March 2004

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Herbal Corner
Spring Equinox Bloomers
Kathrine Chisholm,BSN
HABA Manager

I am thinking about my backyard garden. Spring Equinox is just around the corner! Early spring blooms will be only a few weeks away!

Now, if you saw my backyard you’d probably say, “Garden, what garden?...where’s the garden?” Perhaps, like my neighbors, you would just see wild grass and “weeds” and think I am lazy about mowing and keeping a lawn. I, however, am excited. I can’t wait to see the ground ivy send up its purple spikes. The violets with their tender, heart-shaped leaves and beautifully formed purple/blue or white flowers scattering throughout the grass and creating their own mounded beds in their favorite places. The bold, bright yellow heads of dandelions poking up all over the place until my front and back yards are a sunny meadow. Dandelions are physical drops of pure sunshine that have fallen to the ground...why would anyone prefer only grass?

Later in the spring the rest of the garden comes up—burdock, clover, motherwort, plantain, peony, and a few others whose names and characters I’ve yet to learn. I’ve been cultivating this garden for a couple years now. It is a joy to cultivate, consisting mostly of observing, tasting, and trimming the edges that are near the neighbor’s lawns.

And let me tell you what I’ve learned and experienced from these so-called weeds! This time, I’ll tell you about three of the earliest, the ones about to make their debut...ground ivy, violets, and dandelions.

Ground Ivy

Ground ivy, glechoma hederacea,was one of the first plants that I watched as it grew and bloomed all over my yard. I knew it was significant: it had little purple flowers at the axis of the opposite round leaves it sent up as stalks from creepers along the ground. I looked and looked and could not find information on it anywhere in modern herbals. Then I talked to my co-workers at Johannsen’s, and after laughing at me for not knowing that it is one of Wisconsin’s most pertinacious “weeds,” they kindly helped me track down its Latin name and identify it. I found it in Nicholas Culpepper's Culpepper’s Color Herbal under its old-time common name Alehoof. It has also been called Cat’s-foot, Gill-go-by-ground, and Hay-maids, but today is most widely known as ground ivy.

In 1649, it was well known and widely used for stomach, lung, gall bladder, liver, gout, and eye problems, and also as a mild diuretic. It was used topically to heal sores, wounds, and rashes. It was so valued by Europeans that they brought it with them to America in the late 1600s and planted it in their gardens for home medicinal remedies. It flourishes in our climate here in Wisconsin and has long since escaped the garden! Modern day herbalists most often use it for lung problems accompanied by coughs and also to treat digestive and kidney problems. The herb should be collected in late spring when the flowers are still fresh. The parts used are leaves and flowers. The leaves taste slightly bitter—thus its efficacy for digestive problems. The flowers are ever so slightly sour. Infused as a tea, the bitter taste is predominant. I prefer to eat a few of the leaves and flowers fresh along with violet leaves and flowers. The young violet leaves having a cool and crisp flavor that moderates the bitterness of ground ivy.

Now a bit about violets: they are an excellent remedy for lung problems and coughs as well. The flowers are an effective expectorant. Violet flower tea, mixed with honey is a good cough syrup. Culpepper’s Color Herbal shows their Latin name to be viola odorata and of their character states, “a fine, pleasing plant...of a mild nature, and in no way hurtful.” Violet leaves and flowers were used especially to treat children’s ailments. Violet’s medicinal virtues “cool any heat or distemperature of the body, including inflammations, as well as hot urine, and pains in the back or bladder.” Violets are calming, and ease pain. Under modern uses Culpepper’s states, “The leaves are antiseptic and are used internally and externally for the treatment of malignancies.” Culpepper’s further states, “Research is required in this area, but an infusion of the leaves appears to reduce pain in cancerous cases.” A strong infusion of the violet leaves is used, specific instructions on p. 196. It would be very interesting to look up what research has been done since this publishing in 1983 in regards to violets and cancer treatment. My guess would be, that like most gentle remedies from helpful plants, this remains little known. Parts used for violets are leaves and flowers. The root is not dangerous, according to Culpepper, but it does have emetic properties similar to Ipecac. You will not readily find tinctures or capsules of violets or ground ivy. They are overlooked in the modern commercial herbal industry. However, they grow freely and in abundance in our region, and they are very effective fresh or steeped as a tea (infusion).

Young, early, violet leaves are crisp and sweet. The flowers have a pleasantly sour taste.

Their calming, cooling properties are readily experienced. It took me a little bit to get over my mother’s admonition to never put something from the ground in my mouth! And the reasoning behind the warning still applies. Make sure you positively know the identification of the plant, and its characteristics before you try it. Make sure you know what parts are safe to eat. Only try it if you know there has been no chemicals used on the area in which it grows. And only taste the ones that are far from roadways and the neighbor’s chemically-infused lawn.

Which is a perfect segue into one of my favorite wild flowers, so often chemically assaulted by home owners in the name of homogenous, boring lawns...the dandelion. James Green, in The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook, tells us that dandelion has historically been such an esteemed herbal remedy that its Latin name, Taraxacum officinale is derived from the Greek "taraxis" meaning disorder, and akas, a remedy. Literally translating “remedy for disorders.” Officinale, in the species name of any plant indicates that it was a staple in any self respecting herbal healers materia medica, kept on hand in the office or workshop for use in healing and relieving common complaints and disorders.
Fresh dandelion leaf is a bitter, thus giving away its use as a digestive remedy. James Green states it is one of the finest foods and medicines to be found, and Culpepper backs him up. Eaten fresh or steamed with other greens before a meal, it stimulates appetite, improves digestion, relieves gas, nausea and constipation. Dandelion stimulates the function of the kidneys and liver. According to Green, it is one of the best diuretic herbs because it is tonic to the kidneys and aids in kidney function while concurrently increasing the body’s potassium content instead of depleting potassium as diuretic drugs commonly do.

Dandelion is a liver and gallbladder tonic, stimulating the healthy flow of bile and preventing congestion, thus known as a liver “cleanser” in common terms. Green states that “ when taken over a period of 4-6 weeks, it can work to prevent gallstone formation in those constitutionally predisposed to this problem.” He adds that a whole plant liquid tincture of dandelion root, leaf and flower taken regularly can benefit problems such as arthritis, rheumatism, eczema and other skin disorders. One caution to mention: when using herbs with liver cleansing properties it is important to monitor your own response—cleansing too fast (too high or frequent the dosage) can lead to feelings of nausea, and sometimes colicky pain. If this occurs, decrease how much you are taking or how many times a day you take it, or discontinue all together. Eating dandelion greens occasionally rarely incurs any problems; the caution applies to immoderate use of tinctures. And everyone’s response is not the same. Since the liver is the major detoxifying organ in our body, if you have a long-standing problem with toxins (as in disorders manifesting as arthritis, allergies, asthma) or if you have been taking pharmaceutical or recreational drugs over a long period of time, you would want to approach liver cleansing at a slow and easy pace. What is built up over time, is healed over time!

Your Own Source of Beauty and Health

Ground ivy, violets, and dandelions...heralders of spring and of warmer weather to come, gentle little healers that they are, can ease a cough, calm the spirit, cleanse the body. Think about letting them grow in your own yard and you will have your own source of beauty and health this spring, and all spring seasons!