Growing among the planted gardens and the wilder margins of MAGC are many kinds of medicinal plants. Read on to learn about the growth habits and traditional uses for some of them.
By Shelly Hughes
Chickweed, Stellaria media
The Latin name, Stellaria media, translates to “little stars,” referring to the tiny white daisy-like flower about half the size of your pinky nail. A patch of chickweed looks like a soft sea of green with little white stars peeking out here and there. Newborn chicks love to nibble the fresh green shoots, thereby inspiring the common name, chickweed. Full of vitamins, particularly Vitamin B, Iron and Zinc, chickweed is a wonderful wild green to munch stem and flower, enjoy in salads, or make nutritive pesto and vinegar. It can be infused into oil to make a soothing and healing topical skin treatment. Not only is chickweed a nutritious superstar, it is rich in saponins, which help our cells assimilate minerals and nutrients more readily, and also dissolve any unwanted matter including mucus, excess fats, and cysts. Chickweed tea tastes like spring. It is cooling, moistening, and eases inflammation in the throat and respiratory tract, which are common conditions this time of year.
Cleavers, Galium aparine
Most people know this plant from finding the stems or seeds sticking to their pants, hence its other name “Stickywilly” and this was likely the way it arrived here from Europe. It smells and tastes slightly sweet,
but because of the prickles on the stem it’s not best eaten raw unless you like the feeling of Velcro in your mouth! It is used commonly as a tea and is highly regarded among herbalists as a lymphatic tonic. The fresh plant juices can also be used to cool and soothe minor burns and skin abrasions. It was once used as a fragrant mattress and pillow stuffing when dried, giving us its other common name “Bedstraw.”
Nettle, Urtica dioica
High in vitamins and minerals, especially iron and calcium, nettle leaves are a nutritive tonic, remedy for allergies, arthritis and more. When cooked it can replace spinach in any recipe. It is commonly called by the name Stinging Nettle, which refers to the stinging sensation that is left behind on the skin when coming into contact with the plant hairs. Drying and cooking the fresh plant removes the sting. The strong fibers of the stems can also be woven together and used as rope.
Soaproot, Chlorogalum pomeridianum
This beautiful wavy leaved plant is very common locally and only occurs in California and Oregon. The dainty white flowers bloom from late spring to summer, opening at dusk to invite primarily moths for pollination. Soaproot provides food, fiber, glue, medicine and toxin all in one! The underground bulb is high in saponins, which are rendered out by cooking, transforming the tough bitter flesh into a soft and sweet morsel similar in taste to a sweet potato. Roasting the bulb thickens the plant’s juices into a glue used for sealing baskets, attaching feathers to arrow shafts, and even forming the handles of brushes fashioned from the bulb’s outer fibers. Green sap from the leaves made medicines like antiseptics, laxatives, diuretics, and pain-relieving body rubs. The saponin component was highly prized and used by indigenous peoples as a soap to wash everything from hair to clothing, and was also employed to stun fish in the water, which made catching them quite easy.
Yerba Buena, Clinopodium douglasii
The plant’s English and Spanish common name, Yerba Buena, is an alternate form of the Spanish hierba buena (meaning “good herb”), generally used to describe local species of the mint family. The name shows how widely used and prolific this plant was in this area. Yerba Buena was the original name of the settlement that later became San Francisco. Unlike most mints, this one is a rambling ground-hugging herb, with a fragrance similar to Spearmint. Hot or cold, it makes a refreshing tea that is good for digestion and relaxation. It can also be used for toothaches, sore throats, headaches, sore muscles and more. It is fitting that it grows along the bridal path at MAGC. There are stories told that ladies in old California would drape the hems of their ball gowns with swags of Yerba Buena, which would remain fragrant through a festive evening of dancing.
Other medicinal plants growing at MAGC: Lemon Balm, Mullein, Blue Elderberry, Feverfew, Chamomile, Echinacea, Yarrow, Wild Ginger, Wild Rose, Thyme, Oregano, Lemon Verbena, White Sage, Cretan Mountain Tea, Mugwort and Gingko.
Please remember, this information is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment. Gathering plants from MAGC is prohibited without prior approval.
Shelly is a gardener at MAGC, with a passion for tending the riparian corridor of Kittle Creek. She has degrees in Botany and Environmental Ethics, a Permaculture certificate, and attended the California School of Herbal Studies.