Is There Medicine Growing in Your Backyard?

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Are there medicines in your backyard? Absolutely, but to determine what they are, you first must understand the practice of herbalism.

Herbalism is the forerunner to modern pharmaceutical medicine. One of the main principles of it that should be taken to heart was expostulated by Nicholas Culpepper the author of the Materia Medica during the Middle Ages. This book was the first comprehensive guide in Europe to herbal healing. Considered the “father” of modern herbalism, Culpepper wrote the following tenet, a foundational concept to his field:

“The herb, taken whole with all of its parts, is more effective than any part on its own or combined with other parts.”

Here’s what that means.

As an example, lycopene is an extract that is taken from tomato plants. It has beneficial effects on the heart. While modern scientists have deduced the healing powers of lycopene by itself, they’ve forgotten that in its natural state, it is merely one component part of the tomato. Within a tomato, other chemicals and minerals balance the lycopene, potentiating and making this heart-healthy compound more effective when consumed within a whole tomato rather than in an isolate.

the medicines in your backyard

That’s not to discount science, however: there are some people who can utilize lycopene but are allergic to tomatoes. In such cases, the extracts have their benefits. Pharmacology is the “younger sibling” of herbalism, and the two should always complement each other.

When delving into herbalism, I recommend following the motto of the U.S. Army Special Forces medics, for helping others and for taking care of yourself:

Primum non nocere: “First, I shall do no harm.”

With herbs and wildcrafting (the gathering of herbs from the woods and fields), it’s always better to err on the side of caution. I highly recommend a course of some kind in plant identification or about the basics of herbalism taught by a certified master herbalist. I also recommend a good Peterson’s Field Guide to identify the flora of the geographic locale of where you reside. Especially regarding mushrooms!

Although ink prints and pictures are informative, nothing can substitute for a good guide that has clear color photographs, except an instructor who points out each plant to you by hand, in person. Again, especially regarding mushrooms, color photos only! Those guys can really put the “whammy” on you if you make even a tiny mistake.

Another reason for a colored guide is that some plants are either poisonous or toxic to the touch. An example is Lupine which holds plenty of alkaloids that can be absorbed through the skin. We’re just going to skim the surface and give you some basic ideas. Bottom line: don’t pick or eat anything until you know exactly what it is.

A field full of lupine.

The basics of finding those medicines in your backyard

The flora I’m going to suggest for you are common forms, and most of them grow not only throughout the U.S. and North America but also live in fairly arid areas.

From a survival perspective: you want to know what’s on your property, but you don’t necessarily want to harvest what’s on it. You want to forage in the woods or out in the open fields. The reason? Don’t use up the supplies on your own property, especially as they’ll reproduce. You also want to learn to save some seeds from these plants, just in case you ever have severe flooding or fires that might ruin a crop for a season.

When you’re wildcrafting, don’t grab all of the plants in an area. Leave the biggest and hardiest of the plants on their own to live. Take enough for your needs of making herbal medicine for yourself. Don’t over harvest or waste any of it.

I also advise gathering your herbs and plants for the day in paper bags. Sometimes the plastic bags can leach chemicals into the herb or cause reactions to occur while you’re carrying your herbs around, unsuspectingly.

As well, get yourself a pair of good work gloves, either cloth or leather, to protect your hands. Be aware of fauna in the areas you intend to pick your plants. Bees and hornets do make nests underground, and it would behoove you to “look before you pluck!” There’s always poison oak, ivy, and sumac to contend with, as well as briars that can damage unprotected limbs.

(Do you know what the four levels of disaster are? Check out our free QUICKSTART Guide to find out.)

Let’s lay out some that I have on my property that are almost certain to be on yours as well.

Yarrow (Achille millefolium)

the medicines in your backyard
Yarrow

While it can be used as an anti-inflammatory, its best attribute is its use in wound healingJust a nice-to-know fact: it draws its scientific name from Achilles, the famous warrior of ancient Greece, who used to give first-aid to his fellow warriors with the plant.

