Useful Plants On The Homestead

As promised, we are going to talk about some of the plants we learned about from Becky Beyer, of bloodandspicebush.com . I first met Becky at an edible plant walk she led at my work that I got to do as “professional development” (how neat is that!). After that one hour walk I knew we had to have her come to the homestead to help us learn to identify useful plants growing here. Becky is an ethnobotanist, that means she studies the historical uses of plants, specifically for Southern Appalachia; she is a wealth of knowledge. You can read a bit she wrote about ethnobotany here. While you’re there, take the time to poke around the site (I’m guessing it’s for her masters thesis). There’s a TON of great info in there! My book list got way longer after going through her resources. I am so grateful to Becky for putting the website together and sharing it with the world! Even more so for providing the badly needed service of educating people (us) about the plants around them (us).

My original intention was to write a post that went over all the plants that we discussed with her, how to identify them, what their uses are, recipes, etc. It’s just not possible to cover that much information in a single blog post, especially in a level of detail that will be helpful to you. For perspective, the packet of information she sent me about some of the plants we found is 25 pages long.

In this post I will list the plants that Becky helped us identify with some very basic info so that you can begin researching on your own if you wish. I included a little more info about a few that I’ve already begun researching. As I increase my knowledge about these and the other plants on the homestead I will do more in-depth posts about each individual plant. That way I can really take the time to go into detail about each of them and do the plants justice. Since we are just beginning to learn about plants and their uses, a lot of the information I present here was found through research online. Over time, we will begin to understand this knowledge first-hand and will continue to share our findings.

Unfortunately, before I go any further, it’s necessary for me to say: I am not an expert, doctor, or trained herbalist. This information is for educational purposes only. I am not responsible for what you do with the information or the plants themselves. While I do my best to verify everything I share from more than one source, the internet is a mysterious place filled with misinformation. It is good practice to do your own research before acting on any personally unverified information, from things you share on Facebook to strange plants you plan to ingest, especially when it could affect your health or life. Always be 100% sure you have the correct identification before eating anything you find in the wild. Also, be aware that while a plant may be edible or useful for most people, there’s always the chance that you have an allergy, or drug interaction, that will make the plant unsafe for YOU personally.

Without further delay, mostly in the order we encountered them on our walk, some of the *useful* plants we learned about from Becky, all of which grow wild on our homestead. *Notice I said useful, not necessarily edible.


Wisteria (Wisteria sinensis)- The pretty purple flowers of this vine are edible. We have quite a lot of it growing behind the house. It’s somewhat invasive and smothering some of the trees. But, the plant is prized by some bonsai enthusiasts so we may be able to dig up some stumps and bonsai them in order to curb its takeover.

 

 

Daylily (Hemerocallis fulva)- Daylily has edible flowers, shoots, buds, and tubers. Make sure you have the right species though, some lilies are poisonous!


Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare)- This very common plant, often seen as a “weed”, has edible flowers, buds, and leaves. It has also been used medicinally.

 

Carolina Sweet Shrub/ Sweet Bubbies (Calycanthus floridus)- This is one that we hadn’t ever heard of before. It’s leaves and twigs are used in tea and mead.

St. John’s Wort (Hypernicum sp.)- Having heard of St. John’s Wort and it’s medicinal uses, we were thrilled to learn that we have quite a lot of it growing on the homestead. You may have heard it’s useful to combat depression and anxiety. But it’s also said to be useful to reduce inflammation, help heal wounds, and ease the pain of sore joints and muscles. I have already started making a tincture and infused oil from this plant. I will share more on that process with you soon.

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)- This is another one we have quite a lot of. People use the twigs, leaves, and buds in teas. Its bark can be dried and powdered and is said to be an acceptable cinnamon substitute. Its ripe berries can be used to make what is often called “Appalachian Allspice”. Here’s a good article about it and its uses.

