Can you believe it’s already starting to feel like summer in our area? We’ve had temperatures in the 90’s this past week and that picture of the first St. John’s wort flowers opening was one that I took in my garden yesterday! Normally we don’t see St. John’s wort flowers until June or July!
Our AromaCulture Magazine issue for this month is all about foraging – gathering wild herbs for use in your kitchen or apothecary and our Summer Foraging Course is on sale throughout this month to go along with it. When I first put the course on sale, I didn’t plan to talk about it much because it’s not summer yet (some of you are still getting snow in the more frigid areas, after all!), but when I saw these St. John’s wort flowers blooming yesterday, I knew that if I didn’t start talking about summer-harvested herbs now, many of you in warmer areas could miss out on them altogether in your area. So today, let’s talk about 10 wild herbs that you can easily learn to identify and harvest for your apothecary. All 10 are pretty common throughout the US (and many other parts of the world) and many of them are weedy species.
Please review this article about foraging safety and sustainable practices before gathering any wild plants and, as always, please make sure you have positively identified any wild plant prior to touching, working with, or consuming it. This article has tips for preserving your harvest.
For those of you who are still enjoying (or are about to) spring weather, dandelions can be a wonderful introduction to foraging. Because they are often sprayed, you will want to only harvest them from clean areas. Lawns and fields that are kept tidy (in parks, etc.) will often have toxic chemicals applied to them to help control weeds and you don’t want to harvest from those areas.
Every part of the dandelion plant is useful – the root can be roasted with vegetables, used as a coffee substitute or enhancer, and included in bitters formulas. The tender, young leaves can be steamed and tossed with a bit of honey or included in salads and the flower heads can be battered and fried, included in summer drinks and teas, the florets sprinkled in salads and baked goods, or dried and infused in carrier oil for skin issues. Read more about things you can make with dandelion flower heads here.
Another option for springtime harvesters is the lovely violet. I’ve written a lot about violets on the blog because I love them so. They usually stop blooming once the temperatures start reaching a consistent 60-70 degrees here, but in early spring, they are among the first flowers to begin blooming. They smell and taste deliciously sweet and can be candied, included in salads and baked goods, tinctured, and infused in carrier oil or witch hazel for topical use.
Read my sweet violet monograph to learn all about violet’s therapeutic effects. I also have this article about how to make sweet violet shrub, this article about violet honey and sugar, this one about a breast health serum, and this one about things to make with violets.
St. John's Wort
St. John’s wort is a weedy little plant that likes to spread happily about wherever it’s growing. Because of this, it’s often found on invasive species and noxious weed lists. In our state, it grows as a noxious weed, so it can be found in abundance and wild-harvested without too much concern for its population. (We still practice sustainable harvesting, however, because other species can come to depend on weedy species, especially native pollinators.)
This is one of the plants that we teach about in our Summer Foraging course. It’s such a versatile plant and I love working with it in my own apothecary. The infused oil (which I include in many of my topical use products) must be made with the plant’s fresh flowering tops harvested at just the right time, so it’s important to learn how to identify and harvest this species if you want to work with it topically. I have a full monograph for it here – it even includes a lot of the identification tips for the plant so you can get a head start on the Summer Foraging course!
Yarrow is another beautiful plant that is indispensable in my apothecary. It’s easy to grow and quite weedy, but it’s also common to find it growing wild if you find yourself needing a little extra. It’s another plant that we’ve included in the Summer Foraging course. Internally, it is a valuable diaphoretic that helps to lower fevers and increase circulation. It’s also a valuable styptic herb, meaning that it can help stop bleeding. It’s so effective for this! Find my yarrow monograph here.
Mullein is a common weedy species, another plant whose every part is valuable. The flowers are commonly used to make an infused oil that is helpful for earaches and the leaves are wonderful supportive herbs for the respiratory system. We cover this plant in the Summer Foraging course as well. It’s often used for bio-remediation because it can pull contaminants up from the soil, so it’s important to harvest it from clean areas. Learn how to make your own mullein flower ear oil here.
Elderberries are probably one of the most fun plants to find growing in the wild. They’ve been scarce in the commercial market in recent years because of their growing popularity, so it’s important to both grow them yourself, know how to identify the plants, and to harvest responsibly if you decide to wild-harvest them. I grow a few kinds of elderberries, but I also have a place where I like to go to wild-harvest them. It’s a beautiful stand of elderberries – there are probably at least 50 mature elderberry trees there! Last year it was threatened by wildfires, so I’m hoping that the stand will still be there when I go out to visit them this year.
Both elder flowers and the berries are valuable in the apothecary (the leaves are too, but only for topical use and with more caution). We cover elder in our Summer Foraging course so you can learn to confidently differentiate between the useful species and the more toxic red elderberry.
Learn more about elderberries in this post.
We don’t cover pines in the foraging course, but they can be easily identified once you learn how to tell their needles apart from spruces and firs. The fresh growing tips can be included in teas as a rich source of vitamin C, their resinous sap can be used topically to help with wounds, and they have edible seeds – pine nuts! Learn more about pine and how to work with it in the apothecary in my monograph here.
Red clover is another valuable herb that is becoming more difficult to find in the commercial market as a high quality, bulk herb. It’s easy to grow and to identify growing wild, so it’s quickly become one of my favorite plants to gather when I’m running low on my homegrown supply. We cover red clover identification in the Summer Foraging course, but I would also encourage you to plant some in your garden. It’s a beautiful plant. The bees love it and it will continue to flower for you each year if you let it grow. It’s also a valuable nitrogen fixer, which means that it will release nitrogen into your soil when you trim back its aerial parts, making it a great ally for your garden soil!
I love self-heal. It’s such a beautiful little plant, often found growing in the understory of the forests where I live and in grassy areas. The native bumblebees here absolutely love it. It’s not commonly discussed as a useful herb, but I’ve found it to be especially valuable in my apothecary. I grow my own and, when necessary (which isn’t often – it grows quite well in my garden), wild-harvest a little extra. I love including it in topical formulas to help the skin recover from injury and it pairs beautifully with calendula and St. John’s wort infused oils. You’ll learn how to identify, harvest, and work with it in the Summer Foraging course.
Blackberry isn’t just a food plant – it’s a valuable herb in the apothecary and, in many places, it grows wild as a weedy species! The leaves are also used as an astringent, with the roots being the most powerful astringent herb we have in our western materia medica. It’s quite incredible! Learning to identify and work with this species is not difficult. We cover it and other berries like raspberry and alpine strawberries (whose leaves have similar uses) in the Summer Foraging course as well!
Have you ever learned to identify wild-growing herbs or gathered them for your apothecary? Learning to be a responsible, sustainable forager and learning to identify and work with wild plants is incredibly empowering. If you’d like to learn how to identify and work with some of the summer-harvested plants in this article, along with several others, I hope you’ll join me in our Summer Foraging course. My husband, Jon (he’s the host of our Herbs & Oils podcast), and I teach it together and I think you’ll really enjoy it! Learn more about the class here. We hope to see you there!