On a late November visit to o ur VA farm, we find birds are feeding on the banquet of seeds and fruits which we have spread for them by our cultivation of grasses, flowers and shrubs that are especially good for wildlife. The primary focus of management of our old farm has been to propagate and encourage plants which specifically benefit wildlife by providing the “four-fold way” of fruit, nectar, larval food, and cover. Yet I was surprised to realize that many of these same plants that benefit wildlife have had a long history of human use as medicinal plants. My attention was drawn to this fact by a chance encounter in the local library with a book entitled “Medicinal Plants of the Southern Appalachians” by Patricia Kyritsi Howell. This little book really excited me since it offers additional reasons for encouraging the growth of certain wildlife-friendly plants. It gives a short history of human use of 45 plants, of which about 30 are found on our farm.
I will give five examples of our “backyard” plants that both benefit wildlife and are also traditional herbal medicines for humans. One of my favorites is a weedy small tree, devil’s walking stick , Aralia (see photo). The flowers and fruits are very attractive to wildlife; forest gaps or edges are necessary to provide enough sun for this plant sometimes called the “toothache tree.” This reveals a traditional use to treat pain from rheumatism, tooth ache and ear ache. A much more famous cure-all in the same family is ginseng , Panax (see photo) which has bright red berries that are eaten by forest birds. This plant has a long hi story of use in the Orient where it is valued as a general tonic against a wide array of symptoms. The fact that the ro ot of ginseng can resemble the human form adds to its mystical qualities. Black cherry , Prunus (see photo) is a common small tree in VA that produces berries that are avidly consumed by birds, and provides valuable cover along fence and hedge rows. I do remember in my childhood eating cherry drops for sore throat and the bark and fruit have long been used to relieve coughs, fevers and sore throat among other things. A plant that is often falsely accused of being a medic al problem rather than a cure is goldenrod , Solidago (see photo with a moth gathering nectar). However the leaves and flowers are a traditional remedy for upper respiratory inflammation and congestion. One of my favorite “weeds” around our farm is jewelweed , Impatiens (see photo) which requires no cultivation and thrives in damp places in the sun. It is a very popular nectar source for bees and hummingbirds and is a folk remedy for the rash caused by poison ivy.
Have you ever wondered why plants contain chemicals that can be used as medicines? In my view this is primarily a result of a long period of evolution in which plants and their herbivores have been in conflict and plants have developed numerous ways to defend themselves chemically. Many of these chemicals that seem to be specifically directed against insect attack (such as nicotine) also have strong effects on human physiology . When you consider the myriad of natural chemical compounds, this cross-over effect is partly coincidental, and partly related to the similarity of biochemical processes in all animal life, and the differential effects of dose (a poison in high doses can be a medicine at low doses). Just remember that some “natural” substances such as ricin from beans are among the most toxic materials known, so be wary of consuming any non-domesticated plants . I will leave it to you to decide if you believe in the various medicinal properties attributed to these plants. I must admit I am highly sk eptical of the serious uti lization of herbal medicine in the absence of adequate scientific testing and of standardization of doses. But it somehow seems appropriate that we remain in touch with the knowledge of our ancestors who had to rely on medicinal plants for much of their limited ability to treat various medical problems in former times. I also like the idea that if there are future periods of disruption of modern socie ty for whatever reasons, those who retain a closeness to the land and traditional knowledge of herbal plants may benefit themselves and their families. Of course there are also likely to be many new drugs to be found in plants and traditional cures provide clues to such valuable chemicals.
Bill Dunson, Englewood, FL & Galax, VA