Tag Archives: medicinal plants

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.