Plant-based Foods You Need to Try
This week’s column comes from Tina in Bradford, ON, Canada, who wrote in to better understand how to use herbal medicine for overall health. She’s interested in plant-based foods and food as medicine, so this is coming up for her as part of that exploration.
My advice for anyone on this journey is before going and buying commercial #herbal products (especially without professional 1:1 guidance to understand your health issues and needs or understanding responsible herbal practices and stewardship), try the plants in your native habitat. Try them as food and as teas. Today I’ll give you pointers on how to do just that with a few abundant medicinal herbs across various regions of Canada.
Sidenote: if you’re interested in regional Canadian cuisine, you have to explore this award-winning book by Suman Roy and Brooke Ali! Suman and I together created the concept for the book, for which I wrote the nutrition notes and provided some of the photography. It’s an interesting look at regional ingredients (and history) used both traditionally and with a modern twist. You can find a copy here!
This is called #bioregional #herbalism, and it refers to the practice of preferentially cultivating and using plants that grow natively within an area, rather than importing plants from afar for our medicinal purposes.
This recognizes that there are always a number of medicinal plants indigenous to any area. Moreover, these change and morph as the needs of the population in an area change. That is to say (and many herbalists will concur) that natural medicines synergistically crop up in response to an upswing in the pathologies they correspond to.
The more prolific of these herbs can be found with relative ease. Think #dandelions in the spring and summer, red clover and broad leaf plantain all summer long, #goldenrod in the autumn, Japanese #knotweed (yes I said it!) in the spring in many regions of Canada. Although these may seem like pests (some more #invasive than others!), they are inarguably healthful when used properly and sourced from healthy plants. This means we do not cultivate from roadsides or from a source that could be sprayed with herbicides. Let’s look at a few of these in more depth. But remember, because herbs are #medicinal, we must always heed the contraindications for each, so I will include those, as well.
Instead of coffee or tea or some other hip-whip-whatsit in your mug, go dig up some of those pesky dandelions in your front lawn by the root. This is easiest when the soil is moist after a rain and you use a weeding tool or flat head screwdriver inserted alongside the root to pop it out as you pull it up gently, but firmly, with the other hand. You will hear the pop when the root is freed. It’s a taproot (long tapering root) so it comes up quite easily when the ground is sufficiently wet. Now take that beauty to the kitchen sink and wash it off with a good scrub brush and trim all the damaged green top parts away. Save the nice greens for adding to your salad, soup, or smoothie later, after spinning and drying them. These are used just like any other salad green.
Now chop the root up into 1" pieces and put it in a pot and bring to a boil, or alternately, dehydrate it on low low for tea later. If you want a nice flavour in your decoction, you can add in hibiscus tea and/ or rose hips from last year. Go ahead and add a clove bud and cinnamon or anise if you like those, and if you have fresh or dried stevia leaves (so easy to grow!) add a few of those in, too. Let it simmer for 5 minutes and remove to cool. You have just made your first herbal decoction. Yay you! Strain and let cool to your preferred temperature to consume.
Just to clarify, decoctions are long boiled teas. The long boil extracts more of the qualities from the plant if the plant is has a more woody quality. If it’s delicate, a tea is sufficient.
Now before I tell you what you are about to sip and the unbelievable medicinal benefits, let me first add a caveat.
If you spray your lawn with #pesticides, sorry, this isn't for you, even if a dandelion survives the spray. Ditto if your neighbour sprays anywhere close to the area where you find the plant. You see, these sprays are not safe to use on food. They contaminate everything in your yard, including adjacent food gardens. They also poison our collective water table with known carcinogens (glyphosate) that water treatment doesn't effectively remove - for all the neighbourhood to enjoy. And we lose out collectively on some of the best free medicine we could have found for a myriad of health conditions! Farmers who used these sprays in person on their crops have developed lymphomas. It was a huge payout when taken to court. Yet you can still find #RoundUp in your local hardware store to poison your pets and family and neighbours for the sake of a completely unnatural, manicured lawn.
