Backyard Herbalism: Lessons from Nature

Words: Sasha Kershaw

Ask yourself a question, “Would I like to experience Nature more intimately?” and answer it frankly. To yourself, no spoken words necessary. Perhaps it is a “hell, yes!” or a space in time filled with utter hesitation. If you live around here, chances are, you experience nature in a unique way on a daily basis. As a blossoming herbalist whose heart is filled with love and respect for the plant world, my vision is to perhaps inspire you to explore and connect with the wilderness on your own and learn from the best teacher: Nature.

When I find myself in the woods, where my footsteps are muted by the earth, I reconnect to the possibility of peace, joy and contentment. It is both the warm dusk breeze that sweeps flocks of concerns and questions away and the vibrancy of life making my heart swell that draw me back.

Plants are both pure magic and science, teachers and healers.

Plants are both pure magic and science, teachers and healers. They are a manifestation of the beautiful collaboration between all different elements, including sun, earth, water and minerals. Just like us. Learning about plants is a life-long journey, which means that there are always layers of knowledge and wisdom to be revealed. While it excites some of you, it might overwhelm others. Regardless of where you are, start your journey with an easy meet and greet type of hike on a city trail. One of my favorite short hikes around town is Stratton Open Space. You can get acquainted with some of our herb allies there — you will find plantain, mullein, yarrow, gumweed and sagebrush — just to name a few.

Allow me to introduce some of them to you a little bit more personally.  Meet plantain (Plantago spp.) — a common “weed” growing in the shade of  Stratton Spring Path. You have probably encountered it a multitude of times before, but did you know that plantain is your best friend for any type of cuts, bruises, or skin irritations? It is extremely useful if you ever find yourself with broken skin on a long hike. Just put some saliva on it (this draws out this plant’s mucilaginous properties), slap it on and voila, you’ve got a plant bandaid that already possesses antiseptic, anti-inflammatory and vulnerary qualities. Such easy poultices can also help with splinters and bug bites.

When you start spending time with plants in a mindful manner, you will begin to notice their subtle traits and maybe even their character. Plantain is a plant of abundance in everything — its quantities as well as its medicinal properties. Such a simple and often overlooked “weed” has healing benefits to the urinary, respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts. If you forage or pick it from your own back yard, take time to prepare plantain paste (leaves + some water + a powerful blender = superpower remedy), pour it into ice cubes mold to have during colder seasons when the natural world is hibernating.

A plant that had the privilege to be among medicinal herbs of Pharmacopoeia of the United States (an official database containing norms and regulations for medical treatments) from 1882 to 1926, grows right in your back yard in Colorado. Gumweed (Grindelia spp.) is a native  plant that grows literally everywhere this time of year. If you observe its growth, you will notice the way the buds start swelling up and oozing white resin around mid-to-late summer. This is an indispensable herb for the respiratory tract right from your ecoregion. Once you have a mental picture of what that rich resin looks like, it will be easy to remember that gumweed is a perfect healer of mucous and phlegmy conditions. This plant works its magic externally on skin rashes and eczema. If you’re in an unconventional mindset, follow my suit and chew it up as an all-organic gum substitute on your hikes. You still have a chance to catch flowering gumweed this season, so get out there!

This next herb is famous for its diverse medicinal qualities — it is the all mighty yarrow (Achillea millefolium) that perseveres all weather, eagerly drinking rain or soaking up intense Colorado sunshine. I was first introduced to yarrow as a young girl growing up in Russia. My great-grandmother, Anna, frequently harvested this plant as a maternal remedy for her loved ones. I can recall several instances as a young child trying to break off a stem as a keepsake but it wouldn’t give in. The strength and resilience got pressed into my consciousness about this powerhouse of a plant.

You won’t find huge clusters of yarrow in Stratton, but if you start looking around town, you will discover it growing in the poorest of soils. It is an incredible survivor of dust and pollution and has truly embodied the spirit of healing and reconciliation. Yarrow has a special affinity for blood and boundaries. Warriors of ancient cultures counted on yarrow’s medicinal, as well as spiritual, properties and carried it in their pockets to the battlefield. One of its common names, “Soldier’s Woundwort,” was earned by yarrow’s unprecedented ability to staunch blood flow in injuries during the American Civil War and World War I. Its prompt healing benefit is especially useful when you are out in the wilderness and do not have access to ointments and bandaids, or if you simply prefer remedies from the earth.

Yarrow generously provides us with its gifts during the summer as well as in the colder months. As the seasons change and we all become more subjected to viruses it might be a good idea to occasionally drink a bitter potion of the flowers and leaves to ward off colds or flu. If it is too late for a preventative action, you can rely on yarrow’s diaphoretic and fever-reducing effects just the same.

This plant has also been utilized in spiritual practices since the beginning of time. It is said to patch up one’s aura or do the opposite — open it up — based on individual needs.  The gentle yet strong spirit of yarrow nourishes the soul and builds resilience of one’s heart. In Russian folklore, it is also an herb of love as it promotes courage to express authentic feelings. Lots of cultures praised yarrow’s medicinal and magical properties but the best way to learn is always through an empirical experience. You can start developing a personal relationship with a plant by simply sitting next to it and humbling yourself in the presence of another spirit. No need to get too “out there” if that’s not your style, but reverence for the plant world is a must. Plant sitting simultaneously is the way to learn and heal. You will definitely notice subtle changes from day-to-day, as well as get a psychological imprint of what that particular plant ‘feels’ like.

Get out there before the summer season is over and meet and greet some of your herbal companions. While plants offer us their healing powers very eagerly, it is essential we do not turn into greedy consumers of their medicine. Taking only what you need is a way to pay respect to Nature and humankind. I invite you to use plants to heal and cure you and your loved ones as we start turning inward during  winter months. And remember to ask yourself ever so often “Would I like to experience Nature more intimately?”

* While Stratton Open Space is a wonderful place to meet some plants it is illegal to harvest there. Acquire a wildcrafting  permit or find a friend’s yard and go at it as long as there is still plenty left after your harvesting session. Remember: Less is always more.

Sasha Kershaw is a budding Certified Herbalist finishing her studies at Colorado School of Clinical Herbalism (CSCH) in Boulder. Nature herself is Sasha’s muse where she strives to spend her quiet time regularly. Her calling is to inspire others to develop an intimate relationship with the plant world through the power of herbal medicine. Next year her journey is taking her to pursue Clinical Herbalism program at CSCH.