Driftless Terroir: Our Many Medicinal Herbs Are a Forager’s First Aid

The leaves of common native plants growing outside our back door can serve as reliable home remedies. From left to right: yarrow, burdock, plantain, chickweed, jewelweed. Photos courtesy of Caitlin Hatch

When my husband and I first moved to northern Iowa County we took every chance to explore the Driftless’ unique landscape. Those early years of hiking, camping, canoeing and fishing are priceless memories, but it wasn’t until the birth of our first child that my adoring gaze shifted from the hilly horizon down to the plants under my feet.

Since then, plant medicine has been at the center of my family life. Working with medicinal herbs has been important to me not only because it nourishes and heals my family, but also because it deepens my appreciation of the place we call home.

Once I started learning about the plants around me a window opened into the incredibly diverse medicine cabinet that our region has to offer. Now when I’m outdoors I can’t help but catalogue the dozens of healing plants that grow around every bend in the trail. This is especially true when I’m with my children, because we tend to move at a much slower pace than I do when alone.

As I steer my kids along the bumpy road of childhood, we all collect our share of bumps, bruises and sniffles. Luckily for us, we’ve discovered a few reliable remedies growing just outside our back door. Here are several of my “go to” plants, all of which are simple to use and easy to find in the Driftless.

Plentiful plantain cools hot situations like stings, burns and rashes.

Plantain (Plantago major) is known for it’s cooling and drawing abilities. It quickly cools hot situations like bee stings, spider bites, stinging nettle or minor burns, including sunburn and rashes. It draws bacteria out of a cut or scrape and can even draw out a deep sliver given a little time.

Making a spit poultice is the fastest and easiest way to put this plant to use. Pick a few leaves and chew them until they are nicely crushed. Apply to the sting, cut, burn or sliver, and then re-apply once the poultice feels warm to the touch. I like to infuse plantain and chickweed leaves into olive oil and make a salve to keep in my purse for the unexpected, itchy mosquito bite during the summer months.

Burdock (Arctium lappa) leaves are used externally as fresh poultices for minor burns. This poultice can also be good for hot pepper burns on sensitive membranes such as the eyes or nose. Like plantain, burdock can be chewed up and placed on a burn. Or, if you find chewing the bitter leaves unpleasant, mash them up with a little water.

Burdock root is an extremely nutrient-dense food. If you need a little extra food when camping this root could be your answer. Digging the root, however, can be challenging as the tap root is very long and the bottom 40 percent of the root is best for eating. Everything above that tends to be woody and less palatable. Once harvested, you can steam, sauté or roast the root or turn it into a delicious tea.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) has the ability to stop the flow of blood quickly. Because of this ability to cauterize rapidly, it’s important to clean out any wound before applying yarrow so that you don’t trap any bacteria. Once the wound is cleaned, simply pick a fresh yarrow leaf, gently place it over the wound and watch the magic happen. This also works with nosebleeds when you roll the yarrow leaf into a ball before gently inserting it into the bleeding nostril.

If you happen to grow yarrow in your garden it is only the white/pale pink flowering yarrow that has healing properties. I like to harvest and dry my yarrow leaves and then grind them into a powder to keep on hand for the year. My kids love to take a little pinch of powdered yarrow, sprinkle it onto their clean owies and watch the bleeding stop instantly. You can also rub fresh yarrow leaves on your skin to make a quick and effective insect repellent.

Chickweed has a fresh citrus-like taste and makes a soothing poultice for irritated skin and eyes.

Chickweed (Stellaris media) is another versatile, trailside plant loaded with nutrients. When the top leaves are eaten fresh on a salad, they have a bright, fresh, citrus-like taste that kids of all ages will enjoy. Chickweed poultice is also great for any eye irritation or for cuts, scrapes and blisters. And when you find a large patch of chickweed, make tea from the leaves and add it to your bath to sooth sore muscles.

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) is a well-known remedy for poison ivy, poison oak and other skin ailments caused by “itchy” plants. After touching one of these plants, or even when you have a rash of unknown origin, take jewelweed stems and leaves, mash them up in your fingers and apply the juicy pulp to your skin.

The plants listed above do so much more than I’ve mentioned. If my notes have peaked your interest, there are some wonderful, easy-to-read reference books to teach you more. Rosemary Gladstar’s “Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide” is a fun book to start with, and any of Samuel Thayer’s books on foraging are great for plant identification.

Finally and most importantly, when foraging or using any herbs it’s essential to correctly identify plants. There are numerous look-a-likes and some of them can be very dangerous to handle or ingest. It’s also critical to harvest with care and respect so that we preserve our beautiful and fruitful Driftless landscape for our neighbors and children. Enjoy the summer adventures ahead!

Caitlin Hatch is a mother of two, a watercolor artist and has her Family Herbalist Certificate from the School of Natural Healing. She and her husband co-own and operate Uplands Cheese, just north of Dodgeville. Her website is caitlinleline.com.

Driftless Terroir (ter-WAHR) is a series featuring guest voices celebrating the intersection of land and culture — the essence of life in the Driftless Area — with topics including art and architecture, farming and gardening, cooking and eating, fermenting and drinking, and more. To contribute to Driftless Terroir, e-mail info@voiceoftherivervalley.com.