Editor's Note: Studies have shown that bracken fern contains ptaquiloside, a carcinogen.
The plant descriptions that follow apply to their appearances in the growing season and fruit-setting season, spring through early fall. Except with evergreens, identifying plants in winter is a more advanced proposition and is presented separately in Chapter 11 of this book.
You should use discretion concerning the area from which you harvest. Do not use plants growing beside roads or near businesses with suspicious effluents or where poisons are sprayed. Wash plants thoroughly after harvesting. The plant-uses that follow should be undertaken with a plant identification book so that you can see related or look-alike plants that might be mistaken for the one you seek. A plant ID book is standard freight in the backpack of a student of survival.
1.) An Itch – In every plant class when I have led adults and/or children to jewelweed, I asked the group if anyone was currently suffering from a chigger or mosquito bite, poison ivy, or any kind of itch. In almost every case, someone raised a hand. After an introduction to the plant, the afflicted one applied jewelweed’s juices, and in every case the itching stopped immediately.
Stopping an Itch – In summer look along the sunny edge of a lake, stream, marsh, pond, water ditch, or other low wet ground, where plant growth is lush in healthy soil. Search for jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), also called “touch-me-not” for its “exploding” seed pods.
For poison ivy rash, mosquito or chigger bites, or fire ant stings (and other topical complaints), crush part of a stem and its leaves and rub the mucilaginous juice into the afflicted area. This gel contains an anti-inflammatory compound that works immediately to relieve itching. The stem juice is readily available up to late summer when the plant hardens. At that point, crush multiple leaves to apply gel. People with sensitive skin might experience topical burning from this plant juice!
2.) Upset stomach – Yellowroot contains berberine, a compound soothing to the mucosa. (It resolves nausea but is not effective on stomach virus.
Relieving an Upset Stomach – I dig for one small piece of root from brilliantly colored yellowroot on a flood plain (sparing the more fragile creek bank) and cut off a piece equivalent in size to 1/4” of packaging string. After gently washing away any dirt I chew the root for several minutes, swallow the bitter juice, and then spit out the woody fibers.
3.) A migraine – On nine different occasions students have come to me during a class to inform me about the onset of a migraine headache. In obvious discomfort each said she needed to go home to lie in the dark in complete quiet for several days.
Each time this happened I asked if she would like to try a tea of inner bark from flowering dogwood (Cornus florida). The result was successful in every instance.
On the upper side of a branch I cut a long thin rectangle based upon her little finger, carefully sliced away the outer-bark, and peeled up the exposed ribbon of inner bark from the sapwood. I put this strip of inner bark into a container and over it I poured boiling water. After the bark steeped for twenty minutes, she drank the tea and lay down for 45 minutes, after which she was symptom-free and once again participating in the class. As far as the other students were concerned, I couldn’t have asked for a better lesson about dogwood. This same flowering dogwood tea also reduces fever. Herbalists warn that dogwood inner bark must be dried before using, so as not to upset the stomach! The dosage of “green” bark suggested here has not, in my experience, created any adverse effects; but it may be wise to start with a smaller dosage in case you are sensitive to cornic acid.
Easing a Headache – Because non-migraine headaches are more common, we will use a willow tree to resolve “chronic” headache. Black willow (Salix nigra) makes salicylic acid (related to aspirin’s acetyl-salicylic acid) and sends this chemical into its inner bark. I simply remove the leaves from the outermost inch of a green branch tip and then chew the succulent twig for a few minutes. I swallow the bitter liquid and finally spit out the fibrous pulp. It takes 6-8 hours to be metabolized, making it more suitable for long-term problems.
4.) Mosquitoes – On one of the Golden Isles of Georgia, a group hired me to run a symposium on tracking. It was a perfect request, for tracking on sandy ground opens up endless teaching and learning opportunities, especially on an island rich in wildlife.
On one of our hikes, a cloud of big, hungry, persistent mosquitoes hovered around us and sank their mouthparts into every bit of exposed flesh. There were children and adults present, and soon everyone was either whining, in tears, or bitterly angry at the unrelenting siege. Some of the men were slapping themselves so hard that their skin reddened almost to the same hue as the blood that beaded on their bites.
