February in the UK is still a very wintery time, but some very early signs of Spring slowly start to show. The days are slowly lengthening and the sight of snowdrops give us renewed hope that warmer, sunnier days are on their way.
Still a time for roots under the cold frosted earth, we see some low-growing leaves taking the stage too, and in terms of foraging for medicinal plants we are very much looking at our boots this month to find plants that are cooling and moistening in quality.
Foraging is an ancient way to connect both with how our ancestors lived, the plants themselves and their healing, as well as the world around us, but it is best to do so in a safe and ethical way so please don’t set off before you’ve read and digested our article ‘A Guide to Safe and Sustainable Foraging’, also remembering to pick ‘above dog height’!
With that in mind, medical herbalist Kathie Bishop shares some of her favourite medicinal plants to harvest in the February wilds of the UK.
Chickweed (Stellaria media)
Little delicate Chickweed, so beloved of herbalists and eczema suffers everywhere, often its so overlooked when growing in the wild because it is so unassuming with its tiny cordate leaves and fine, white petalled flowers only a few millimetres across; growing in the cracks of the pavement in urban areas and low to the ground when on wastelands. Chickweed can start to shoot and grow in February.
Chickweed has traditional topical use in England for chronic skin conditions (1), due to its vitalistic qualities of being cold and moist (2). The rebel Jacobian herbalist Nicholas Culpeper, famous for publishing about the plant medicine of his day in English, thereby making it available to the masses for the first time, much at the displeasure of all the apothecaries which thrived on keeping their knowledge cloistered from the everyday person, classed plant medicine in this vitalistic way. He wrote that Chickweed is cold and moist in the third degree. This was on a scale from 1 to 4, where 1 denotes a mild identification with the described qualities and 4 being of the most extreme.
Actions of Chickweed include alterative, demulcent, vulernary, refrigerant (expelling excess heat), anti-itch and looking at Chickweed from a phytochemical analysis we see that key constituents include flavonoids, coumarins, saponin glycosides, vitamin C (1) and phytosterols (3). Its just great at relieving and cooling the inflammation of itchy skin conditions.
While it can be taken internally, it is mostly used for external skin preparations. Great choices are bruising a handful of the fresh plant inside an organic muslin to make a skin poultice, allowing the fresh juice to contact the skin; or using the fresh plant to make an ointment (sometimes called a salve or balm, which has the benefit of allowing the healing qualities of the plant to be captured for a longer time within the balm.
Dandelion leaves (Taraxacum officinalis folia)
As Winter moves through to early Spring, so does ours and the plants’ focus, from roots to leaves. In January we saw how this was a wonderful time to harvest Dandelion’s roots. In February, our focus can move slightly to above ground, where the basal rosette of ‘lion’s tooth’-shaped elongated leaves grow round the base of the stem.
Dandelion is part of the Asteraceae, or daisy, family. This is the same family that Marigold, Echinacea and Chamomile belong to, which are generally a very well tolerated family of plants, but in some cases can cause sensitivity in some individuals. If this is you, you’re likely know about it already.
The whole of the Dandelion plant is associated with eliminatory functions in the human body. Where the root has a greater affinity with the liver and the digestive tract, the leaf has more of an association with detoxification and elimination through the kidney, therefore of water soluble metabolites. Known as a diuretic, this makes it wonderful for flushing out the urinary tract as part of a mix to combat a urinary tract infection, or as part of a mix to address oedema. The good thing about Dandelion leaf as a diuretic is that it is full of potassium and magnesium, which unlike so many manufactured pharmaceutical diuretics which will at best be potassium sparing, at worst, potassium stripping, will gently nourish the body with those minerals. If you are wanting to work with Dandelion leaf to address a specific condition you have been told you need diuretics for, its best to work with a herbal practitioner.
The leaf is also strong bitter (2) meaning that it has an energetically downwards movement in the body. Bitter tastes also stimulate the appetite.
A great way to work with ethically foraged Dandelion leaf (making sure you’ve harvested from a dog free zone) would be to make a tea with the fresh leaves (3-4 teaspoons of cut leaf per cup) (1), or to eat as salad leaves or cooked as spinach (1).
Similarly to the root, it’s not to be taken in the presence of blocked biliary ducts (1).
