By Carl Price and Ellen Reardon, July 2023. This article first appeared in Let’s Talk Plants! April 2008, No. 163 and was published again in the April 2020 Newsletter. The update to this article is from the July 2008 issue of Let's Talk Plants! Appearing below in orange text.
A few months ago, we wrote an essay on “Plants that Heal” (*Current Editor’s note: see below). Although both this and the earlier narrative issue from ideas formed at the same meeting, our hope is that this story will highlight California plants, and how to use them medicinally to remedy which particular symptoms.
It was certainly a shock to learn at that meeting, from casual conversations with graduate students proud to be presenting their research, that the younger generation was no longer interested in identifying plants specific for troublesome ailments. People no longer knew which plant, let alone which part of the plant— roots, leaves, berries, etc.— was useful. Should the plants be gathered during the daytime or night? Is phase of the moon important? Should the plant segments be steeped, used as a poultice or rubbed on? And the students certainly wanted to earn more than their grandmothers’ approximate wage of 19 cents/hour. The Waterford Press guide to Medicinal Plants by James Kavanaugh is an invaluable addition to our libraries, especially when fortified by the Sunset Western Garden Book.
Let’s begin with the ubiquitous dandelion, Taraxacum officinale; tea from the leaves is a remedy for upset stomach, whereas tea from the roots is a diuretic. Many people make wine from the leaves too. Personally, I think it tastes terrible!
Although the lovely coneflower, Echinacea spp., gained notoriety some years back as a preventative of the common cold, a status that has not held up to scientific scrutiny, tea from its roots or leaves is highly antiseptic and is used to clean sores and insect bites.
Butterfly gardeners are aware that milkweed, Asclepias spp., brings droves of the winged darlings to their yards, but may not know that the milky sap helps to heal sores and removes corns and warts.
Is Milkweed Sap a Problem?
Minna Riber took issue with a statement in the article on Medicinal Plants in the April newsletter. She wrote in part: “In the past I have very much enjoyed [the articles of Ellen Reardon & Carl Price]; however, I strongly disagree with: ‘… Butterfly gardeners are aware that milkweed, Asclepias spp., brings droves of the winged darlings to their yards but may not know that the milky sap helps to heal sores and removes corns and warts. …’ It may remove corns and warts, but a good rule of thumb is to avoid any plant with white sap, as it is usually caustic. …”
Ellen’s reply: “I went online to check out milkweed, Asclepias speciosa, and every site emphasized its healing properties, including the fact that it was named after Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. A particularly helpful document can be downloaded from the USDA: plants.usda.gov/plantguide/doc/cs_assp.doc'. It starts with a warning (in red ink!): 'Milkweed may be toxic when taken internally, without sufficient preparation,' but it then goes on to identify the many instances where ancient peoples used milkweed for fiber, food, and medicine. There are very few references to toxicity, and when noted, they relate to specific varieties. One should be prudent in dealing with milkweed, but I think Minna overstates the hazards in saying that any plant with white sap…is usually caustic.'”
Rubbing on skin of crushed stems and leaves of jewelweed, Impatiens capensis, relieves the sting of poison ivy and also of boils.
There are still some areas in San Diego County where prickly pear cactus, Opuntia spp., can grow and produce stunning yellow or orange flowers in early spring. But in a pinch (pun intended!) the peeled paddles can serve as a poultice.
The mighty oak tree that grew from a tiny acorn begets many more acorns, which when boiled produce an astringent wash with a styptic effect that stops bleeding.
Sunflower, Helianthus spp.; oxeye daisy, Leucanthemum vulgare; speedwell, Veronica spp.; and black mustard, Brassica niger (why is it yellow?) are each used as a tea to alleviate colds, coughs, fevers and bronchitis. From just looking out the car window at our local meadows, there seems to be enough mustard to eliminate colds for years to come.
In addition to sparking up Mediterranean food, the aggressive peppermint, Mentha piperita, is useful as a soothing tea to treat anxiety, insomnia and coughs. As a child, I remember my mother administering mint to relieve nausea. So before you rip any more of that encroaching peppermint from your garden, save enough to sit back and relax with peppermint tea in hand.
Spearmints, like this "Mint The Best", Mentha spicata, have less menthol than peppermint varieties which make them the best choice for using fresh in mint sauces and drinks.
*Editor’s note: The previous article mentioned by the authors in this piece is not in the online archive which only goes back to January 2008. If you have access to copies of newsletters in your collections from 2007 and before, please photocopy the “Plants the Heal” article mentioned herein and email it to Karen England at firstname.lastname@example.org and, while we are on the subject of notes, if you would like to help with the newsletter, this column, FROM THE ARCHIVES, is looking for an editor to cull through the archives and pick classic articles to present to the membership in the newsletter each month. Contact Karen England at
email@example.com for more information and to volunteer.