Tag Archives: medicinal plants

Underfoot: Pie Marker

By Susan Sprout

It is autumn – time to find your pie marker and get baking those yummy apple pies. What! No pie marker?

There is a type of plant that grows around here, commonly known as Pie Markers. The resemblance of their strangely-shaped seed capsules to the baking tools used for marking or fluting or crinkling the upper edges of pie crust is, well, remarkable! I was taught by my gram to use the pinch-finger technique for crimping my crust edges and have never owned a pie marker. Until now! Thanks to the owner of the antique store in Pennsdale, I  have an example to show you. 

Pie Marker flower with green seed capsules

The Pie Marker plant was brought to this continent in the 18th century to be cultivated for its strong, jute-like fibers for making string, ropes, rugs. Indigenous to India and grown in China from around 2000 BCE, known as Qing Ma, it was used medicinally for an antiseptic, an astringent, and as a demulcent – think “soothing”. The fiber business went bust, and we now have a plant whose seed output yearly (per plant) can top 15,000, depending on height – which can be up to five feet tall, having many downy branches, eight-inch velvety leaves, and lots and lots of five-petaled yellow flowers. The pollinated flowers create the seed capsules made up of twelve to fifteen segments that form the round “pie markers”. 

Older plant with mature seed capsules

Pie Marker AKA Pie Maker AKA  Abutilon theophrasti  AKA Velvet Leaf AKA Indian Hemp AKA…I found eleven common names so I’ll quit now… is considered a damaging weed to agricultural crops like corn and soybeans because of its competitiveness over nutrients and water plus the fact it harbors maize and tobacco pests and soybean diseases. There are many other plants in the Mallow Family – okra, cotton, ornamentals like Rose of Sharon, Hollyhocks and Hibiscus – that are “positive” members of our plant community.

Botanical and man-made pie markers

I may have inadvertently spread Pie Marker seeds on my property after collecting the pods for a dried flower arrangement. I found them growing on the edge of a field. They seem to like disturbed places like edges, compost heaps, and alongside buildings in town. They added a lot to the arrangement. But, I will have to be vigilant weeding new plants as they appear next spring. Their seeds can remain viable for 50 years in dry soil. I guess that will keep me busy for the rest of my life!

Underfoot: WHITE VERVAIN

By, Susan Sprout

A volunteer plant grew near my woodshed – unexpected, but not unappreciated! It appeared over a month ago. I had to wait for it to grow bigger before introducing it to you and getting the photos that would capture its unique physique! Our native White Vervain (Verbena urticifolia) is a member of the Verbena Family, along with about 3,000 other species, mostly from warmer climates. Teak is one of them, prized for its beautiful and durable wood. I have always admired White Vervain and was happy to find it growing nearby. These annual or perennial plants usually choose moist fields, meadows, thickets or waste ground. Well, nothing much grows there except pennyroyal, and there is a downspout nearby. I guess that works in its favor.

Young White Vervain plant. My husband held a rug behind it as contrast in order to show its short flower spikes at its top.

White Vervain plants are compact at their start. When their small, tight, flower spikes appear, the magic begins! Their very slender flower stems begin to stretch out in all directions. The buds on them move further and further apart from each other until they look like little bugs sitting on thin branches. The really tiny white flowers open willy-nilly, here and there, as they mature. I pulled off one of the pollinated flowers and rubbed it gently between my fingers to tease out the four nutlets inside that will create the next generation of plants there. The flower stalks definitely stand out as an identifying characteristic of White Vervain. But, the rest of the plant needs to be checked out, too. It can grow from two to five feet tall, has a hairy, square stem, and stiff, opposite leaves that are doubly-serrated and look like the blades on a steak knife. If you want to look for this plant, it should be flowering from July to September in Pennsylvania. Its close relative, Blue Vervain, can be found inhabiting similar habitats, but has stiff pencil-like spikes of small, blue flowers that appear in a “more organized” fashion resembling a candelabra!

Large plant with expanded flower spikes reaching out in all directions.

Medicinally, Vervains are astringent, or drying, and have been used for millennia crushed up and applied externally to wounds, poison ivy sores and other skin complaints.

