Thursday, 15 October 2015

i.d. (a couple of) useful weeds in the autumn, by request

Okay kids - as several of you know, I'm always up for a game of "name that weed", wherein you take pictures on your walks, send them to me and I try to figure out what it is we're looking at. It's a fun game - but maybe frustrating for some of you who are just starting out and don't know, really, what you're looking for. This post full of pictures might help.

This is actually a good time of year for what I like to call reconnaissance walks - getting to know the lay of the land, learning where the colonies of this or that useful plant are in your neighbourhood or yard, or park, or even the edges of the Walmart parking lot - so you know how to recognize them and what kind of conditions they prefer to grow in.

Now, I'm not suggesting you necessarily pick plants that you find in those urban areas. I'm not suggesting you don't either - that's another discussion - but these are great places to find and get to know what your target plants look like.

The most common, probably, is plantain , the ever so useful stuff I make my ointments from:

Remember, you can always click to embiggen.

Above is the typical, ratty plantain patch next to a driveway. If you have a driveway and you haven't been spraying the edges of it with Round-Up, you have plantain. Yes, even in Alaska. I don't know about Australia, but I'm betting yes, there too. White man's footprint they call it, it followed the colonizers everywhere. In this case, that's a good thing.

This patch is Plantago major at the edge of our driveway. The wiki link there will show you a pretty picture of a very lush plant. My picture above is what it most often looks like. I think it's important to know that. I wouldn't harvest from this patch, for medicine I look for plants that look more like the wiki picture. But if one of my granddaughters was stung by a bee or wasp? You can bet I'd chew a leaf from the driveway and slap it on her bobo. My own saliva would 'wash' the plant, I could spit that out, and the chewed poultice would give her instant relief. Everything is contextual, right? Right. And I'm digressing, darn I hate it when I do that ..

Plantain/Plantago's job is to cover the bare dirt. It holds in the moisture so other plants can take hold. For this reason, you'll most often find a few other similar looking plants along side. Let's see how you can distinguish one from the other:

They look pretty similar, these two plants, right? On the top, we have a plantain. Below, a small evening primrose.

On the left, plantain, on the right a small mullein.

Lucky for us, once you get into the details its pretty easy to tell plantain from the others.

A little out of focus, sorry, but can you see that spike? Only plantain will have that, none of the look-alikes.

Now here is a plantain leaf. Look closely at the vein structure, then go back and look at the other plants. See? Different.

Notice there is NO central vein to a plantain leaf. The edges are NOT toothed. The texture is leathery. Mullein is thick and fuzzy, and even evening primrose is slightly velvety. Dandelion is smoother and most often (but not always!)has tooth like edges. 

Another distinguishing feature (thanks to a reader whose daughter's observation reminded me of this) is that when you pull a leaf of plantain from the base of the plant there's often strings attached.

See? If you think you have plantain, try this with a couple of leaves. No strings? Likely not plantain. 

There's a very good reason that we all need to know what plantain looks like. Not just for stings or mosquito bites but because some of us are really looking for nettles. If, or should I say when, you are stung by nettles, chew a plantain leaf and put the pulp on the sting. It works.

Nettles really freaking sting my friends. It can hurt like the dickens. Some of us think it is a good hurt. Some of us even sting ourselves on purpose (I'm looking at you N!), and not because we're crazy but because that sting is medicinal. Because nettle sting is medicinal, I am NOT, like other writers, going to tell you to wear gloves. No sir, I am not. I am going to tell you that where ever nettles grow, there is plantain near by. It's a rule, there really is. Nature is good that way. So know your plantain, and find it FIRST when you're nettle hunting. Sometimes, if you find a really big, lush plantain patch in long grasses it's a clue that there are nettles lurking near by. Nettles are cagey buggers in the wild, and I often look for suspiciously large patches of plantain to help me find them.

Can you spot the nettles?
Pictured above is the nettle patch in my garden. Also the home of carrots, nasturtiums, morning glories and the world's strongest, most bitter yarrow, yowza that yarrow is potent. One or two toads spent the summer there as well. I'm digressing again, aren't I .. sorry. I just love that part of my garden. Let's zero on some of the nettles.

In the foreground, large pointed leaves, toothed. 

Now, keep in mind that I pick my nettles frequently. That keeps them lush. Let's get closer and have a look at those yummy leaves. As we get closer, you'll start to see evidence of why eating raw nettles is best left to the professionals. I want you to pay close attention to leaf shape and the stem, too.

Deeply toothed leaves. A blush of sort of purple on the newest leaves.

Is anyone else getting hungry? I know I am.
Note the leaves are arranged in pairs on the stem, opposite to one another. Not alternate, OPPOSITE. Note also the square stem. And, of course, the teeny tiny harmless looking needles.

Grasp the nettle firmly by the stem and you'll crush those needles, rendering them harmless. But really, it is nigh on impossible to avoid being stung. The needles are on the leaves, too, although "only" on the underside.

Now just in case I haven't made my point about these stingers, have a look at them closer than the human eye can see:

Mwa-ha-haa! Nettle plants really want us to get that medicine into our systems!!

All right, so much for nettles at the eating stage. This is fall, and unless someone has been picking the nettle patch, you won't find too many as lush as the ones I have. But, if you want to find a nettle patch from midsummer on into fall, look for this:

MUCH taller, anywhere from 3-5 ft. Longer, pointier leaves and note especially, the dangling "fruits".
At the stage pictured here, don't pick the nettles. They're too strong and they can cause anything from a tummy ache to (if you really over do it) kidney stress. So just don't, okay? I don't care what some books or even 'well respected' herbalists say. Once those elegant dangling things show up, even when they're tiny, nettle's not for eating. You have to look really closely at the axils (where leaf meets stem) to be sure, too.

That said, you can eat the fruits if you want, as long as they are still green. Once they turn black and the plant is all yellowed and yucky looking, don't bother.

When you get up close like this, they really are pretty things, don't you think? Like jewellery.

Nettle seed is good medicine for the adrenals and kidneys. Have a nibble if you find some and see how they make you feel. Just a nibble, don't go whole hog. Here is a rabbit hole of resources if this is something you'd like to explore.

Once you find a nettle patch, there's a good chance it will be in (relatively) the same spot come spring. So mark it if you can, or make note at least. Like I said, they are cagey. Almost invisible in spring. But the slight purple of the leaves and their shape mean that they're not impossible to find. We'll revisit then of course.

Okay - I anticipate questions ... send 'em in.


  1. Replies
    1. Try just a few seeds at first, and just eat them. Give it an hour and see how you feel then next day take more or less as needed. I find they're great for clean, sustained energy. I take them only in the morning, have a great, productive day, then sleep better for it at night.

      Some folks can and do swallow a teaspoon or more at a time, some of us can only handle a half dozen of the little guys. It depends on the nettles and each person's individual tolerance. You just have to figure it out for yourself.

      They can be tinctured and they also keep well just as they are. I pick the dangly things whole, usually (that being the technical term LOL) and lay them on a paper towel to let the bugs walk away. Next day I store them away from light & moisture. Make sure they're dry before you put them away.

      I don't use them very often, but if I feel like my inner clock is off and I'm dragging my keester around, a couple of days of nettle seed usually fixes me up.

    2. Also, follow the link near the end of that post, it's a good read.