The criteria for getting on this list of favorite herbs is that I have to have known the herb very well, have used it for a long time, and it would have had to be successful the majority of times I used it. If you take any one of these plants, you can do so much with it. You don’t need to use too many herbs – my great-grandmother, who used only a handful of plants on a regular basis, was a very good herbalist. Below I discuss some of the herbs I turn to most often.
Black walnut (Juglans nigra)
Black walnut tincture is extremely anti-fungal and is quite effective for treating candida, athlete’s foot, and ringworm, topically and orally. To make a black walnut tincture, you should choose the young walnuts that are a little smaller than golf balls and peel off the outer coating with a sharp paring knife. Make up about 2 cups of menstruum (liquid) using a combination of 35 to 45 percent alcohol, 10 percent apple cider vinegar, and the remaining 45 to 55 percent water. Put the peels and the menstruum in the blender and blend it up. Let it sit for 7 to 14 days, press it out (through a tincture press or several layers of cheesecloth), and you have a dark tincture that can be very useful. Be aware that black walnut tincture stains.
Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
Calendula is good for any skin problem. If you get any unusual skin ailment that you don’t know what to do about or your doctor doesn’t know what to do about it, and it’s been hanging around longer than it should, put calendula on it. You can use tincture, salve, or oil. Remember that dried calendula should be the same color as the fresh. It changes color in about six months even in optimal storage, so dried calendula products are not as reliable as fresh or freshly dried calendula. To keep it viable for a year or so, store your calendula in the freezer. It is interesting to note that any of the herbs that are easy to grow and abundant in nature tend to have a short shelf life.
Cottonwood buds (Populus balsamifera ssp. balsamifera)
Any herb that is very resinous, such as cottonwood buds, can be a wonderful remedy to put on wounds instead of wearing Band-Aids. You just put the tincture on the wound and let it dry thoroughly. If it’s a fairly deep wound, you’ll want to put on several coats of cottonwood bud tincture – it’s like shellacking wood. It’s so much easier than wearing a Band-Aid. You can also use other resinous herbs such as myrrh (Commiphora spp.).
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Dandelion is an incredibly useful herb. I have to say that part of the vitality I experience in my own life is because of eating dandelion. It was one of the plants that I harvested with my mom, picking the dandelion greens and cooking them starting in the spring when they first popped up, all the way through until they became very bitter in late May, and the weather changed.
Dandelion has been eaten in all cultures – the flowers, stems, and seeds. There is so much research on this herb that we could fill up a room with papers on it. It also has a long history of use by the common people. You can use the root or the leaf; I like to use them together in making teas and tinctures to get the optimum medicinal value of dandelion. It is a very good, dependable diuretic if taken on a regular basis in sufficient quantity. It’s especially good for pregnancy, when a woman is getting swollen ankles or when their blood pressure begins to rise in late pregnancy. Dandelion is also helpful for women who are tending toward gestational diabetes.
It’s a very nutritive herb and is completely safe for most people. Dandelion is extremely nutritious and is a good source of minerals, which we need so much in our culture. You can use very large doses of it or smaller doses, depending on the person. It’s a good herb to latch onto as a beginning herbalist and never give it up.
Echinacea (Echinacea spp.)
Echinacea continues to be one of my favorite plants. I began my relationship with echinacea in the 1960s and early ‘70s when I was a young, budding herbalist. I became enamored with it because of its incredible action for stopping colds, treating infections, and its many other uses.
Of the several species of echinacea, Echinacea purpurea is the easiest to grow. It is a good idea to use this species, because you should not buy wild-crafted echinacea at all. There is not much of it left in our herbal world. To make a super-quality echinacea tincture, try adding seeds to the mixture. You can buy them or grow echinacea and save your seeds and mix them with the root, leaf, and the tops of the plant. The seeds produce a lot of the tingling, numbing sensation on the tongue that some people consider an indication of quality. I like to tincture up some of the fresh roots and dry some of them for tea. I freeze some roots after they are washed and dried, so I will have a continuing supply of fresh echinacea if I don’t happen to harvest it the next fall.
Echinacea is very good for spider and insect bites. I often use it for kids in our neighborhood, as they come to me if they get any kind of bite or bee sting. We just make an echinacea tincture poultice right there and leave it on the affected area for fifteen to twenty minutes, making sure it stays wet.
I usually make a gallon or two of echinacea for my family for a year’s use – that includes some to give away. It’s a very good thing if you want to get to know an herb to have an abundance of it. You cannot get to know an herb by a one-ounce bottle. So whatever herbs attract you, you should make a point to get large quantities of those herbs and use them abundantly – spread them on your head, rub them on your body, give them away, ask people to tell you what their experiences with them are, and get intimate with them as much as you can.