Herb or weed? That’s in the eye of the beholder

Can you really use wild herbs from the wayside to make herbal remedies? We asked two herbal experts. Their advice? Just open your eyes.

  • December 2018

  • Reading time: 7'

    Reading time: 7'

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Herb or weed? That’s in the eye of the beholder

Can you really use wild herbs from the wayside to make herbal remedies? We asked two herbal experts. Their advice? Just open your eyes.

What was it like when you were growing up? When I had a sore throat as a child, my mother immediately served me sage tea. I knew just what to do: gurgle. Marsh-mallow plant was a cough suppressant, and for muscle aches we rubbed in arnica schnapps. It helped. Jutta Tappeiner Ebner and Renate De Mario Gamper teach about the power of herbs and they have many more natural recipes to share. To start with they have selected four particularly effective wild herbs: ground elder, St. John's wort, lady’s bedstraw and mugwort. Each herb occur naturally and yet I never would have guessed their uses nor the unique backstories behind them... You do need to believe in them though, and that’s a fact.

Will it go away? We've already felt a few drops and the wind is already starting to pick up. At the St. Hippolyt Chapel, a truly magical place high above Lana, we suddenly feel at the mercy of mother nature this Saturday afternoon. Our instructors, the herbal experts, begin to giggle. “A cure for stormy weather? We’ve got an herb for that haven’t we Renate?" says Jutta mysteriously. Maybe there is a true power to these women: They’re both wearing a dirndl, but their dress isn’t all the mystical. Their hair whips wildly in the wind. Perhaps that’s it, it must be their apparent wildness: the way they move is somehow fearless, yet down to earth. Witches perhaps? "If the term means women who have a great knowledge of nature, then we agree," says Renate as Jutta nods agreement.

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Greenery spills forth from their baskets. Many would call them weeds but that’s a matter of perspective. They’ve picked a few things on the way to the chapel and collected others from their garden. As a group, we want to become very familiar with the wild herbs that can be freely collected along the trails - especially the healthy ones and those for beauty.

Jutta and Renate have chosen four herbs in particular. The group smiles insecurely as they are named. I myself have only used St. John's wort in the past. "It's enough to know even a handful of herb varieties, but to know them through and through," the experts explain encouragingly to their students. “What we have to say today won’t seem strange at all, because it's ancient knowledge stored in our cells." That is, if we know how to listen.

The herbal experts stand before us and begin instructing. Jutta pulls a tuft of green from her basket: “Ground elder" she says, "in my garden it grows in clumps and masses. Some of you might be familiar with it..." 

Ground elder: a powerful herb for treating rheumatism

Early every morning, Jutta heads into the garden of her Bacherhof farm in Nalles/Nals near Bolzano/Bozen. There she cuts some stems and mixes them into a smoothie (see recipe below). “The one time I don’t make it there will be complaints around the breakfast table," she says. Ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria) was a popular remedy for rheumatism in folk medicine. The Romans used it to treat gout. “Ground elder reduces acidity and stimulates the metabolism," says Jutta Tappeiner Ebner. It contains many vital substances, vitamins and trace elements such as zinc and iron. But that's not why her husband and daughter are so fond of this special breakfast concoction. Jutta pulls a bottle out of the basket and lets us try sample it. The deep green smoothie is velvety on the tongue, it tastes fresh, a bit like apple and lemon, and not at all as bitter as the ‘parsleyesque’ taste of ground elder would suggest.

"The important thing is to get the right herb," says Jutta. She holds up a stem high in the air. It is triangular; the leaves are twice triangular. Jutta Tappeiner Ebner uses the ground elder fresh as a salad vegetable or as spinach; when dried, it is crushed into base powder and base salt.

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Lady’s Bedstraw: the herb for weight loss

Meanwhile Renate ties a delicate plant around her hair. "You'll find this everywhere," she says, "it sticks to the hiking boots and clothes." The class seems familiar with it, but it’s nevertheless easy to miss if you don't know it: Lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum) has yellow flowers and smells of honey. “Bees in the Alpine pasture love it,” says Renate. The herb is said to have lymphatic, skin and blood cleansing properties. “We both like to make deodorant from lady’s bedstraw herb," says Renate. The women brew a strong infusion of high-proof alcohol and bedstraw, add a few drops of an essential oil, and voilà. 

An herbal smoothie?

Jutta Tappeiner Ebner shares her breakfast recipe with us.

Ingredients: Ground elder, bedstraw, sorrel, lady's mantle, apple juice (or juice of a pressed apple), lemon.

Mix all ingredients in a ratio of two-thirds herbs and one-third liquid in a mixer (half a litre container). But make sure to drink plenty of water! "All substances dissolved in the body must be washed out again," says Jutta Tappeiner Ebner.

The promise of lady’s bedstraw since time immemorial is far more thrilling: "It's considered THE herbal secret to slimming down," reveals Renate. "In the 16th century, the herbal healer John Gerard recommended a soup made from Lady’s Bedstraw to stay slim," says Renate. "You never told me that before," Jutta protests with a laugh. The women have been working together for four years. They met at an herbal seminar in fact. It was there that they decided to collect together ancient herbal knowledge and to combine it with the knowledge from modern phytotherapy. "The world hasn't stopped learning." And yet the pair are still attached to the ancient rituals with which our ancestors relieved pain, drove away demons, and satisfied the gods. “We’re looking for the right keys to fit the times," says Jutta. 

