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Riverside Park’s arboretum offers an enchanting array of plants with medicinal properties

Flowering penstemon at arboretum gateway arch

Flowering penstemon at arboretum gateway arch. Photo by Eddee Daniel

Eager with anticipation, our group climbs to the hilltop and crowds into the small clearing around a circle of stones. Kyle Denton, our guide, plucks up the stalk of a large, broad-leafed plant near his feet. I recognize it immediately as the nemesis in my yard, ragweed. Each spring I spend an inordinate amount of time pulling sprouts in a futile effort to eradicate it. I am startled and amused that he chose this of all plants to begin with.

Denton tears off a leaf, crushes it with his fingers and holds it to his nose. He passes the stalk around so that everyone can do the same. Then he puts the leaf in his mouth and visibly mashes it with his teeth. Ragweed is both edible and medicinal, he tells us. Once cultivated as a crop by indigenous peoples, it is highly nutritious and an excellent source of protein. Sadly, he goes on, now it is known primarily as a leading cause of hay fever. Its chief medicinal use, he adds wryly, is to treat allergic reactions to…ragweed.

Ragweed.

Ragweed. Photo by Eddee Daniel

Herbalist and tour guide Kyle Denton tasting mugwort.

Herbalist and tour guide Kyle Denton tasting mugwort. Photo by Eddee Daniel

Kyle Denton calls himself an herbalist and forager, activities that may not suggest a contemporary urban lifestyle. Remarkably, however, the places he chooses to forage are in the City of Milwaukee. He shares his knowledge and love of plants in a variety of educational settings but his favorite classrooms, he told me in an email, are “the trails and wilds of this town.” I was already hooked when he then invited me to join one of his regular “herb walks.”

“Midsummer, St. John’s Day, the Solstice is celebrated by people throughout the northern hemisphere to mark the day of the calendar when the sun is at its peak in the sky…. Ceremonies to celebrate this event are as old as history,” he said.

Herb walk participants tasting bee balm.

Herb walk participants tasting bee balm. Photo by Eddee Daniel

Reaching down, Denton cuts several stalks of another plant with his pocketknife—a method of harvesting that won’t kill the host, unlike pulling it out by the roots. This one is wild bergamot, aka bee balm, another plant I know well. Unlike ragweed, its fragrant flower is a welcome sight in my yard. Denton snatches off a leaf, bites down on it, then tosses it quickly aside. A member of the mint family, he says, bergamot’s “super-powered volatile oils” are “so spicy that it makes you sweat.” This can help with congestion, including deep-seated lung and digestive conditions. It is also a powerful antimicrobial, he adds with obvious admiration.

I watch as the stalks make their way around the circle. Tiny, hesitant bites are followed by expressions of amazement and occasional distaste.

Kyle Denton demonstrating properties of yarrow.

Kyle Denton demonstrating properties of yarrow. Photo by Eddee Daniel

We proceed along the paved arboretum paths, pausing here and there to listen to Denton’s stories, folklore, tips on harvesting and copious amounts of advice on how to utilize humble, common plants for medicinal purposes. Perhaps most importantly, we learned their names. For the act of naming grants power and signifies value. It is the beginning of respect. Let me introduce you to a small sample of the flora whose names we learned:

Yarrow blossoms.

Yarrow blossoms. Photo by Eddee Daniel

The Latin name for yarrow, achillea millefolium, derives from an ancient Greek story of Chiron the centaur, who taught the Trojan warrior Achilles how to use it to staunch bleeding wounds. Cultures as diverse as ancient China and indigenous North America knew of its astringent and hemostatic (blood-thickening) qualities. When processed and consumed as a tea, yarrow also calms the stomach, aids with digestion and heals the mucous membranes of the intestinal tract.

Motherwort blossoms.

Motherwort blossoms. Photo by Eddee Daniel

This is motherwort, a name that suggests its use to soothe tension in a woman’s reproductive tissues, to aid with menstruation and relieve pain after giving birth. Although it makes for a bitter tea, a tincture of the fresh blossoms can be applied topically to relieve cramping of the abdomen and kidneys.

Young woman admiring St. John's wort flower.

Young woman admiring St. John’s wort flower. Photo by Eddee Daniel

A young woman’s face lights with enchantment as she discovers the secret of St. John’s wort. Its Latin name, hypericum perforatum, refers to little puncture holes that can be seen when you hold the tiny flower up to sunlight. The common name relates directly to the solstice, or “Feast of St. John.” Its flower blooms like clockwork every year on the day of the solstice. Fittingly, its traditional use as a remedy for Seasonal Affective Disorder is also related to the sun.

Silver wormwood and bird's-foot trefoil blossoms.

Silver wormwood and bird’s-foot trefoil blossoms. Photo by Eddee Daniel

Need protection from evil spirits? Historically, Artemisia has been a nearly universal solution. “Curiously, indigenous people all over the world use this herb for the same purpose,” writes Denton in his booklet. Reflecting on this notion, he continues, “How each culture came to this conclusion independently cannot be explained by rational thought.” It is named after Artemis, the Greek goddess of the moon and of nature. The common name of this particular species is silver wormwood, its pale coloration reminiscent of moonbeams.

Flowering red clover and silver wormwood.

Flowering red clover and silver wormwood. Photo by Eddee Daniel

Another patch of silver wormwood, here intermixed with red clover, a plant so rich in valuable qualities it has too many uses to list. Its dense, sweet nectar attracts pollinating bees and humans who want to make mead, ale and wine. Highly nutritive, red clover is reputed to have helped the Irish survive the potato famine.

Tuft of grass and sunflower.

Tuft of grass and sunflower. Photo by Eddee Daniel

As our tour comes to a close, the setting sun briefly drapes a carpet of gold across the sculpted hillsides of the arboretum. Then the earth turns toward the first night of summer and the flowers fall into shadow. The crowd slowly disperses. This is the fourth year of Denton’s seasonal herb walks. The numbers have steadily grown, with some stalwart participants returning year after year. Tonight was a record turn-out, he says.

White indigo blossoms.

White indigo blossoms. Photo by Eddee Daniel

I have to admit I am unlikely to recall all of the names, let alone the various medicinal and practical uses for these plants. What I will not forget, however, is the power invested in them and the respect required to sustain urban habitats where they can flourish. Nor will I forget the testimony this tour provides: the wilds of Milwaukee not only are bounteous enough to support herbal foraging but they also are engaging a new generation of nature-lovers.

 

To learn more about herbs and future herb walks, go to Kyle Denton’s website at Tippecanoe Herbs.

 

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