Exploring nature’s medicine cabinet


Take two dandelions and see me in the morning.

It’s a glorious Sunday afternoon and I find myself in the greatest marketplace of them all. Everywhere I turn, I find medicine and food, tonics and tinctures. It’s under my feet and above my head, things to nosh on and cures for every woe.

CVS? Rite-Aid?

I think you see what’s going on here. This marketplace is nature itself – specifically the woodlands surrounding Mary and Bob Burr’s Blue Ribbon Farm in Mercer. There are a dozen people here on this day to learn how to recognize what nature has to offer. They came for a variety of reasons.

Many are members of the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine, which sponsored the event, who are looking to discover what riches reside on their own properties.

A few are simply looking to break their dependence on commercial food and medicines, to acquaint or reacquaint themselves with the riches the woodlands offer up for free.

“There is a whole pantry of food out here,” says Alan Michka, who came with his wife, Kay, from Lexington. “We walk by all this stuff every day but don’t give it a second thought.”

What kind of stuff are we talking about here? Name it. Take a look at your front yard; at a fallen log behind your wood shed or just any dusty shrub you pass. You’ll find something you can use, I guarantee it.

We’re barely out of the Burr’s front yard when Lizzy Hayes stops to point out what looks to me like ordinary weeds growing next to the road. I recognize it as the same kind of weed that crawls all over my backyard, a mere nuisance and nothing more.

“Plantain,” says Hayes, “are among the most common types of plants you’ll see.”

It grows in abundance in disturbed areas, she tells us, which led Native Americans to call it the White Man’s Footprint. Hayes plucks some plantain seeds from a roadside plant and demonstrates how it can crumbled and used like poppy seeds in a muffin. Or how its leaves can be chewed and spread on a sting.

“It will immediately relieve a bee sting,” says Geoff Nosach, Hayes’s co-pilot on this nature walk. “It’s amazing stuff.”

We move along, perhaps three or four feet, and then stop again.

“The next-door neighbor to the plantain,” Nosach tells the group, “is the dandelion, a really powerful medicinal. Dandelion is a tonic, so you can use it every day.”

Some use it in tincture form to treat liver and kidney disorders. Some harvest the root to make coffee or tea. This common plant that I trample every single day is used in such a vast variety of ways, some consider it a panacea.

And then there are berries and milkweed, goldenrod and grape leaves, all plants that we stopped to inspect before we had even left the roadway. If such powerful plants were on display so close to home, what must it be like in the forest?

“I’ve heard all of this before,” says Patty Cormier, a Maine forester who helped organize the forage walk. “But I tend to forget it in a month or so. I love to hear it all again. There is just so much that you can use out here.”

Like raspberry leaves. Rich in tannins, they can be used as an astringent to treat sore throats, sore gums, tonsillitis, eczema, acne and deeper maladies like stomach disorders.

“When I was pregnant, I drank (tea made from raspberry leaves) every day,” says Hayes, who hauls her 3-month-old son along in a carrier attached to her front. She makes a face. “It can be a little bitter.”

Hayes and Nosach are local farmers who grow shiitake mushrooms and who are considered experts in the art of foraging. They are joined by Kevin O’Meara, who occasionally wanders off into the tall grass alone to come back with a root, weed or mushroom to share with the group.

The people who came to learn foraging are mostly couples. They came from as nearby as Livermore and as far away as Germany to hear Hayes and Nosach talk about things like goldenrod and ragweed.

And speaking of those ubiquitous plants:

“A lot of people think they’re allergic to goldenrod,” says Nosach, “but they’re actually allergic to ragweed. It’s a popular misconception.”

Now that, I’ve heard. What I hadn’t heard is that goldenrod can be used to relieve pain and swelling from arthritis or that it has been used as treatment in heavier afflictions, like tuberculosis and diabetes.

We move on, into the woods, where flora abounds.

Grape leaves? They can be mashed up and used as a wash to treat sores. The extra tannin is used in the production of pickles, to make them crispier.

Juniper berries? Used to make gin. You know, for medicinal purposes.

Milkweed? They have tiny, shining fibers in their stems that can be used to make fabric or be spun into rope.

Coltsfoot? A seemingly ordinary flower that can be smoked as a means of alleviating bronchial problems or excess phlegm.

“It’s not like you sit there and puff it like a cigarette,” says Nosach, to the upraised eyebrows of several in the group. “You simply inhale the smoke.”

Coltsfoot is a plant that I marvel over it. It’s the first yellow flower you see each spring, Hayes tells me, and they seem to be everywhere.

“It’s very common at roadsides,” Nosach says. “They like disturbed areas. A lot of good medicines grow in disturbed areas.”

Nearby is another familiar plant, a flowering one that I’ve seen millions of times without paying it any mind at all. This is yarrow, and O’Meara tells me it’s one of nature’s band-aids.

“It’s really powerful in stopping bleeding,” he says. “It’s also helpful if you need to clean a wound.”

And here I’ve been paying big bucks for Neosporin and Curad band-aids all these years. Yarrow will also help with a toothache, or you can use it in a sitz bath to treat hemorrhoids.