Yarrow is also used for neurological conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis. It has anti-spasmodic effects that can help those with irritable bowel syndrome. It can be taken internally as tea, and to heal wounds, the leaves can be placed directly on the injury. Peripheral vasoconstriction occurs at the site. If your yarrow has been dried, moisten the leaves first.

Self-Heal (Prunella vulgaris)

Prunella vulgaris

This is a strange little flowering plant with purple petals and a sort of “barrel-shaped” center that grows really close to the ground. This can help in a poultice (always moisten first!) for deep tissue wounds, just as its name suggests.

It can be found in shady places out of direct sunlight, in cooler areas, especially along forest edges. It has long been used on lacerations and inflamed mucosa of the mouth or when a person has enlarged glands in the throat, such as goiter. It also helps with anxiety.

This can also be taken as a tea or as a tincture of 1-5 drops. The tea can be taken internally or used externally on a wound, and the plant has long been used in TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine).

Women who suffer from breast maladies, such as swollen breasts or sore nipples, cysts, or mastitis, can make a massage oil for these conditions out of almond oil infused with either fresh or dried self-heal flowers. Keep it for 14 to 21 days at 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and ladies can alleviate those pains with this homemade infused-oil remedy. The oil can also help those who’ve suffered painful bruises or impacts on their muscles at work or in sports.

Butter and Eggs (Linaria vulgaris)

Linaria vulgaris

Another name for this easily-spotted plant is yellow toadflax. Introduced into the U.S. from Europe, it spread throughout the country and all over Canada, too. It’s between 1 to 2 feet tall with a light-yellow flower with a dark-yellow center…resembling a sunny-side-up egg. Bees, larger insects, and hummingbirds use their pollen and nectar. It has a slight toxicity to mammals because of glycoside content, so it’s not to be taken internally in large quantities.

The limit is two teaspoons per day of dried plant and taken as a tea.

It also has tannic acid and choline, as well as Vitamin C. It’s used for constipation and, conversely, to “solidify” diarrhea. It’s also good for hemorrhoids, as a diuretic (makes you urinate), and as a tonic for the liver. Brewed as a tea and cooled, it can be soaked onto a cloth or compress and then applied to an eye for an eyewash.

For  hemorrhoids: chop up the plant, and make a one part plant to about ten parts of olive oil, coconut oil for a salve. Again, heat this mixture to 100 degrees F for about two weeks to completely infuse the flower into the oil.

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

This guy is one of my favorite plants. They really thrive in almost “barren” soil and can survive in some extremely dry, desert-like conditions. It grows to be six feet tall or higher, and it has very broad, key-lime green leaves at the base. They’re “hairy,” and they can reach about a foot in length while their vertical stem grows up thick and straight. From this stem, it sprouts a lot of yellow flowers about the size of a dime.

It was imported in the early 1700s to the United States specifically to cultivate it for its medicinal qualities. It loves sandy soils that are dry and have gravel.

Oil extracted from the flowers is used for earaches, eczema (a type of rash on the skin), and other external aids. Teas from the flowers and from the leaves are used for coughs and lung ailments. With the tea for a cough, or sore throat, take a dozen of the flowers and steep them as a tea for about 15 minutes, and then drink it. The flowers are optimal, but the leaves can be used, as well, and for respiratory infections, the leaves can be smoked/inhaled.

Important Note!  We’ve been mentioning the teas for these herbs. When you begin the process of making tea, after boiling the water, take it off the heat and let it sit for 1-2 minutes. You don’t want to put your herbs into boiling water. It “boils” the cells and decreases the herb’s effectiveness. Let the temperature go down below a boil, and then add your herb.

Goldenrod

Canada (Solidago canadensis)and Common (Solidago spp.)are excellent for use in remedies for the respiratory, digestive, and urinary systems. It’s very fragrant, with a lot of resin in the leaves, smelling something like balsam wood.

All species of goldenrod can be used as medicine, and they are easily identified.

Note of caution! Always differentiate from Ragwort, Staggerweed…all in the Senecio genus, and they’re deadly toxic, damaging livers of livestock and people with pyrrolizidine alkaloids…taking months to show sometimes in signs and symptoms!    

