Wild garlic (pictured) has hollow leaves; wild onion has flat ones. There are similar plants that are harmful to eat. These two edible ones smell like garlic or onion when you cut them.

Wild garlic (pictured) has hollow leaves; wild onion has flat ones. There are similar plants that are harmful to eat. These two edible ones smell like garlic or onion when you cut them.

by James Hubbard, MD, MPH

I’m baaack. I’ve been moving and have taken some time off blogging. But now I’m ready to go.

My new home is out in the Southern countryside, way outside a city, and I’ve just started exploring the property. What I’m finding is a virtual pharmacy of medicinal plants. Some I can use now. Others, maybe if I had no access to anything better.

1. Wild Garlic

The one I like the best for now is wild garlic (Allium vineale), an invasive plant that grows in most states. While you might think of this as an unsightly weed (and it is), the bulb and leaves can be eaten just like the store-bought variety. But do make sure none have been sprayed with poison lately. For that reason I’m avoiding the plants close to the road.

Garlic is rich in antioxidants and helps bolster your immunity against viruses and other germs. It also has a mild effect on cholesterol levels, helping lower them. But it can thin the blood, so watch out if you easily bleed or are taking a blood thinner.

2. White Pine Tree

I have an abundance of pine trees. Steeping a bunch of fresh green pine needles in water for five minutes makes a unique tea loaded with antioxidants, vitamin C and vitamin A. The horrible disease scurvy is rare these days because we have access to foods with vitamin C. But if we didn’t, pine needles could be a lifesaver.

The needles also contain a bit of shikimic acid, which is the prime ingredient in the antiflu medicine Tamiflu (oseltamivir phosphate). OK, drinking enough pine needle tea to equal even one Tamiflu dose is close to impossible, but if it’s all that’s available who knows? It doubt it will hurt. That is, unless you pick the wrong type of pine tree.

Needles from some types of pines are poisonous. These include the ponderosa, lodgepole, juniper, yew, and several others. The type that seems to be cited and safe is the white pine. But again, as with the poisonous ones, there are plenty other nonpoisonous ones. The point is, as with any wild plant, know what you’re ingesting, and avoid it completely if you have doubts.

As with the garlic, I’d avoid any near a road or anywhere that could have been sprayed recently. And avoid them completely if you might be pregnant. They’ve been linked to miscarriages. Just for safety I’d avoid them if you’re breastfeeding and limit the amount of or avoid giving the tea to small children.

A gum ball from a sweet gum tree.

A gum ball from a sweet gum tree in my yard.

3. Sweet Gum Tree

Sweet gum trees grow mainly in the East and South and in California. If you live in one of these areas, you know them as those trees with the horrible thorny “sweet gum balls” that fall and cover the ground in a prickly mess.

The seeds inside the balls contain a small amount of shikimic acid. In fact, a variety of the tree found in China contains a lot more of the stuff—so much that it is refined to make the actual Tamiflu. Apparently Native Americans used to chew sweet gum tree sap, and I’ve heard of people using a twig as a toothbrush. It’s supposed to be good for your gums (the gums around your teeth, in your mouth; the wording can be confusing). Like the pine needle tea, I’d not give much to children and avoid it completely if you are breastfeeding or might be pregnant.

4. Dandelion

Another weed I have plenty of is the dandelion. It seems to grow about anywhere it wants to in the yard. The leaves are delicious in salad, but don’t eat too much. They can have a mild laxative affect. Good if you’re constipated of course. Again, avoid any that might have been sprayed.

The plants I’ve mentioned are just the ones I’ve noticed at first glance of the property. I’m sure there are many more.

What about you? What wild plants in your area have medicinal uses?