Pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellata)
Parts used: Leaves
Benefits: Pipsissewa comes from a Cree word meaning “to break into small pieces”; the herb breaks kidney stones into small pieces so they can be passed. Also known as prince’s pine, pipsissewa is generally helpful for the urinary system and acts as both a diuretic and a urinary antiseptic with a gentle, mild action. It also helps prevent and treats various degrees of prostatic irritation and the frequently accompanying cystis (bladder inflamation). It acts by cleaning, toning, and soothing the irritation, restoring the organs to normalcy. As a poultice, pipsissewa was used by native people to heal blisters, sores, and swellings and to relieve painful joints.
Suggested uses: Pipsissewa is generally made into a tea for urinary problems, though capsules and tinctures can also be used.
At-risk warning: Pipsissewa is a small woodland plant with limited range in North America. Habitat destruction and overharvesting by the herbal industry have taken a toll on this beautiful plant, and at this time, there is no large-scale cultivation of pipsissewa. Do not collect the plant from the wild, and purchase only supplies that are clearly labeled organically cultivated.
Plantain (Plantago major and P. Lanceolata)
Parts used: Sseds, roots, leaves
Benefits: Plantain is a common weed across almost all of North America and is a highly nutritional food. It is one of the best poultice herbs and is often referred to as the “green bandage.” It’s among the best herbs for treating blood poisoning, used externally on the infected area and internally as a tea. Plantain seeds are a rich in mucilage and are often used in laxative blends for their soothing action. In fact, psyllium seeds used in Metamucil are produced from a Plantago species. This herb is also very effective for treating liver sluggishness and inflammation of the digestive tract.
Suggested uses: Plantain is quite mild in flavor and makes a nice infusion. It can also be powdered and added to food or used as an herbal first-aid powder for infections. Or make a poultice with the fresh leaves to soothe irritation and infection.
Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens)
Parts used: Berries
Benefits: Though long used by the native people of the subtropical coast of North America, saw palmetto has risen rapidly in popularity in recent years. It is simply the best remedy for inflammation of the prostate gland. It is tonic in action and serves as an effective diuretic and relaxant. It is strengthening to those who are continuously nervous and stressed and who lack energy and vitality. Its fatty fruit is one of the few Western herbs that are anabolic; it encourages weight gain and bulk by strengthening and building body tissue. It is used by women to firm sagging breast tissue as well. As a tonic herb, it can be taken regularly to strengthen the urinary and endocrine systems and to prevent future problems with the prostate gland and bladder.
Suggested uses: Saw palmetto has a fatty, pungent flavor that is hard to swallow and hard to disguise. It is difficult to conceive of the taste of this herb until you’ve tried it. It’s not appealing as a tea, so it’s usually available in tincture form. It can be used in capsules as well, but they should be fresh and good quality, because the fats in saw palmetto can quickly turn rancid.
Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea, E. angustifolia, E.pallida)
Parts used: All parts
Benefits and uses: Echinacea is native to North America and its use was gleaned from native healers. Now it’s an herbal sensation, being one of a handful of medicinal herbs known by the general public. This has been bad news for native strands of echinacea that have been wiped out by unscrupulous wildcrafters. Currently there is a plea to stop gathering this plant from the wild, and instead to cultivate it yourself or from a respected herbal grower.
There are several species of echinacea that can be used: E. angustifolia, E.purpurea, and E. pallida. All three are interchangeable, although E. angustifolia can last longer after it’s been dried. Mostly the root is harvested, but it’s common to see medicine made out of the aerial portions as well. To harvest the roots for the most medicinal qualities, it’s recommended to harvest them in the fall after they have been growing three years. At this point they have the highest amount of alkaloids found in them. The aerial portions can be harvested in the summer no matter the age of the plant. Remember when harvesting aerial portions to leave enough of the plant remaining for it to gather enough energy for the next year’s growth.
The popularity of echinacea in the herbal market has led to its addition into all sorts of strange products such as shampoo and energy drinks. Although most of us know echinacea as the cold and flu herb, there are many herbalists that disagree with this use and recommend it more specifically for sepsis or other systemic infections. Still, some herbalists agree that it’s best to take it frequently at the very beginning of a cold or flu. Herbalist Stephen Buhner reports that echinacea supports the immune system by stimulating leukocytes, which in turn can kill pathogens in the body, and it also has anti-bacterial qualities that can stop the spread of pathogens as well. This can also make it a useful in the case of bladder infections. Traditionally echinacea was used externally for infected wounds, spider bites, and snake bites.
Wild yam (Dioscorea villosa)
Parts used: Rhizomes and roots
Benefits: Wild yam is a primary source of material for steroid production and also serves as a hormone precursor, thereby aiding the proper function of the reproductive system of both sexes. Although sometimes wild yam is listed as a natural birth-control agent, it’s more often used to promote fertility and treat all aspects of menstrual dysfunction. The roots and rhizomes contain bitter compounds that help tone the liver and increase bile flow. Wild yam is also useful for liver congestion and inflammation. It’s especially indicated for those who store excess heat in their bodies or who have high blood pressure. Additionally, wild yam is a nervine and antispasmodic and is excellent for soothing muscle cramps, colic, and uterine pain.
Suggested uses: Wild yam can be made into teas, tinctures, and capsules. It is bitter and not often prepared by itself as a tea, though it is tolerable when blended with other herbs.
