When researching my family history, I looked for all the basic facts, jotting down birth dates and locations of residence. I watched as the family tree filled in with names and dates designating generations of the past.
However, what I loved the most was finding very specific insights into my ancestors’ personalities and daily lives.
My great-grandma lived on a farm in Ashtabula County, Ohio, at the turn of the century. I could not find much about her personality or accomplishments, but there was one thing I found very interesting.
The one notation written in old-fashioned slanted handwriting mentioned that she had a well-stocked medicine cabinet filled with medicinal herbs and natural remedies. Not only did she treat her family, but her neighbors as well.
I don’t have any records of what herbs she kept or what tonics she created, but I can guess based on what could have grown in the area.
I think of her often while I am dipping my toes in my newfound hobby of foraging. I have a blank slate when it comes to foraging knowledge. I am starting from scratch, picking up ideas online and from people around me.
More than a weed
A picture on a website caught my attention; it was of a wildflower that grows in multiple places around my house. In fact, I barely paid attention to the multitude of blooms, thinking they were weeds.
At first glance, the plants reminded me of mint with a purple-ish tinge. Purple dead nettle is actually in the mint family, can be used medicinally and is edible. To my husband, it’s a weed.
I had gathered a bunch and had them drying out on our counter. He walked in and asked why I brought weeds into the house. He is a little skeptical of my foraging skills, as he should be, and wanted to know if I was sure I had the right thing.
Purple dead nettle, Lamium purpureum, has a square stem, fuzzy leaves that are spade-like in shape, and purple tops with pink flowers. On a short walk through the woods, I saw it growing around the edge of the pond, on the bank of the creek and along the edge of soybean fields.
Standing in the woods, having reached a cluster of purple dead nettle, my son wanted to know if we could eat some. Based on my research, I knew there are not any toxic look-alikes for purple dead nettle.
We each tried a leaf, scrunching up our noses at the very grassy taste. It was not as satisfying as finding blackberries, but it wasn’t terrible either. Even though it’s in the mint family, it did not have a minty flavor.
My goal wasn’t to eat leaves plain like a grand wilderness salad, although it is often used as a garnish. I wanted to make a salve, something like my great-grandmother might have had in her medicine cabinet.
Purple dead nettle is anti-inflammatory, antifungal and antibacterial. It can be used on cuts and wounds to help stop the bleeding. Historically, it was used to alleviate joint pain.
The first step in making a salve is to allow the plants to dry out. I put the plants we picked on a towel on our kitchen counter. A few minutes later, I noticed tiny ants crawling everywhere and promptly relocated the towel to the porch.
After drying out, the next step is to make infused oil by steeping the dried material in oil. The beneficial properties of purple dead nettle are transferred to the oil in the process.
There are several methods varying in the length of time needed to steep. I am not in a hurry, so I chose the slow method.
I filled a glass canning jar about halfway with the dried purple dead nettle and then filled it completely with olive oil. For the next 4-6 weeks, the jar will be inside my pantry. It needs to be lightly shaken periodically to stir up the oil and plant material.
After straining out the purple dead nettle, the infused oil can be used in a salve recipe. The salve can be used to treat itchy, dry or irritated skin.
I felt quite accomplished after gathering plants and starting a batch of infused oil. The whole endeavor put a jump in my step, which was also a symbolic step back in time to the days of my great-grandmother and her natural remedies.
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