Many of the herbs, fruits and vegetables we consume and use for traditional benefits are sown, grown and harvested far from home. Nonetheless, right here in Ireland (often in our very own gardens) is a bounty of wonderful and beneficial wildflower plants, with a myriad of uses. Today we're taking a look at the healing power of wildflowers including the dandelions we chased as kids, burdock and nettles (they can do more than sting us thankfully!) as well as ribwort plantain and the vivid mullein. Here are some of their many health benefits as well as some great ways to use them.
The Healing Power of Wildflowers
Plants can be magical, both to look at and from a health perspective. They've a wealth of health benefits - here are some of the healing powers of wildflowers.
Dandelion (Caisearbhán), Taraxacum vulgaria
A native and extremely wide-spread plant, we're all familiar with the bright yellow dandelion – a favourite activity of children when it transforms in a sphere of ready to fly seeds! We tend to view the dandelion as little more than a long-rooted and hard to shift weed. However, the entire dandelion is not only edible, but certain parts have long-standing traditional benefits to our health and wellbeing.
The scientific name for dandelion could in fact be originally from the older Greek taraxos, “disorder” with akos “remedy”. Loaded with vitamins and minerals, the dandelion is incredibly nutritious. They're rich in iron, calcium and magnesium as well as being a brilliant source of Vitamin A, C and K amongst others. An antioxidant, they've a stream of health benefits from reducing blood pressure and lowing cholesterol to helping fight inflammation.
How to use dandelions
Dandelions make a great tea. For a caffeine-free coffee substitute, you can thoroughly wash the roots of the dandelion, chop and roast them in the oven, steep 1-2 tsp in hot water, and then strain to serve.
As for the stems, they are characteristically filled with a milky liquid, and are bitter in taste, as are the greens. Although a lot of us often shudder at anything bitter tasting, it's actually important for our liver health. It stimulates the liver to produce bile, which aids digestion. Dandelions are viewed as a diuretic in traditional Chinese medicine. Because of this, the leaves and flowers are often boiled and infused into a refreshing tea.
Finally, the vibrant yellow petals are ideal to brighten a salad. Or if you're really overcome with dandelions, they can also be transformed into a wine!
Burdock (Cnádán), Arctium minus
This plant is mostly known for its burrs rather than the preceding pink to purple flowers. And for great reason! Burdock burrs and their ability to attach to passing animals (this is their method of sowing) were the inspiration for Velcro! It also has a second claim to fame: it was the bittering agent used in beer, before hops came along.
Burdock has an extremely long tap root, and extensive layers of leaves. The leaves, stalks and roots are edible when prepared correctly, and have many different culinary uses.
Similar to dandelion (which it is often paired with), burdock has bitter properties to promote healthy appetite and digestion. Burdock root is an excellent source of fibre in the form of the prebiotic inulin. Studies have shown that inulin can help stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria, leading to the possible improvement of digestion, immunity, and overall wellbeing.
How to use burdocks
The root is commonly brewed as tea, or added to soups and stews, as well as being a popular ingredient in many Asian dishes. Burdock stalks can be harvested before the flowers appear. These young stalks have a taste similar to artichoke, and when peeled, can be eaten raw or boiled. The leaves grow large, but are much less bitter if harvested when they're small.
Nettle (Neantóg), Urtica dioica
The stinging nettle is a plant we have all come into contact with at some point or another, usually resulting in an unpleasant sting. The name Urtica comes from the Latin verb urere, meaning 'to burn’. The sting is caused by the long, thin, hollow hairs (called trichomes) breaking. The tips of these hairs are actually pure silica, but when brushed against, this breaks off and the hair acts like a needle, piercing the skin's surface. It then releases a chemical mix that can cause redness, irritation, stinging and itching. It also releases the happy hormone serotonin, but in this instance, it only functions as an irritant.
Quick tip: A dock leaf is great for relieving a nettle sting!
Once nettles have met hot water or are cooked, crushed or dried, you’ll be safe from the sting. They taste similar to spinach, and actually contain more iron! Nettle is also rich in vitamin C and high in plant chemicals called polyphenols. The herb is thought to be a natural diuretic, flushing excess uric acid from muscles and joints, helping to relieve discomfort and act as an anti-inflammatory.
How to use nettles
Nettles can be easily gathered using gloves, and makes both a wonderful tea and delicious soup. Fresh nettle leaves can be boiled and left rest to create nettle tea. Nettle tea is also thought to be effective in treating itchy, watery eyes, runny nose and sneezing – common in hay fever season.
Ribwort Plantain (Slánlus), Plantago lanceolata
This native and hardy plant has been tracked through pollen records which tell us it has been present in Ireland for over 5,000 years! It comes as no surprise then that it is mentioned repeatedly in Irish history and lore - not only in the form of tincture, a poultice and a salve, but also as the main feature of a children’s game.
Nowadays commonly viewed as little more than a pesky weed, ribwort plantain (often called plantago) has a rich history of traditional medicinal use throughout various cultures, and is once again, entirely edible!
Ribwort Plantain is yet another nutritional powerhouse that may be right there in your garden - containing calcium, and vitamins C and K. The leaves are best when collected young, as they get more fibrous and bitter as they grow.
The plant has expectorant and mucilage properties, so it can not only help clear congestion but may also soothe the mucous membranes. An interesting alternate use is spraying the cooled brew on sunburnt skin to cool and promote healing. Another handy ‘outdoors’ tip is applying a poultice of the plant to bug bites or stings. And if making a poultice isn’t an option, a quick couple of chews of the leaf and the now shredded ribwort plantain can be applied to the skin.
How To Use Plantago
The roots, seeds, and flower buds can also be cooked; they can help make an earthy stock for soups and stews. Older leaves are perfect to brew a tea with, wonderful when paired with fresh mint, and popularly used to promote respiratory wellbeing!
Great Mullein (Coinnle Muire), Verbascum thapsus
Another native plant with a long history of use, mullein can grow up to two metres in height. It has velvet-like leaves which are soft and thick, and blooms with bright yellow flowers. The name mullein may come from the Latin mollis, 'soft', or the Common Celtic melinos, 'yellow'. It is also known as Aaron's Rod, a reference to the Old Testament story of the rod which broke out in golden blossoms.
Mullein can be ingested, however it does not offer much nutritional benefit, and is much better suited to be brewed as a tea, or infused into topical oil. Mullein tea is a traditional treatment for respiratory complaints such as coughs, colds, and sinus discomfort. It not only has expectorant and mucilage benefits, but also soothes and may also have antispasmodic properties.
How to Use Great Mullein
If you have access to some wild mullein, or perhaps are nurturing it in your garden (it is a favourite winter spot for little ladybirds), tea can be brewed from the dried leaf, flower, or both combined. The leaf tends to be more on the bitter side, whilst the flower offers a sweet and aromatic brew. Simply add boiled water to the dried flowers, and let steep for around 20 minutes. Strain very well (those fuzzy hairs are not enjoyable to drink), and add a little honey to sweeten further if needed.
We'll be back next week with Part 2 of The Healing Power of Wildflowers so be sure to keep an eye out!
Please note, this blog is for informational purposes only and should not replace medical advice.
It’s always best to consult your doctor before taking any new supplements, treatments or remedies if you are pregnant, breastfeeding or on medication.
Checked and updated: 5 September 2021