Underfoot: PURPLE-FLOWERING RASPBERRY

By, Susan Sprout

Purple-flowering Raspberry’s scientific name is Rubus odoratus. Its genus name is from Latin for “bramble”, defined as a prickly, scrambling shrub or vine of the Rose Family. But, its arching and sprawling branches have reddish-brown hairs that are sticky to touch instead of prickly to touch! This perennial plant is native to eastern North America. Its gorgeous rose-purple flowers that are about two inches wide made it a desired target of plant gathers from England in the 1770’s. It was taken there as an ornamental and has since naturalized as many plants from there have done here!

Purple-flowering Raspberry with five-pointed leaves

The leaves of this shrub resemble maple leaves with a heart-shaped base and three or five triangle lobes. The whole plant can reach to six feet tall. On a ledge or a shaded cliff where they seem to prefer growing, it is hard to get a true measure of their height. Their five-petaled flowers, pollinated by bees and insects, then create a large, flat berry made up of many little druplets. They bloom from May to August and set fruit from July to September depending on local conditions. I have found many adjectives describing the characteristics of these red berries: dry, tart, acid, bland, seedy, fuzzy to touch and on the tongue! Well, songbirds and game birds will eat them. Small mammals, too. The seeds are great for sowing in order to return native plants to an area and the roots work well at stabilizing banks. Many members of the Rubus genus, eighteen grow PA, have been used medicinally because their leaves are highly astringent and helped treat dysentery and diarrhea as well as skin ailments like sores and boils. 

Check out the hairy flower buds and the white, unripened fruit.

Underfoot: Prickly Cucumber & Wintergreen

By: Susan Sprout

Find out what’s underfoot with NPC member and environmental educator, Susan Sprout! Catch up on past issues of Underfoot: Introduction & BloodrootTrout Lily & ColtsfootBlue Cohosh & Dutchman’s BreechesGround Ivy & Forget-Me-NotsGoldthread & Wild GingerCommon Mullein & Sweet WoodruffAniseroot & Butterfly WeedMyself Jewelweed & SoapwortAmerican Pennyroyal & Great LobeliaBoneset & Common Ragweed, Pokeweed & Blue Chicory.

Prickly Cucumber

There has been a fight going on right under my nose…well, right under the bridge walkway. Aggressive, non-native Japanese Knotweed plants have taken over the Muncy Creek streambank, pushing and shading out our local native plants. One plant is fighting back – Prickly Cucumber, a member of the same family as pumpkins and squash.

It has five-lobed leaves and tendrils that help it hold fast as it climbs all over that tall knotweed. It is a fight for light by this feisty native plant. It keeps growing upward and spreading out its leaves over its adversary. You can identify Prickly Cucumber at this time of year by finding its fruit, a one to two inch fleshy, egg-shaped capsule covered with bristles.

Native Americans used its bitter root for a tonic. That bitterness is caused by cucurbitacins, biochemical compounds produced as defense against herbivores. Its defense against bullying plants that want to take over? Just keep climbing!

Wintergreen

Have you had a teaberry milkshake lately? So good, yum! The commercial flavoring for one is synthetically produced methyl salicylate. Before that, it was obtained from birch trees. But before that, this amazing flavor was distilled from the leaves of our native Wintergreen plant.

Wintergreen because it stays green in the winter like its other evergreen Heath family members like Mountain laurel, Huckleberries, and Cranberries. The plant spreads by runners forming small colonies of plants in poorer dry to wet soils in woods and clearings all the way from Canada to Georgia and west to Minnesota. Its nodding white flower grows at the leaf base in mid to late summer. Fertilized by this time of year, the flowers have grown into round, pinkish fruits that turn a bright scarlet among its dark green oval leaves when fully ripe. The fruits or capsules often remain on the plant until the next flowering season, if not eaten by wildlife like birds or deer (or me).

Historically, wintergreen was used to flavor teas, candies, medicines and chewing gum. Applied to the skin, it has also relieved aching muscles and rheumatism, all the while making a person smell like a yummy teaberry milkshake tastes!

Click here to get to know Susan Sprout!

