Finding your medicine in your own backyard is easy and FUN, whether you’re a city dweller, a suburbanite, or plain country folk. Nearly anywhere I’ve been in the past 15 years, I could look down and around from practically the same spot (including right at this moment- from precisely where I am now standing), and see a fantastic handful of herbs!

For example, from my present position, I see dandelion, sweet violet, clover, plantain, a magnolia tree, a ginkgo tree, and I know right over there sits a burdock patch with plenty of yellow dock. A little further some golden rod and a garden with a big patch of yarrow grow. And it’s only April -in New York City!

Right in the middle of this great urban debacle, I have a bevy of herbs that nourish and heal. Other New York City herbs I’ve found include: willow bark, sassafras, shepherd’s purse, wild mustard, honeysuckle, red raspberry leaf, and chamomile (but never enough of that final little flower!)

These, all found in the larger city parks where the Parks Department claims tax revenue is too scarce to use pesticides. In smaller city patches (or really in any area of the United States), one might encounter more garden store variety pesticides. So, try for the larger parks near you, and ask your local officials about their pesticide policy. Small parts of Central Park, for example, like Shakespeare’s Garden and one other highly cultivated garden at the north end, The Conservatory, use what money is allotted for pesticide and fertilizer.

One big thrust of this article is self-empowerment. You CAN fill your own medicine chest with items YOU have found and created. Some good news is that you don’t have to take a bunch of classes or spend any substantial money or even much time learning these herbs. Identifying plants is a tricky and sometimes meticulous process, BUT some of them you already know.

So, let’s start out EASY…Any time between March and November, practically where ever you live (if it’s that time - go outside right now!) you are bound to see a dandelion!

Bright yellow in bloom, its sunshiney image correlates faithfully to how it, over time, can affect your own demeanor. Some say that this is because dandelion serves the liver and as any practitioner of Chinese medicine will tell you, the liver controls the emotions. Others relate it to the law of correspondances, which says that plants LOOK like what they are supposed to do.

Whatever your belief, the scientific research can’t be denied, showing the fabulous benefits of this humblest of weeds. The saw tooth leaves are chock full of vitamins A, C, K, as well as Potassium. Vitamin A regulates hormones, which can alter moods. The stem and taproot have a milky fluid, used for wound healing and skin disorders.

Willow bark contains salicylic acid; in fact the Latin name of the tree is Salix Alba, the very ingredient used in aspirin as a painkiller. By simply removing the bark, then creating an alcohol tincture (to be discussed in another article), you can have a homemade aspirin, of sorts. For the time being, you can simply dry your herbs and put a handful in a jar. Then pour boiling water over them, steep for 4 to 8 hours, refrigerate unused portion, and enjoy!! Also, many herbs like dandelion can be eaten directly out of the ground. Check your reference books before eating!

In general, barks, roots, and berries are typically gathered in the spring and/or the fall when the energy of the plant is either coming from or going to the leaves. This way, the ever-important plant energy is gathering in the branches- either on its way in or out. Spring roots have the freshness of new life, and in some cases, like with burdock, are full of their starches then.

Flowers are gathered whenever they are out and showing their glory. Leaves are gathered all through the growing season, with a couple of things in mind. If the plant is flowering, then most of the energy is concentrated in the flowers; however, I know some professional companies will pick something like dandelion when it is in flower, gathering the whole plant at once- flower, leaf, and root. Much of plant medicine is up for interpretation. (Don’t forget that doctors are in practice. The human body’s reactions to substances is so varied, that practically each case is different from the next. The same with herbal medicine- there are many ways to skin a willow tree!) Some leaves are gathered only in the autumn, like sassafras and ginkgo- the former when red, the latter when yellow. Check before going on a gathering romp.

Key items to remember when collecting local herbs:
•Be confidant with your plant identification
•Take the best
•Always leave some and don’t take the ONLY one you see – never
take the last 3 or 4 plants
• Leave the place as you found it - like you never came
•Take only what you need
•Certain plants are endangered: get to know and respect them.

As far as taking the best ones, let me explain. It was after picking herbs in places like Central Park and patches of grass or trees anywhere in New York City for a while that I started to feel like maybe the best ones should be left around, either for others to enjoy (valid in its own rite), or just because the plant itself would want it that way. Oh yeah, they WILL become your friends, so be ready!

Then I came across some writing by Euell Gibbons, who insisted that one should always “pick the best” ones. This was only slightly contrary to what I was taught. His mention was for your own personal health. If there are 100 sweet violet flowers, take those that look healthy and happy! And hey, why NOT? It is, after all, YOUR medicine! You want the best. Let it be noted that he picked mostly in the wilderness near his home where there was apparent abundance. The slight variation that I learned was that you should leave some good ones, too, so that the strength of the patch is maintained.

Next rule, always leave SOME of that plant, so it may still flourish and live happily there. If, as in the case of yellow dock, you may take the whole plant or its root- just be sure to leave some other plants of the same species to flourish in that spot. This keeps things from becoming extinct and also keeps the plant in that spot for your own personal use and enjoyment. It is a good idea to watch your favorite plants throughout the entire year- observe them at their peak picking time, but also during their growing, drying, and remission phases. This will help you to ‘know’ the plant better. It will also help in identifying it, as well as enabling you to see other places it grows while you’re bantering around in its ‘off season’.

A word on endangered plant life is in order. You can familiarize yourself with a few endangered species in your area with lists obtained from the organization United Plant Savers. They have the list of currently endangered plants available. Some plants are only nearly endangered, which means to simply be prudent in your gathering, if at all. Any of these plants are considered best cultivated, so think about starting a bunch in your garden. Another thing is that once you become familiar with more plants, then you can substitute the same effect with another plant. This is true of ren shen, the most popular Chinese ginseng, which is often substituted with codonopsis pilosulae, aka dang shen.

As a first class girl scout, I can tell you, that no matter what you’re doing in nature, the next rule applies: Leave the place better than when you found it. Never leave your mark- only remove litter, and of course, leave none- including other plant parts or fruit waste. Nothing is ‘the same’ with a rotting apple core that the squirrels over-looked. Take only what you need.

Following these simple rules of nature’s road, you can find yourself overwhelmed by the continued flourishing of your own neighborhood. You will be able to get local food, as local as it gets! It only takes a little effort, and ultimately that becomes a labor of love. I hope you walk away from reading and weeding with a sense of pride in being an integral part of planet earth and all she has to offer. Happy pickings!!

Author's Bio: 

With offices in NYC and Eastern Long Island, Nanci Simari is a practicing acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist, board certified by the NCCAOM. She has been harvesting wild plants for medicinal uses since 1995.