Tag Archives: herbalism

5 Edible Spring Weeds

Spring will come sooner than you think, and it’s a beautiful but challenging time! We’re busy in the garden in the spring, prepping beds, sowing, transplanting, amending, and weeding. However, it will still be weeks before most crops begin to produce. Traditionally, many folks would’ve foraged wild greens this time of year to help fill the “hungry months,” when last year’s stores are running out and this season’s crops have yet to mature. This spring, if you can’t wait to start harvesting, keep these five edible spring weeds in mind!

A Safety Note

None of this information is intended as medical advice. Always consult with a doctor. Avoid consuming any of these plants if you’re taking medications, pregnant, or breastfeeding until you’ve consulted with a medical practitioner. 

Foraging Tips

Harvest sustainably. Don’t take a whole patch or more than you need; try to leave root systems intact. This advice isn’t applicable if you’re pulling weeds from your garden. 

Avoid harvesting any wild edible from areas that may be contaminated, such as roadsides or lawns that have been sprayed with pesticides or other chemicals.

Follow local rules or guidelines if harvesting in public areas.

Purple Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum)

You’ve likely seen purple dead nettle before, even if you didn’t know what it’s called. Purple Dead Nettle is a common herbaceous plant that has naturalized throughout much of North America.

Once you know what you’re looking for, Purple Dead Nettle is easy to recognize. It has fuzzy heart or arrow-shaped leaves attached directly to a square stem. The leaves transition from green near the base to purple or pink near the top of the stem. The flowers are tiny, tubular purple flowers near the tip.

Purple Dead Nettle can be consumed raw or cooked. You can use the young leaves and the tops of the flower spikes in soups, salads, pestos, and stir-fries. You can also dry it for later use as you would other herbs.

Herbalists also employ purple dead nettle for various reasons. It’s believed to have anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, diuretic, and antibacterial properties. Traditionally, herbalists use purple dead nettle in teas, tinctures, salves, and poultices to boost the immune system, treat minor wounds and irritations, alleviate joint pain, and help ease colds.

Chickweed (Stellaria media)

Native to Eurasia, chickweed has naturalized throughout the world and is a common sight in spring gardens, lawns, and waste places. It’s an annual in most areas but may be perennial in warm climates. 

Chickweed is sparsely hairy with oval, opposite leaves. The lower leaves have stalks or petioles, while the upper leaves are attached directly to the stem. It has dainty white flowers, and if you look closely, you’ll notice that they’re composed of five deeply lobed petals. Chickweed has green seed capsules that may appear hairy or fuzzy.

As the name suggests, it’s often grown for poultry, but it’s pretty tasty and nutritious for humans too! Unlike many wild greens, I’ve found chickweed to be mild and tender. It makes a wonderful addition to salads and pesto.

Chickweed is also sometimes used in folk medicine. It’s rich in iron and is a popular choice among herbalists for treating anemia. Historically, herbalists also employed chickweed to treat mild skin irritations like bug bites, sunburn, bronchitis, arthritis, and period pain.

Cleavers (Galium aparine)

Cleavers is known by many common names such as velcro plant, catchword, bedstraw, stickyweed, and hitchhikers, with most referencing the seeds’ ability to cling to people and animals. It’s native to North Africa, Europe, and Asia but has naturalized worldwide.

Cleavers is a low-growing annual with stems that creep along the ground and may become three feet or longer. The stems are angular or square-shaped and have hooked hairs that allow them to climb over other plants. It has simple narrow lance-shaped leaves borne in whorls of six to eight. 

In early bring or summer, cleavers produces tiny white or greenish, star-shaped flowers. The flowers are followed by spherical burrs forming clusters of two or three. The burrs are covered in hooked hairs that allow them to stick to fur and clothing, aiding in dispersal. 

Despite the hooked hairs, cleavers is edible. The stems, leaves, and flowers can be eaten before the seeds form. They’re best when cooked in dishes like soups and stews. Interestingly, cleavers are in the same family as coffee. The seeds can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute. 

In herbal medicine, folks have used cleavers as a diuretic tea and salve or poultice to treat minor wounds, burns, and rashes. As the common name bedstraw indicates, dried cleavers were once commonly used to stuff mattresses. Cleaver roots were once commonly used to make a permanent red dye. 

Some people experience a skin rash when coming in contact with the hairs of cleavers.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

Taraxacum is a large genus of plants commonly known as dandelions. While this includes many species, for this post, we’ll focus on one of the most common species worldwide, Taraxacum officinale often referred to as common dandelion or dandelion.

