Spring has sprung, and with it, our local hills have become alive with the medicine of the season. While studying herbs in book is fun (and something I do quite a bit of), nothing quite beats getting out into the field and seeing them in their natural habitat. When we allow ourselves to drop in and observe plants and creatures in their native ecosystems, we have the opportunity to learn a lot about the characteristics that make them unique parts of their natural environment.
While exploring and observing plants in the wild is a fun and useful practice, I firmly tell all of my students to refrain from wildcrafting their botanicals for personal or commercial use. Just as the plant we find in nature can be beneficial for us, they are also intricate parts of the ecosystems they belong to and should be left as they are to exist in their natural environments. There are plenty of local growers where you can purchase any of the herbs mentioned if you want to explore their medicinal value. Two of my favorites are the Sonoma County Herb Exchange in Sebastopol, California, and Steadfast Herbs in Pescadero, California.
Mugwort (Artemisia douglasiana)
This native California perennial happens to be one of my all-time favorite herbals and the very plant that first got me interested in herbalism. Though this tender botanical stays in season for longer at higher elevations, in the hot, dry East Bay we see mugwort in abundance during the spring and then watch it die back a bit as the temperatures rise. You will often see mugwort in disturbed areas, where moisture accumulates alongside other spring herbals. The leaves of mugwort have a pungent, herbaceous scent that distinguishes the plant, and the undersides of the leaves have a soft silvery appearance. Mugwort spreads via it's extensive underground rhizome system, and can often be found in linear patches on the sides of roads, on lush hillsides, and under the shade of a large oak tree.
Mugwort's Magical Properties
In Western Herbalism, mugwort is mainly used as an emmenagogue and bitter (read not for use when pregnant), but it's the esoteric uses of this plant that I adore most. Thought to induce lucid dreaming, mugwort is a magical plant that has been used spiritually, and ceremoniously by indigenous people for thousands of years. Want to explore the magic properties of mugwort? Try placing the dried leaves near your bed at night (or under your pillow) so embark on a dream exploration into your deep psyche and beyond.
Cleavers (Galium aparine)
This sticky little plant is a California native annual that pops up during early spring as the temperatures begin to rise and the earth is still moist. The plant gets its name from the sticky, hooked hairs that grow from their stems, which enable the plant to "latch" onto your clothing (or an animal's fur) when they come in contact with one another. Cleavers are typically found along slopes and in non-wetland habitats where there are pockets of moisture in the land. Also referred to as Bedstraw, cleavers were historically used as stuffing for bedding and for creating a cushy place to lay down and rest one's weary head.
Cleavers Clever Uses
A popular lymphatic in the herbal world, cleavers are an iconic springtime medicinal, helping the body to wake up and get moving after the dormancy of winter. Though the sticky hairs on cleavers may make it less than desirable to eat raw, the leaves and stems of young cleavers can be juiced, added to smoothies, and made into an infusion for that classic springtime medicine. Cleavers not only help give the lymph system a little boost, but are rich in vitamin c, chlorophyll, and minerals such as silica. Cleavers are often considered a weed in backyard gardens and are quite easy to grow once they get going, but be forewarned that they'll keep on coming back once they start.
Chickweed (Stellaria media)
Though not native to California, this weedy invasive annual is a common sighting in disturbed areas during the spring months. Chickweed starts to pop up a little earlier than the other spring herbals, and dies back quickly once the weather dries up. The plant is considered invasive due to its ability to form large mats of plant material, potentially crowding out other native seedlings and saplings. Chickweed is often seen alongside other native, spring medicinals such as Miner's Lettuce/Native Lettuce and others. If you happen to find a patch of Chickweed in the wild, take a moment to notice the other plants growing around it, and perhaps a moment to ponder the potential impact of this non-native plant on the other plants in the ecosystem found nearby.
Chickweed's Topical Uses
As a non-native (and invasive plant), you can feel more comfortable collecting this plant, though know that it can sometimes be confused with Claytonia perfoliata (a native California lettuce). Chickweed is used in Western and European herbalism as an emollient and vulnerary, that' can be particularly soothing to dry, chapped, and irritated skin. Chickweed is commonly quickly dried and infused into an oil that can be used in soothing salves and balms. Chickweed is a wild edible that can also be added to salads, though eating large quantities isn't recommended due to the plant's saponin content, which can cause stomach upset.