Until recently Western medicine depended on traditional herbs used to treat many different medical conditions, some mild and some severe and still today many plants are used in herbal medicine, particularly in Asia and Europe, or as a base for pharmaceuticals. In herbal medicine, what we call weeds are commonly used as tonics, relaxants and painkillers, for digestive complaints, as antiseptics and bactericides, headaches colds and flu, and for skin disorders.
Some short-lived species rely heavily on toxic chemical defences to deter herbivores – these plants are usually avoided by grazing animals unless drought conditions or overgrazing occur. These compounds accumulate on leaves, shoots, flowers and fruits. They include glycosides, alkaloids, and terpenoids, which are all low molecular weight, often toxic at small doses, and highly biologically active. As a result, many of these types of weeds are used in the treatment of a wide variety of diseases; their effects include diuretic, choleretic, anti-inflammatory, antioxidative, anti-carcinogenic, analgesic, anti-hyperglycemic, anti-coagulatory and pre-biotic effects.
As with pharmaceutical drugs, herbal medicines can have serious side effects. In general, it’s always a good idea to do a little research and consult your health-care provider for more serious conditions.
Herbal remedies are prepared in several standardized ways which usually vary based upon the plant utilized, and sometimes, what condition is being treated. Methods include: infusions (hot teas), decoctions (boiled teas), tinctures (alcohol and water extracts), and macerations (cold-soaking), and the making of salves and poultices. For some conditions, steam inhalation may be used.
As for edible weeds, there are so many medicinal ‘weeds’ that we cannot list them here; we will use the same species as for food to illustrate the widespread health benefits:
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Roots of Dandelion are used to treat liver complaints, aid digestion, and can relieve food allergies. The antioxidants in Dandelions are believed to have cancer fighting power. They have also been used to repair damage that may have been caused by drugs, chemicals, alcohol, and infections conditions, like hepatitis.
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)
Purslane (or Pigweed) is also valued as a liver tonic. It is extremely high in omega-3 fatty acids which strengthen cell membranes – this improves the immune system, provides protection from cancers and regulates metabolism: correcting blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides. It contains dopamine which has been found to be advantageous for strengthening the pituitary gland and treating Parkinson’s Disease. Purslane is highly alkaline and is helpful in alleviating acidic stomachs. It is also an excellent source of vitamins A and C, iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium.
Common Chickweed (Stellaria media)
Chickweed leaves eaten raw or cooked, are rich in iron, and a good source of calcium, chromium, cobalt, molybdenum, magnesium, manganese, silicon, zinc, vitamins A and C and antioxidants. Used as poultice or ointment, .Common Chickweed in an ancient remedy for burns, rashes, bites and other skin conditions, as well as for haemorrhoids, painful joints, tendons and ligaments. It can be used fresh or dried, as a powder, ointment, or decoction. It can relieve digestive conditions like inflammation, ulceration, and bowel disorders. Respiratory complaints also benefit from Chickweed. The leaves are also eaten for arthritis, rheumatism, blood poisoning, constipation, colitis, gastritis, acid indigestion, diabetes, candida, cancer, fatigue, fractures, mouth ulcers, to strengthen the heart, improve eyesight and to assist the function of the thyroid, liver, gall, kidneys, bladder and lymphatic system. All round good guy.
Slender Celery: (Cyclospermum leptophyllum)
‘Ajamoda’ is an important drug in Indian Medicine (Ayurveda, Siddha and Unani systems) made from the fruits of some members of the carrot family. Slender Celery seeds are used in the formulations of the drug though it frequently contains seeds of related umbelliferous plants viz. Apium graveolens (Celery), and Trachispermum roxburgianum. It improves digestion and is also used to relieve bronchitis, asthma, hiccough, carminative, stimulant, cardial and pain in the bladder
Plantain (Plantago spp.)
Plantain seeds have a high mucilage content. Soaked in hot water they will form a thick, jelly. Drunk in a fruit juice, this can help to stimulate the reflex action of the bowel. This mucin lines the mucous membranes of the digestive tract, protecting from irritation, acidity and inflammation. This mucin also benefits the mucous membranes of the throat, lungs, kidneys and urinary tubes.
Plantain leaves are anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory and are used on cuts and abrasions. Allantoin in the leaves helps knit the cells back together and reduce inflammation. Use the leaves as a wash, as a poultice and, internally, as a tea or edible leafy greens.
There is a long list of other therapeutic uses: to correct high cholesterol and blood pressure, to boost the immune system, for candida, thrush, diarrhoea, digestive conditions and gastrointestinal ulcers, constipation, cancer, haemorrhoids; glandular complaints, spleen, bladder, kidney, liver and lung disorders; skin conditions, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, and as a tonic for the blood. For insect bites, crush a plantain leaf in the hands and rub it on the bite.
- Mase, Guido, 2013. The Wild Medicine Solution, Healing Arts Press, Vermont.
- Collins, P. 1998. Useful Weeds at our Doorstep. Total Health and Eduction Centre, Musswellbrook.
- Cribb, AB & JW,1981. Wild Medicine in Australia. Fontana/Collins, Sydney.
Herbalist Guido Masé (1) explores the three classes of plants necessary for the healthy functioning of our bodies and minds–aromatics, bitters, and tonics. He explains how bitter plants ignite digestion, balance blood sugar, buffer toxicity, and improve metabolism; how tonic plants normalize the functions of our cells and nourish the immune system; and how aromatic plants relax tense organs, nerves, and muscles and stimulate sluggish systems, whether physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual. He also provides information on techniques for preparation.
Pat Collins (2) provides an excellent cover of 40 common medicinal weeds in Australia. The book on wild medicine in Australia by A.B. and J.W. Cribb (3) includes Australian native plants and has a short section on simple methods of production.
There are many websites giving information on medicinal values such as: