Monthly Archives: March 2012

Weed Appreciation Day – Dandelion

It’s Weed Appreciation Day! Unless you use chemicals on your yard, you’ve probably got a few useful ones. My yard includes Plantain, Nettle, Chickweed and … Dandelion.

I love Dandelions, and not just because I used to blow on them to make a wish as a kid. I cherish the ones growing in my yard and even help myself to the ones in my neighbors’ yards. They don’t like them, I do. Freebies are always good.

Depending on where you are, yours haven’t come up, yet; they’re just starting to flower; or they’ve already gone to seed. If you get them before they flower, the leaves are very tender and make a great addition to your dinner salad. Or for a nice spring tonic, make an infusion (2 teaspoons fresh leaves to one cup just-boiled water; steep for 10 minutes, strain) and drink that once or twice a day.

If yours haven’t put up a stalk, yet, now is a good time to harvest the root. You should be able to recognize them in your yard by the toothed leaves. If you’ve got stalks or even flowers, wait until fall to harvest the root.

Dandelions are chock-full of goodness. Besides being a great diuretic, the leaves are one of the best natural sources of potassium. A diuretic drug will rob your body of potassium but since dandelions have a lot of it, there’s no danger. It’s also wonderful as a liver and gallbladder tonic; and can be very effective as part of a wider treatment for muscular rheumatism. Because it affects so many of our internal organs, it’s great to “flush” your system after a long winter.

(As with any plant, please be sure you harvest at least 50 feet away from the road to lessen the car exhaust toxins in the plant.)

So, instead of bemoaning all those yellow flowers in your yard, celebrate them! One note of caution: if you have sensitive skin, wear gloves when harvesting. Inevitably you’re going to come into contact with the latex (sap) in the stem and some people end up with contact dermatitis.

Medieval Medicine – and Mystery!

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you’ll know that I’m a history buff – especially if it has anything to do with herbs. This last week I rediscovered an old friend: Brother Cadfael.

My only interaction with the good Brother to this point was the PBS series based on the books. Sir Derek Jacobi starred in 13 episodes that aired over four years in the 1990’s. For some reason, I felt a distinct urge to reacquaint myself with him and bought the entire series of 20 books. (Yes, I treated myself … big time.)

If you’ve never heard of him, Brother Cadfael is a fictitious 12th century Benedictine monk living in the very real Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England. The author, Ellis Peters (pen name of Edith Pargenter) was a native of Shropshire and did some rather thorough research not only into the history of the area but also into medieval medicine and herbs of the time. From what I’ve read elsewhere, the history, down to who the Abbott was during those times, is accurate. From my own research, I can tell you her medieval medicine is also quite accurate.

Brother Cadfael came to the tonsure late … he was a Crusader and man of the world until taking his vows in his 40’s. (Remember, life expectancy was low back then – the average man lived only until his mid-30’s.) By the time of the Chronicles, he’s in his late 50’s and although relatively spry, is considered an old man.

Throughout his travels and now cloistered career, he develops a love of plants and knowledge of their uses, and is the Abbey’s herbarist. I’d give my eye teeth to have the time – and money – to develop an herbarium (herb garden) such as Peters describes. In between tending gardens, making herbal remedies and attending six services a day, he seems to get caught up in one trouble after another.

He does know his plants and you can hear his voice echoing in virtually every modern herbalist. In the Second Chronicle, One Corpse Too Many, he says to a young woman, “All things of the wild have their proper uses, only misuse makes them evil”. Truth!

My favorite book thus far is the third in the series, Monk’s Hood.  The victim is poisoned by an oil rub made by the good brother for muscle ailments with, you guessed it, Monkshood as one of the ingredients. Her description of the herbal oil, its therapeutic applications and its baneful nature are spot-on. What herbalist with a bent for the baddies wouldn’t love this one?

If you’re looking for a peek into medieval medicine and want to be entertained at the same time, you can’t go wrong with these books. Or at least the PBS series if you can’t bring yourself to read.




Essential Bookshelf: A Modern Herbal

If this two-volume set isn’t in your herbal library, it should be. Originally published in 1931, reprinted by Dover in 1971 and updated with cross-referencing and an index in 1982, Mrs. M(aud) Grieve gives a wealth of information on hundreds of herbs. Not only does she describe the plant, in most instances she’ll give you cultivation information; mythological and historical tidbits; chemical constituents; and, of course, medicinal usages – with recipes.

When reading the latter, one has to bear in mind the original publication date. Much has been discovered in the last 80 years that renders her information obsolete from a scientific point of view.

In addition, science has also refined (and continues to refine) the Linnaeus system of plant names so some of hers aren’t correct as we know them today. Since the book is listed alphabetically by common name, one sometimes needs to do a little hunting when looking up an herb where the common name isn’t all that common outside the British Isles. As an example, what I know as “Cramp Bark” is listed under “Guelder Rose” (although there is a cross-reference under the former name).

While the medicinal usages are sometimes a little out-of-date, these volumes are one of my ‘go-to’ books when researching a particular herb.

The entire database of more than 800 herbs from these books is available in its entirety at, but I’m a paper-and-ink person and these books are showing signs of wear – a good indication I use them a lot.