Category Archives: Herbs / Teas

Foraging Wild Flowers: Coltsfoot

Photo of Coltsfoot

Native to Eurasia, Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) now grows in a variety of disturbed habitats (e.g., roadsides, stream banks, railroad beds) across New England. Coltsfoot's bright yellow flower heads, which consist of narrow ray flowers and tiny 5-parted disk flowers (Common Dandelion has only ray flowers), are among the earliest wildflowers to bloom in spring. Flower stalks are hairy, with small, scale-like leaves; green leaves emerge later, and have densely hairy undersides.

Coltsfoot has both edible (the flowers, fleshy stems, and young leaves can be eaten raw or cooked) and medicinal (preparations of the leaves can help with treatment of coughs) uses, but since all of the local patches I know of are growing in spots that are unsafe to forage in, I've yet to experiment with the plant. For more details, read the account of Tussilago farfara in Ancestral Plants (Vol. 1, 2010, p. 190-91) by Arthur Haines and this Edible Flowers article by Green Deane.

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Foraging Wild Teas: Eastern Hemlock

Photo of Eastern Hemlock needles

Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) grows throughout New England and provides food, medicine, shelter, and much more for a host of insects, birds, and mammals. Identification features include: ~1/2" long, flat needles with white stripes below and short, bent stalks; ~3/4" long, dangling seed cones; and bumpy twigs (easily observed on dead branches). My favorite field mark requires a close look: miniature (often upside-down) needles line the tops of branches (see top photo).

The needles of Eastern Hemlock can be used to make a fragrant tea in much the same way as Balsam Fir needles. To avoid too strong a tea, I recommend starting with a couple of finger-length branchlets. Remember to bruise the needles (by rubbing or chopping) prior to covering with hot water to help release their inner constituents.

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Foraging Wild Teas: Balsam Fir

Photo of Balsam Fir from above

Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea) is a common member of northern New England forests and is widely known as a popular Christmas tree. The blunt-tipped, flat needles of this species are green above, have two white stripes below, and are typically arranged in flatish sprays. Touch the bark to notice the raised pockets of resin hidden just below the surface, and, in winter, observe the resinous buds at the tips of twigs. I encourage you, in addition to learning the look and feel of Balsam Fir, to engage your sense of smell when in the midst of this species.

Both fresh and dried needles of Balsam Fir can be used to brew a flavorful and (depending on the dosage) medicinal tea (see 17.03 | Nature Notes for brewing suggestions). In Ancestral Plants (Vol. 1, 2010), Arthur Haines writes that Balsam Fir needle tea can help treat coughs and colds, but he suggests "...using the fresh winter buds to produce a more potent infusion" (p. 195).

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Medicinal Weeds: Gill-over-the-ground

Photo of Gill-over-the-ground flowers

Familiar to many people as a spreading plant of lawns and fields, Glechoma hederacea is another so-called weed worth having a relationship with. Commonly known as Ground-ivy or Gill-over-the-ground, this adaptive perennial has all the features we've come to expect from a member of the Mint (Lamiaceae) family:

  • irregular flowers (that are bilaterally symmetrical)
  • opposite, simple leaves
  • and square (4-sided) stems

Like many Mints, Gill-over-the-ground is strongly aromatic due to the presence of a volatile oil. According to David Hoffman, an infusion or tincture of the dried flowering stems of Glechoma hederacea "may be used to treat catarrhal conditions whether in the sinus region or in the chest."¹ Jenny brewed me several cups of Gill-over-the-ground tea this spring, as she thought it would help with some ear congestion I was having. It did seem to help unclog my ears, but even when my symptoms faded, I still requested the drink because I enjoyed the flavor. Though Hoffman specifies using dried plant material, we used freshly picked tops.

Though not native to North America, Gill-over-the-ground is now widely established, absent only from a few states in the southwest.² To view the following images in full-size, click here.

¹Holistic Herbal (1990), p. 205 [plant listed as Ground-ivy (Nepeta hederacea)]

²USDA, NRCS. 2016. The PLANTS Database (http://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=GLHE2, 23 June 2016). National Plant Data Team, Greensboro, NC 27401-4901 USA

Foraging Wild Flowers: Black Elderberry

Photo of Black Elderberry flower cluster

Here in southern Maine, Black Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is blooming, which makes now a great time to notice this widespread shrub. Black Elderberry typically grows in moist soils, so look for the bright white flower clusters lighting roadside gullies and the edges of small streams. Many of these clusters will produce forage-able purple/black fruits by September, but the flowers themselves can also be tinctured or dried for tea.

In Holistic Herbal (1990), David Hoffman writes that preparations of Black Elderberry flowers are "ideal for the treatment of colds and influenza" (p. 197). Consult his book or another trusted herbal reference for more details on making medicine with this plant.

Field marks for Black Elderberry include large, flat-topped flower clusters with hundreds of tiny 5-petaled flowers*, pinnately-compound leaves arranged oppositely along stems, toothed leaflets, and young stems and older bark with obvious freckles (technically lenticels). These features are shown in the following images. (To view them in full-size, click here.)

*Warning: Do not confuse Black Elderberry flowers with those of Spotted Water-hemlock.

Note: See the comments section for a discussion on Elderberry toxicity and the edibility of Red Elderberry flowers and fruits.