Goldenrods flower in the late summer/early autumn. They’re “magnets” for bees and insects of all types. Use the leaves and the flowers to make medicines. Dry them out, and you can make a tea (infusion) of 1 to 2 teaspoons of dried leaves and flowers per cup of water, up to 3 times per day.

It’s a diuretic, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial. It also promotes diaphoresis (sweating), and externally, that tea can be used as an astringent to clean up skin and wounds. Internally, it fights problems in the urinary tract, lungs, and gastrointestinal system. It can also be used to bring relief to edema (swelling), kidney stones, and gout.

Once again, the tea can be used in a wash or as a poultice to treat wounds, sores, lacerations, and burns, and its antimicrobial actions will help speed up healing.

Milk thistle (Silybum marianum)

This plant has a chemical in it called Silymarin, a powerful antioxidant that is extracted from the seeds of the plant. Traditional uses center around liver and gallbladder treatments and also to aid with cirrhosis, hepatitis, and jaundice.

Okay, I know this sounds exciting. Here’s the “kicker” with this stuff. The power is in the seeds, and milk thistle has been proven in studies to actually lengthen telomeres. In case you aren’t familiar with them, telomeres are “caps” on the end of our chromosomes, and the amount of times they are able to split constitutes the course of a person’s aging and life.

For more on this, I highly recommend watching the YouTube videos of Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn. Her three-part series on telomeres (which she won the Nobel Prize for when she discovered them) is fantastic.

Milk thistle seeds can be tinctured. The best tincture is in pure grain alcohol, 98% alcohol, such as Everclear. There are two advantages to this. First, maximum extraction of the components. Secondly, the tincture will never freeze because of the obscenely-low freezing point of pure alcohol.

Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.)

Hawthorn is a tree, and it takes about three years for it to produce its berries. Those berries are worth their weight in gold. They are cardiotonic, with proven powers to strengthen hearts and help them recover from diseases or the ravages of aging. All parts of the plant are used medicinally: the leaves, flowers, berries, and bark. It first became widespread in use in the Roman Empire around the time of the birth of Christ.

The medicine can help with high blood pressure, atherosclerosis (plaque buildup in the arteries), and angina (pain in the chest that happens when the heart isn’t receiving adequate oxygen). It causes smooth-muscle dilation in the coronary arteries, allowing more blood flow into the heart. It also strengthens the contraction of the heart muscles, as well as improves the heart rate, and aids in the transmission of the nerves and nervous system. The berries can be steeped in a tea or eaten as a fruit. All of the parts mentioned earlier can be tinctured.

Pine needle tea

You make this easily, just by steeping pine tree needles in hot water. The tea stays transparent or picks up a slightly-greenish tint. Eastern White Pine is highly sought after for this tea and mass-produced.

CAUTION! You must be 100% certain of the type of tree and its needles!

Toxic conifers (pines) include the following: Lodgepole (Shore) pine, common juniper, Ponderosa pine, Monterey cypress, Common Yew, Australian pine, and Norfolk Island pine are all examples of pine species that are toxic to humans.

Once you’ve “cleared” your pine and know for certain it is not in the list of toxic types, making tea is simple. Take about 1/2 cup of pine needles, and use a water ratio to your preference (1 to 3 cups of water). I like it strong, so I use about a cup and a half.

Boil the water, take it off for about three minutes, and then let it steep for 5 to 15 minutes…the longer, the better. When it cools, don’t heat it up again. Drink it cold, like iced tea. The longer you steep, the stronger the tea. You can put stuff in it, like honey, sugar, or lemon, but try it “straight up” first…you might find you like it that way, as I do.

Pine needle tea is an excellent source of vitamin C. Two robust, strong cups will more than exceed the puny, ineffective “60 mg” dosage that is the RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) for Vitamin C. On a personal note, you may wish to read the writings of Dr. Linus Pauling, another Nobel Prize winner, for his work on Vitamin C. It’s a water-soluble vitamin: whatever your body doesn’t need, it will excrete in the urine.