It’s likely that you already know how to identify the common dandelion. The leaves form from the base and are oblanceolate, oblong, or obovate and narrower near the tip. They are usually shallowly or deeply lobed and have sharp or rounded teeth. Dandelions form yellow flowers, followed by seeds attached to silky pappi, which create parachutes allowing for wind dispersal. Dandelions have large taproots.

The leaves, roots, and flowers of dandelions are all edible. The young leaves and buds are often eaten raw in salads. Older leaves get more bitter and are better for use in cooked dishes. The roots can be eaten like other root vegetables or dried and ground into a coffee substitute. 

Dandelion flowers are often used to make dandelion wine or are sometimes added to baked goods. Recently, there has been some concern about using so many flowers and how this may harm bees. In reality, dandelions are not bees’ earliest or preferred food source. Many other species provide good early nutrition for bees, like willow blossoms and violets. Additionally, pruning dandelions encourages growth. 

Herbalists use dandelions internally and externally to help treat various ailments. They are believed to help with indigestion, support a healthy liver, treat inflammation, heal mild skin irritations, and more. 

Lambsquarters (Chenopodium album) 

Native to Europe, lambsquarters is now naturalized worldwide and is known by many names, including goosefoot, white goosefoot, fat-hen, wild spinach, and meld. Although it’s a cultivated plant in some areas, it’s considered a noxious weed in many others and can significantly impact crop yields. 

Lambsquarters leaves are widely varied in appearance but are generally more or less diamond-shaped and toothed. They grow in an alternate arrangement on the stem and often have a mealy white coating, especially on the underside. The stems have conspicuous grooves and are hairless and branched. The flowers form in clusters at the stem ends and are green and unassuming. They give way to shiny, black to brown seeds encased in star-shaped papery coverings.

The leaves, young shoots, flowers, and buds of lambsquarters are all edible and make an excellent cooked green. However, lambsquarters are high in oxalic acid and should be eaten in moderation. The seeds can also be eaten like a grain. Archeologists have found them mixed with other grains at Roman, Viking age, and Iron Age sites. It is also used as animal feed.

Herbalists often use lambsquarters to create a poultice for insect bites, sunburn, rashes, and minor wounds. Historically it has also been made into a tea to treat or prevent scurvy, diarrhea, gout, and rheumatic pains. 



Herbal Tinctures: The Folk Method

One easy way to start working with medicinal herbs is to create tinctures. A tincture is simply a liquid extract of a medicinal plant. They’re a great way to preserve herbal medicine in season. They also help concentrate the active ingredients in a plant, allowing you to use an herbal remedy conveniently. You can take a drop of tincture rather than a cup of tea, or for those who struggle with it, having to swallow capsules. Today, we’ll cover how to create your own tinctures using the folk method.

***None of the information in this post is intended to diagnose or treat any condition. Consult your physician for medical advice.***

***When using wild plants, always be 100% sure of their identification before employing it in any herbal or edible preparation.***

History of Tinctures

There is an incredibly long history of tinctures in medicine. The Al-Qanoon fi al Tibb (The Canon of Medicine), an encyclopedia of medicine in five books compiled by Persian physician-philosopher Avicenna and finished in 1025, includes instructions for making tinctures!

It’s likely that the use of tinctures dates back much further and probably started shortly after the invention of distillation. What’s now China, Egypt, Turkey, and Israel may have been distilling alcohol and creating tinctures as far back as 2000 BC. 

Early distillation looked far different from what we know today. Writings from 4th century Greece credit the first modern distillation with an alembic to the western alchemist Maria the Jewess between AD 200 – 300.

Alcohol distillation didn’t occur in Europe until the 12th century, with alchemists primarily interested in creating elixirs. Slowly, the process became more widely used, as did tinctures and recreational alcohol. By the 1800s, tinctures were common in European medicine. 

Lemon Balm Leaves, Mason Jar, and KnifeWhat’s the folk method?

The folk method is likely how the first tinctures were made and is still in use today. It’s an easy and effective way to create tinctures without a scale or measuring cup. To use the folk method, pack herbs into a glass jar or container and cover them with alcohol. It’s as simple as that!

Alternatively, as you become a more experienced herbalist, you may want to learn to create weight-to-volume tinctures. These types of tinctures combine macerated herbs by weight to alcohol by volume. Often, fresh herbs are tinctured at a ratio of 1:2 with alcohol, and dry herbs are tinctured at a ratio of 1:5. The ratio may also vary with the type of herb.

We’ll stick with the folk method for this blog, but The Herbal Academy has an excellent weight-to-volume tincture guide you can read here.

