By Janelle Eklund
Chickweed is normally not one of the plants you would stumble upon in the Boreal Forest or tundra. You are more likely to find it lavishly making a beautiful green carpet around garden beds. Frankly, I have never seen it growing beyond garden or yard areas. Trying to eradicate it is near impossible. But don't get too discouraged as this plant has many fine qualities. For one, the roots are close to the surface so they are not necessarily crowding out other deeper root bearing plants - and two, the nice green carpet acts as free mulch for your garden bed!! So maybe it's trying to tell us something. We just need to listen. I have to admit that it hasn't found my garden yet - although it has tried a few times - and I am guilty of taking care of it before it got started - and before I learned so much about it.
During the Janice Schofield plant class we called around to various gardeners looking for the best crops of this plant to make wonderful recipes, both for food and medicinal. All the gardeners were more than pleased to share their bounty. We drizzled it with a few drops of olive oil, sea salt, pepper, garlic, parmesan and dried it for a delicious 'chip snack'. We made it into a tea; dressed a salad with it; added it to the wild herb pesto noodle-less lasagna; mingled it with other herbs to make wild herb patties; and incorporated it in gluten free crackers. They were all so delicious and nutritious. Let your imagination flow when conjuring up a wild herb recipe.
We learned that you can harvest this prolific plant throughout the summer by clipping off the tops with scissors.
Not only did we eat this plant but we used it for its medicinal qualities. We learned that it is rich in copper, iron, phosphorus, calcium, potassium, and vitamin C. It doesn't store well so use as soon as you pick it or make it into a tincture. It can help with bladder or urinary tract problems.
Chickweed is very moisturizing and cooling, good in an ointment or as a poultice. Janice told us of a lady that had accidently gotten rosemary oil in her eye. She made a poultice of chickweed and put it on her eye, and over time it healed. This is also cooling and healing for burns. A poultice or salve works for mosquito bites or itchy skin. In Alaska's Wilderness Medicines, Eleanor Vierick says that chickweed is good for infections, inflammations, boils and abscesses.
In Janice's book Discovering Wild Plants, she says she plants chickweed in a pot and has it as a houseplant that she harvests throughout the winter. And chickens love to dine on chickweed - thus its name. Other domestic animals take a liking to it too, such as rabbits and pigs.
So instead of trying to get rid of this seemingly pesky plant - live with it and enjoy its wonderful attributes!
From my light to yours-
By Janelle Eklund
Spring time in the garden. The beds were given nourishment in the fall with a nice layer of well composted cow manure. Garden plants are not the only ones that like this delicious soil food. Other well meaning plants come with it, including horsetail. Don't get me wrong - this isn't a bad plant. Sometimes it just wants to grow where I'd like other plants to grow - notice I'm not calling it a weed. Its roots are strong and when pulled on will not give up their stand in life. It's nearly impossible to get them to move on. But at least they are only in a couple of beds and not so prolific. So, I try not to fight them too much and if they start getting a crowd attitude I just break them off until their heads pop up again. There are plenty around in other places if I so choose to use their medicinal or other useful qualities.
Tanaina Plantlore by Priscilla Russel Kari says that the spring tubers on the roots of horsetail are like the first berries of the season, being sweet and juicy. You do have to harvest in spring for eating because after that they get hard and dry.
When horsetail first emerges from the ground in the spring the leafless stem is brown with a cone shaped hat on top. This is the time to dig those berry-like tubers for their sweet and juicy flavor.
As summer progress the stem starts to grow it's leaves, and as they emerge they point toward the sky in celebration. This is the time to gather them for any medicinal uses. Janice Schofield's book, Discovery Wild Plants, says a poultice of the plant is good for "...hemorrhages, cancer like growths, and ulcerous wounds, and as a tea for internal bleeding, kidney stones, rheumatism, bladder and urinary tract diseases, and stomach ulcers. As an external wash, it's said to be antiseptic and disinfectant and ideal for insect bites and skin eruptions." Janice says she made hot packs by boiling the horsetail and put it on a painful cyst. "Within forty-eight hours, the cyst was totally drained." I have been trying to do all I can to thicken my aging head with more hair and this is just another way to encourage that growth. Janice says to make a decoction by boiling a heaping tablespoon of horsetail in a cup of water. In addition to promoting hair growth it is also supposed to get rid of dandruff and head lice.