When the substance hits the fan, you’ll need to provide Vitamin C for yourself and your family to prevent scurvy and other degenerative illnesses. Pine trees can be found all over the place.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

Dandelion can be eaten in its entirety: the flower, stem, and leaves, as well as the root. It is so crammed full of vitamins and minerals as to defy belief. Extremely high in Vitamins A and C, it can be eaten raw in a salad, or the leaves can be steamed and then eaten like spinach.

Dandelion root is an excellent diuretic, keeping you from taking on water and bloat. The best time to harvest these roots is in October/November. By that time, the flower will pretty much have died off. You can do what I do: make yourself some little flags to place on the ground beside the dandelions. Then when the flower is gone, you can just dig right where the flags are and find your roots.

Nice to know, but a little advanced for this presentation. There’s a plant called Lomatium (Lomatium dissectum), very common in the Western States, also called prairie biscuitroot. It is one of the most powerful natural antivirals in the herbal world. As a matter of fact, the Indian Tribes made it through the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic…one that killed 50 million people worldwide…and this plant was part of the reason. Dandelion tincture offsets its effects, as 25% of people who use Lomatium develop a (nonpermanent) rash on their chests. An equal amount of Dandelion root tincture taken concurrently will offset it.

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There are a host of medicines in your backyard. This is just a taste.

We’ve covered an introduction to some of the most common, readily-found herbs that you and your family can use. For more on food, I recommend the book Eat the Weeds by Ben Charles Harriswritten back in 1971I suggest this work because it takes all of the herbs and weeds that are edible and gives specific nutritional charts for all of them. That alone is worth its weight in gold.

This small primer will hopefully start you in the right direction. If you’re looking for an even more in-depth look at the topic, may I recommend The Organic Prepper’s Herbal Skills Intensive.

Success with self-sufficiency can be obtained by learning about the environment that you’re a part of – the bigger biome. Times are coming, mark my words, when we will have to rely upon ourselves and our knowledge and skills. Wwhen the trucks stop rolling, the dollar is worth nothing, and all of the stores have been emptied, you are going to wish you knew more about herbalism.

Prioritize and allocate some time for studies in this area of foraging. Let these plants we’ve covered here be the beginning of a preparation that can help you in those times to come. Guess what? It can also be a type of exploratory adventure you can share with your family and others. Take care of one another, and pray without ceasing. JJ out!

What’s growing at your place?

Have you identified any natural medicine or food growing wild near you? What did you find? How do you use it? Share your experiences in the comments.

About Jeremiah Johnson

 Jeremiah Johnson is the nom de plume of a retired Green Beret of the U.S. Army Special Forces. Mr. Johnson is also a Gunsmith and a Master Herbalist. He graduated from the Special Forces course at SERE (survival, evasion, resistance, and escape) School and is an expert in small unit tactics, survival, and disaster-preparedness. He lives in a cabin in the Rocky Mountains of Western Montana.

 

Is There Medicine Growing in Your Backyard?
Jeremiah Johnson

Jeremiah Johnson

Jeremiah Johnson is the nom de plume of a retired Green Beret of the U.S. Army Special Forces.  Mr. Johnson is also a Gunsmith and a Master Herbalist.  He graduated from the Special Forces course at SERE (survival, evasion, resistance, and escape) School, and is an expert in small unit tactics, survival, and disaster-preparedness.  He lives in a cabin in the Rocky Mountains of Western Montana.

Leave a Reply

  • Wonderful information!
    I have dandelion and plantain in my yard/area, and we do have pine trees in our district, but I’m not sure of the type, so I would be very hesitant to try them in a tea.
    I use dandelion leaves fresh in salads and also dry the leaves for tea.
    I would love to harvest milk thistle, having used this supplement for many years, but we don’t have thistles in Hawaii to my knowledge, or at least not in my region.
    I used mullein for suspected COVID back in March 2020, and found it good, but again, I was using a purchased supplement – I will be looking out for that one now, or even interested in cultivating it (as I did with my French dandelion).
    Thank you for a fascinating article! Wonderful topic!