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St. John's wort: A wound remedy for body and soul

Every summer solstice, Jutta and Renate meet up with their friends and burn magic wood. It's like a party in olden times. “We burn it all in a great fire: worries, cares and disease," says Jutta. St. John's wort (Hypericon perforatum) is the key ingredient. The women attempt to light a fire to chase away the threatening thunderstorm fast approaching. "St. John's wort and dill make thunderstorm still," recites Jutta from ancient writing. Renate gives it a try but the wind blows the flame out time and again. "A real witch could do it," the group of women chide. Perhaps it’s not the wind after all?

For Jutta, St. John's wort is first and foremost a "natural sun therapy." Taken as tincture, this remedy has an effect on the soul. In the Middle Ages, farmers hung the herb in the stable and behind the front door to ward off evil spirits. “These days we have other demons like melancholy and loneliness," says Jutta. Then for a moment doubt creeps in: “Wait, do I even have the right herb here? Have a look, will you please, Renate?" We all huddle together for a closer look and discover the many tiny holes in the leaves: It’s as if tiny needles have punctured them. This is how it should be, says Jutta: “They say the devil himself perforated the leaves in anger because people had discovered this herb."  

Jutta and Renate’s Medicine Cabinet

● St. John's wort oil: effective against herpes, shingles and other viruses, inflammations and diseases of the veins
● Nasturtium vinegar: a natural antibiotic
● Elderberry juice: strengthens the immune system
● Syrup from ribwort plantain: helps with catarrhs of the airways, relieves irritations and coughs.
● Chamomile and sage: this combo is a true jack-of-all-trades; chiefly has an anti-inflammatory effect.
● Lavender: alleviates skin impurities, itching or fungal diseases
● Pitch ointment: an ointment for sprains, lower back pain, fever blisters, splinters in the skin.

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Along with her mother, a midwife, Jutta used to fetch St. John's wort every year from the Vinschgau Sonnenberg mountain range. “We had a truly special place there.” Here they mixed tips, flowers, seeds and buds with quality olive oil until a blood-red tincture was formed. To this day, Jutta still uses it to dab scars that heal nicely and to treat dry skin. She pulls a bottle of blood-red oil out of the basket. “You’re not going to believe it, but this oil is 15 years old!" We take a disbelieving whiff but the mixture doesn’t smell at all rancid. “I hope we all fair so well in 15 years," grins Jutta. Tip: Try it first in your hair - mixed with hot water and an egg yolk, St. John's wort gives undyed hair a youthful sheen.

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Lemonade from mugwort

Plopping ice cubes into a jug of water is quickly done, but if you have a few more minutes try out this useful tip: Take a sprig of mugwort, work it with the rolling pin, then let the sprig soak in apple juice until it's balsamic, wormwood aroma unfolds. Then pour in cool water. "This is what we call our herbal lemonade," says Renate De Mario Gamper.

Mugwort: The warming herb for ladies

Two tourists have now offered to have a go at starting the fire. These gentlemen too do their best to spite the wind. This allows Renate to dedicate her attention to the mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), an herb that grows everywhere beneath our feet. In addition to Europe, it was also used by the shamans of America or in Chinese medicine as a remedy. "It is the mother of all herbs. If you only want to use one herb, this is the one," says Renate. For instance, Hildegard von Bingen never cooked a roast goose without mugwort. Moreover, Roman legionnaires stuffed a few leaves of mugwort into their shoes before long marches “to prevent fatigue." Does it work on Alpine tours? I intend to try it.  

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Mugwort has been recognised for centuries as a digestive stimulant and antispasmodic, but it is chiefly known as a warming lady’s herb. Mugwort supposedly regulates the female cycle and stimulates labour. In the past it was used during puerperium to expel the placenta. Every year in June, women tied a mugwort belt around their hips and jumped over the solstice fire to promote their fertility. Mugwort is an herb with a powerful effect. The Teutons called it "Machtwurz", the most powerful of all herbs. "A few leaves will do because in general, wild herbs have a much stronger effect than cultivated plants," Renate tells us. For fever, flower allergies and during pregnancy, the use of mugwort is therefore taboo.

The men give up trying to light the fire. Renate's takes over once more, digging into her pocket to retrieve a piece of charcoal. Finally the little pile of twigs burns, and for a time it remains dry on the St. Hippolyth hill.

Text: Gabriele Crepaz
Transcreation: Covi, Wurzer & Partner - Die Sprachdienstleister
Photos: Ivo Corrà

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Back when doctors were wise women...

Plants were the only medicine for a long time. Many findings are being used again today. Here a small timeline of folk medicine.

2,000 B.C.: In Sumer and Egypt, the first recipes with medicinal plants were recorded. The gods received many sacrifices.

600 B.C.: Celts and Teutons pay close attention to the right times. The time of the year and day during which herbs are collected and consecrated becomes increasingly important. The healing powers of herbs truly unfold in magical rituals.

500 B.C.: Greeks and Romans are considered the founders of Western medicine. For the first time, the properties of medicinal plants are investigated. Galen’s four-humours theory defines health as a balanced mixture of four bodily fluids.

500 A.D.: Christianity demonizes "pagan" healing knowledge. The signature theory of Paracelsus prevails: God has created an herb against every disease; a characteristic (shape, smell, colour, taste, etc.) indicates the healing power of the plant. Outside of the monasteries, women are the practitioners of medicine. This makes them powerful, but not always happy...

1500 A.D.: The chemist Friedrich Sertürner discovers the first herbal active ingredient: morphine. This is the birth of modern pharmaceutical medicine. Healing women are often branded as witches and burned.

19th and 20th centuries: Herbal medicine is rediscovered. Above all, pastors (Kneipp, Weidinger, etc.) unearth old knowledge and make it popular once more.