7 Common Backyard Weeds That Are Actually Medicinal Herbs In Disguise

Who knew you had a world of healing plants right outside your window?

February 6, 2017
dandelion
Maren Winter/ Shutterstock

When I took my first sip of mullein tea, my whole relationship to weeds—those tenacious, stubborn sprouts in every garden nook—changed forever. The infusion soothed my throat and cleared my head. It turns out many common backyard weeds are exceedingly useful. If you know what to look for, you can find easy pickings packed with curative properties to rival the best-stocked medicine cabinet.

Got indigestion? Aches and pains from kneeling in the garden? Gather weeds! If you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em! Or brew them into a tea, grind them into a poultice, turn them into a salve, or stir-fry them up for dinner.

Here, 7 common backyard weeds that you'll no longer be cursing. 

(Slash your cholesterol, burn stubborn belly fat, solve your insomnia, and more—naturally!—with Rodale's Eat For Extraordinary Health & Healing!)

mullein plant
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Mullein

Candlewick, lungwort, and beggar’s blanket: mullein’s names reveal a great many ways the tall, downy plant has been used in the West. Dunked in tallow, the flowering stalk makes a cheap torch, or candle, and its soft, hairy leaves may possible be slightly more comfortable than bare ground if you’re down on your luck and sleeping outdoors. The plant is still touted by modern-day herbalists as effective against all manner of respiratory ailments. Imbibed as tea, mullein’s expectorant saponins and mucilaginous juices are sometimes treated to help soothe coughs and sore throats. (Here's how to make 5 wild plant teas that soothe sore throats.) The finished infusion has the color of a rich broth and tastes faintly sweet, like wildflowers, with a slippery finish on the back of the throat. Find mullein on bare, hard-baked ground around driveways or berms. Beginning as a gray-green rosette of 6- to 12-inch leaves, mullein will eventually send up a flowering spike and open beautiful little yellow flowers, one at a time.

Related: 5 Backyard Weeds You Should Be Eating

broadleaf plantain
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Broadleaf Plantain

Not to be confused with the starchy, banana-like tree plantain, this little weed hails from Europe and Asia, but can be found in every corner of the world. Popular among a variety of herbal traditions, herbalists have used it for everything from dysentery to toothaches. What it does best, however, is reduce swelling. It’s been used for centuries in Europe, primarily as an anti-inflammatory and as an alternative for cortisone cream to help heal bee stings or spider bites. Grind the leaves into a soft, moist mass known as a poultice, or stir up a pot of verdant salve with beeswax and coconut oil for on-the-go remedies. Look for the weed’s long oval leaves in cracks between paving stones where the soil is warm. The leaves have parallel venation, radiating out from a flattened stem. In midsummer, keep an eye out for plantain’s flower: a dull-colored spike that grows straight up from a central cluster of leaves.

stinging nettle
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Stinging Nettle

The scourge of every gloveless gardener, stinging nettle makes up for its hijinks in a myriad of helpful ways. According to the USDA, one cup of cooked nettles yields almost half a person’s necessary daily amount of calcium, and more than a third of their vitamin A, as well as 2.4 grams of protein. (Here are 7 foods with more calcium than a glass of milk.) That’s hefty for a leafy vegetable—more than collard greens or spinach. To eat the leggy plants for dinner, remove their stinging hairs by boiling your harvest in two changes of water for a minute at a time. The finished product is surprisingly rich, buttery, and pairs well with fatty fish, such as salmon. Look for stinging nettles in shady wet spots in the garden. Growing up to 3-feet high, the plants have square stems bristling with coarse, stinging hairs. Exercise some caution when picking, but don’t worry too much—if you get stung, just slap on some of that plantain poultice.

Related: 5 First-Aid Shortcuts For Poison Ivy, Bee Stings, And Other Outdoor Hazards

 

dandelion tea
4/7 Maren Winter/ Shutterstock
Dandelion

The lowly dandelion’s name has fearsome roots: the French call it dents de lion or “lion’s teeth,” referring to the plant’s deeply lobed leaves. You shouldn’t have any problem recognizing this ever-present weed’s signature bright yellow flowers poking out of lawns and along roadsides. The leaves can be eaten raw in salads or sautéed (try one of these 4 delicious ways to cook dandelion flowers), but it’s perhaps best enjoyed as tea. To keep it from being over bitter, first dry three or four leaves on a sunny windowsill, then add to a cup of boiling water. Packed with vitamin K and beta-carotene, dandelion has also been used as a liver and blood cleanser since the days of the ancient Celts, who thought it could gently stimulate the body to release toxins. Be careful: It’s mildly laxative.  

burdock
5/7 Anna Chudinovskykh/ Shutterstock
Burdock

This is a supremely difficult weed to control, so if you’ve got burdock, you might as well find a way to enjoy it. The plant’s hefty root—peeled, roasted, and ground—makes an earthy, caffeine-free coffee substitute. Once used by medieval herbalists to control topical fungal infections, infusions of the plant’s root have recently been proven to contain inulin—a compound that, according to the University of Maryland medical center, improves digestion. (Burdock is also one of these 8 herbs for beautiful skin and hair.) Steep a few thin slices of dried root in boiling water for five minutes. The tea lacks the stronger, more astringent flavor of burdock coffee, but if the mild bitterness doesn’t appeal to your palate, you can add some mint leaves. Bear in mind that this concoction is not advisable if you are pregnant. Look for the plant in abandoned fields or dry, untended corners of the garden. Once it reaches maturity, the 5-foot-tall plant is hard to miss, especially given the round, spiky burrs that attach to sweaters, pets, and hair.

Related: The Most Effective Way To Remove Weeds

Self-Heal, or Prunella plant
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Self-Heal

Imported from Europe more than 100 years ago, self-heal (also called prunella or heal-all) is a fixture in virtually every corner of temperate North America. It’s a member of the mint family, usually only a few inches high, with purple flowers and a square, smooth stem. Don’t confuse the plant with bugleweed, another introduced species that has darker, glossier leaves and upright blue flowers. To make the most of self-heal, harvest the plant’s leaves, flowers, and stems, and dry them in a warm sunny spot. The plant has some of the highest levels of antioxidants present in any medicinal herb. A teaspoon or two in a cup of boiling water taken as part of a weekly regiment can, according to James Duke, author of The Green Pharmacy help repair cells and decrease inflammatory responses. Some herbalists believe the diminutive weed may even help ward off cancer. (Here are 9 things cancer experts do to avoid getting the disease.)

yarrow plant
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Yarrow

Easy to spot in early summer, yarrow sports white-to-pink umbrella-shaped blossoms from June to September and can be found in old fields, on roadsides, and in virtually any kind of backyard soil. It’s a favorite wildflower volunteer of low maintenance gardens for its unbeatable drought tolerance and ability to colonize shallow rocky soils. Soldiers in WWI used it to soothe bruised and battered skin, giving it the common name woundwort. According to the Herbal Academy of New England, the anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties of yarrow in combination make it a potent healing herb. To use yarrow in a curative bath, collect a generous handful or two of the feathery, soft leaves and stuff them into a muslin bag or other breathable sack. Allow the leaves to dry for a week or so before submerging the bundle (and yourself) into a hot bath.

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Molly J Marquand is a gardener, small farmer, botanist and writer living in the Catskill Mountains of New York. True to her academic background, all of her writing reflects careful consideration of nature. You can find more of her work at mollyjmarquand.com.

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