    • Dear Winterleaf,
      Thanks for sharing the finds in your backyard. Regarding Mullein (a nice-to-know thing), it doesn’t cultivate well, nor does it transplant. It grows in almost waste/dingy/”Road-Warrior”-type areas…the sides of roads, or a mound of dirt, or junkyards, etc.

      I tried to transplant one once, and it didn’t turn out too well. Their taproots are very, very close to the surface of the soil, but your best ones are going to grow both sporadically, or in clusters you’ll find a “giant” or two, surrounded by other, smaller ones.

      Their seeds are very small. If you want them, find a big one and place a container/”trap” around the stalk to catch some…and you can then take them to your place and give it a try.

      Have a good day, and thanks for the input!

      J. J.

      • Jeremiah,
        Mullein is a biannual and I have been successful transplanting it when about 6 inches in diameter. May be able to do so larger but have not tried. It develops a tap root so you must get a good shovel size plug and place it intact at its new home.

    • Books to identify trees and plants are common and it’s very much worth it having one. Or half a dozen. Once you get interested in the subject, it can be hard to stop, because you begin to realise the uses of many plants and trees growing wild in your area.

      Mullein and other herbal remedies for cough will usually make a cough better, but most of the time don’t do much to remedy the underlying viral infection. Vitamins will help, and a few herbal remedies have antiviral properties, usually effective only with some viruses. A good herbal book should help. Traditional older ones are often better than modern ones, because many modern ones have been edited to remove anything that could be remotely dangerous, which also has removed many effective remedies. Obviously, when trying any remedy, use common sense and reasonable caution, especially if it’s the first time you try it.

  • I live within the Sabine National Forest and did a survey on my 1/2 acre …. I found 97 edible / medicinal plants. This is the most bio-diverse area that I have lived in .
    Good read. A good referance on-line is Herbal resource , or plantident.net , both have great color photographs , or for Texas locally Foraging Texas website. For herbal remedies two of the books I use … Natural healing by Humbert Santillo …
    Indian herbology of North America by Alma R. Hutchens.
    I reccomend getting a journal (un-lined) and write about ALL that you find , this will help you remember it plus this makes for one book to carry not a whole library.
    I have been foraging and using herbal medicine since 1967.

    • Dear Mark,
      Awesome recommendations! I have to check those out. I’m especially interested in that one by Hutchens.
      You know who had a great book on the healing of the Indian Tribes? Guy by the name of Michael Weiner, who wrote “Earth Medicine, Earth Foods,” although he goes by another name now….Michael Savage. He has a master’s in botany and a Ph.D. in traditional medicine.

      The Indian Tribes here (the Salish, aka “Blackfeet,” and the Kootenai) have a lot of works available on the reservation, and the county extension offices here in Montana. I think maybe I need to do a story on their exceptional methods sometime.

      Thanks for the idea, and the comments, sir. I’ll be looking both of those books up. Awesome suggestions about the journal, too.

      Sincerely,
      J. J.

    • Sure thing, 1stMarine!
      (By the way: always good to read anything you write! Great comments, too…wish you lived close to my AO!)
      Hang in there, brother!

      J. J.

      • J.J.
        Thank you kind sir!

        Yeah, there are a number of TOP commenters (Matt in OK, ~Jim, InTheBooniesTX, Whydah, Namelus, ClergyLady, many others and of course our TOP hostess with the mostest, Daisy) whom I think if we all lived in a close Geo-physical area, community, we would all be well taken care of as a community and secure.
        Heck, between the two of them, I think Daisy and ClergyLady could take over the world!

        • 1st Marine,
          I’m under the firm opinion that if we make it through what’s coming, then eventually, we’ll all “find,” or link up with one another. The toughest challenge’ll be to stay true to our character, and to one another. If we do that, and pray without ceasing, we can make it through!
          Hang in there, watch your six, and thank you for all you do and contribute!

