and anti-inflammatory properties, and promotes skin regeneration, heals rashes, burns, skin problems associated with radiation therapy, sores and ulcers, minimizes scar tissue, and is an excellent skin moisturizer. It can be used as an infusion, tincture or infused in oil, which is what I do most with it. As such, it makes a wonderful massage oil, and is gentle enough for healing and preventing diaper and heat rashes on baby’s tender skin.
Another awesome flower for skin care is the rose. There are many varieties, but I love rosa rugosa for medicine and skin care. Growing up, I called them wild roses or, near the ocean, beach roses. Flowers range from pale pink to deep magenta, and are wonderfully fragrant. Rose infused oil is suitable for all skin types especially dry, sensitive, irritated and mature skin. And over time, a rose’s astringent effect will greatly diminish those tiny red capillaries close to the skin’s surface. It takes a lot of rose petals to make rose infused oil, so if you’re not blessed with a large hedge nearby, you can use dried organic roses. Or, you can add pure rose essential oil (costly but worth it) to a carrier oil like almond, coconut, olive or jojoba. Don’t use roses from the florist!
St. John’s wort (hypericum perforatum) is a common “weed” that grows by the roadside and in what are often referred to as waste places. Its sunny, yellow flowers and ability to thrive in harsh, dry conditions hint at its medicinal qualities. St. J’s is a powerhouse of healing: anti-inflammatory, astringent, anti-viral, antioxidant. Most often considered an herb for depression and taken as a tincture or capsule, when infused in oil St. John’s wort is a premier skin care herb. It soothes and heals burns of all types, and its antiviral qualities mean that it shortens the duration of herpes and cold sores. In addition, it’s an excellent herb for wounds and insect stings. It speeds the healing of bruises and eases nerve pain. Only the flowers are used, picked when newly opened, staining your fingers maroon. When ready, the oil will be deep red.
I want to mention two more plants that grow everywhere here in Maine: plantain and sweet fern. Most people don’t give plantain a second glance (unless it is to try and get rid of it), but I treasure it and leave several patches untouched so I can harvest as needed. As an infusion or tincture, plantain is an excellent tonic for the kidneys and urinary system, and can help relieve diarrhea. Due to its demulcent and expectorant qualities, plantain can relieve coughs, asthma, and bronchitis. Infused in oil (which is what I do), plantain is and excellent wound healer, aids in the healing of burns and rashes, including eczema and psoriasis. If you get stung, find some plantain, chew it up a bit and apply it to the bite to take the pain away and reduce redness and swelling.
Sweet fern is practically a miracle healer for poison ivy and similar rashes. It grows in similar conditions as St. J’s, and is actually a shrub, not a fern, which is resembles. The scent is unmistakable — piney, resinous, sweet. Ever since I was a child, I’ve just loved the aroma of sweet fern, which can be made into a tea. I read that in times past, it was used to line food baskets for its preservative qualities. For poison ivy, make a strong infusion of the fresh or dried leaves and apply it to the rash often. Or you can make a poultice of the herb and place it on the rash letting it stay there for a while. Personally, I haven’t had poison ivy in years and when I did there was no sweet fern available. However, everyone I’ve advised to use sweet fern has raved about its effectiveness. So give it a try. And just in case, harvest some and dry it to have on hand.
Very briefly (and for more information check out the sources listed earlier): To make infused oils, pick newly opened, unsprayed flowers or herbs. Wilt in a single layer on screen/paper to evaporate excess moisture. Two to three days for “juicy” calendula, hours only for St. J’s, even less for roses. Fill clean jar 2/3 to 3/4 full with flowers (chopped if large like calendula), add oil to the top (extra virgin olive is excellent), remove air bubbles, cap tightly, place jar in a sunny window, and let steep for four to six weeks. Strain through cheesecloth, squeezing out all the oil. If cloudiness settles on bottom, carefully pour clear oil into another jar. The oil can be used as is or made into healing salves and creams.
Regardless of what herbs or flowers you’re gathering, avoid busy roadsides and fields that may have been sprayed. Know what you’re picking and don’t over harvest, not even the “weeds.”
I believe there will come a time when, once again, people will need to know the healing plants, flowers, and “weeds” that grow where we live. What better time than now to start?