captions, from top: Nyerges examines some lamb's quarter plant; prickly pear cactus fruit in market; a whole carob pod.
Nyerges is the author of “Guide to Wild Foods,” “How to Survive Anywhere,” and other books. He has conducted wild herb walks since 1974. For a free copy of the Talking Leaves Newsletter, which includes a schedule of his various classes, write to School of Self-Reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041. Or go on-line at www.ChristopherNyerges.com.
We’ve all heard it: The true prophet is never accepted by his own people. By some strange quirk of human nature, we tend to think that only something from a faraway country can be of the greatest value. This blindness also affects us when it comes to herbs and nutrition. We think that the best substances for our health and nutrition are only those herbs and roots imported from faraway China or India or South American rain forests, sold at tremendous costs in small bottles at the herb shop.
When you scan the shelfs of herb shops, it would be easy to come to the conclusion that health can be purchased in a bottle. In fact, many businesses push that very idea: “Buy our (expensive) product and you’ll be happier, live longer, be free of disease, and have a great sex life besides.”
But guess what? In this country, we are surrounded with an unbelievable bounty of nature. Just about everything that you’d want for your health and nutrition can be found in your backyard or in the wild, or it can be easily grown. No money need change hands. Shockingly, many of the most nutritious plants on the planet are despised as common weeds, and at any nursery in town, you can buy poisons to kill off these valuable weeds. Such sad ignorance.
Here are some of the wild and free plants which you can use for your health and well-being.
POOR MAN’S GINSENG
Ginseng seems to be a valuble herb, but it’s not that common in the U.S., and most of it comes from overseas -- which means you have to buy it, and it’s very expensive. On the other hand, just about everyone has dandelions on their lawns. Dandelions are probably better for you than anything in your garden, wild or cultivated. An analysis of 100 grams of dandelion greens by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows 14,000 I.U. of vitamin A, 35 mg. of vitamin C, 397 mg. of potassium, 66 mg. of phosphorus, 187 mg. of calcium, and 36 mg. of magnesium. Dandelion greens are also the richest source of beta-carotene, with 8.4 mg. per cup. By contrast, carrots -- considered an excellent source of beta-carotene -- contain 6.6 mg. per cup. Only young dandelion greens are good in salads, and the older, bitter leaves can be cooked like spinach or added to mixed-vegetable dishes. And the young dandelion roots can also be eaten when cooked.
NATURE’S “MINERAL TABLET”
The health food store shelfs are full of pills, including mineral tablets. But nature provides an excellent “mineral tablet” -- one that you take advantage of by eating. This is lamb’s quarter, a spinach relative found worldwide in the wild. It probably grows in your garden even if you don’t plant it. Used raw in salad or in juice mixes, 100 grams of lamb’s quarter (about a cup) contains about 80 mg. of vitamin C, 11,600 I.U. of vitamin A, 72 mg. of phosphorus, 309 mg. of calcium, small amounts of thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, and iron. These figures are slightly lower when you cook the lamb’s quarter as a spinach-replacement, or in soups, egg dishes, or vegetable dishes. You could almost survive on lamb’s quarter alone!
CLEAR THINKING WITH GINGKO
Gingkgo leaves and nuts have been used in the Orient for centuries, and are one of the new popular herbal medications. Some researchers suggest that it may help Alzheimer’s patients, and that it should help anyone increase mental alertness. And there are several processed bottles of pills on the shelf with the expensive price tag.
Guess what? Gingko is widely planted as a park and street tree! It is very common, and you can simply take the leaves and brew your own tea. Never mind that the pill manufacturers tell you can’t do this -- you can! Make an infusion of the leaves, or if you prefer, simply powder the dried leaves and fill gelatin capsules if you prefer to take your herbs that way.
And don’t overlook the nuts which fall in September and October. The fleshy outer layer of these nuts have a foul odor, but that is easily cleaned off . The nuts can then be dried or roasted and eaten, and many of the same qualities of the leaves have been attributed to these nuts.
GET YOUR DAILY VITAMIN C
Roses are great to grow in any garden because they provide beauty and fragrance. Also, if you let the fruits mature (referred to as the “hips”), you’ll have a rich source of vitamin C. The only known source of vitamin C that is richer is the acerola. Rosehips contain about 7,000 mg. of vitamin C per pound, a remarkable amount. By contrast, a pound of oranges (depending on the type of oranges) contains anywhere between 100 to 250 mg. of vitamin C.
