Category Archives: Medicinal Plants

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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Winter Plant ID: Common St. John’s-wort

Photo of Common St. John's-wort

Common St. John's-wort (Hypericum perforatum) is a common perennial of fields, roadsides, and other open areas with disturbed soil. In June and July, the yellow flowers of this weedy species stand out (see Medicinal Weeds: Common St. John's-wort). During the white season, if not blanketed by feet of snow, the dried stalks of Common St. John's-wort can still be recognized.

Look for 2-3' tall, round-stemmed stalks with numerous, oppositely arranged, up-swept branches topped with 1/4" tall, reddish-brown, three-parted capsules containing many tiny seeds. (You might want to read that again, slowly.)

Photo of Common St. John's-wort fruit

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

Medicinal Plants: Three-leaved Goldthread

Photo of Three-leaved Goldthread

Three-leaved Goldthread (Coptis trifolia) is a low-growing perennial plant who lives in forests and swampy areas throughout New England. The plant's evergreen, three-parted leaves emerge from a thin, yellow-orange rhizome found just below the soil surface.

In spring, kneeling down for a close look at the solitary flowers reveals white petal-like sepals, small yellow petals with cup-shaped tips, numerous white stamens, and, in the center, green pistils. Though more difficult to notice after the white sepals drop, the progression from flower to fruit gradually unfolds. By summer and often holding into fall, only a whorl of green, beaked pods remains.

The roots of Three-leaved Goldthread contain berberine, a medicinally active compound also found in the roots of Japanese Barberry. You can read about some medicinal uses of Coptis trifolia at the Partridge, Pine, and Peavey blog. (To view the following images in full-size, click here.)