Afternoon among the Herbs

On a gorgeous September afternoon, we experienced delicious and clinically helpful herbs. Our guide was Diana Baron, a clinical herbalist intern at the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism. Diana works with herbs from appreciation for traditional energetics, modern phytochemistry, practicality, and accessibility in health care. It’s eye-opening to realize value of plants labeled “weeds,” “invasives,” and other tags for underappreciated plants.

We began our herb tour at Love-in-a-mist, whose botanical name is Nigella sativa. The seeds are edible. Natural remedy purveyors sell it as black seed oil. Its properties include being antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. Love-in-a-mist, which was mentioned in the Old Testament, is sometimes called black seed, black cumin, or black caraway.
Lovely, helpful weed alert! The pink flowers are on the large marshmallow plant. The tiny orange flowers are jewelweed.
Marshmallow’s root has an affinity for the gut. It’s mucilaginous, so can ease the discomfort of gastritis or ulcers. It doesn’t reduce stomach acid, as an antacid would, but coats the stomach lining to prevent burning.
Orange jewelweed is good for touring poison ivy. Pat juice or rub an infused ice cube on the affected area.
Speaking of wonderful weeds, red clover is the Vermont state flower and a member of the family that includes peas and beans. It’s used as an alterative and a lymphatic, and is sometimes used as a cancer preventive. Enjoy them fresh in salad or dried and brewed up into tea.
Sage has a wonderfully strong aroma from strong volatile oil, which means oils that dissipate in air. Sage’s actions as a medicinal are carminative (reduces intestinal gas) and antimicrobial. One visitor on this tour has a friend who drank sage tea to ease discomforts that arose with menopause. It has nervous system effects, perhaps because it’s vasodilating, which allows blood pressure to drop and the nervous system to relax. Sage can be relaxing for some and invigorating for others.
Parsley is the most common herb used in restaurants. Medicinally, it’s a diuretic and an emmenagogue, which means it can begin delayed menstrual bleeding.
Cilantro’s leaves are a heavy metal binder. Its aromatic qualities emanate from its volatile oils, and clinically it’s an expectorant. The dill growing beside the cilantro (and fennel, a close relative) may be used to help increase breast milk production.
Jalapeño peppers contain capsaicin, which is used to treat arthritis. Peppers and other foods with heat are diaphoretic, which means they make you sweat. They stimulate circulation, causing cooling in the summer and sending blood to cold hands and feet in winter.

Rosemary, sage, lavender, and marjoram are all mint relatives. They have the telltale square stems and opposite leaves.

“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance,” said Ophelia, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Rosemary is sometimes used to treat brain injuries. It shares chemistry with sage. Both can be used to support the immune system when coming down with something. It’s very antioxidant, and consuming lots might protect against sun damage. Rosemary holds its flavor when cooking.

Lavender is lovely in tea and can help reduce gut inflammation. It’s antimicrobial/antibacterial. Lavender and other plants vary in their properties from plant to plant, so are less likely to be rendered useless, unlike the way bacteria become resistant to some antibiotics.

There are common themes among many culinary herbs, many of them mint relatives, which include carminative (gas-relieving), antioxidant, and nervine actions.

Thyme is antimicrobial and has respiratory action as an expectorant to help with wet coughs. Oregano has similar properties, and is sometimes used to treat MRSA (the Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus bacterium).
Garlic fights H. pylori, a bacterium associated with stomach ulcers, along with many other bacteria. Garlic is antiparasitic and good for the heart and circulation.
Basil is good for digestion. It’s uplifting, improving mood and focus. Basil, like the Thai variety shown here, is the same genus as tulsi, also known as holy basil. Tulsi is de-stressing and has antidepressant qualities.
The group agreed that lemon balm would be lovely in sorbet! It’s uplifting to the mood, and can be both relaxing and energizing. It’s sometimes found in medicinal blends to treat ADD (attention-deficit disorder) as well as to ease the symptoms of herpes outbreaks.
Shown here with a perennial walking onion growing through it, horseradish is in the mustard family. It can help clear mucus. Some compounds found in horseradish are now being used to differentiate between cells in laboratory tests. Another unexpected use: a study is testing a horseradish-spritz smoke alarm that would alert people with hearing impairments.
Deep-pink Joe Pye weed is used to break up kidney stones. Goldenrod can be used to treat allergies. It’s bitter, so good for digestion. It’s acrid, which often indicates a plant’s use as an antispasmodic. Goldenrod has anti-inflammatory properties and can be used to aid digestion.
Aromatic Queen Anne’s lace is also called wild carrot. You can differentiate it from wild parsnip (which can cause skin rashes) by Queen Anne’s hairy stems. It’s anti-inflammatory properties make it a go-to for treating urinary tract infections. Some have used its seeds as contraceptives, as its volatile oils can irritate the uterine lining.

Yarrow, whose botanical name is Achillea millefolium, is a styptic, which means it stops bleeding. Its antimicrobial flowering tops and even the leaves can be used. Some hikers carry yarrow powder in their backpacks for wound treatment on the trail. Yarrow’s astringent quality helps knit proteins (and our tissues) together. It’s nice as a bitter in a tonic of bitters.

Beautiful bull thistle is very spiky. Some people peel the spikes and eat what’s inside.

Self-heal is good in topical oils and wound preparations. Dry the flowers a bit to avoid mold, then infuse it into oil for topical application. Self-heal is antimicrobial and lymphatic, has liver actions, and helps with eye issues.

Finally, we come to everyone’s (least?) favorite lawn weed, the ubiquitous dandelion. It’s a bitter, so good for digestion. Some make wine from its flowers. In early spring, the greens are tender, tasty, and healthy.
As a remedy, dandelion is a diuretic that’s high in potassium, so good for lowering blood pressure. Like burdock, another weed that feeds, heals, and annoys people, dandelion is high in inulin, a prebiotic fiber. Dandelion leaf tea is delicious. Its roots are roasted into a coffee substitute, similar to chicory.
Afterward, we relaxed and discussed naturalism and herbalism books Diana had brought.
And sipped Diana’s tasty tea of lemon balm, nettle, and corn silk.