What do I need to make a folk tincture?

You can make a tincture from nearly any herb you have on hand. You can use fresh herbs you’ve grown or gathered or dried herbs from a trustworthy source like local farms or Mountain Rose Herbs. In the past, we’ve featured posts on holy basil and goldenrod tinctures.

You may also want to create a tinctures and select herbs with a specific goals in mind. Below are a few herbs that herbalists will commonly tincture:

  • Echinacea
  • Coltsfoot
  • Holy Basil
  • Valerian 
  • Feverfew 
  • Chicory Root
  • Chamomile
  • Raspberry Leaves
  • Lemon Balm
  • Goldenrod
  • Mint
  • Skullcap
  • Lovage

***Always thoroughly research an herb before using it and consult your physician. Some herbs are known to cause adverse reactions when combined with prescription medications. Herbs may also cause allergic reactions or other illnesses when used in inappropriate concentrations.***


You’ll also need 80-proof alcohol. Many people choose to use vodka as it doesn’t impart much flavor, but you can choose to use others like brandy or gin. Byron Ballard, Appalachian urban farmer, witch, and author of Roots, Branches, & Spirits: The Folkways and Witchery of Appalachia, says she prefers rum as it adds a bit of nicer flavor. 

Other Supplies

Depending on the herb you’re working with, you may need a clean knife, scissors, or grater to prepare your herb. You also need a clean jar with a lid that seals well. An ill-fitting lid may let the alcohol slowly evaporate. 

Later, you’ll need a strainer or cloth to filter your aged tincture. You also need a clean container to store the filtered tincture in. Depending on the container you choose, a funnel may also be helpful.

Strainer, tincture in mason jar, mason jar with herbs, lemon balm leavesMaking a Tincture with the Folk Method

  • Prepare your herbs. Roots should be scrubbed and chopped or grated, and it’s best to remove large stems from herbs. You may also want to chop up leaves and flowers to help speed up the process.
  • Place the herbs into a container. You may want to pack light, fluffy herbs down gently.
  • Cover your herbs with alcohol. Press the herbs down a bit so that the alcohol covers them completely.
  • Place a tight lid on the container and store it somewhere dark for a minimum of two to six weeks. 
  • Check on and shake your container every few days, especially in the beginning. Press the herbs down or add alcohol as needed to keep them covered.
  • Strain the plant material out of your finished tincture. A wire strainer may do for larger pieces, but you may need a finer filter, like a clean bandana, for fine herbs.

Can I make a tinctures without alcohol?

While a tincture is technically defined as an ingredient dissolved in alcohol, other ways exist. Increasingly, herbalists are using the word tincture to refer to herbs in vinegar or glycerin for those who need or want an alcohol-free option. Learn how to make herbal glycerites from The Herbal Academy.

Storing Tinctures

After you strain your tincture, you want to store it somewhere cool and dark. If available, brown glass bottles are ideal for tinctures as they block some of the light. Small bottles with droppers can be handy, especially if you want to take your tincture regularly.

Generally, I use and then replace tinctures within two years. However, tinctures may keep for up to 3 to 5 years.

Using Your Tincture

How you use your tincture largely depends on what it is. Herbalists generally may make recommendations by the drop or dropper full, referring to those small bottles with droppers. 

Tincture recommendations vary widely by herb and purpose, from taking a dropper full when you’re feeling anxious to taking 30 drops up to three times a day when you’re experiencing cold and flu symptoms. Again, appropriate research and consulting a physician can help you determine what’s best.

Folk tinctures are a great way to get started with herbalism and connect with new plants. Whether you’ve grown and gathered herbs this season or are ordering them online, this guide will help you create your own tinctures using the folk method.

5 Unusual Medicinal Herbs

Herbalism is a wonderful way to explore cultural traditions and history. It can also help you support a healthy lifestyle and improve your knowledge of plants. Maybe this year you started your first herb garden, planting some easy-to-grow herbs, or perhaps you’ve been practicing herbalist for years crafting teas, tinctures, and other natural products to promote wellness. Wherever you are on your journey, adding a few unusual medicinal herbs to your herb garden can be fun. While most of these plants have been used in herbal medicine for a long time, they tend to be less common in modern gardens.

Unusual Medicinal Herbs Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus)Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus)

Also known as Chinese Milk Vetch or Huang Qi, Astragalus is a traditional Chinese herb that herbalists have used since ancient times to increase and tonify qi. Herbalists believe the plant to be an adaptogen and deep immune system activator. 

