Montana Public Radio

Dr. Starbuck Explains: 3 Weeds That Are Medicines

Jun 2, 2017

Hi!  I’m Dr. Jamison Starbuck, a naturopathic family physician.  I’m here today with health tips on: weeds.

Weeds!  Weeds?  You're probably wondering why I’m talking about weeds on a health program.  Aren’t weeds bad?  Aren’t they plants people don’t like?

The answer is – not really.  In my opinion, no plants are bad.  They all have something beautiful or interesting or unique going on.  But for some people weeds are a big pain.  Mostly that’s because weeds can take over and crowd out other plants that people like better.  The cool thing about weeds though is that some of them can be medicine.  Which is more than you can say for geraniums or daffodils or even tulips.

Dandelions in spring

When things can be used as medicine they are called ‘medicinal’, spelled M-E-D-I-C-I-N-A-L.  So you can have a medicinal tea or a medicinal bath or a medicinal weed.  Here in Montana we have quite a few medicinal weeds.  Some of them might surprise you.

The first one is dandelion.  As you know, dandelions grow just about everywhere.  I think that’s because just about everyone can benefit from dandelion.  Bees like the bright yellow flowers, and gather pollen from them to make honey.  But for humans, it’s the green leaves and dandelion roots that hold the medicine.  Mostly dandelion is a medicine for adults.  It helps lower blood pressure, it’s rich in the mineral potassium and in a nutrient called folic acid.  It helps reduce swelling in the feet and ankles (which is called edema), and it helps the liver and gallbladder stay healthy.

For kids, adding a few dandelion leaves to a salad is a great way to get more minerals and vitamins out of every bite.  But don’t get the dandelion leaves that grow in your lawn.  They may have been sprayed with weed killer, and they can be tough and thorny and really bitter.  Your parents can buy tasty dandelion greens at the grocery store.  They usually live right next door to the chard and lettuce.

Mullein is another Montana weed medicine.  Mullein is mostly used for lung ailments like bronchitis or cough or pneumonia.   Mullein is that tall, slender, gray-green stalky plant that especially likes to live in dry soil near our rivers.  It looks a little like a corn stalk but with short, curled gray fuzzy leaves and small yellow flowers coming out of a big pod at the top. 

The medicine in mullein comes from the leaves and the flowers.  People who know lots about medicinal weeds harvest these parts, dry them, and make them into tea or tincture or oil that can be used as medicine.

A third plant that’s fun to know about is St. John’s Wort.  You’ve seen this plant on dry hills in Montana.  It’s shrubby with small yellow flowers.  Adults think of it as a noxious weed so they like to pull it out and throw it out whenever they can.  But the flower of St. John’s Wort is a wonderful medicine to put on your skin for bruises and sprains and insect bites and burns, even sunburn. 

A very special thing about the St. John’s Wort flower is the color change that happens when you press it.  The flower is yellow when it is growing on the plant.  But if you pick the flower and squeeze a petal between your fingers, the petal, and your fingers, will turn red!   When people make medicine out of fresh St. John’s Wort flowers, that medicine will be a pretty dark red color.

There are plenty of other weeds that have bad reputations for annoying humans but can also be used for medicine.  For today though, I think we’ll stick with these three because you can easily find them growing around most Montana towns.  I hope the next time you go for a walk, you’ll have fun looking at plants and knowing that some weeds growing wild out of the earth can become good medicine. 

Remember, never eat any weeds, even medicinal ones!  And don’t ever take any medicine, even natural medicine, unless your parents tell you to. 

I’m Dr. Starbuck, and I’m wishing you well.