There’s a neglected lot between two buildings near my house. Somehow I wandered into it several years ago, having glimpsed it from the sidewalk. It looked like a weedy sort of place…and I like weeds. But as it was a hot, dry September then, the place looked like this.
Following my instinct next spring, I went back to see if the rains had brought up any interesting herbs from that sere ground with its two pathetic tree stumps. I found this:
A wealth of wild chamomile and other herbs, with a flowering magnolia tree to the left and an orange tree bearing both blooms and fruit on the right.
Today, I took bags, scissors, and my camera out there to pick and photograph the wild bounty.
There was so much plantain and chamomile. Below, you see a clump of plantain (Plantago lanceolata) with a few low-growing mallows at its feet. The starry white flowers are fragrant chamomile.
I picked two kinds of plantain today. The rarer Plantago major grows only in one place that I know of near home. It has a broad leaf and its seeds grow all along the length of a slender stalk. Below you see it on the ground, in the yard of a nearby building. I was once admiring this spread of plantains from the sidewalk when a lady passed by and said, “That’s not lettuce.”
I knew that.
The broader-leaved the plantain, the more medicinal, say herbalists.
Here is the narrow-leaved Plantago lanceolata.
When I bring plantain home, I rinse it well and allow it dry. Then I chop it up the green, vibrant leaves and steep them in hot olive oil. The infused oil is excellent as ear drops and as part of a healing salve that helps take away the venom from mosquito and spider bites. I also keep a few leaves aside to dry for use as a tea that helps control coughs. The seed head yields psyllium, a well-known bulk laxative that’s only the dry, mature seeds of this plant.
Plantains are edible, but tough, stringy, and not very tasty. If liked, though, you can use the small, young leaves in soup or stew.
Shepherd’s Purses was still green and growing, although it’s late in the season and it’s gotten kind of stringy. It’s valuable, either tinctured into alcohol or dried for tea, to stop excessive bleeding. I have often given the tea to women after birth or to control abnormally heavy menstruation.
The rosette of Shepherd’s Purse, hugging the ground, can easily be mistaken for dandelion before the stalks shoot up. One interesting thing about the herb is how it’s called the same in all languages. Apparently the heart-shaped seed pods look exactly like the lunch bag that shepherds traditionally carry on their backs.
I have eaten Shepherd’s Purse in salads. It’s quite peppery. The seed pods, broken open, reveal innumerable tiny orange seeds. Its flowers are a little, delicate white bunch sitting on top of the stalk.
Cape sorrel was originally a decorative plant brought over from South Africa. It’s now a garden weed much loved by small children, who appreciate the refreshing, sour flavor of its leaves and flowers.
Hiding among more abundant plants were some wild marigolds. I cut away as many flower heads as I could, knowing that the more you cut marigolds, the more will come back up the next morning. Marigolds (calendula) are disinfectant and soothing to the skin. I include the bright orange flowers in a formula for eczema. When a friend was bitten by a dog, I washed the wound with a strong tea of wild marigolds, plantain, and chickweed, twice daily. The inflamation came down quickly and healing started with no trouble. I also like to make a moisturizing lotion that’s made with calendula tea.
There were plenty of mallows, but this late in the season they’re infested with bug (or snail) eggs.
I console myself remembering that earlier in the spring I dried a bunch of good, small young mallow leaves.
There were still nettles, getting mature already. Once those green seeds become brown and hard, it’s time to stop picking nettles. I took a small bunch to cook up fresh tomorrow, either in soup or perhaps stirred into quinoa.
In the center of the photo below stands a proud sow thistle. The leaves on this one are old and tough, but they are edible. The young leaves of early spring make better eating. Sow Thistle revives the appetite, both for humans and for birds. I used to feed it to my budgies and they loved it. Made them hungry, too.
Here are some of the herbs at home, rinsed and drying. Broad-leaved plantain and nettles…
Shepherd’s Purse drying and waiting to get chopped up then steeped in alcohol. Maybe you can spot the little white flowers at the tips of the stalks.
And the graceful stalks and seed heads of narrow-leaved plantain make a little bouquet.
It was a satisfying hour spent in the sun, breathing in the apple fragrance of chamomile and admiring the courage of these little wildlings, spent so gallantly breaking through hard, unfriendly soil to spread beauty and healing. I’m glad I was there to salute them.