Category Archives: Medicinal Plants

Foraging Wild Flowers: Common Dandelion

Photo of Common Dandelion flower

Common Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) offers many gifts to the modern forager. In April and May, the flower buds and brightly blooming flowers are a delicious snack, salad ingredient, or soup component. The flowers can also be infused to make a delicious tea.

Photo of Common Dandelion flower

I've written previously about foraging the leaves of Common Dandelion, but for those new to eating wild plants, it's the mild tasting yellow petals that I find make the best introduction. To avoid the bitterness that the green parts contain, simply loosen and remove the yellow petals by rolling each flower head between your thumb and pointer finger.

Photo of Common Dandelion flower

Note: You may notice an increased need to urinate soon after consuming Common Dandelion parts. Consult an herbalist or herbal reference for more on the medicinal actions of this abundant perennial.

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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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