I carried a small vial of homemade repellent in my first-aid kit and assumed that everyone in the group would have brought a repellent, too. Out of twelve people, only one had packed a spray repellent, but after pumping it a few times, the bottle was empty. My supply was not enough to go around, so I was on the lookout for a plant that might afford them some protection.
We were quite a few miles from our base camp, when I spied a colony of bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) in a pine forest. In the mountains I am accustomed to finding bracken in dry, sunny, “waste” places of poor, acid soil, but I have encountered this fern in moist forests, too. Here we were in alkaline soil. You never know where you are going to encounter bracken.
We rationed our treasure – two plants to a person – leaving plenty growing under the pines where we had found them. After testing everyone’s tolerance to the plant, we gently rubbed the ferns between our hands to release their insecticidal chemicals and then lightly brushed them on our arms, necks and hands. Finally, we inserted the ferns under our hats – one in front and one in back, like the double bills of a deerstalker cap. Those without hats made a length of cordage from palm fibers to serve as a headband.
As we continued our trek toward camp, we still itched from our previous bites, but all the talk was about the invisible shields that we wore. There were no more bites.
Repelling Mosquitoes – Bracken is a large coarse fern that grows in a variety of habitats that differ in shade, moisture, and soil types. Its leaves subdivide into leaflets and sub-leaflets. The leaflet tips lose their laciness and appear melded together. All the leaves together make a rather horizontal triangle that might stand as tall as your knee or shoulder. Pick the entire plant and lightly bruise the greenery between your palms. Place the fern partially under a hat so that the foliage projects over your face like a hat bill.
5.) Insect Sting – During a grammar school presentation on medicinal plants, I took a fourth grade class outside to see what treasures were hiding on the school grounds. The first plant we talked about was broad-leaved plantain. We discussed in great detail how to recognize it and how to use it as an effective poultice on insect stings.
We were nearing the end of our time together when the teacher of the class emitted a sharp chirp. Everyone turned to see her slapping repeatedly at a wrist. She had been stung by a fire ant.
“We’ll need to go back inside now,” she said angrily. “I need to get something on this.”
“What will you put on it?” I asked.
A little impatient, she shook her head. “I don’t know. Something. Some antibiotic ointment maybe.”
“It stings because the ant injected formic acid into you,” I reminded. “It’s an acid burn.”
“Whatever,” she said and began herding the children toward the school building.
“How about we neutralize the acid?” I called out, hoping this might jog someone’s memory. Everyone stopped. She gave me a semi-tolerant smile.
“Well, how in the world would I do that?”
I looked at the children and waited. Finally, a light bulb flashed over several young heads.
“That leaf with the strings inside!” a little boy said.
Smiling, I pointed at him. “Plantain,” I reminded.
We returned to the plantain, crushed a leaf, and the teacher rubbed it into her hand. The kids watched, riveted to her grimace. In less than a minute she locked eyes with me.
“It’s stopped hurting,” she said a little surprised.
Our lesson had transcended from an academic session of weeds and words to a personal experience with a problem and its solution. At least in the teacher’s mind, our original lesson with the plantain had not been relevant to her. It never occurred to her to use the very plant that had begun our lesson as a remedy for insect sting.
We had begun strolling back toward the school building, when she stopped and looked back to the area where we had found the plantain. “Let me go look at that plant again,” she said. As we walked back to it, she asked, “Now, what was it called?”
Neutralizing Insect Venom – Once called “white man’s foot,” broad-leaved plantain (Plantago major) is not native but is now widespread throughout America. It is common on hard-packed dirt (trails) and in yards where direct sunlight is ample.
If a bee or wasp’s stinger is lodged in the skin, scrape it away without deflating the venom sacs, which are still attached. Then crush a plantain leaf until it becomes juicy. If you are in a pristine area, chew the leaf into a pulpy mass. Press the crushed leaf directly on the sting-site and rub. After a minute throw away the leaf, harvest another, and then repeat the process.
