The medicine cabinet in your backyard

 Oregon Grape, Mahonia aquifolium

Oregon Grape, Mahonia aquifolium

 Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale

Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale

 Stinging Nettles, Urtica dioica

Stinging Nettles, Urtica dioica

 Plantain, Plantago major

Plantain, Plantago major

The difference between a flower and a weed is a judgment.
— Wayne Dyer

Springtime. That magical time when Mother Nature throws off her winter cloak and dazzles us with emerald greens, jaunty yellows, iridescent blues and purples, outrageous oranges and flamboyant reds. While we are admiring the spectacular displays of color, the less-showy plants are quietly growing their potent medicine to help us clear out the stagnant winter energy and prepare our bodies for the change of seasons.

The Pacific NW First Nations’ people understood the powerful medicine that sprang up all around them every Spring. Today we may be less connected to our natural surroundings but the plant world still offers us incredible benefits if we know what to look for and how to use them. This short guide is a starting point for some of the more common herbs (what we call weeds) that are easily found in the Pacific NW. Be sure to look in areas as far from the road with car exhaust and gas fumes as you can.

Oregon Grape: Contains berberine – a strong antimicrobial - and is high in vitamin C. Treats infections, stimulates liver function, improves the flow of bile and is a blood cleanser. The bark and berries were also used to ease digestive problems.

There are two varieties that grow in the pacific NW. One is a shorter variety; you will mostly have to harvest the roots of this to get the healing portion. The second variety is taller and you can harvest the stems to get the healing yellow-orange layer. To make a tincture: gently strip the brown outer layer of a stem or roots to access the fibrous orange-yellow layer. Separate the orange-yellow layer of stem or root from the remaining base white portion. The orange-yellow layer has the medicinal properties. Add 90 proof vodka in a 2-1 ratio to the shavings of the orange-yellow layer. (For example, if you have 4 oz of stem cover with 8 oz of vodka.) Let steep for six weeks, shaking occasionally. After six weeks strain the mixture through cheesecloth and save the tincture in colored glass dropper bottles. Add two drops of tincture to hot tea and honey – too much can cause stomach irritation.

The dried stem can be made directly into a tea that has both internal and external uses.

For internal use, the bitterness of Oregon grape is valuable in itself. As bitter compounds touch your taste buds on your tongue they send messages to your brain – causing an increase in many digestive secretions including saliva, hydrochloric acid, pepsinogen and hormones that stimulate the gall bladder and pancreas. This leads to better and more efficient digestion down the digestive tract.  Try Oregon grape tea or tincture before meals as a bitter tonic to prevent indigestion. Oregon grape also stimulates liver function.

For external use on wounds, you can either make a strong tea and soak the wound in it, or you can saturate a dry sterile bandage or very clean cloth in the tea, then secure it on the wound. 

Stinging Nettles: Maybe one of the original superfoods, Nettles are a powerhouse of nutrition. Compared to spinach, Nettles are 29 times higher in calcium, 8 times higher in magnesium, and 3 times higher in potassium. Nettles are also exceptionally high in the trace minerals silica, chromium, cobalt, zinc, and manganese. Nettles support our liver and kidneys so they can flush waste products and function at an optimal level. Wear gloves when harvesting nettles! Once cooked or dried they lose their sting. Gather nettles to eat fresh when they are very young – usually about 4-8 inches tall. The whole above ground part can be eaten, stems and all. To dry nettles, bundle them and hang them upside down in a dark dry place. Store in a dry place like a glass jar, away from sunlight. They can be made into tea or added to green drinks or smoothies. Other ways to use nettles:

  • Boiling – boil fresh nettles for 5-15 minutes. The cooking  water can be drunk as a tea.

  • Sautéing – Sauté until they are fully cooked and tender, usually about 5-8 minutes.

  • Steaming – place nettles in a colander and steam for 5-10 minutes.

Cooked nettles can be eaten straight as a vegetable with some butter and a pinch of salt or added to quiches, casseroles, omelettes and more. Nettles can be blanched in boiling water for a minute or two and made into a wonderful pesto.

