By Naomi Klouda
The backyard, full of dandelions, horsetails, devil’s club and nettles may seem more problem than gift. But each of those plants has a use that is power-packed for health.A commenter to the article also left this added bit of helpful information:
Consider that in Japan, devil’s club was literally loved to death. Today, the plant needs to be imported because widespread use as a healing herb has nearly wiped them out, said Janice Schofield, a foremost authority on Alaska’s wild plants who made a visit to Homer to host an edible plant workshop last week.
Nettles are shy plants often found behind or shaded by large wild shrubs. Hikers know the sting and the burning itch of bare-skin contact. Horsetails, that ancient plant that shows up in fossil records from the dinosaur era, can be used to immediately counteract the sting by scrubbing it across the irritated area.
Nettles offer a powerhouse for remedies to keep a prostate healthy, cure a urinary track infection and inhibit bleeding, said Schofield, author of “Discovering Wild Plants” and “Alaska’s Wild Plants.” Her first acquaintance with the weeds began here in Kachemak Bay in the early 1980s. She spent a year studying nettles. “I realized I was only at the tip of the iceberg – there is such a long relationship between humans and nettles.”
In her fascination, Schofield wrote an entire book, “Nettles,” in the Keats Good Herb Guide series, that currently is out of print and in want of a new publisher.
The book goes into great detailed explanation of the plant’s chemical properties and how they function. Teens may want to try a nettle concoction to help alleviate acne. The fresh-pressed juice of nettle plants is laden with chlorophyll and other nutrients. In France, nettles are used as medical treatment for mild to moderate acne. Here’s an explanation she presents from an herbalist: “Since the blood must maintain its slightly alkaline pH and since nearly all the waste products the body produces are acid, something like nettle tea helps to add electrolytes and alkali to assist the buffering system when under stress, and nettle specifically helps increase the transport and excretion of blood nitrogen waste products.”
For this reason, a cup of nettle tea one to three times a day can help relieve acne and other painful skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis. Even arthritis can be relieved by ingesting nettles as a tonic. The juice can be preserved by adding 10 percent grain alcohol or 25 percent brandy. Or, Schofield recommends, freeze the fresh juice in ice cube trays and thaw one as needed.
When hiking in summer, any number of mishaps can occur in the outdoors. It might come in handy to know that nettles can inhibit bleeding because it is an astringent and tightens tissues. Nettle powder can be sprinkled on cuts to aid in coagulation.
Schofield also found research that credits a mixture of burdock and nettles (half and half) taken as a tea eases premenstrual syndrome. Nettle root has been used to treat enlarged or irritated prostates. Drinking nettle tea during pregnancy (be sure to get nettles in the early spring only) aids health and afterward, helps nursing mothers produce milk. Nettle seeds, which contain oils and traces of formic acid, can be used as a scalp conditioner and hair-growth stimulant for people who have undergone chemotherapy. Take a teaspoon of seeds, soak in a cup of hot water for twenty minutes and use as a rinse after shampooing, recommends herbalist Michael Moore in Schofield’s research.
Young plants are best
The only case of a person dying or becoming ill from nettle use that Schofield knows of occurred in Australia where a species of nettles is a dangerous rainforest dweller. Contact with the razor sharp hairs burn for weeks and months even. But the Alaska variety is safe if taken in its prime. Later in the season, when the plant’s leaves are larger than two-inches in diameter and it starts flowering, it becomes unhealthy.
“If you are observing the plant, it will tell you if it’s the right time to use it,” Schofield said. “When it’s young, it’s vibrant and juicy. As it’s older, it becomes courser and dry, constricting fluids and juices.”
Nettles are best used in the spring, when the plant is 10-12 inches high. But if you have a grove of nettles in the yard that you have used as the season progresses, they tend to replenish themselves and can be harvested all summer. Look for the small new growths in a nettle grove that may be hidden by the more mature stalks. Plants in use tend to oblige humans by growing back more plentifully. “After they flower, the plant becomes more irritating to the urinary track. Once bugs get into the nettles, the harvest is over,” she advises.
How Scholfield began
Schofield came to know Alaska’s herbs and write numerous articles and books on the subject because there was so little out there. In 1980, she and her husband moved to the head of Kachemak Bay and later they lived by Red Mountain. She had earned her degree in home economics and felt a keen curiosity about the nettle groves around her, as well as other plants she found fascinating like wild roses, dandelions and devils club. What could they be used for? Few books were available to help answer her extensive curiosity, so she decided to write one. Her quest took her all over the state, seeking out traditional Alaska Native uses and researching herbalists’ works and scientific findings from around the globe. Thirty years and thousands of pages later, Schofield is highly sought out as probably Alaska’s foremost expert on wild plants. Her workshop, co-hosted with Nancy Lee Evans, was attended by 24 people.
“What you see now is the byproduct of trial and error, flops and successful attempts,” Schofield said in an interview with the Homer Tribune. Now she lives in New Zealand, and is writing another book, “Health Plants of Alaska.” Sadly, much of the manuscript burned in a fire that destroyed her home earlier this year.
Her trip to Homer was the first trip back to her beloved Kachemak Bay in four years.
Weeds and wild plants tend to be taken for granted- or attacked with strong killing sprays – but Alaskans probably shouldn’t do that, she said. “The pureness and availability makes Alaska plants very healthy. Other places don’t always have these plants. Dandelions, for example – they don’t grow in the wild in New Zealand.”
Devil’s club was wiped out in Japan because the stems and roots are found to be beneficial as a medicine to regulate sugar levels, as in diabetes, and also to regulate blood pressure.
“This is the people’s medicine, these weeds. It’s to use for health, not just as a medicine which is what you need when you are sick. It keeps you in balance, strengthens immunity – its how to keep your family, kids and animals healthy.”
To start with, Schofield recommends getting to know 10 plants around your yard. Many in Homer contain dandelions, devils club, cow parsley (puski), nettles, horsetail, wild roses, raspberry plants and fireweed. All of these have specific uses.
“They form a community of plants, an ecosystem, and a good reason to not eradicate them through weed killers is because once one is gone, the community health of plants suffer,” she said. “They keep the landscape healthy.”
HOMER TRIBUNE/Naomi Klouda - An abundance of local recipes for nettle use are shared in Homer. Lasse Holmes creates a Nettle Creme Tonic beer; Two Sister’s Bakery Owner Carrie Thurman makes a nesto pesto. Public Health Nurse Bonnie Betley makes pasta of nettles and the Kilcher family is credited with many other suggested uses. Schofield lists many in her books as well.
As a big herbal medicine aficionado, I try to make all my own herbal tinctures as well. My favorite reference is Charles Kane’s Herbal Medicine-Trends and Traditions…a fantastic herbal resource book. It’s the only herbal I’ve seen to have tincture-making worksheets, and the proper alc/water percentages and dosages for 400+ herbs…highly recommended as a medicine-makers manual.