By Naomi Klouda
The backyard, blessed with dandelions, horsetails, devil’s club and nettles, may seem more problem than gift. But each of those plants has a use that is power-packed for health.
Consider that in Japan, devil’s club was literally loved to death. Today, the plant needs to be imported because widespread use as a healing herb has nearly wiped them out, said Janice Schofield, an expert on Alaska’s wild plants with a new book on the subject.
Nettles are shy plants often found shaded by large, wild shrubs. Hikers know the sting and burning itch of bare-skin contact. Horsetails, that ancient plant that shows up in fossil records from the dinosaur era, can be used to immediately counteract the sting by scrubbing it across the irritated area.
Nettles offer a powerhouse for remedies to keep a prostate healthy, cure a urinary tract infection and inhibit bleeding, said Schofield, author of “Discovering Wild Plants” and “Alaska’s Wild Plants.” Her first acquaintance with the weeds began in Kachemak Bay in the early 1980s. She spent a year studying nettles.
“I realized I was only at the tip of the iceberg — there is such a long relationship between humans and nettles,” she said.
In her fascination, Schofield wrote an entire book, “Nettles,” in the Keats Good Herb Guide series, that currently is out of print and in want of a new publisher.
The book goes into detailed explanation of the plant’s chemical properties and how they function. The fresh-pressed juice of nettle plants is laden with chlorophyll and other nutrients. In France, nettles are used as medical treatment for mild to moderate acne. Here’s an explanation she presents from an herbalist: “Since the blood must maintain its slightly alkaline pH and since nearly all the waste products the body produces are acid, something like nettle tea helps to add electrolytes and alkali to assist the buffering system when under stress, and nettle specifically helps increase the transport and excretion of blood nitrogen waste products.”
For this reason, a cup of nettle tea one to three times a day can help relieve acne and other skin conditions, like eczema and psoriasis. Even arthritis can be relieved by ingesting nettles as a tonic, she said. The juice can be preserved by adding 10 percent grain alcohol or 25 percent brandy. Or, Schofield recommends, freeze the fresh juice in ice cube trays and thaw one as needed.
When hiking in summer, any number of mishaps can occur in the outdoors. It might come in handy to know that nettles can inhibit bleeding because it is an astringent and tightens tissues. Nettle powder can be sprinkled on cuts to aid in coagulation.
Schofield also found research that credits a half-and-half mixture of burdock and nettles taken as a tea eases premenstrual syndrome. Nettle root has been used to treat enlarged or irritated prostates. Drinking nettle tea during pregnancy (be sure to get nettles only in the early spring) aids prenatal health and, following birth, helps nursing mothers produce milk. Nettle seeds, which contain oils and traces of formic acid, can be used as a scalp conditioner and hair-growth stimulant for people who have undergone chemotherapy. Take a teaspoon of seeds, soak in a cup of hot water for 20 minutes and use as a rinse after shampooing, recommends herbalist Michael Moore in Schofield’s research.
Young plants are best
The only case of a person dying or becoming ill from nettle use that Schofield
knows of occurred in Australia where a species of nettles is a dangerous rainforest dweller. Contact with the razor-sharp hairs burn for weeks and even months. But the Alaska variety is safe if taken in its prime. Later in the season, when the plant’s leaves are larger than 2 inches in diameter and it starts flowering, nettles become unhealthy.
“If you are observing the plant, it will tell you if it’s the right time to use it,” Schofield said. “When it’s young, it’s vibrant and juicy. As it’s older, it becomes courser and dry, constricting fluids and juices.”
Nettles are best used in the spring, when the plant is 10 to 12 inches high. But nettles do tend to replenish themselves and can be harvested all summer. Look for small, new growths in a nettle grove that may be hidden by the more mature stalks. Plants in use tend to oblige humans by growing back more plentifully.
“After they flower, the plant becomes more irritating to the urinary track. Once bugs get into the nettles, the harvest is over,” Schofield advises.
Schofield came to know Alaska’s herbs and write numerous articles and books on the subject because there was so little out there. In 1980, she and her husband moved to the head of Kachemak Bay and, later, lived by Red Mountain. She had earned her degree in home economics and felt a keen curiosity about the nettle groves around her, as well as other plants she found fascinating, like wild roses, dandelions and devil’s club. What could they be used for?
Few books were available to help answer her extensive curiosity, so she decided to write one. Her quest took her all over the state, seeking out traditional Alaska Native uses and researching herbalists’ works and scientific findings from around the globe. Thirty years and thousands of pages later, Schofield is highly sought out as probably Alaska’s foremost expert on wild plants. She recently gave a workshop on Alaska’s wild plants, co-hosted with Nancy Lee Evans, in Homer that was attended by 24 people.
“What you see now is the byproduct of trial and error, flops and successful attempts,” Schofield said at the workshop.
She now lives in New Zealand, and is writing another book, “Health Plants of Alaska.”
Her trip to Homer was the first trip back to Kachemak Bay in four years.
Weeds and wild plants tend to be taken for granted — or attacked with strong killing sprays — but Alaskans probably shouldn’t do that, she said. “The pureness and availability makes Alaska plants very healthy. Other places don’t always have these plants. Dandelions, for example — they don’t grow in the wild in New Zealand.”
Devil’s club was wiped out in Japan because the stems and roots are found to be beneficial as a medicine to regulate sugar levels, as in diabetes, and also to regulate blood pressure.
“This is the people’s medicine, these weeds. It’s to use for health, not just as a medicine, which is what you need when you are sick. It keeps you in balance, strengthens immunity — it’s how to keep your family, kids and animals healthy.”
To start with, Schofield recommends getting to know 10 plants around your yard, including dandelions, devil’s club, cow parsley, nettles, horsetail, wild roses, raspberry plants and fireweed. All of these have specific uses.
“They form a community of plants, an ecosystem, and a good reason to not eradicate them through weed killers is because once one is gone, the community health of plants suffer,” she said. “They keep the landscape healthy.”