Underfoot: Pokeweed & Blue Chicory

By: Susan Sprout

Find out what’s underfoot with NPC member and environmental educator, Susan Sprout! Catch up on past issues of Underfoot: Introduction & BloodrootTrout Lily & ColtsfootBlue Cohosh & Dutchman’s BreechesGround Ivy & Forget-Me-NotsGoldthread & Wild GingerCommon Mullein & Sweet WoodruffAniseroot & Butterfly WeedMyself Jewelweed & SoapwortAmerican Pennyroyal & Great Lobelia, Boneset & Common Ragweed.

Pokeweed

Pokeweed’s four to eight foot height and large sprawling shape call attention to this native perennial plant.

Young pokeweed plant.
Long cluster of pokeweed.

Common from New England to Florida and westward to Mexico, it grows in many waste places, fields, and even pops up in gardens, thanks to the birds who eat its purplish-black berries and deposit seeds here and there.

BEWARE! These berries and the whole plant itself is toxic to most mammals, including us! Youngsters and oldsters alike may be attracted by the berries. What fun to squish them and decorate faces and arms and legs with the magenta-colored juice! DON’T! The poison contained in the berries, leaves, stems, and roots can be absorbed by the skin. Ingested, it can cause respiratory paralysis and death. Through the years, people have used Pokeweed for food, medicine, ink, and dye. Use of it for any of these things today requires an expert.

On a positive note, Pokeweed’s toxins are being studied as a way to control zebra mussels, the invasive non-native mollusk species that has invaded freshwater rivers and lakes in North America.

Ripening poke berries. Beware! These berries and the whole plant itself is toxic to most mammals, including us!

Blue Chicory

Chicory may go unnoticed growing along paths and roadways, especially on cloudy days or early evenings when its sky blue flowers have closed up. It is so common, it is overlooked and not given its proper respect! Many guess it is a native plant and are surprised to find out it originated in Eurasia and North Africa. The Egyptians grew it 5000 years ago. It was used as medicine, salad greens, and pot herbs by the colonists who brought it with them. It has been here so long, it has become naturalized…sort of like the colonists!

Look for the larger, toothed leaves toward the bottom of this perennial; they resemble dandelion leaves. As the stem grows, leaf sizes diminish toward the top, resulting in a naked-stem appearance. The blooms have petals with squared and toothed outer edges. They grow straight out of the sturdy stems and at the ends of short, stiff branches.

Chicory has had many uses throughout its history…sweetener, source of dietary fiber, coffee substitute and enhancement, food, medicine. It also has anti-parasitic properties when used as forage for farm animals. Quite a few varieties of our common chicory plant have been created over the centuries. Have you eaten radicchio in a salad lately? Surprise! It’s a variety of our common Blue Chicory!

Blue chicory along the roadside.

Click here to get to know Susan Sprout!

Underfoot: American Pennyroyal & Great Lobelia

By: Susan Sprout

Find out what’s underfoot with NPC member and environmental educator, Susan Sprout! Catch up on past issues of Underfoot: Introduction & BloodrootTrout Lily & ColtsfootBlue Cohosh & Dutchman’s BreechesGround Ivy & Forget-Me-NotsGoldthread & Wild GingerCommon Mullein & Sweet WoodruffAniseroot & Butterfly WeedMyself , Jewelweed & Soapwort.

American Pennyroyal

American Pennyroyal is a native plant that is a member of the mint family. European Pennyroyal, an offering of local garden centers and occasional escapee from flower beds, is a low-growing perennial that likes a more moist environment than its taller American cousin.

Although different species from different continents, these two mints share many common characteristics like square stems and opposite leaves, chemical properties, and similar uses.

Pennyroyal seeds spread along walkways make fragrant entrances.

Our Pennyroyal stands about a foot tall and has small lance-shaped leaves with tiny bluish, two-lipped flowers each having three teeth above and two below. The blooms appear randomly from July to September in the axils of the leaves where they attach to the stems.

Once identified, this plant is a nasal treat… if you like pungent, minty aromas. I love to find this plant growing in dry fields and woods so I can run my hand up over its leaves and inhale! Mmm. And so much better, if you happen to be attacked by gnats and their ilk, just rub a hand over your exposed skin to transfer the essential oils to keep them at bay. This super insect repellent works on fleas, too. Grab a handful and rub down your cat or dog!

