As the weather starts to warm invasive and native plants alike are waking up and beginning to grow. A common misconception about many invasives and even native “weed” species alike is that you cannot use them. Fortunately for us, that isn’t necessarily true.
One of the most notorious weeds we can think of, the dandelion, is actually highly beneficial in boosting our immune systems and fighting seasonal allergies. Garlic mustard can be used in a pesto and Himalayan Balsam, as salad leaves. So, here are some of the best plants in our area, both native and invasive. Just be sure to only harvest invasive species and plant and harvest native species!
Mullein Mullein or Lamb’s Ear, is an ex-invasive species. This soft plant also referred to as nature’s toilet paper came to the states from Europe and took off rather quickly. Since mullein has been here so long, it has now learned how to co-exist with other native plants, but it can still exhibit invasive tendencies. In the wild, you will often find it growing in a rosette manner in its first years, eventually growing a 3-4ft tall stalk in its latter growing period, producing showy yellow flowers. The main benefits with mullein come from its anti-inflammatory properties. Making a tea out of dried mullein leaves can help with lung health and function by reducing mucous within the lungs. This makes this plant incredibly healing for those who have chronic lung issues or who have smoked chronically.
Red Clover Red clover, or what you see rabbits nibbling on in your yard, is another quite beneficial plant that has naturalized in North America(similar to mullein). Red clover has a pine cone shaped flower with a purple red hue at the base and white or pink petals at the top. The leaves are oval shaped with a pale green arrow pattern through the middle of the leaf. It often grows in yards or along roadsides. Red clover is highly beneficial to those who suffer from seasonal allergies. It can greatly build one's immune system as the flower carries pollen from your region, so by making a tea from this flower with some local honey, you can treat and manage your allergy symptoms.
Wood Sorrel Wood Sorrel is another member of the clover family, having some key differences from red clover in both appearance and benefits. As the name suggests, wood sorrel commonly grows in wooded areas or forests. It has more of the stereotypical clover leaf, heart shaped with three leaves connecting at the stem. The flowers of wood sorrel are a bright yellow and small with five petals. Wood sorrel is a native plant to North America that has been used for centuries as a medicinal plant. First Nations people would use wood sorrel to treat anything from mouth sores to ulcers. The leaves can be chewed raw, made into a poultice, made into a tea, or even into a tincture. Unlike Red clover, wood sorrel packs a larger punch with antiseptic and anti microbial properties, meaning its abilities can help with a wide variety of issues.
Wild Parsnip Wild parsnip is a highly invasive plant that can often be found in open fields or along the roadside. Before getting into properties and ID, please be aware before foraging for this plant that if the sap gets onto your skin it will cause blisters, as the sap reacts with UV rays, causing painful blisters for sometimes longer than a month. So, now that you are gloved up and wearing long sleeves and pants, Wild Parsnip is a member of the carrot family. It has a similar flower structure to that of Queen Anne’s Lace, but the flowers are larger and more circular as well as yellow. The leaves are compound and often will grow from the stem in leaflets of 3-5. The ONLY part of Wild Parsnip that should be ingested is the root system. The roots in Wild Parsnip are high in Vitamin C and can aid heart function among many other things. They are white and can be cooked, boiled, and eaten raw. Not only can it help in heart function but in livestock that consume wild parsnip, fertility and weight loss went up in that population (Ontario Invasive Species 2013).
Knotweed There are three knotweed varieties within the upper peninsula of Michigan. Japanese, Bohemian, and Giant knotweed. These three plants have waged quite the war on us at Three Shores CISMA, but shockingly they too have quite a few benefits. Knotweed can most easily be identified by the bright red bamboo like stalks and heart shaped leaves. It grows in dense bushy stands that can reach heights between 10 and 15 feet depending on variety. Knotweed interestingly enough, is quite medicinal as it has both anti-inflammatory as well as anti-spirochetal properties. This means knotweed can be used to help manage chronic illnesses such as Lymes Disease or other nervous or connective tissue diseases/disorders.
Jewelweed Jewelweed is commonly seen in riparian areas. With bright yellow and orange flowers, it is quite easy to spot while trekking around the woods. The main benefits from Jewelweed are topical as it has been used for centuries as an anti-fungal, anti-viral, anti-histamine, and anti-inflammatory. Jewelweed can be used on poison ivy, oak and bug bites, as well as be used as a diuretic as it aids in digestion.
Chaga The last and probably most beneficial plant on this list is actually not even a plant! Chaga is a wood eating fungus that only grows on birch trees. It has the appearance of a burl that has been burnt to a char on the outside while the inside of the fungus has a rich iron oxide color. Chaga provides support for everything from heart health to diabetes to even managing certain types of cancer. It can help with the production of cytokines which help support the immune system and overall cell communication.
So the next time you are outside, look around and see if you can find any of these amazing plants! Just be careful to not over harvest the native plants or under harvest the invasive plants as we want strong healthy populations of native plants for our ecosystem and foraging for invasives if being considerate of not spreading them can be a big help in reducing their populations as well. The last consideration to keep in mind is to do your research on health hazards for humans. Foraging from pristine locations is important as roadsides can have chemicals in the soil, poisoning the plant potentially.
We hope this helps you the next time you are outside and wondering what plants are beneficial. As always do your research, brush your boots, and happy foraging!!