Healing with plants is a practice with ancient roots. Many of the most useful and powerful medicine plants are all around us in our daily California life, such as oaks, pines, redwoods, berries, common flowers, and the plants some call weeds.
Listed below are plants that are useful for certain kinds of health situations. Scroll down the list, and feel free to do further research through the links listed in the Resources section. This plant information is gathered from personal experience, the experience of many others, talks with herbalists and ‘curanderas/os’ (Mexican healers), and the growing field of native plant healing research. These are just my own favorites.
Used like the more common Oak, especially good externally as a wash for cuts, hives, poison ivy, swellings; internally good for improved food and fat metabolism.
Applied to wounds, Aloe Vera Gel is a mild anesthetic, relieving itching, swelling, and pain: it also is antibacterial and antifungal, increases blood flow to wounded areas, and stimulates the skin cells responsible for healing. A juice made from the gel is used as a drink for gastritis, irritable bowel, and ulcers. Aloe Vera juice stimulates your immune system with resulting relief in allergy symptoms and decrease in your respiratory infections. These plants are found extensively in Southern California.
A beautiful plant with a beautiful name; primarily useful in indigestion, heart burn, intestinal and menstrual cramps, gas, nausea, and dry heaves; contains at least 14 anti-arrhythmic compounds (ie. improves heart regularity); stimulates sweating; reduces nervous tension and spasms; hot tea helps break up a cold; it grows well in my back yard and smells great.
Externally used most for joint, muscle, and cartilage pain (avoid if skin is broken); I use it periodically for neck and back pain; also useful for arthritis, osteoarthritis, and bursitis; internally effective when you’ve been banged up and sore from sports or strenuous physical activity and want to recover more quickly.
Studies worldwide have shown that blood cholesterol levels drop after eating artichoke. An anticholesterol drug (cynara) is derived from this herb. First Nations people have been cultivating this plant for thousands of years. Artichoke is also useful for arteriosclerosis (build-up of calcium on the inside of artery walls).
One of the most useful herbs and a personal favorite; as an anti-inflammatory it helps relieve dull aches; reduces spasms and cramps; helps to lower blood pressure; acts as a mild sedative; experienced by many women to be as effective as Estrogen Replacement Therapy for relief of hot flashes, insomnia and mood swings.
An antifungal especially useful for foot fungus. This wonderful tincture made from the hull is used for eczema, herpes, psoriasis, and skin parasites; the walnuts are of course also good food; a large old walnut grows next door and drops some of its bounty over into my backyard.
Also known in its varieties as Huckleberry, Bilberry, Whortleberry; helps acidify urine like cranberry; tea helps relieve allergies and skin inflammations; modifies blood sugars for Type 1 diabetes; just make sure not to eat too many of the delicious berries. 🙂
Good heart medicine; increases the strength of heartbeat and reduces its rate. Bugleweed can also help the weak heart where there is a buildup of water in the body. Commonly found near waterways with water plants like Willows, Nettles, Hawthorns, Mints, etc.
Useful for frontal headaches and migraines; effective anti-stress and anti-spasm tea; useful for internal cramps and diarrhea caused by stress; externally useful as an anti-microbial and anti-fungal wash for athletes foot and skin problems; nice in a bath for arthritis pain; powerful cooking herb; related to sassafras; I like to collect aromatic Bay on hikes in Marin and Sonoma (China Camp, Jack London SP, etc.).
For gastritis, kidney, bladder, and stomach inflammations; helps break up colds, fevers, bronchitis, sinus pain; has a calming effect on nerves, sciatica, convulsions; calms ‘fat cravings’; externally useful for sprains and bruises; a good antimicrobial and antifungal wash.
Our state flower makes a good tincture with soothing properties: it improves sleep, relieves anxiety and tensions, chills out a moody teenager or jittery parent, and alleviates skin hypersensitivity. As a pain reliever it helps stomach cramps, bruises, toothaches. It is not opium and is quite safe, but can cause a false positive in urine testing, so be aware.
Promotes sweating, improves blood circulation, breaks up clotting and congestion, stimulates digestion juices, antiflatulent; externally reduces pain and swelling, topical analgesic and antiseptic; peppers are a significant source of Vitamins A, B, and C.
A favorite herb for stomach troubles including cramps, flatulence, IBS, diarrhea; well known calming effects, reduces nervous tension and anger, even reduces sciatica; helps relieve colds; antiseptic for inflammations; oil reduces rheumatic joint pain; the flowers are delicately aromatic; these reseed well every year on my sunny deck.
This “common weed” is one of our best allies. It is rich in plant estrogens, higher in beta-carotene than carrots, and higher in calcium than spinach. It’s a powerful diuretic (which replaces the potassium you pee away). Dandelion supports the liver to metabolize hormones, which reduces hot flashes, eliminates bloating, eases breast pain, subdues headaches, clears up acne, and helps balance emotional swings. It also lowers high blood pressure and cholesterol. Toss it in a salad !
