Herbal Simpling: Build a First Aid Kit from the Plants in Your Backyard

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“Why should a man die whilst sage grows in his garden…?”

(Attributed to Hildegard of Bingen, 12th century naturalist, philosopher, and physician)

For most of human history, plants have been used interchangeably for both food and medicine. Excavations of early civilizations reveal remnants of herbs that are not only nutritious, but that have since been used by herbalists, physicians, and native healers for their medicinal value. (The New Age Herbalist. Richard Mabey, Consultant Editor. A Fireside Book, Simon & Schuster, 1988:16)

Nowadays, most people trust others to grow, harvest, and prepare the vegetation that they put into their mouths or apply to their bodies. But with very little education, a curious person can learn to safely collect herbs that can be valuable for day-to-day medical emergencies, ongoing herbal therapy, or perhaps just to liven up an otherwise tedious menu.

The practice of collecting medicinal herbs is called “simpling” or “wildcrafting.”

To some, the term “simpling” implies the collection of plant materials from one’s immediate neighborhood, while “wildcrafting” connotes the gathering of herbs from a wider area, such as a national forest.

Simpling, however, carries deeper meaning: Since a single herb often has a variety of applications, the collection of that herb simplifies one’s need to become informed about the entirety of the herbal world. Trying to learn the myriad applications of every herb would be nearly as difficult as negotiating the convoluted maze of modern medical education.

Principles of Herbal Simpling

  1. Safety is of paramount concern when collecting herbs for food or medicinal use. Gather only those herbs that are familiar, and be aware of possible similarities to toxic plants (e.g., poisonous hemlock resembles parsley, fennel, or wild carrot at different stages of its life cycle).
  2. Do not gather endangered plants.
  3. Gather herbs that grow nearby. This not only enhances one’s familiarity with the plants; many herbalists believe that herbs take on the characteristics of their environs and will therefore be uniquely suited to treating those ailments that are associated with local conditions.
  4. Use mild herbs. They can generally be used freely without side effects (remember that many modern, prescription medications have their basis in herbal medicine).
  5. Use large doses of milder herbs. There is a significant difference between sipping a pleasant beverage tea and drinking a medicinal herbal infusion.
  6. Remember that herbal medicines take time to work.

Familiar Herbs and Some of Their Uses

  • Dandelion: Young leaves make a nutritious potherb. Excellent diuretic. Stimulates bile secretion. Helps to lower blood pressure, reduce fluid retention, and balance blood sugars. Both root and leaf are used.

  • Asparagus: Diuretic. Helps to cleanse urine. Shoots and roots are used. People with oxalate kidney stones should avoid asparagus.
  • Blackberry: Berries and roots are used for fevers, diarrhea, and controlling minor bleeding.
  • Borage: Used for stomach ulcers, fevers, and improving milk flow during lactation. Seeds are an excellent source of gamma-linolenic acid.
  • Calendula: Promotes sweating, as during fevers; promotes menstruation; encourages wound healing. When applied as a salve, oil, or poultice, will help heal and reduce discomfort from burns, rashes, and skin ulcers. Flower heads are used.
  • Chamomile: Considered a “bandage for the stomach.” Soothing to mucous membranes; calming; useful for diarrhea, colic, or menstrual cramps. Flower heads are used.
  • Corn silk: Used for treating bladder irritation (e.g., during infections) or urethritis; helps dissolve kidney stones.
  • Dill: Entire aerial portion of plant is used for stomach cramps, colic, and to increase breast milk.
  • Juniper: Diuretic; antiseptic; relieves gas and abdominal cramping. Infusion of berries is used for gout, urinary problems, and arthritis.
  • Lemon balm: Infusion of leaves is useful for fevers, stomach complaints, and (topically) for herpes simplex.
  • Nettle: Leaves are used for prostate problems, allergies, asthma, endometriosis, and as a potherb.
  • Oregon grape: Roots are used for arthritis, skin diseases, liver problems, and cancer.
  • Parsley: Leaves and root are used for urinary tract infections and kidney stones; entire plant is used for bronchial congestion and stomach complaints.

  • Red clover: Blossoms are used for “cleansing” and in herbal cancer formulas.
  • Rosemary: Leaves are used for headaches, colds, indigestion, and arthritis.
  • Spearmint: Diaphoretic; antispasmodic; soothing to stomach. Leaves are used for fevers, stomach gas, colds and flu.
  • Thyme: Leaves are used for cough, colds, and indigestion.
  • Violet: Aerial parts of plant are used for coughs, sore throats, fevers, and to help soften tumors.
  • Willow: Bark is used for fevers, headaches, and arthritis (the herbal analog of aspirin).
  • Yarrow: Entire herb useful for colds, flu, fever, hemorrhoids, bleeding from minor wounds, painful menstruation.

Anyone can collect and prepare local herbs and construct an herbal “first aid kit.” Familiarity with herbs (and their actions) is easily-acquired knowledge that can save a trip to a doctor when minor ailments arise.

People who have allergies, those who take prescription medications, and pregnant women should consult their physicians before using herbal preparations.