However, be consoled that if you live near to me, I will do my best to make sure my natural lawn - which is replete with a host of natural, indigenous, hardy medicinal specimens - reseeds yours with beneficial species to get you started back on the right path. Also, if ever I get to add my two cents to the DSM, obsessive lawn disorder will be identified as a pathology, as it rightly should be, so those lost souls can get the 'treatment' they need.
Back to our topic, dandelion is an incredible herb! The root, the leaves, and the flowers can all be consumed. It's great for cleansing and toning the liver and digestive system, because it’s so bitter. Beware, though, it has a laxative effect. It’s also a powerful diuretic and nutritive. This means those with fatty liver or other liver complaints, fatigue, toxicity, acne, eczema, psoriasis, or poor digestion can benefit from it. If you're holding water weight or have high blood pressure, or your kidneys are weak, it can help boost kidney function and get that excess water out of the body without robbing potassium, which most diuretics do. However, be warned: dandelion is so powerful that it shouldn't be used in conjunction with pharmaceutical #diuretics. Those who are dehydrated should not use it either.
It's highly nutritive, boasting about 300% of the RDI of vitamin A and 600% of vitamin K, among many other vitamins and minerals. Vitamin A is essential for healthy mucous membranes and skin and vitamin K is essential for bone, arterial, and dental health. Every client I have ever seen has needed more of both of these nutrients. Bone density and arterial disease are common among our elderly. Imagine a medical edible that could prevent these both!
Of course, caution should be exercised if you know you are allergic to the plants externally. In this case, try only a tiny bit at a time to make sure it doesn’t induce an allergic response. Otherwise, it’s generally regarded as safe. For more information, you can go here.
Have you tried red clover? The flower head is slightly sweet and can be washed and eaten fresh in salads. The heads, green stems, and leaves can be diced and dried to make a nice flavoured tea with some incredible benefits.
It’s another great diuretic, meaning it helps remove extra fluids (water weight) and cleanse the kidneys. It’s also great for removing mucus from the respiratory system, reducing inflammation, and cleansing the blood. On this note, it’s great for skin conditions and can help tremendously in teen or hormonal #acne. But its primary use is in balancing #hormones. Red clover has estrogen-like properties and can be used in #menopause and hormonal issues to bring balance - hence its efficacy in hormonal acne. In addition to all this, it’s known to assist in keeping bones strong and keeping arteries healthy, like dandelions do! And there’s now data to suggest it may lower certain types of cancer. Read more about the incredible benefits of red clover here.
Goldenrod is well known as a late summer/ autumn plant here in Canada. The tall, bushy yellow stems grow abundantly in meadows, grasslands, and on roadsides and in fields in Ontario and to the East. Allergy sufferers rue it, but as a herb, it’s highly useful. The aerial parts: leaves and flowers are used.
Made into a #tincture, it’s very good for sinus congestion related to allergies, colds, and flus. Used as a tea, it’s incredible for urinary tract and #bladder infections. I have suffered these and can attest that it truly works wonders. If you have a hard time to remember, the bright yellow colour can serve to help you think of urinary complaints. Just grab some fresh stems and boil with with plantain (if you can get it), described below. Or dry them and do the same. Strain and sip. The more serious the symptoms, the more I would consume. It can also be used as a culinary herb. For more information on goldenrod, and some interesting recipes that feature it, go here.
You may not recognize the name of this plant, but I’m certain you’ve seen it. It grows in almost every lawn and grassy area in Ontario. For a good picture of it, go here. The leaf veins run the length of the leaf, rather than stem to sides, so it can be easily identified. It’s rich in iron and vitamins A and C. The leaves and seed pods are used as a culinary herb, and as such its best eaten boiled. When prepared the leaves are like cooked spinach and the pods are like cooked asparagus in texture. They can be consumed with vinegar and salt (yum!) or butter, salt and pepper.
Medicinally, #plantain leaves contain ingredients that promote kidney function and remove uric acid, so it’s great for gouty and rheumatic #inflammation as well as #UTIs. The leaves can be applied directly to damaged skin for wounds, cuts, and scrapes because the plant is both antibacterial and anti-inflammatory.