Dandelions: This common weed is a nutritious food and powerful medicine. The leaves are high in potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron and vitamins B and C . The roots are also highly nutritious, with bitter properties that stimulate digestion, support liver function and when used fresh have anti-inflammatory properties. How to use:

  • Young tender leaves can be rinsed and added to salads. As they get older and gather more sunlight, dandelion leaves become quite bitter. The bitterness is excellent for digestion. Steam or saute the older leaves to remove some of the bitter taste. Cooked Dandelion can be used the same way as nettles, listed above.

  • Dandelion root can be used fresh to make tincture, preserving its anti-inflammatory properties. It can also be dried and used to make tea. Tea made from dried dandelion root is excellent for digestion and liver support and is highly nutritious. Use the whole root and be careful not to damage it when harvesting, to prevent loss of the white sap inulin. Inulin is a soluble plant fiber that improves gut, heart and digestive health.

To dry dandelion roots, dig up in spring through fall. Wash thoroughly. With a long piece of string, wrap each root a couple times, let out 6 inches of string and wrap another root, making a long dandelion chain. Hang until completely dry. Use clippers to cut into small pieces and store in a glass jar.  

To make dandelion tincture, add 90 proof vodka in a 2-1 ratio to the dandelion root, either fresh or dried. (For example, if you have 4 oz of dandelion root cover with 8 oz of vodka.) Let steep for six weeks, shaking occasionally. After six weeks strain the mixture through cheesecloth and save the tincture in colored glass dropper bottles.

Plantain: This lowly little weed is one of the most abundant and widely available medicine crops in the world. Plantain has antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties. It can soothe insect bites and superficial wounds, as well as prevent infections and accelerate healing. An active biochemical known as aucubin is mainly responsible for the antimicrobial action of the herb. Another substance allantoin in the herb helps with skin tissue regeneration.

Plantains also have an astringent property that has a cleansing effect on the body. It helps dry up excess secretions in the respiratory tract and the digestive system, thus being useful in treating colds and diarrhea. The astringency is moderated by the demulcent effect of the mucilage in the herb, so this herbal remedy is much gentler than other commonly used astringents.

The edible leaves of broadleaf plantain are rich in calcium and other minerals and vitamins, including Vitamin K. This vitamin helps stem bleeding from cuts and wounds. Tender leaves can be eaten fresh in salads, but older leaves can be cooked and eaten similar to both nettles and dandelion.  

Plantain is used to treat a variety of problems, from mosquito bites and skin rashes to kidney problems and gastrointestinal upset. Here’s how you can use this herb for healing other ailments:

Burns – Apply a poultice immediately and apply a bandage with leaves. Follow it up with a plantain salve.

Cuts and open sores – Stop bleeding from fresh cuts by applying crushed plantain leaves. Wash with plantain tea or diluted tincture (1 tbsp to a glass of water) to prevent infections and promote healing.

For sunburn – Apply fresh poultice liberally. Wash the area with the tea and then apply a plantain salve.

To improve liver and kidney function – Drink 1-2 glasses of plantain tea every day.

For relief from gastrointestinal inflammation – Take the tincture under the tongue or drink plantain tea.

For cold, flu, and respiratory infections – Take the tincture under the tongue or drink freshly brewed warm tea with honey.

To make a Plantain poultice: In case of an insect bite, bee sting, or poison ivy exposure, grab a few leaves, crush them between the palms, or pound them with a stone, and apply directly on the skin. If you are using it on yourself, just chew the leaves and use it as a poultice.

The mucilage from the bruised leaves will immediately soothe the pain while the anti-inflammatory effect of the herb reduces swelling and redness. The poultice will also draw the toxins from the sting, so it works best when applied immediately.

To make Plantain tincture: Fill a clean 16 oz Mason jar 1/3 to 1/2 full with dried plantain leaves. Filling half full will make a stronger tincture. Do not pack down. Add 90 proof vodka in a 2-1 ratio to the dried plantain leaves. (For example, if you have 4 oz of dried leaves cover with 8 oz of vodka.) Let steep for six weeks, shaking occasionally. After six weeks strain the mixture through cheesecloth and save the tincture in colored glass dropper bottles.


Note for anytime you are making tinctures: Always be sure to label your jars and bottles so you know what you are making and storing!

I hope this short guide gives you inspiration to make use of the many medicines available in nature. There are many more valuable plant medicines all around us. Enjoy!