Plant Walk - April 3, 2016

I am so excited about our plant walk! We had a fabulous time at Marcy Park and enjoyed learning about a lot of our fabulous medicinal plants.  I even found a couple of surprise plants that I didn't expect to see in the manicured landscape of our community parks.  The next plant walk will be on June 4 (a Saturday this time) at 2pm.  This time we'll meet at the trailhead to the High Line Canal trail at County Line and Southpark Lane.  A short hike along this trail will get a different perspective of plants - including those shade-loving varieties among the cottonwoods. Here's some of the amazing plant friends we met on April's plant walk.  I got a chance to explain how these plants can be used to support wellness and health and all the walkers had some great questions on harvesting herbs, preserving them, and even what kinds of herbs would grow in their home gardens.

Mullein - Verbascum thapsus
Mullein - Verbascum thapsus

Mullein is a biennial plant.  In its first year, like this beautiful little guy, the plant will grow a rosette of leaves close to the ground.  In its second year, mullein sends up the glorious flower stalk. Mullein has been used in traditional medicine to soothe the upper respiratory tract.  An oil infused from the flowers is commonly used to ease the pain of ear infections.  Mullein is listed by the Colorado Department of Natural Resources as an invasive weed, so we should be careful in how and where we grow it.  I find that there's always plenty of plants to harvest in the wild that you don't need to grow it on your own.

Canada Fleabane - Conyza canadensis
Canada Fleabane - Conyza canadensis

Fleabane is a plant that's not very commonly used, although it is a weed found in almost every lawn!  The name comes from the soap-like scent that is shown to repel fleas in animals.  When animals roll among these plants, they retain the fragrant oil and fleas tend to run away.  It is also an edible leaf, which is helpful for digestive health.  Some people are sensitive to the leaf juice, so approach it with caution if your skin is sensitive.

Yarrow - Achillea Millefolium
Yarrow - Achillea Millefolium

Yarrow's Latin name means 'thousand leaves' which is a great description of these feathery leaf stems.  Yarrow is becoming an increasingly popular landscape plant in our arid climate as it is well adapted to grow in Colorado.  There are a number of variants to being red, yellow, pink, and white flowers to your garden.  Yarrow is a great blood mover.  The dried leaves and flowers are very styptic when powdered.  In fact, yarrow powder was often carried for field first aid by soldiers.  Achilles was known for using this herb to treat his fellow soldiers (giving the other part of the Latin binomial).

Curly Dock seeds - Rumex crispus
Curly Dock seeds - Rumex crispus
Curly dock - Rumex crispus
Curly dock - Rumex crispus

Curly dock, or sometimes yellow dock, is an edible plant that's related to buckwheat . The leaves can be eaten when young, but do get bitter and tough with age.  Dock has high levels of oxalic acid, which can upset your stomach in quantity.  Enjoy the leaf, but do so in moderation.  The seeds, shown above, can be ground into a flour and used like buckwheat for baking.  Curly dock leaves are adapted to our dry climate as well.  The curled leaves funnel rain water directly to the plant roots.  Curly dock, like dandelion, has all the leaves and flower stems originating from the central taproot.  New leaves are covered in a thin papery skin until they unfurl in the bright Colorado sun.  Dock leaves are particularly good at soothing skin irritations, especially those from nettle stings.  The two plants are often found nearby.  We weren't fortunate enough to find nettle on this plant walk, but hopefully we will soon!

Sandbar Willow - Salix exigua
Sandbar Willow - Salix exigua

Willow is in the same family as the Cottonwood tree, as well as the classic Colorado Aspen trees.  These plants contain high levels of salicin, which is an anti-inflammatory substance that the body converts to salicylic acid, or more commonly, aspirin.  Willow grows along creek beds and rivers, much like it's larger cousin, the cottonwood.

Dandelion - Taraxacum officinale
Dandelion - Taraxacum officinale

Dandelion is among the first spring flowers in our little suburban neighborhood.  The beautiful sunny flowers are always there to remind you of the sunny days - even in the rain and snow!  All parts of this plant are useful.  The leaves are a delicious edible in salads or prepare them as pickles or ferments.  The flowers are lovely in skin preparations and the popular dandelion wine!  The root is highly nutritious, having high mineral content.  Dandelion is traditionally used to support liver function, yet the bitter flavor is a good stimulant for digestion.  Like the curly dock, all parts of the dandelion grow from the center taproot.  A true dandelion will always sprout from the center.  There are other plants that look like dandelion flowers, but they have branching stems.

Alfalfa - Medicago sativa
Alfalfa - Medicago sativa

Alfalfa is a common forage crop for farm animals.  It's a member of the pea family, and closely related to clovers.  You'll find alfalfa growing in just about every open space around Highlands Ranch.  The word alfalfa comes from an Arabic word, al-fac-facial, which roughly translated means 'father of all foods.'  Alfalfa is not only a nourishing food for us to eat, it is commonly fed to animals that are raised for meat, and it is a great crop for replenishing the soil.  So alfalfa in many ways IS the father of all foods.

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Cottonwoods are common in Colorado, especially along the creeks and rivers.  Like the aspen and willow, cottonwood has salicin.  The most potent salicin is found in the resinous leaf buds just before they open to become the large, heart shaped leaves.  Cottonwood branches are fairly easy to break, so after a winter storm, you can often find branches like this one lying on the ground.  Harvesting these sticky buds is sustainable, because you're not robbing the tree of any of its leaves as you take advantage of its medicine.

What will we find on our next plant walk?  Come join us and find out!