To use rosehips, you snip off the orange-red mature fruit. Once you cut it in half and remove the fibrous seeds, you could just eat it raw. However, most people find it more enjoyable to simmer it into tea, or to make it into jams, jellies, or blended nutritional drinks.
IS MILK THE BEST CALCIUM SOURCE?
One hundred grams of the edible portion of the carob pod (which is about a cup of the entire pod, minus the seeds) contains 352 mg. of calcium. That makes carob one of the very richest non-meat calcium sources. Even when that same volume is compared to milk -- generally considered a good calcium source -- carob is nearly three times richer in calcium. Carob is also a good source of B vitamins. Though not a complete protein, it is said that this is the food that sustained John the Baptist in the desert for 40 days (hence the name, Saint John’s bread). You can simply eat the pods and spit out the seeds. Also, you can crack the pods, remove the seeds, and grind the pods into a flour which you add to bread and pasty products, or blend into liquids like rice or soy milk.
There are tens of thousands of carob trees throughout Southern California and the Southwest, mostly as street and park trees. The brown leathery pods ripen from September through February.
COUGH & SORE THROAT
Oil of eucalyptus is a common active ingredient in many cough medicines, and eucalyptus trees are extremely common. You can simply pick a few eucalyptus leaves, make a hot tea by infusion, and drink it. The flavor of the various eucalypti vary, so you might smell around until you find a variety you like. This tea is useful for most breathing and respiratory ailments.
CUTS AND BRUISES
When you get a few minor cuts and scratches while doing work, do you reach for that tube of creamy stuff and rub it over your cuts? There’s something better. You could just pinch off a bit of an Aloe vera plant, break open the leaf, and spread that gel directly onto the wounds. Aloe has been used for centuries for just such medicinal applications. Aloe is easy to grow in pots or in the garden, and is widely available at nurseries. Even the best bottled aloe preparations are not as good as the fresh plant.
You have high cholesterol, and there are a number of things your doctor has told you to do: Cut out salts, fatty and oily foods, stop smoking and eliminate alcohol. Exercise more, and lose some weight. Did you know that numerous studies have shown that including garlic and onions in your diet can reduce your cholesterol level? We don’t normally think of garlic and onions as “medicine,” but they have a variety of proven or reputed medical properties, and the lowering of cholesterol levels is perhaps the most documented. In this case, you simply eat your garlic and onions -- ideally raw where possible, but cooked also -- in order to receive the beneficial qualities.
Speaking of cholesterol, another good way to lower cholesterol levels is to include foods in your diet that are high in Omega-3 fatty acids. In 1986, two biochemists (Norman Salem, Jr. with the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in Bethesda, Maryland, and Artemis Simopoulos of the American Association for World Health in Washington, D.C.) discovered that a common weed, purslane, is the richest leafy-plant source of Omega-3 fatty acids. And purslane is such a common weed, world-wide, that you shouldn’t need to plant it -- you may just need to look for it. It is common in rose beds. To take advantage of purslane’s benefits, you simply eat it in salads, or cook it into soups, stews, vegetable dishes, etc.
Have a headache? Before you automatically reach for that aspirin, first ask yourself: What is the source of the conflict which is resulting in my headache. Perhaps your pain is trying to telly you something. Then, consider the original source of aspirin, the inner bark of the willow tree. The cambium layer of willow bark contains salicin, which the body converts to salicylic acid -- the active ingredient in most aspirin. If you grew a willow bush or tree in your yard, you could prune off a small twig, remove the bark, and brew that bark for a few minutes in warm water, and then drink it for headaches. The tea may be mildly bitter, but will work (more or less) as well as aspirin. Willow is extremely common world-wide along waterways.
According to long-standing traditions throughout Northern Mexico, eating the young prickly pear cactus pad (once the stickers are removed) is said to help with diabetes. In the past 20 years, we have met dozens of people who claim to have had relief from adult-onset diabetes by consuming the cactus, and we’ve met three who actually stopped taking insulin. Doctors who have researched this have come up with some medical verification. They say that the prickly pear contains a substance which strengthens the pancreas so it is more able to produce insulin. Plus, they say the fibre content of the cactus is beneficial. In addition, consuming the cactus fruits has been shown to be helpful where prostate problems are present.
These are just a few examples of how we can obtain many of our needed healthful vitamins, necessary nutrients, and even medications from plants growing all around us.
Needless to say, none of the above is intended to replace competent, professional medical care for serious illness. In the interest of increasing wisdom and self-reliance, learning which plants can be used in place of bottled vitamin pills and simple medicines can be health-promoting.