Herbs are resilient beings. They pop up between cracks in the pavement, in dry wastelands and in places many other plants would struggle. They often blanket areas left fallow, becoming a sea of green at the back of the garden or around parkland edges. And for a beginner forager, identifying them can be a daunting task. Our tip is start small, learn a handful each season, really get to know them and soon you will know a hundred! Here are 5 common, easy to identify herbs to get you started. (please read the safety info below before foraging for and using herbs for food and health).
Nettle, Urtica dioica – We LOVE nettles. They are an absolutely fantastic super-food, super-medicine, abundant, native (in UK at least) and they’re free! What more could you ask for? The young leaves are rich in protein, iron and other vitamins and minerals. They can be eaten daily as a food/tea and are a great addition to soups/stews. The leaves are used by herbalist to help with iron-deficient anaemia and osteoporosis, the seeds are used for a nutritious energy boost in people with burn-out try these nettle seed energy balls.
Parts Used: Leaves, seeds and roots.
How to identify Nettles: Nettle plants grow to around 1m in height (can reach 2m), stems are square and hairy. Leaves are opposite on the stems and somewhere heart-shaped, toothed and covered in tiny hairs that sting (this is a prime identifying feature). Flowers dangle from the armpit (axil) of the plant in clusters and are green/yellow in colour. Here is a thorough article on the ID of nettles.
Yarrow, Achillea milefolium – Although it is hard to pick favourites, yarrow is quite possibly our dessert island herb. It has hundreds of uses as a medicine. It has a specific action on the blood and cardiovascular system. In the field, a crushed or chewed up leaf of Yarrow can be applied to cuts, bites and stings to provide relief, prevent infection and stop bleeding. At home or in herbal medicine practice a tea or tincture of yarrow can be used for many conditions including common cold or flu, high blood pressure, heavy periods, painful periods, urinary tract infections. The flowers and leaves can be made into an infused oil for use in creams and balms to soothe eczema, bites, urticaria and speed up the healing of wounds. More info on Yarrow here.
Parts used: Leaves and flowers.
How to identify Yarrow: Yarrow grows up to 1 meter in height. It flowers from June-September. The blooms are a cluster of small, daisy-like flowers, white to light pink in colour. Leaves are 3-20cm in length and long and feather-like in appearance. Stems are angular, fibrous and rigid.
Lemon Balm, Melissa officinalis – The bees love it and so will you… Lemon Balm is such an effective, stress-relieving herb that you only need to brush past it and get a whiff of its pungent aroma to send you into a moment of calm. This citrusy herb is best used fresh in teas or tinctures where you can benefit from all of its lovely volatile oils. Use for stress, anxiety and insomnia (safe for children over 4). Lemon balm is a great herb for study; it calms the mind and helps with focus and concentration. It also has certain antiviral qualities; we make a lovely lemon balm lip salve to help prebent and treat the symptoms of cold sores. More about Lemon Balm here.
Parts used: Leaves.
How to identify Lemon Balm: A bushy perennial of the mint family, reaching a height of up to 1m. Leaves are bright green, opposite, toothed and lemon-scented. The stems are square. Lemon Balm’s two-lipped flowers are white and grow in whorls from the leaf axis.
Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale – Another medicine-chest herb. Dandelions have three parts that can be used:
Leaves are diuretic (they make you wee more) and contain high levels of vitamins and minerals, particularly potassium, this makes them a potassium-sparing diuretic – used by herbalists for treating moderate high blood pressure. Young leaves are mildly bitter and can be added to salads to encourage digestion and add nutrients to meals. As the leaves get older they become very bitter and are best used as teas and tinctures for the same purposes.
Flowers: The yellow dandelion flowers can be externally by infusing in oil and made into balms for bruising and sore muscles (we call them our native Arnica).
Roots: The roots of dandelion are bitter and encourage digestion. They are dried and roasted as a non-caffeine coffee replacement. The root can is used in tinctures or decoctions for people who suffer from constipation, indigestion and bloating. The bitter element of this herb also makes it a traditional liver and skin herb. More about Dandelion here.
Parts used: Leaves, flowers and roots
How to identify Dandelion: Dandelions have showy, bright yellow flowers and are in the daisy family. The leaves are mid-green and highly toothed the name actually comes from ‘Dent-de-lion’ or ‘lions teeth’, which alongside the dandy, golden mane-like flower head looks made people think of a lion.
Elder, Sambuccus nigra – Yet another medicine-chest herb. We can use three parts of the elder tree for medicine: The spring leaves (for external use only) in balms and oils for bruising and achy muscles. The flowers for hayfever, sinusitis and colds/flu. Finally, the berries for their antiviral, immune boosting and anti-oxidant properties. At this time of year (July) the flowers are over so you will have to wait until next year to make lovely Elderflower cordial. More about Elder here. Caution: do not consume any part of the elder raw or unprocessed– they are emetic and can make you vomit.
How to identify Elder: Small tree with furrowed bark and branches that shoot straight up then curve. Leaves are pinnate with 5-7 toothed leaflets and a strong, resinous smell when rubbed. Flowers have 5 petals and form in clusters – flat umbels of white to light pink blossoms. Fruits are purple black, about the size of a peppercorn.
Here are links to some easy ways to process herbs for use at home:
- Never consume any plant unless you are 100% sure of its identification. Get a few good plant ID books, join forums, or book in on a foraging course to help you be certain of the ID.
- Pick in safe areas: while herbs can grow almost anywhere, do make sure that the herbs you pick for consumption. Avoid roadsides, anywhere chemicals may have leached into the soil or have been sprayed. More safety here.
- Use herbs sensibly: While the herbs listed in this article are fine to use for simple illness such as the common cold or occasional insomnia, see a GP or herbalist before attempting to treat any more serious or long term illnesses. This is especially important in the very young, the elderly, if you are pregnant, trying for a baby, lactating, have any other medical conditions or are on prescription medication.
Check back on 22nd September 2019 to listen to this podcast episode!
Images by Sarah Cuttle, taken from the Handmade Apothecary, (C) Kyle Books.