Friday, June 21, 2013

Herbal Tips: Getting to Know Plant Families

The second annual Herbstalk took place in Somerville, MA, June 8-9 -- a full weekend of herbal classes and plant walks. Seeing the buzz around the marketplace and the enthusiasm in the classes, it's clear that there is a huge audience for this topic!

In an intensive workshop with community herbalist Mischa Schuler (of Wild Carrot Herbs), I learned tips on identifying plant families and what those plants can do for your health. Three plant families caught my attention, and their basic descriptions can help you recognize some of these in your neighborhood. Ok, so there are hundreds of plant families, but you have to start somewhere.

Illustration from Köhler's Medicinal Plants{{PD-1923}}
Parsley Family (or Carrot Family) (Apiaceae)
Flowers of the parsley family have 5 sepals, 5 petals, and 5 stamen. But the best way to recognize them, I think, is that the flowers bloom in groups that look like upside down umbrellas. (Technically, they are called compound umbels.) All of the flower stems originate from one point.

The parsley family includes anise, fennel, cumin, caraway, celery, parsley, carrot, parsnip, and dill.

Strolling around your neighborhood, you're likely to see wild carrot, also called Queen Anne's Lace. You can eat its greens or root in spring, or harvest its flowers in summer. Wild carrot looks a lot like poison hemlock, but to tell the difference, remember the mnemonic "Queen Anne has hairy legs." Poison hemlock has smooth stems.

The parsley family can ease gas and bloating. Many Indian restaurants have a bowl of fennel seeds for their guests to help with digestion after dinner. Personally, I prefer the candied fennel seeds. Mm, sugar.

The parsley family is also known for decongestant and antiviral properties, Mischa  recommended steeping crushed fennel seeds in hot water for about 10 minutes if you have a cold or sinusitis.Good to know, since I had sinusitis while I was taking this class.

Illustration from Köhler's Medicinal Plants{{PD-1923}}
Mint Family (Lamiaceae)
This is my favorite family. It gets points for making me feel smart - I can recognize a lot of the plants in this family. But they're also excellent healers.

Flowers of the mint family have 5 united petals, 2 lobes up and 3 lobes down. But since you want to harvest these before they grow flowers, it's good to know that they have square stems and opposite leaves. Opposite leaves means that two leaves emerge at each node on opposite sides of the stem.

The mint family includes most culinary herbs, like rosemary, sage, thyme, lavender, oregano, basil, lemon balm, and of course, mint.

This family is known for their volatile oils, which is why they are so delicious. They are also anti-viral and anti-microbial. So a mint tea is good for a cold, and lavender or thyme oil make an excellent additive to a DIY cleaning spray.  And they are good remedies for gas and bloating, just one more reason to keep some mint tea around.

Illustration from Köhler's Medicinal Plants{{PD-1923}}
Rose Family (Rosaceae)
Take a look at the bottom of an apple and you will see a pattern of five, where the five petals of the flower used to be. Or cut it open crosswise, and you will see five seeds laid out in a star pattern. These are clues that the apple belongs in the rose family.

Flowers of the rose family have 5 petals, 5 sepals, and many stamens. (I know, the Parsley family does too, but size is the difference - these are much bigger plants.) These plants also have oval, serrated leaves.

The rose family includes lots of fruits I didn't realize are so closely related: apples, pear, quince, apricot, peach, nectarine, plum, cherry, almond, strawberry, raspberry, blackberry, and of course, rose.

Want to learn more about identifying plants in your neighborhood? Mischa recommended some resources (many of which are now on my Christmas wish list!)

Elpel, Botany in a Day (includes use of plants for healing)
Peterson, Edible Wild Plants
Newcomb's Field Guide to Wildflowers (we used this guide to do some of our identifying in the field)
Thayer, The Forager's Harvest and Nature's Garden

And one recommendation of my own, if you happen to find some wild carrot:
North Carolina State University's page on Daucus carota

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