We continue on, down a barely-there logging road and into the woods. Natural remedies abound: a leaf for every ailment, a seed for every need. Got muscle tension? Get some Solomon’s Seal root and rub it into your back. Nasty burn? Beech nuts can help with that.

“It has a soothing quality,” says Hayes. “And we certainly have plenty of beech around here.”

There are plants so common as to be nearly invisible, like pine and hemlock, which offer an array of medicinal benefits. And then there is horsetail, a vascular plant that looks like bamboo in the spring, before it forms lateral branches. To me it looks ancient, something that might have been here when dinosaurs roamed.

According to O’Meara, that observation is right on the money.

“There used to be forests of this type of plant,” he says.

Horsetail (or equisetum, scientifically) is rich in silica. Hayes calls it nature’s Brillo, an image that delights me to no end.

“If you’re camping,” she says, “it can be used to scrub your dishes.”

“It’s like sandpaper,” says Nosach.

Make a rinse out of horsetail and your hair will become stronger. And here I’ve been shelling out for that expensive conditioner at the drug store.

We come to a tired looking wagon that’s overloaded with logs. With its rusty wheels and generally saggy disposition, the wagon is something I’d walk right by without a glance. But not Nosach and Hayes. Nosach leans in on the wagon with a particular zeal and when he comes up again, he’s got a treasure in his hand. I recognize that treasure with a crawling sense of horror. IT’S A MUSHROOM! EVERYBODY RUN!

The poor mushroom is so misunderstood. Some are benign, some are toxic, some are helpful. But how to know one from the other? And since they’re so ungainly and confusing, why not skip them altogether.

Because cancer, that’s why. That’s one of the reasons, anyway. What Nosach holds in his hand is a bit of the turkey tail mushroom, whose claims to fame are growing by the day.

“These,” Nosach says, “are growing everywhere, in every wood lot. It’s very well known and well-studied.”

How well studied? In 2012, the Federal Drug Administration approved turkey tail for trials in treating cancer patients. It’s been brewed as a tea for thousands of years and now medical experts are saying it might be an invaluable tool in the war against cancer, strengthening the immune system and enabling the human body to fight back.

“It’s a powerful medicine any day of the week,” says Nosach. “You can put it in anything. It’s just a beautiful tonic and it’s everywhere.”

Nosach and Hayes have a special affinity for the mushroom, it’s clear. But their knowledge of nature extends beyond the what-can-you-do-for-me-today philosophy that sometimes plagues commercial developers and big pharma. They want to understand nature because they love it, from the brittle stuff on the forest floor to the leaves on the highest tree. They talk about the threats against nature, but not excessively. They are here to teach and that’s what they do.

Hayes takes a few pinches of wood sorrel, describing its lemony taste. A second later, a fellow named Dennis bends over, picks up a bit of the sorrel and pops it in his mouth.

“Oh, yeah,” he says, chewing with enthusiasm. “Right away, that really hits ya.”

Try it on a salad, Nosach advises. That lemony taste really pops.

Here, dangling from a bush, are the pods of the jewelweed. Touch them ever so lightly and they will blow apart in your hands. I remembered playing with these pods as a kid, but did I know that the juices of the jewelweed can be used to treat poison ivy? I did not.

“It can also be used as a preventative,” Nosach tells us, “if you’re going some place where you know there’s going to be poison ivy.”

The same soothing qualities exist in the stinging nettle, whose above-ground parts are used to stanch nose bleeds and can be applied to the skin to relieve muscle aches and pains. Just remember that they’re called “stinging” nettle for a reason.

“It hurts a lot at first, but then it feels really good,” Nosach says of the nettles treatment. “It really has a therapeutic effect, if you can handle it.”

That sounds like fun. But my favorite plant of the day isn’t about soothing a rash or easing a rumbling belly. No, my favorite plant was growing on the side of the tree, a mushroom most known for its ability to hold a smoldering ember for hours, allowing a camper on the run to move his fire from one place to another.

Behold the tinder polypore, more charmingly known in some circles as the hoof fungus. You’ll find them laterally attached to trees common in Maine, like the birch or the beech. It’s known to halt bleeding and treat wounds, but to me, it’s all about portable fire.

I don’t eat mushrooms in my salad or spaghetti sauce – I mean, yuck, right? – but two hours in the woods with the people of SWOAM left me with a hearty respect for the funny-looking fungi and more than a little bit of gratitude. Why, I could go out right now and eat a few right off the trees or the woodpile.

Bad idea, says Nosach. In spite of a few confusing tricks (most mushrooms with gills can’t be eaten, you know, except those that can) and in spite of their contributions to our health and well-being, some mushrooms will kill you without compunction.

“You have to be careful – really careful – with mushrooms,” Nosach says. “The deadly ones often reside right next to the edibles.”

Which means I’ll probably leave them alone until circumstances require that I move my campfire from one place to another.

Editor’s note: Identifying plants can be tricky. And even plants with proven beneficial properties, like most medicines, can be harmful if not used properly. As with anything you ingest or use medicinally, do your research first.

Although no one guide is considered the ultimate when it comes to identifying and using plants – common sense and local knowledge still reign supreme – the Peterson Field Guides are generally considered your best source when it comes to recognizing what you find in nature.

Also well regarded in foraging circles are the Audubon guides to both flora and fauna of particular regions.