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Plants in the wild offer healing properties

by Doris Penner

When settlers first came to North America, they brought with them mainly the necessities for survival in a new land. Packed away in one of the trunks was a minimum of medicinal remedies for basic ailments, such as colds, coughs and infections. Usually far away from a physician's care, they relied on plants they found in the forests and meadows both for food and medicine. They learned much from Native peoples who lived in the wilderness, while some knowledge came through trial and error which at times had dire consequences. The resilient and inventive pioneers early on learned how to prepare teas, tinctures and poultices in order to extract the healing properties of leaves, seeds and bark from the various shrubs, trees and flowers. We still draw on their knowledge today, and in fact, much modern medicine is based on their discoveries, albeit much refined and sometimes—but not always—improved upon.

Essentially, people today owe their very life to plants, either directly from domesticated fruits and vegetables, or from plant-eating livestock and fish. Many plants growing wild across the country offer vitamins and minerals even though they remain underutilized since the population has a wide variety of food at their disposal at supermarkets or in gardens. So, too, many of the plants could be foraged for medicinal purposes if we possessed the knowledge of what to look for and how to access potent ingredients. It is interesting, perhaps, to experiment with leaves, bark or stems of various plants, but it can also be dangerous since some elements are toxic.

Aid digestion

However, it is a fact that many of the trees, flowers and shrubs that grow wild on the prairies and woodlands have healing properties—some aid digestion or help offset colds, others offer immune support or mitigate pain. Because they may contain important vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals, they may help combat even serious conditions such as cardiovascular diseases, inflammatory bowel diseases (such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn's) and various types of cancer. Most of the time, taking herbal remedies should be part of wider medical approach overseen by a physician.

As an example, let's take watercress, a member of the cruciferous vegetable family along with broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage—vegetables which long been known to have anti-cancer effects. Watercress is not only an underused culinary leafy green, but also shows great potential in the realm of cancer prevention and management, likely due to its ability to increase the level of antioxidants in the blood which protect DNA against damage from free radicals. In addition, this lesser known cousin of broccoli provides a rich source of isothiocynates, a compound that scientists believe helps fight a variety of cancers, and as well contains plentiful amounts of lutein and zeaxanthin—carotenoids that are essential for macular (eye) and cardiovascular health.

Watercress can be purchased in markets and added to salads or enjoyed  lightly steamed or stir-fried. However, it grows wild in wet areas—much sought after in spring by pioneers for a taste of “freshness.” It is said that Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, built his first hospital close to a stream where watercress flourished so his patients could easily be fed this nutritious vegetable. It can also be raised in prairie gardens. While we have plenty of salad greens and may not need watercress, it adds interest to our foods and will help bolster health. 

For food and medicine

Another leafy green that grows in the wilds and has been used both for food and medicine for hundreds of years is sorrel. Many people in southeastern Manitoba have a plant or two in their gardens to satisfy longings for Summa Borscht (summer soup) and Zurumps Mousse (sorrel mousse), perhaps never realizing it is high in vitamin C, antioxidants and flavonoids. As such, it has been used in used in preparations to treat cancer patients. There are different types of sorrel which vary slightly in nutritional content.

Then there's burdock, a member of the thistle family with slender roots that are edible, both raw and cooked—and are raised in gardens in some parts of the world for food. In addition to its culinary uses, burdock root has been praised for its healing properties, largely due to the content of inulin, a type of fibre that is able to promote the growth of beneficial microorganisms (bifidobacteria) in the large intestine. Studies suggest the microorganisms may be able to reduce the levels of colonic enzymes that convert pro-carcinogenic molecules into carcinogens (cancer-causing molecules).

While it may be of interest to some Canadians to take advantage of the health benefits various herbs and natural plants offer, it is not practical to forage for them. Most health food stores carry dried or powdered forms of plants that may be steeped in water for tea or brewed for tinctures. For example, there is an herb tea on the market that contains a mixture of dried watercress, sorrel and burdock root in addition to slippery elm bark, red clover and kelp, all of which have a variety of nutrients including antioxidants to help guard against cancer as well as aid digestion and give immune support.