SPRING HERBS -
For those who love to go for walks in the forests and
meadows to see the wild flowers in bloom, here is a calendar with reference to
approximate blooming dates. This list does not include all the wild flowers, but
a selection of plants that are used as herbs (medicinal/edible). Of interest, I
have included some poisonous plants as well to keep you on your toes! Blooming
dates can vary in different localities, this reference is for Toronto and
APRIL - Flowers to look for include: Bloodroot -
Sanguinaria Canadensis Coltsfoot - Tussilago farfara Prickly Ash -
EARLY MAY - Skunk Cabbage - Symplocarpus foetidus
Wild Ginger - Asarum canadense Violets - Violas sp. Dandelion - Taraxacum
Officinalis Blue Cohosh - Caulophyllum thalictroides
MID MAY - Shepherds Purse - Capsella bursa-pastoris
Trilliums - Trillium sp. Marsh Marigolds - Caltha palustris Ground Ivy -
LATE MAY - Common Chickweed - Stellaria medica
Mandrake - Podophyllum peltatum White Baneberry - Actaea alba Red Baneberry
- Actaea rubra Solomon Seal - Polygonatum pubescens Hawthorn - Crateagus sp.
Chokecherry - Prunus virginiana False Elder - Sambucus pubens
WARNING: make sure that you have identified the plant
correctly. Knowledge of basic botany is essential, along with a field guide book
that will aid you in proper identification. This requires practice and patience
and attending herbwalks conducted by an experienced herbalist, will advance you
further in this study.
It is also very important never to over-pick the herbs.
Beginners tend to do this, being over-enthusiastic. You can quickly eradicate a
species over a short period of time and then wonder later, why you cannot find
that plant. I encourage you to cultivate the wild flowers as many of them are
easy to propagate. You will be doing us all the good service of increasing
supply, as well as introducing new and rare species to your area.
One of the harbingers of Spring is the flowering of
Bloodroot and Coltsfoot. The white, delicate flowers of Bloodroot bloom very
quickly, so do not be disappointed when you see the petals already fallen on the
ground. It is not very common in many areas. Although it looks delicate, the
root is potent and not often used by herbalists today. A bright red juice will
stain your hands when the root is cut.
Coltsfoot's yellow flowers bloom earlier than the
Dandelion. Both look similar but upon closer inspection the reddish scaly stem
will differentiate between the two. Also the flowers bloom before the leaves
appear. Coltsfoot prefers disturbed, open spaces such as gravel pits, creek
banks and road sides. This is a very useful herb, the flowers can be made into
wine or syrup, and the leaves make a pleasant tasting tea. Excellent for
expelling mucus from the lungs in cases of asthma, colds and other pulmonary
Another early bloomer is the Prickly Ash with its
inconspicuous greenish-yellowish flowers. This shrub or small tree bears thorns,
and is a more effective barrier than a barbed-wire fence. Do not confuse this
shrub with a Locust tree. The bark is used mainly as a stimulant for poor
circulation. It is one of the few herbs that creates a tingling - like sensation
in the mouth (some others are the Echinacea and Aconite).
By May 1st two most unusual flowers have appeared; the
Skunk Cabbage with its purplish inflorescence and the Wild Ginger with its
reddish brown cup shaped flower. The Skunk Cabbage smells skunky when bruised.
It is a very distinctive plant of the marshlands with huge cabbage-like leaves
that grow up to 2 feet long. The roots have been used as an expectorant and
combined with other herbs for spasmodic conditions. It is an acquired taste and
belongs in the family Arum (Araceae) which also includes the Jack-in-the-Pulpit.
Arum comes from the Arabian word ar, meaning fire. The fresh roots contain
calcium oxalate crystals which when eaten, cause an intense burning sensation in
the mouth. So here is one example of a herb (Skunk cabbage) that should be
thoroughly dried before using.
Wild Ginger is a jewel of the woods, newcomers are
delighted when they smell and taste the ginger roots. Makes a good syrup being
diaphoretic, very warming but emetic in large quantities. This is one wild
flower that will grow well in the garden. The romantic Violets are familiar to
everyone. Few people are aware that the leaves of the blue flowered varieties
can be made into an ointment. Superb for cleansing old wounds, they have strong
drawing-out properties. Do not pick all the leaves from a Violet plant for it is
slow growing. The Birdfoot Violet (Viola pedata) is rare, so please, try not to
pick this variety.