Great Lobelia

I look for the bright blue flowers of this stout native perennial in the mid to late summer like some folks search out bluebells in springtime! When looking at Great Lobelia’s individual flowers in their showy spikes, they appear to have two erect ears above and a triple-divided lower lip with a solid whitish landing strip for their chief pollinators, the bumblebees.

The two top and three bottom petals are actually lobes attached to the flower’s tube which is split on top so that a rod consisting of the stamens joined around the style can protrude downward to brush against the pollinators. This unique split of the flower tube, according to botanists, was the next step in plant evolution toward composite flowers with their disk and ray florets.

The scientific name of this plant, Lobelia siphilitica, hints at one of its former medicinal uses as treatment for syphilis. Many Native Americans used the ground-up root as a poultice for wounds and infections. Its sticky juice is considered toxic for internal use.

Click here to get to know Susan Sprout!

Underfoot: Jewelweed & Soapwort

Find out what’s underfoot with NPC member and environmental educator, Susan Sprout! Catch up on past issues of Underfoot: Introduction & BloodrootTrout Lily & ColtsfootBlue Cohosh & Dutchman’s BreechesGround Ivy & Forget-Me-NotsGoldthread & Wild GingerCommon Mullein & Sweet WoodruffAniseroot & Butterfly Weed, Myself .

Jewelweed
A pale yellow earring on a thin wire dangling under light green leaves. That may be an apt description of a pale jewelweed blossom during the summer and right up until the first frost. This native annual reproduces solely from seed each spring, breaking ground close together and just about all at once. Its two larger succulent leaves stand out brightly against the winter duff.

Jewelweed seedlings

Then the juicy stems filled with watery sap begin to grow. Coarsely-toothed leaves covered with microscopic hairs that hold beads of rainwater like jewels pop out alternately along the stems.

Jewelweed young plant

Soon the lovely pendulous flowers appear: yellow for pale jewelweed and orange-spotted for spotted jewelweed. Both species occur in our area, liking wet woods and meadows.

Jewelweed blossom

Now the fun begins. The fertilized flowers morph into bumpy pods – AND – when they are ready, just a breeze or a slight finger tap on them will release the seeds and throw them a good four feet from the parent plant. That is where this plant’s other common name comes from: Touch me not. But do, please! What fun to touch all of the pods and create a seed storm.

Help plant a lot of jewelweed because this is a great plant for squishing up the stems and leaves, then slathering that sap on itchy nettle stings and poison ivy!

Jewelweed seed pod

Soapwort
Soapwort is a plant brought to this country from Western Asia and Europe, having been in use there probably back to the Assyrians. A member of the Pink Family, it is a perennial that likes moist but well-drained soil and spreads by underground stems. I always find this plant growing along Muncy Creek at the Rocks. Easily recognizable by smooth stems thickened at its nodes where the leaves grow, its scalloped five-petaled flowers can be white to light pink.

You may know Soapwort by another name, Bouncing Bet, the old name for a washerwoman whose whole upper torso would move up and down as she scrubbed clothes on a washboard probably using this plant! Why? It contains saponins, substances that produce soapy lather.

Soapwort lather

It was a must that textile workers would use for cleaning newly woven cloth, especially wool. A gentle astringent cleaner can be made by boiling the leaves and roots to extract the saponins. Museums have used this for cleaning old and delicate tapestries. I like to grind the stems and leaves on a wet rock, adding a little water before squeezing out the bubbly suds. A great trick if you’ve gotten into poison ivy on your walk. Use soapwort to thoroughly clean the essential oils of the poison from your skin. No worries…the green washes off!

Susan Sprout is a retired school teacher who continued teaching after retirement at Montour Preserve helping teachers of  handicapped students with nature walks, at the National Shell Museum as a curator of the fossil collection, and as teacher of Shell Studies at the local school on Sanibel Island. Based on her love and study of plants, she does living history presentations of medicinal plants used by Native Americans, colonial immigrants, and people living during the Civil War. Both she and her husband, Richard, serve as cannoneers  with Thompson’s Independent Battery C PA Light Artillery.  Sue has served on the Northcentral Pennsylvania Conservancy board in the past. The Sprouts have been Conservancy members for 29 years.