Backyard Apothecary: Winter Weeds

We are so lucky for our winters on the west coast. There is lush greenery all year long. But winter is not a time for buds or blossoms, it is a time when plants energy is in their roots, and in some cases, leaves. In general, winter is a time of hibernation and conservation for plants. Once seed production is over, leaves and stems tend to die back or stagnate in their growth, sap draws down into the roots.

  Take dandelion for example. Her leaves in winter are small, but her root is juicy. It is busy drawing and storing energy. This energy will be pushed up with new leaves and buds in spring, but in the mean time, it’s building, and is there for us to take advantage of.

  Dandelion is a powerful nourishing and cleansing herb. All parts of the plant are useful in their time, but the root is special, thick with anti-viral, sometimes bitter, white sap. It is a potent but safe liver and kidney tonic, nourishing the entire digestive system. Dandelion root is rich in anti-oxidants and flavanoids and has a generally immune-boosting and anti-inflammatory effect on the body. It has been used to treat cancer, food allergies and skin problems, among other things. It is also a diuretic, which means it tends to increase the frequency of urination. 

  The nice thing about harvesting dandelion, is it can happen naturally while weeding or turning lawn into garden. I sometimes enjoy dandelion fresh and raw, just dug and rinsed from root to tip. It can also be chipped up and steamed, whole plant, just leaves or just roots, and served with a bit of butter and vinegar. Vinegar helps break down plant’s cell walls to release the minerals. 

  Nettles can be found during winter, however their leaves, the most familiar edible part of them, is not in its finest form for human consumption at this time, and may contain excess silica and other minerals that make it hard on the kidneys. The root however is in its prime during the winter, and is an excellent immune booster with a nourishing and supporting action on the kidney, spleen, urinary tract and lymph system. I have made both vinegar and alcohol tinctures with it, the former being a mineral rich salad dressing ingredient, the latter being an immune boosting medicine capable of repairing damaged cells and potentially reversing genetic tendency to disease. (For more information on this, read the chapter on Nettles in Susun Weed’s Healing Wise.) Beware when harvesting nettle roots, as there may be spiny little buds forming there that can sting your hands. And while you’re there, note the inter-connectivity of the roots and recognize that an entire nettle patch is an extended family, supporting and nourishing each other just as they will soon do for you.

  Chickweed is an annual weed with tiny roots, and its main energy and nourishing capacity is stored in its leaves. It is common in shady parts of un-mowed lawns, and rich in cell cleansing, soapy saponins. Best eaten raw, this juicy herb was in my yard crying out to be a thanks-giving salad green this year. It’s magical powers will be stifled by excessive frost, but have a look around and see if you can find any. If it’s not good, note the spot for spring, as chickweed seeds are likely to sprout up there and nearby. 

Rose Dickson is an artist and writer with a passion for natural health. A self-taught herbalist who specializes in local, urban wild-crafting and do-it-yourself medicine.