At this time the first Dandelions are blooming. Before
they bloom, harvest the leaves and eat them. Together with Violet leaves, this
will be your first wild green salad - along with a handful of chives from the
garden. An excellent spring tonic and highly nutritious. Your Dandelion roots
should have been harvested by now and made into a tincture or dried. Spring
roots are bitter tasting and good for the liver whereas the Fall roots are sweet
tasting and good for blood sugar conditions.
Blue Cohosh is sometimes tricky to find. It blends in
well with the Wild Sarsaparilla and Red and White Baneberries. All these plants
produce berries and they all bloom in Spring, growing in shady woodlands. With
practice you will be able to see the bluish hue of the Cohosh, the tiny flowers
greenish-yellow, the berries dark blue. The roots are used for female disorders,
the Native peoples appropriately naming this plant Squaw Root or Papoose Root.
Caution is required with this herb. It effects the blood pressure and is toxic
in larger doses.
By now I'm wondering if I can complete the list of herbs,
there are so many to mention! It is the middle of May, and the Shepherds Purse
is growing strong and will bloom from now till fall time. This herb has a
distinctive sulphur-like scent. Very popular among midwives for its astringency,
it is a herb that is best used fresh.
Birth Root or the Trillium is a delightful spring flower
symbolizing gladness and the fresh hope of Spring. North American natives used
the root to strengthen the uterus and aid childbirth. It is illegal to pick this
plant, it being the provincial emblem of Ontario. Try growing the Trillium in
I've included the Marsh Marigolds because when the
vibrant yellow flowers are blooming, this is a sure sign that the fiddleheads
from the Ostrich fern (Pteretis pensylvanica) are soon ready to be picked.
Please do not over pick and do not confuse it with the Bracken fern which is not
I'm positive you will be mowing your lawn now. For those
who have a wild cultured lawn with everything growing in it, I'm sure you will
be cutting the Ground Ivy as well. Low growing, this mint variety with purple
flowers has a distinctive musky-like scent. The Common Chickweed is another lawn
loving plant with tiny white flowers. Both of these herbs are astringent, the
Chickweed also having demulcent properties.
Of course there are the poisonous plants! How about the
Red and White Baneberry. Their berries are very bright and showy, but certainly
not edible. I might as well include the False Elder shrub, whose flowers are
also white. The birds will eat the red berries but don't you try them. It is
important to distinguish between the False and the medicinal Common Elder shrub
(Sambucus Canadensis). Basically, the Common Elder have flat-topped flower
clusters and purplish-black berries while the red berried False Elder has
elongate flower clusters and blooms way before the Common Elder.
A graceful lily, the Solomon's Seal grows in shady
woodlands, and with its greenish white bell-like flowers it is quite attractive.
The rhizomes have been used at one time in cosmetics for toning the complexion
and also eaten as a starchy food. I find it too pretty to pick, but if you grow
this plant in your garden you will have ample supply. Often found growing close
by is the False Solomon's Seal (Smilacina racemosa), its roots are demulcent and
expectorant. Both of these plants are rarely used these days.
By the last week in May most of the fruit trees are
blooming. To refresh your memory it was 25 degrees C on May 30 of last year. The
Hawthorn shrub is blooming now, a very useful herb. Too bad the red berries are
often wormy, you can never pick enough. It is a popular European remedy, (a
heart tonic) and is rich in vitamin C. Chokecherry bark is another heart remedy
but different in its effect. It is not a remedy to take for a long period of
time. The bark is also used in cough remedies for its anti-spasmodic effect.
So I hope I have given you an idea of what you can find
in bloom at Springtime. Remember, it is your responsibility to identify these
herbs correctly taking care with their preparation and using the proper dosage.
It is important that we learn to recognize the flowers and plants that are found
in nature, in order to become more self-reliant and in tune with our
environment. Plants are a part of the life force and only when we become aware
of their presence in their natural habitat will we be able to share in and
absorb, their true power and vitality.