As the leaves mature they grow into feathery like arms and point out and down, resembling a horses tail. The stems become rich with silica, which is very abrasive. I have used it to clean pots when camping, which also acts as a disinfectant. In ancient times it was used to polish metal! You don't want to eat it because it can be irritating.
Horsetail is one of the oldest plants on earth. The Latin word equus means horse and seta means bristle.
Enjoy this prolific plant for what it has to offer.
From my light to yours-
By Janelle Eklund
Mid-July dressed the ground in a profusion of green. Five cars led a procession from Kenny Lake to Chitina. Destination: Michael Moody's enchanted garden. Twenty of us, in the Janice Schofield plant workshop, felt like fairies as we stepped out of our vehicles. A path lined with tall Artemisia, fireweed, and other greenery led to the garden gate. An old door served as the gate, fitting perfectly between two trees. Stepping into the garden was magical. A carpet of chickweed and pineapple weed graced the beds full of garden produce. We had a heyday picking the weeds to be used in medicinal recipes. Everything in the garden seemed to have a harmonious cohabitation relationship. It was so enchanting and magical it was hard to leave. But we were beckoned away to experience another plant that grew in the area.
I was surprised to see that Devil's club grows in this Chitina microclimate. I'm used to seeing it closer to coastal areas, like Valdez. This plant grows fairly tall - up to 10' (Alaska Trees and Shrubs), and it's large maple shaped leaves look like big umbrellas shielding the forest floor. Maneuvering through them with their spiny legs can be tricky. The legs (stems) are very thick with sharp spines. Don't get 'stung' by them as they can become imbedded in the skin and cause festering. But, not to be deterred, careful harvest can result in good medicinal qualities. Wearing leather gloves is a must when cutting and getting to the inner bark. Spring is the best time to harvest this 'devily' plant but it can also be harvested in the fall. Using leather gloves, peel the bark from the stem. As it slips off, the outer spiny bark comes off easy and then you are safe to touch the inner bark.
Medicinal Flora of the Alaska Natives, by Ann Garibaldi, says that a strong decoction of the boiled cambium was drunk to treat arthritis, colds/flu, coughs, chest congestion, pneumonia, rheumatism, constipation. Boiling the decoction for a full day and then taking one teaspoon a day was good for colds and arthritis. To help heal cuts and scrapes the outer bark was burned and the ash used to sprinkle on cuts before bandaging, changing the bandage every other day (Wennekens 1985). It says that devil's club root can be made into a poultice by cleaning and crushing the root, soaking it in hot water, and then putting it on a wound to keep it from getting infected. The bark has also been chewed and applied right to the wound. Bone injuries were also treated by laying the inner side of the bark in strips next to the skin of the injured area, which reduces pain and swelling. It can also be made into a salve with spruce pitch and used on cuts/scrapes, and possibly shingles. To make the salve, dry and grind the inner bark, add the spruce pitch and infuse in olive oil.
In this same book a recipe for making a tea used by Tlingit, Tsimshian, and Haida is as follows: 1. Cut a few sticks 5-6 feet long. Cut into 18-inch lengths. 2. Scrape off thorns and outer grey bark. Peel off inner green bark. 3. Put 2 handfuls of green inner bark in pot. Cover with 2 gallons cold water. Boil, then simmer 3 hours. 4. To enrich, add 3 different sprouting trees about 8 inches long: spruce, cedar, hemlock. Put in pot, roots and all.
5. Alder bark may be added for color and taste. Dose: 1 cup three times per day.
In Janice Schofield's book, Discovering Wild Plants, she warns that devil's club lowers blood sugar levels. Diabetics should be aware and get medical advice before using it, because devil's club may lower insulin requirements.
Be safe and enjoy nature's bounty.
From my light to yours-
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.