6.) Tainted Water or Food – On a self-imposed survival trip I had the misfortune of ingesting microorganisms that wreaked havoc on my gut. So as to spread out my bounty over time, I had eaten portions of the same cooked fish over a 24-hour period. Despite my efforts to keep the meat cool in a stone “refrigerator” built over the creek, by the second day the fish tottered on that border between edible and starting to spoil. I should have discarded it, but having taken the animal’s life I was reluctant to throw it away. Within minutes after another meal of fish, I was so ill that I could not perform the simplest of chores.
As a precaution, before I’d eaten that “last supper,” I’d located a sassafras tree, dug up and cut off a piece of root, and brewed a tea. Later, in my misery, I drank one cup and lay down. I’d recently learned about the research which revealed that the constituents of sassafras root killed harmful microorganisms in the human gut. My experience was a most impressive substantiation. Less than an hour after finishing that cup of tea, I was symptom-free and back at survival work.
To make this tea I dug with a digging stick around the tree’s trunk, located a root, and followed it out to a fork to remove the smaller branching rootlet. For one cup of tea, I used a piece of cylindrical root 1/4” thick and 1/3” long. Back at my camp while waiting for water to boil, I washed the root and cut slits into it. Then I poured a cup of just-boiled water over the scored root and let it steep until the water turned a faint pink – about fifteen minutes. I removed the root and wrapped it up for future use. Note: Herbalists usually boil roots for an extended period. This steeping of the root worked well for me. Sassafras tea should not be used regularly or as a prophylactic measure for questionable water. It destroys not only bad bacteria in the gut, but also the good.
Getting to Know the Sassafras Tree – Locate a sassafras tree (Sassafras albidum), often in a dry hardwood forest, by spotting its three (or more) differing leaf shapes: an elliptical football, a mitten, and “Casper the Friendly Ghost.” Be certain that the leaf margins are smooth so that you do not mistake mulberry (Morus rubra) for sassafras. Scratch away a flake of outer bark and beneath it you’ll see a cinnamon color. To verify identification, bruise a leaf and smell the flavor of Froot Loops breakfast cereal or Davy Crockett bubble gum from the ‘50’s. (Sometimes poor soil conditions make this scent very faint.) Dig close to the trunk to locate a lateral root and check its identity by smell. A freshly cut root will present the unmistakable aroma of root beer.
7.) Hunger – On my self-imposed survival trips in fall and winter, I have always felt especially indebted to groundnut (Apios americana) for its sheer volume of food. I never miss an opportunity to explore a sunny thicket near a creek or the moist edge of a low meadow.
Not only does groundnut grow in a colonial fashion (if you find one, you’re going to find more nearby,) but also a single root might produce five or six tubers – like beads strung along a bracelet. Baked in the coals of a fire, these leguminous tubers pack 3-times the protein of potatoes.
Eating a Wild Tuber – Get to know groundnut in the late summer, when its leaves and flowers make identification definite. The leaves are pinnately compound with five to seven ovate leaflets. Often the leaf appears semi-folded along the rachis, like a closing book. The brown-purple flowers, which cluster in racemes, show the classic irregular shape of other pea flowers. Mark the tiny vine with a ribbon so that you can find it when the leaves have dropped. Do this enough times until you can recognize the leafless vines in winter. Fall or winter harvest ensures that tubers are packed with nutrition (from the summer storage).
The groundnut vine twines in a delicate spiral, often around desiccated stems of goldenrod or other tall weed remnants. Very carefully follow the fragile stem to earth and dig, following the root without breaking it, to find several tubers spread out on the same root – sometimes close together, sometimes not. The tubers are often golden tan and warty, varying in size from bird’s egg to softball or larger. You’ll see bitter latex oozing out of any breaks in the peeling. To dispel bitterness cook the tuber in any of the many ways you might cook a potato.
More from Secrets of the Forest: Volume 1
Reprinted with permission from Secrets of the Forest: Volume 1 by Mark Warren and published by Waldenhouse Publishers, Inc., 2015