Natural Life Magazine

The Herb Garden
The joy of growing and using herbs:

Medicinal Herbs
by Rachel McLeod

In my woodland garden, there are many plants that are medicinal herbs. Some are indigenous to these woods, others I have reintroduced but all are wild native plants, not garden cultivars. This part of my garden is very peaceful. The shade comes from tall cedar trees, which not only limit the light but also their roots are greedy for water so the surface soil is very dry. I am grateful for these native herbs, which can grow in a difficult environment.

Visitors often notice and ask about the Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides). It is not a big plant, about 30cm to 60cm, but it has a strange attraction, possibly because of the rather peculiar dark greenish, purple-blue colour of the whole plant in spring. The flowers appear in April or May. They are small and have six pointed petals, which are usually yellowish green, sometimes brownish. They grow in clusters and before fall are replaced by dark blue berries.

The Indian names for Blue Cohosh are Papoose Root or Squaw Root, which gives an indication of how it was used. The root is the medicinal part; it is harvested in the fall, and dried and ground before being made into an infusion. It was mostly used by Indian women as a powerful emmenagogue. It is a herb that should only be used by professionals but it is a delightful addition to a woodland garden.

Black Cohosh (Cimifuga racemosa) is no relation to Blue Cohosh but belongs in the buttercup family. However it does have similar medicinal qualities. It is a very attractive perennial with tall spires of creamy flowers lighting up the woodland so it has been called Fairy Candles. Another name not so attractive is Bugbane because the leaves are believed to repel insects.

I was fortunate to be given a plant of Sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) attached to a piece of rotting wood. I planted it, wood and all, and am happy to see that it is thriving though it has not flowered yet. Sarsaparilla has a very long yellow or brown root and does not transplant easily, which is why I planted the wood with it so there was no root disturbance. The root is the medicinal part of the plant and has been generally used by both Indians and early settlers for a variety of ailments but mainly as a tonic. If it is undisturbed and has the right conditions, Sarsaparilla will make a carpet in the woods.

Golden Seal (Hydrastis canadensis) used to grow extensively in rich well drained forests in North America. Now it is not easy to find in the wild and is expensive from catalogue sources. I was able to buy a plant some years ago. It is a small plant with leaves carried in pairs. Its flower is sufficiently insignificant that I did not notice it in the early summer and I was surprised and delighted to see the bright red fruit, like a blob of sealing wax, in August. Hopefully it is happy and will now increase. Again, it is the root that is used medicinally and also for dyeing when it gives a bright yellow colour. Medicinally it is a cure-all being used as a tonic, laxative and antiseptic. It is also used to help the efficacy of other healing herbs.

Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense) is a very attractive ground cover in cedar woods on limestone. The leaves come through early in spring looking as though they had been cut out of bright green felt. Gradually they unfold into a heartshaped, darker green leaf, which lasts until the first frosts in the fall. Meanwhile under the leaves, close to the ground, are the unusual, triangular, reddish-brown flowers.

The ginger spreads by underground rootstocks, which lie very close to the surface of the soil. These both smell and taste of ginger. If there is a lot, and in parts of our woods it is the dominant ground cover, then some could be harvested. The rootstocks are thin and it is time consuming but necessary to wash them well. When they are clean, some can be dried and ground to use as a spice or in a tea mixture but some should be candied and used as a dessert, as a topping to ice cream or yogurt or, as we enjoy it, an accompaniment to slices of cantaloupe. Medicinally, wild ginger has similar properties to the tropical ginger spice we use but is much milder. A tea of wild ginger will help a cold and soothe the digestive system.

All these herbs can find a home in a shady part of your garden if you can give them the retentive woodland soil they like. It is unlikely that you will use them for healing as the medicinal qualities lie in their root and there is no quicker way of destroying a plant than to harvest its roots. But they will all enhance a garden and like all herbs provide interest and their special ambience.

Rachel McLeod founded Kiln Farm Herb Garden in Puslinch, Ontario in 1974.


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