At-risk warning: Native populations of wild yam are under siege, and some varieties are highlighted on the United Plant Savers “at risk” list. Use only cultivated varieties of wild yam.
Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum)
Parts used: Bark and essential oil
Benefits: What a marvelous plant! As well known for its medicinal properties as for its delicious flavor, the cinnamon tree is native to India but is widely cultivated in most tropical regions of the world. Though cinnamon is considered to be simply a spice by most Westerners, herbalists have been using it for centuries as a warming digestive aid. It is a wonderful mild stimulant and can be combined with ginger to treat circulatory and digestive problems. The plant has antiviral and antiseptic activities, making it useful for fighting infection. Because of its delicious flavor, it’s often used in herbal formulas to mask the taste of less flavorful medicinal plants. There are few blends that aren’t enhanced by cinnamon’s warm, spicy flavor!
Suggested uses: To make a warming tea, infuse 1/2-1 teaspoon of cinnamon bark in 1 cup of boiling water for 15-20 minutes. Combine cinnamon with ginger for circulatory problems, with chamomile for poor digestion, and with yarrow & peppermint for colds and flus. Use the powdered bark in cooking; it is a flavorful addition to many main courses and desserts. Add the essential oil to salve recipes and use them topically as analgesics and as warming, stimulating balms.
Chaste Tree (Vitex agnus-castus)
Parts used: Fruit. The very dark berries should be picked when ripe, between mid-fall and late fall.
Benefits and uses: The fruit of the chaste tree are more commonly known as vitex berries, which is a widely-known women’s herb. Vitex berries have the effect of stimulating and normalizing pituitary gland functions, but the greatest use of the fruit lies in normalizing the activity of female sex hormones. Thus, it is useful in the treatment of dysmenorrhea, pre-menstrual stress, and other disorders related to hormone function. It is especially useful during menopausal changes, and may be used to aid the body to regain a natural balance after the use of birth control pills.
Preparation and dosage: For an infusion, pour a cup of boiling water over 1 teaspoon of ripe vitex berries and leave to steep for 10-15 minutes. Drink 3 times a day, or take 1-2ML of the tincture 3 times a day.
Marsh Mallow (Althaea officinalis)
Parts used: Primarily the roots, but the leaves and flowers are also useful
Benefits: A soothing mucilaginous herb, marsh mallow can be used much like slippery elm bark for soothing any and all inflammations. It is also particularly valuable for burns, sore throats, and digestive problems like diarrhea and constipation. However, marsh mallow is much more readily available and easy to grow in most garden settings. It makes a good substitute for slippery elm, which is an “at risk” plant.
Suggested uses: Serve marsh mallow tea for treating sore throats, diarrhea, constipation, and bronchial inflammation. Mix it into a paste with water and apply topically to soothe irritated skin. Marsh mallow can also be used in the bath as a soothing wash; combine it with oatmeal for maximum effect.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Parts used: Flowers and leaves
Benefits and uses: Yarrow is a beautiful and incredibly useful plant that grows practically everywhere. If hikers and other avid outdoors people knew only one plant, yarrow should be it. When fresh plant material is placed on an open wound, it stops bleeding almost instantly. It can also increase circulation when taken internally or used externally to promote blood flow in bruises or varicose veins.
Yarrow’s healing abilities have been known for an immeasurable amount of time and have even been made famous in Greek myths of Achilles; yarrow, also named Achillea, is the magic potion said to have protected Achilles so well. Also called woundwort and other similarly devised names, yarrow has been used on battlefields to heal soldiers’ wounds as far back as we have sad tales of war. Yarrow is probably growing wild somewhere in your backyard, but during the dormant season, keep enough dried on hand for whatever emergencies may arise. It can be powdered and sprinkled on wounds, not only to stop bleeding but also to dull pain, and as an antiseptic herb to prevent infection.
Yarrow’s abilities are not limited to wounds however. Taken internally, it can open pores for cleansing and to release a fever. Yarrow is frequently used as a tea at the first sign of a cold or flu. The tincture or tea can be used for bladder infections. Yarrow is anti-microbial, astringent, anodyne, and reduces inflammation.
Basil (Ocimum basilicum)
Parts used: Leaves
Benefits and uses: The warming, aromatic constituents of basil help to calm the nervous system; settle the stomach; clear the mind; and fight off coughs, colds, flu and allergies. The magnitude of basil’s healing endeavors are reflected in the hundreds of therapeutic applications of this leafy green companion. Basil is known as the destroyer of phlegm - when you consider the number of ailments that are provoked by excess phlegm (from allergies to asthma to colds), you begin to understand the breadth of basil’s virtue.
Basil is most commonly thought of as part of the tomato sauce or pasta dish, but a cup of basil tea works works wonders on almost any digestive complaint. Basil tea relieves stomach cramps and spasm, nausea, gas and constipation. That must be why it’s a primary ingredient in pasta dishes: so you can eat more pasta! Basil doesn’t qualify as the world’s best tasting tea, but it isn’t so bad, especially when you find out what it can do for your stomach. Just add a little honey!
Eating more basil in the late summer and early fall helps fend off sinus and bronchial congestion during the winter. It is also antibacterial and antiviral, making it a helpful remedy for the common cold and flu as well. If you are prone to such sickness, keep some dried basil and drink the tea several times a week as a preventative remedy. It warms the body, clears out the lungs, and sharpens the mind. In the middle of winter when you are feeling cold, dark, damp and depressed, break out your stash of dried basil and let it infuse your day with a little warmth and summer sunshine.