Smilax (Smilax sp.)- Smilax is a semi-invasive vine, also called Cat Briar or Blaspheme Vine. It’s soft tips are a delicious edible that Becky described as “lemony-asparagus” and she was so right! I learned about this one from my first walk with Becky at my work. I was super excited to find it growing around the property when I got home. It’s a fun little trail snack, but can also be lightly steamed or sauteed. We tried it sautéed and it was good, despite being late in the season and them being a bit woody. They are best earlier in spring before the plant gets too big and tough.

There is a lot of variation in leaf shape throughout the genus but all members have both thorns and tendrils, which is one way to differentiate it from other vines. The thorns up on the edible part the are still rubbery, not sharp, and not a problem for humans to munch on raw (in small quantities). To harvest just snap off the top few inches (up to a foot) of soft growth. If you run your hand up the vine starting where the spines get rubbery harvest the part that snaps off easily. Here’s a great post about identifying smilax.

Violet (Viola sp.)- The Violet is a great plant to know. It’s quite common and is available most of the year. It’s leaves and flowers are edible.  Here’s a particularly great article about Violets. 

It’s important to note that this plant has a poisonous look-a-like, the Golden Ragwort, Packera aurea. The leaves can be confused and they grow in similar locations. So be careful when harvesting; check each individual leaf and verify it is a violet leaf before putting it in your basket. To tell the difference look at the serration on the leaves. The Violet, all the serration points down and the leaf ends in a point. As Becky said, “Violet gets to the point”. Golden Ragwort, on the other hand, has serrations that point in all directions and is more rounded.

Asiatic Dayflower (Commelina communis)- This flower we found growing in the bottom of the woods. It’s flowers, stems, leaves, and immature seeds are edible.

Wild Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens)- This plant is said to be medicinal but its cut flowers are more often used as decoration.

 


Pennsylvania smartweed (
Polygonum persicaria and other sp.)- Is one also said to be medicinal. The butterflies really like it.

Ground-Ivy (Glechoma hederacea)- Also called catsfoot, creeping-charlie, and a number of other names, this herb is the bane of lawn-growers everywhere. When you search the name most the articles you will find are about how to kill it. But, it’s edible and said to be medicinal.

Red Clover (Trifolium pratense)- Red clover flowers are edible. They can be added to salads or dipped in pancake batter and fried. The most common use seems to be for tea. They are also said to be medicinal though modern research has not confirmed any of the claims yet. 

Hosta (Hosta sp.)- Hosta’s are a relatively common decorative plant. But, it does more than provide curb appeal. It’s young shoots, flowers, and buds are edible

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus and sp.)- Mullein has been used medicinally for generations, primarily for respiratory conditions. It was often used to treat tuberculosis. It’s leaves can be smoked, chewed, or made into tea. It’s roots are said to be effective as a treatment for urinary tract infections. I’ve heard of the flowers being infused into oils. The flower stalk can also be dipped in beeswax to make candles. It’s fuzzy leaves have also been called cowboy toilet paper, just make sure to wipe with the grain of the fuzz, not against it. I also hear the leaves make a great bandaid for cuts and scrapes.

Maiden Hair Fern (Adiantum pedatum)- This beautiful fern is often grown as a coveted house plant for it’s delicate and interesting look. But, it has also been used medicinally for a number of conditions.

Goldenrod (Solidago sp.)- Goldenrod’s cheery yellow flowers are seen all over the area in the late summer (right now). All it’s above ground parts are edible. It has also been used medicinally, most commonly as a tea to fight allergies.

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis)- Jewelweed is a plant that I’ve heard can “cure poison ivy” and is “always found growing near poison ivy”, but this isn’t entirely true. This is a good example of why you don’t just swallow any random “medicinal plant” recommendations on the internet. While Jewelweed has been shown to be effective in neutralizing the oil from poison ivy that gives you a rash, it is slightly less effective than soap… It is also only effective when fresh, so all the salves and soaps you see claiming the poison-ivy-curing-powers of Jewelweed are likely untrue. From what I’ve been told, once you have actually broken out in a poison ivy rash Jewelweed probably cannot help you. (Although, other herbs like Plantain can.) That said, if you’re out in the woods and come in contact with poison ivy, but don’t have access to soap, crushing the leaves and stems and rubbing the juice on the affected area is more effective at neutralizing the oils than doing nothing!