Sweet violets (Viola odorata)
One of around 600 violet species in the world, Sweet Violet is low growing, both wild and cultivated, in shaded areas, and shares many of its qualities with other violet species (2). They flower twice in a year and their first flowering in early Spring is with flowers that have petals. These do not produce seed. However, when they flower again in the summer, with small flowers that have no petals, seed is produced (2).
Both the leaves and the flowers are used as medicine and are considered vitalistically cooling and moistening. With cooling remedies the best dosage form to use and make is considered to be fresh plant tinctures, however the dried herb can also be used to make infusions and syrups (2). Sweet Violet is vitalistically noted to be useful for ‘cooling the heart’ (2) which may make them useful in a case of unrequited love!
Traditionally used as an expectorant, where it would be helpful in bronchitis, cough, cold, and possibly asthma (1), this is where its use as a syrup may shine!
Culpeper reports that Sweet Violets may also be of use where there are hot swellings in the body (2), and this may explain why they reputedly have the action of being anti-tumour (3).
Sweet Violets are also a demulcent and a diaphoretic (3) meaning that they are mucilaginous, soothing and protecting, as well as promoting sweating by increasing peripheral circulation thereby breaking a fever and essentially cooling the body.
Violet flowers and leaves are also noted to be one of the ingredients in the traditional Norfolk Pudding where they were infused in hot milk. The milk was then strained and used to make a rice pudding (2).
Just a caution that large doses can have a laxative effect and may be emetic so please do take care!
Ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea)
A low growing and aromatic creeper, Ground Ivy is actually part of the mint or Lamiaceae family, rather being related to Ivy (Hedera helix), that you find growing up the the sides of buildings and trees.
It has a variety of folk or common names such as ale hoof and field balm, and is sometimes eaten as a salad green around the world. Ground Ivy starts to appear in February, though does not flower yet.
Medicinally the leaves, flowers and stems are used and it has a variety of actions in the upper respiratory tract which could be attributed to it being an aromatic plant.
Actions include decongestant and anti-catarrhal, as well as being a diuretic and mild cholagogue (2), and its primary use is for sinusitis and tinnitus that’s caused by congestion (2). It’s also reported to be an astringent for the lower digestive tract too! (1)
It can be taken as a tincture, but a nice way to take it would be as a tea infusion, using 1-2 teaspoons of the herb to a cup – allow to steep for 15 mins, having 1/2 to 1 cup a day (1).
Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria)
Queen of the Meadow, as Meadowsweet is sometimes known, starts to sprout around February. Often most well known for its clouds of creamy white flowers, sweet delicate smell and use in the digestive tract, this time of year Meadowsweet will only be starting to shoot and will have not yet flowered.
Native to the UK, Meadowsweet grows close to water and likes damp conditions. The leaves and stems, and flowers once they are out, are used medicinally, primarily for calming upper gastro-intestinal issues such as acid reflux, peptic ulcer, indigestion and gastrointestinal inflammation (3). Cooling and moistening in vitalistic quality, Meadowsweet is mucoprotective (3) and contains the aspirin-like salicylic acid, which has many actions in the body, including being anti-inflammatory, anti-rheumatic and an anti-coagulant. Its also helpful in a mix to bring down a high temperature (2). Other constituents include flavonoids, essential oil, phenolic glycosides (1).
It can be made into a tincture, though the easiest way to work with fresh Meadowsweet is to take it as a tea, with 1-2 teaspoons used per cup, infused for 15 minutes and then strained, taking 1/2 to 1 cup a day (1). Would combine well with Chamomile for gastric upset.
Some things to be aware of before working with Meadowsweet: its best not to self-dose if you are taking anticoagulant medication; and for people for whom aspirin causes skin rashes, care should be taken with Meadowsweet as it may have the same effect here. Some people may also find that high doses cause nausea (2).
- Bartram T. Bartram’s Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine. Constable and Robinson; 1998
- Hedley C, Shaw N. Plant Medicine: A collection of the teachings of herbalists Christopher Hedley & Non Shaw. Ed by Waddell G. 1st ed. Aeon; 2023
- Bone K, The Ultimate Herbal Compendium: A Desktop Guide for Herbal Prescribers. Phytotherapy Press; 2007.