Saturday, January 2, 2016

Wild Medicines of Winter

          I regularly put up medicinal herbs for the winter. This is an annual ritual, since most of the plants lose their potency within one year or less. Besides plants that we harvest just before cold weather sets in, there are a number of plant medicines available year-round.
          For instance, willows contain salicylic acid. If that sounds familiar it’s because aspirin is manmade acetylsalicylic acid. Willow is a natural form and it is a powerful medicine. I sometimes use the fresh bark, perhaps a half teaspoonful of chopped, inner bark, steeped in a tea. The only drawback is that the wild product is not buffered and can cause stomach upsets.
          Maine has numbers of different kinds of willows, and these tend to hybridize, making exact identification difficult. But since all willows, Salix species, contain some amount of salicylic acid, foragers needn’t worry about which willow is which.
          Balsam fir, Abies balsamea, another tree with medicinal properties, is common throughout Maine. Balsam gum has healing properties and can be used on cuts and other wounds. It’s easy to gather the gum (oleoresin) by cutting or simply popping the blisters, or bubbles on the bark. The leaves (needles) make a tea that is taken for coughs and colds.
          I’ve said many times before that I prefer taking my medicine in the form of food. To that end, I favor watercress. Yes, you can buy watercress in the market but it grows wild, too. A stream behind my house has lots of watercress, and it grows year-round. It’s kind of cold work, reaching in the frigid water to pick watercress. But it’s worth it. Watercress is a powerhouse of vitamins and minerals, among which are Vitamins A, B, C, B2, copper, iron, calcium and magnesium. Its iron content is higher that that found in spinach. Watercress is low in carbohydrates.

          I offer these as an example of what we can gather from the wild, even in mid-winter. There are plenty other plant medicines out there.