Probably the best known indigenous herb because it is effective in warding off colds. To many, however, its primary benefit is as an antiseptic; it helps all blood impurity diseases and poisons spread by blood; heals skin problems such as boils, eruptions, venomous bites, poison oak, poison ivory, bacterial infections, and whenever pus/red inflammation is apparent. Not common in California, as it is really a plains plant.
Goldenseal root has a long history as a First Nations herb used for its antiseptic wound-healing properties. It is also used for its soothing action on inflamed mucous membranes. A popular remedy for colds and flu.
Freshly ground for poison oak (also Mugwort); for any bronchial problems with thick mucus.
Anti-inflammatory, slows bleeding, astringent and used for many skin disorders including eczema. Used as main ingredient in general salve, including echinacea and myrrh (especially good for diaper rash).
The berries, leaves, and flowers make a most excellent heart and circulatory tonic; it strengthens the force of the heart muscle contraction and dilates the vessels of circulation; it also lessens blood pressure, spasms, angina, shortness of breath, and quiets the pulse after exertion. This take weeks to be felt but the effects are long lasting.
Also called Klamath Weed and St John’s Wort, this non-native plant is found all over the west. It is marketed heavily as the number one herbal therapy for depression, frustration, emotional numbness, and has been as effective in clinical trials as conventional pharmaceuticals when used for mild to moderate depression, with significantly fewer side effects. It also relieves nerve pain, including sciatica, and helps stomach ulcers . It’s excellent for healing burns, cuts and abrasions, and various skin disorders such as psoriasis. A massage oil soothes muscle strains, sprains and pinched nerves. It’s also a powerful antiviral (especially against the herpes) and antibacterial.
A wonderful tea for anxiety, depression, mood elevation. It also reduces spasms due to stomachache, women’s moon time, gas, etc. As a mild antiviral, you can drink the tea every few hours for the flu, head colds, fevers (along with helping you relax), cold sores, and herpes. It is also used in a bath for eczema, skin sores, and as an insect repellent.
Well-known as an astringent, promotes healing of burns, stops bleeding, heals skin wounds and tissues; main ingredient for healing salve that also includes Comfrey leaf and root, and olive oil; these do well in the sunny parts of my yard.
This is the liver herb: liver regenerator, tonifying, anti-inflammatory for both liver and spleen, immune system stimulant; protects the liver against damage from pharmaceutical drug and alcohol abuse; speeds hepatitis recovery; reverses cirrhosis. The seeds can be roasted before grinding and sprinkled over oatmeal, or toasted in a hot frying pan with soy sauce and eaten as a snack. Have at much as you like. There are no contraindications or side effects.
Externally the milk is an ancient California Indian wart remover; internally the root is used for rheumatism, bowel and kidney trouble, stomach problems, asthma, especially useful for breaking up gall-stones; found in fields and deserts throughout central and southern California.
A fabulous relaxing nervine, its name (Leonurus cardiaca) meaning lion-hearted, is the premier herb for fast heartbeats. Like our mothers can, motherwort soothes. It works for neuralgia, skin hypersensitivities, shingles, hypertension, thyroid stress.
Often put down as “just a stinging weed”, this remarkable plant is extremely high in chlorophyll, minerals, and protein; internally it is a strong diuretic. Nettle reduces fatigue, balances blood sugar, strengthens bones, nourishes nerves, and stops night sweats. If you have hay fever or allergies, using nettles will seem like a miracle. During menopause, nettle rehydrates dry vaginal tissues, prevents sore joints, supports immunity, keeps your skin supple. Externally it is effective as an anti-inflammatory astringent wash for all kinds of membranes, and helps relieve arthritis, eczema, psoriasis, and bleeding. Nettle grows well in watery areas of the Central Valley and spreads easily.
Externally the tea from bark and leaves is used to cool burns; good for healing wounds, skin abrasions, sunburn; stops bleeding quickly and prevents infections; especially useful for douches, gargles, enemas, and inflammations; the acorns were of course a staple of the indigenous diet and helped control bad breath, constipation, diarrhea, and thinning hair; varieties found all over California; probably the most important plant for the ancient ones. All around good plant!
Have long been considered a sexual tonic (as in “feeling your oats”). Oats are excellent over the long haul as a relaxant, calmer for the nerves, an aid for insomnia, and addiction withdrawal helper. All around good food.
Juice with salt draws out fire from burns, reduces pain of scalding, and prevents blistering; helps cure venomous bites; internally helps to diminish colds and laryngitis.
I have hundreds of dainty native onions growing near a spring in my backyard.