          Sincerely,

          J. J.

          • JJ: Truth! I agree that if we make it through what’s coming, we’ll all find each other somehow. Funny how it works, but I like that it does!
            Agreed that staying true to our character, ourselves, and each other, and praying without ceasing will help us make it through!!!

  • wonderful, practical info thank you JJ! Many plants have medicinal properties if one knows how to use them. In Africa this was common practice until western medicines took over. I have been using a cure for skin cancer (and warts etc) for may years on humans and animals, the tree Kigelia africana, make a tincture of the fruit and apply on area 3/4 times a day until gone – usually 1-3 months.

  • Dear Kurt,
    Thank you for the kudos, sir! I really appreciate it!

    You’re “spot on,” about Africa. Holds for Central and South America, too. Treasure-troves of wonderful herbs and plants that could potentially alleviate much suffering throughout the world.

    I jotted down the Kigelia africana; I have a need for something such as that. Any ideas where I’d find it? Probably have to special order it from some health-food concern. Maybe you have some ideas. I’ll check back here, if you can reply.

    Your comment makes me think of “Medicine Man,” that flick with Sean Connery. Although fiction, the premise and points of the movie are sound regarding the destruction of such invaluable plant-medicines.

    Thanks again, and have a good day!

    J. J.

  • A slightly unpleasant plant you might want to know about if you are in the Rockies: Buttercup flowers. Cute little yellow flowers. If they come in contact with your skin, you will have a phototropic reaction with the UV rays from the sun. In a day or so you will have burned skin as if you touched a hot burner or broiler rack on an electric stove. Not painful, but scary looking. Took a trip to our family doc and a dermatologist when my wife came back to sea level after a trip to the high country (Breckenridge) in Colorado one summer.

    • Dear Marc M,
      Thank you for that information. That’s a pretty serious condition to happen from something so innocuous in appearance! I never knew that one; thanks for sharing it!

      J. J.

  • A neat resource I’ve enjoyed using is an app, Picture This. Download it to your phone, (there is a free and premium version), take pictures of plants in your yard in which you are curious, and it lets you know all kinds of information about each plant, including its culinary/medicinal uses. We live in a wooded area, with seemingly infinite varieties of wild plants and flowers. Amazing how much food and medicine are steps from our back door!

  • An excellent article & starting point for beginners. The sap from dandelions will remove a wart eventually. Tulsi (Holy Basil) from India is good for respiratory issues. There are several varieties: 2 of which are never cooked, but torn & added at the end of cooking a dish.

    • Thank you, good sir! I didn’t know that about the dandelions! That’s really wild. I guess you break off that stalk…that milky-white sap, is that what you mean? Wild stuff (literally and figuratively!)

      Thanks for the input, and you have a good one!

      J. J.

  • Love this!!
    Excellent information
    Having learned about plantain, I was able i immediately clean n treat a dog paw injury at a dog park.
    Rinsed the leaves n wound with water bottle, wiped the wound, then wrapped her paw with the leaves after applying coconut oil to help keep them in place in the car n used gauze bandage to secure. Who of us doesn’t have these supplies in our vehicles? LOL!! Easy, quick n worked beautifully.
    Please keep these articles coming. Thank you!!

  • Dear K8,
    That is awsome! Truly, you performed “snake-medicine,” as we used to say in SF with our medics!
    Additionally, the treasure here is that you see the importance of taking care of our four-legged and winged friends who need us to step up to the plate at times.
    It brings to mind an incident I had with a dog after someone hit him with a car.
    As such, you’ve inspired me to write an article on it, and the importance of winning the battle with the weapons you have on hand…flying by the “seat of your pants,” so to speak.
    I will dedicate the article to you, K8.
    Thank you for the compliments and support: they mean much to me.
    You keep up that great work, and thanks for all you’ve commented here.
    Yours,
    J. J.

  • If people grew flax then they would have not only the useful seeds, but they could also use the stalks to make fibers for thread which could be used with hemp fiber thread to make a very durable cloth with a loom.

  • Good comments going on here!
    A book I have is The Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine.
    Good pictures for ID and details about each plant.

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