Plantago major, Broad-Leaf Plantain

Plantain (Plantago major and lanceolata)- This is an herb that nearly everyone in North America who doesn’t spray their yard with weed killer has in their yard. In fact, it grows in most of the world. You’ve probably stepped on it thousands of times. The even more exciting part is that many of the claims about its usefulness seem to be backed up by actual scientific studies. One such study found it to be more effective than cortisone on various skin conditions like rashes and bug bites, not to mention the fact that it’s been used with much success for thousands of years. This makes it one of the most important herbs to know and a great one to start with if you’re just starting to explore your interest in medicinal herbs, or wild edibles. It is also edible and a great substitute for spinach.

Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia)- Black Locust flowers are edible. The wood is a good hard wood that is often used for fence posts due to its rot resistance. Be careful though, it’s covered in sharp spikes that can do some real damage and are known to lead to Staph infections.

 

 


Black Walnut (
Juglans nigra)- Black walnut produces edible nuts. Its hulls have been used as a stain/dye. The hulls are also used as a vermifuge (de-wormer). Its wood is prized for furniture and other wood crafts. As a matter of fact, we had a big one fall in a storm and my dad took home some huge logs he will be making some beautiful wood-crafts with. The catch is that it produces a growth inhibitor called juglone which it uses to cut down on competition by hindering the growth of most nearby plants. It has even been used to create a “natural” herbicide. So, the one growing next to the garden might need to go…

Horsechestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum)- Unfortunately, the one huge chestnut tree we have is not an edible one. But it’s wood is a good hardwood used for smoking food, fire wood, and wood crafts.

 

The underside of Hemlock needles.

Hemlock Pine (Tsuga sp.)- A lot of people immediately think of poison hemlock when they hear the name Hemlock Pine, but poison hemlock is a totally different herbaceous plant, not a tree. The hemlock pine is edible! The soft tips of the branches can be eaten. Its needles are also a good tea. They are rich in Vitamin C and said to be helpful for kidney ailments, colds, and a number of other conditions. The bark is said to be medicinal as well.

Pine, White and Virginia(Pinus strobus and virginiana)- We have some White Pine and Virginia Pine too. Like the Hemlock Pine (but note not the same Genus) it is high in vitamin C and has been used medicinally. It’s needles are often made into a tea. It’s pollen, bark, and sap are all medicinally useful as well. I have a longer, more detailed (half-written) post I am working on about pines I will share soon.

Sourwood bark

Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum)- You may have heard of sourwood honey before. Well, it’s made from the flowers of the sourwood tree. The leaves and bark of the tree have been used medicinally. Becky told us the leaves are good chopped in salads or to wrap around fish for steaming. She also said she likes to carve spoons from the wood.

 

 

 

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)- Sassafrass is the tree that the original “root beer” was made from. It exhibits a relatively rare phenomenon called heterophylly. That means the plant has multiple leaf shapes on the same plant. You can use this as an identification tool. This plant has also been used to make medicines, but some modern research shows it contains a chemical called safrole that can be dangerous.

Wild Cherry: (Prunus serotina)- Wild cherry produces edible cherries but is also medicinal. It’s used to make a number of remedies including cough syrup.

Ironwood/ American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana)- While I’ve read that this tree has edible seeds, Becky told us this one is great wood for tool handles and things like that. 

 

This list contains just over 25 plants; we encountered all of these useful plants (and more) in one, two hour, walk around our property. I am currently working on a massive, super exciting (if you’re a spreadsheet nerd, like me) spreadsheet of all the plant (and mushroom) species we find on the property. So far, that list has 60 useful (mostly edible and/or medicinal) plants on it, and we haven’t even been here a year yet! Once you begin to open your eyes, mind, and heart to all of the life around you it’s amazing what you’ll find. To be able to just walk out into the yard and harvest food and medicine is an incredible feeling. I hope I was able to pique your interest enough that you’ll continue exploring on your own. I look forward to continuing to share what we’re learning with you!

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