But my favourite use of this plant is for UTIs. For this, we boil the leaves and stems (preferably with goldenrod if you can get it) to make a decoction that has a slippery feel to it. This slippery quality helps soothe irritated tissues, as in a urinary tract infection or IBS. It’s also incredible for chronic UTIs interstitial cystitis. It stops spasms and eases pain, coating and protecting raw tissues and disrupting the adhesion of biofilms. It’s also been used to treat eczema, psoriasis, and first degree burns, as it disinfects while it soothes and heals. For this, I’d use it as cooled boiled leaf or in a spray. To read more, go here. It’s considered safe for everyone. As with every new food, however, try a bit at a time in case of allergies.
Yeah, I’m going to go there. If you’re not a gardener or homeowner in an affected region, you may be WTH is she talking about. But if you are you know very well, and why it’s so controversial. Japanese Knotweed is currently listed as THE MOST INVASIVE PLANT SPECIES in North America. It began in Europe actually.
Botanist, Philip von Siebold, brought Japanese Knotweed to the UK in 1850, totally unaware of the impact it would have. For a long time it was celebrated for the ease with which it’s cultivated. Woops.
From that one piece we now have populations taking over wetlands and roadsides, ditches and forests across Europe and North America. Think bamboo on steroids. It looks like bamboo and grows much like it, with tall reedy stalks that develop annually. However, once you have it, it’s very, very tricky to eradicate.
And it can quickly overgrow and smother any other competing plant life.
And it spreads like wildfire.
And can apparently grow through concrete.
And cracks in your foundation wall.
And I have it on good authority it should never be fed after midnight :).
So now that we’ve covered the scary, let’s talk about the good. Knotweed is rich in vitamins A and C, potassium, phosphorus, zinc, and manganese. And it’s the bomb for treating chronic #Lyme disease. THE BOMB! And you never ever have to worry about harvesting too much! That being said, it is often sprayed, so unless you know for 100%-no-doubt-got-it-in-writing-with-a-royal-seal-sure that it’s not, don’t risk it.
Also incredibly important to note, it must be harvested in such a way that no part of the plant except what is to be eaten or used is taken away from the site or spread - not even in the garbage or compost heap. One tiny bit of root and your compost heap will be its new breeding ground. It will grow there! And take over! This thing grows everywhere!
Yours truly discovered this amazing plant when she purchased a home with said plant along the periphery of the property. I’ve since learned how to embrace it and keep it contained, while harvesting it annually for food and tinctures for Lyme and inflammatory conditions. Remember, working with nature, not against it. Win win!
Back to using knotweed as food, it’s rather fun to eat. The small stalks look like fat asparagus with spear shaped leaves poking out of the top. And it’s way cheaper! You simply break or snip them off and take home to prepare in a variety of ways. Some of my favourite include sauteed knotweed with mushrooms in butter, pickled knotweed, knotweed salsa verde, knotweed and strawberry pie, and knotweed tea and soda (we made this one up ourselves).
Raw, the taste is like a less tart rhubarb. Cooked, the taste is like a mushy, lemony asparagus. It lends itself well to fruity dishes where a mild tart taste is desired. The texture raw is very crisp. Cooked it gets soft and slimy. Remember, this coats and soothes the digestive tract, so you can be sure it impacts digestion. Apparently, it helps digestive motility. Of course, try only a little at a time until you know you can tolerate it.
You can find a number of recipes here and here.
Of course there are a number of plants that you can find locally in any region that can be harvested for food.
“Modern people eat only a fraction of the plant species our ancestors thrived on—one of the easiest health-boosts for your diet is to add wild foods to the menu from the bounty outside your door, especially the plentiful invasive species.” Source
If you’ve enjoyed reading this, I suggest you try a herb walk. These are long walks in nature paths to help a group identify some of the local medicinal plants. Many herbalists offer them several times a year, usually in harvest season - late summer or early fall. It’s a fun way to enjoy a day out while learning about my favourite subject: food as medicine!
Thank you for the great question, Tina! I hope you and others will be motivated to try some of these herbs for their health. As always, if you have your own health questions, don’t hesitate to send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find out more about my work via my website at hopenotdope.ca. Until next week!