Astragalus is a perennial legume with a spreading, reclining growth habit. It does best in a sunny location with well-drained, fairly dry soil. The foliage dies back each fall and regrows in the spring. For best results, soak your Astragalus seeds overnight before planting.

Typically herbalists harvest a portion of the roots when the plant is well established and at least four or five years old. Wash, cut up, and dry your roots for use in teas, tinctures, and other preparations. Dried roots may also be powdered. 

Unusual Medicinal Herbs SpilanthesSpilanthes (Acmella oleracea)

This unique, vibrant flower is widely used and known by many names. You may have heard it called eyeball plant, buzz buttons, or toothache plant. When eaten raw, edible leaves and flowers cause a tingling sensation in the mouth. Practitioners of Ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine, and western folk medicine have used Spilanthes for various ailments, including upper respiratory illnesses, minor pain, and various mouth and dental issues. 

Spilanthes is a beautiful, low-growing, spreading plant. The cone or hive-shaped flowers are composed of hundreds of tiny yellow, red, and orange-hued flowers. These cones are often compared to eyeballs giving the plant one of its common names. Here in Virginia and farther north, it is grown as an annual but is a tender perennial in warm climates. It prefers areas with full sun, and the seeds require light to germinate.

This exciting plant adds a unique flavor to soups, sauces, sorbets, cocktails, and salads. You may use it fresh or dried in teas and external applications.

Unusual Medicinal Herbs Echinacea pallida
Photo by H. Zell

Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea Pallida)

Echinacea or coneflower, is one of the more commonly known medicinal plants today. You can probably even find it in immune-boosting teas and supplements at your local grocery store. However, most of these are one species, Echinacea purpurea. While I love Echinacea purpurea, it is just one of the ten species of Echinacea, all of which are medicinally important. 

All species of Echinacea are frequently used to boost the immune system. Several pharmacological studies have demonstrated immuno-stimulant, bacteriostatic, and anti-viral activity.

Native to open woods and rocky prairies from northeastern Texas to central Illinois, Echinacea pallida flowers typically feature rosy purple long, dropping petals and a purple-brown flower disc. Occasionally, flowers may be pink, purple, or white. This drought-tolerant plant has long, narrow leaves and grows 18 to 36 inches tall. 

Echinacea pallida can be a bit more tricky to start from seed than its more common counterpart, Echinacea purpurea. You need to stratify the seed for 60 days at 40°F. Then you can start it indoors and transplant or direct seed it in an area that receives full sun. It’s perennial in zones 3 through 9.

All parts of the echinacea plant can be used in herbal preparations. Wait until the plant is well-established before harvesting leaves. Wait until the plant is at least three years old to harvest roots. 

Unusual Medicinal Herbs SoapwortSoapwort (Saponaria officinalis)

Soapwort is a non-native herb brought from Europe and is naturalized in much of the United States. It’s a valuable herb because the plant contains natural saponins and produces a lather when soaked or heated in water. It’s terrific for making a non-irritating skin cleanser, shampoo, or soap for delicate fabrics. 

More tolerant than some herbs, soapwort will thrive in full sun to partial shade with moist to slightly dry soil. The seeds require light to germinate and can be transplanted or direct seeded. Soapwort is perennial in zones 3 through 10 and may spread.

Wait to harvest soapwort until it’s at least a year old and you have an established patch. For the highest saponin content, harvest the leaves and blooms when the plants are in full flower. They may regrow and bloom again that season. Harvest roots in the fall.

Unusual Medicinal Herbs LovageLovage (Levisticum officinale)

While not widely used today in the US, lovage would’ve been common in many medicinal and kitchen gardens of medieval Europe. The ancient Greeks were probably the first herbalists to employ lovage, chewing the leaves to relieve gas and aid digestion. Throughout time it became more popular for its medicinal and culinary uses. In the kitchen, it’s used as a salad green or in the same fashion as celery. In modern herbalism, tea is often made from lovage for its carminative or diuretic effects.

Lovage doesn’t always germinate well, so be sure to sow extra. Start your lovage indoors. The seeds require darkness to germinate. It will tolerate full sun to partial shade and is perennial in zones 3 through 10. 

The leaves, stems, roots, and seeds of lovage are all useful. Once lovage is established, you can pinch off the leaves and stems and use them as needed. Harvest seeds in the fall when they mature, and harvest some of the roots in the fall from plants that are two to three years old. 

An herb garden should be as unique as the gardener. When you’re planning your garden this winter, consider your goals and your needs, and always consider trying something new. Hopefully, one of these unusual medicinal herbs will find a place in your garden and bring you wellness and joy in the coming season!