Externally used in salves to disinfect and as an antimicrobial, almost all skin abrasions is aided by this herb; internally useful for stimulating saliva secretions to aid indigestion; also stimulates liver and skin metabolism for people with dry skin, coated tongue, rapid shifts in blood sugars; also helps eliminate mild stomach infections.
Externally the oil is used in antibacterial hand soaps, now often combined with Eucalyptus oil; useful for stimulating the release of splinters and other foreign-body or pus forming skin infections; internally the chewed resins are an excellent expectorant; pine nuts were second only to acorns for their nutritional value to California Indians; the many varieties of pine trees are found everywhere.
Also known as Thuja; regarded with great reverence by Northwest tribes; great for fungal infections, helps remove warts and fungous growths; leaves and twigs boiled with oil make an excellent salve; inhaled for bronchial conditions; antibacterial for vaginitis, bladder, and urethral inflammations; effective for enlarged prostrates; stimulates the immune system; used on the fire as a great incense.
The medicinal part of Ceanothus; one of my favorites and found in many varieties throughout California; very good as a gargle for sore throat or mouth sores; improves blood and lymph flow especially after a fatty meal; soothes tonsillitis, swollen lymph nodes, hemorrhoids, cysts, capillary ruptures on the skin and other membranes; a complex herb that should used by “healthy people under stress not sick people under treatment” (Moore).
Perhaps the best known plant in California; a nice one next door is the favorite perch for all the neighborhood birds (from falcons to hummingbirds); I use it for chest colds to help break up the mucus and reduce the cough; the tea introduces aromatics into the blood system that disinfects and softens phlegm, and soothes bladder and urinary infections; nice incense on the fire.
Sage is an aromatic herb used to alleviate respiratory infection, nasal congestion, coughs, tonsillitis and sore throats. No wonder that it is most commonly used for smudging (using the smoke to bless)– it is good breath medicine. It also helps with indigestion, and quickly relieves gas. and with the liver. Fill a small pillow with dried sage leaves: this will help you fall asleep.
Also known as Oregon Wintergreen; great as a repeatable tea for diarrhea, dry coughs from allergies, gas pains from food allergies, bladder irritations; externally a great general powder for skin scrapes, bites, burns.
Widely used as an external tea or ointment for skin infections, swellings, eruptions, ringworm, boils (also Sorrel for the same uses); internally as a subtle helper for immune hyperactivity, allergies, chronic inflammations, dry skin and mouth, but it must be used over time.
This can be a spectacular plant in wet years with its floppy yellow displays; one of the best herbs for bad internal cramps, stomach problems and diarrhea, spasms, pain relief, gas, gallbladder flare-ups, and passing kidney stones. Think of it as the #1 cramp herb.
Mild astringent for general use; especially useful for eyewashes, douches, enemas; a strong decoction will heal eczema; grows well in my garden and on my sunny deck (but shaded from overexposure); berries are far more delicious than store bought and without all the chemicals.
Very useful against fungal infections including athlete’s foot and ringworm.
A great plant for overexcited individuals who can’t turn their minds off and get to sleep, functions as a safe sedative that also reduces spasms (hands, eyes, stomach, etc.); stimulates digestion, respiration, and heart output; not for regular daily doses; smells like dirty socks so be sure to store it in a tight jar. Loves high elevations (Cascades, Sierras) where it gets really cold.
The sweating herb, makes everything secrete, forces fevers to break; used in ointments for people who have cold extremities; stimulates the eruptions of measles and chicken pox if needed.
Is perhaps the most widely used herb in the world today. It is primarily taken as a hormone regulator and rejuvenator. It also is used for liver, digestive (anti-spasm), pregnancy nausea, spleen, kidney and lung complaints. It helps remove wastes and congestions from the body, which relieves joint pain, stiffness, acne, headaches, and other ailments. To the Incas it was the most important food source; to the Aztecs (Mexica) it was “the gracious plant.”
Probably best known as a strong astringent; one of the best herbs to stop internal bleeding, effective mouth and gum healer, helps reduce swollen or varicose veins and almost all inflamed conditions (internal and external); unsurpassed for diarrhea, hemorrhoids, vaginitis; similar to CA native Yerba Reuma.
Very useful externally for varicose veins, skin inflammations, joint and muscle aches, eye wash to remove redness, poxes, rashes, wounds, ulcers, hemorrhoids, hair loss and poultices; best known for fresh leaves which stop bleeding quickly; excellent internally for morning headaches and symptoms of menopause, indigestion, stomach ulcers, gastritis, diarrhea, internal bleeding of all kinds; also an excellent blood cleanser and strengthener, removing wastes; aromatic.
Also known as Spearmint; effective for almost any stomach or digestive problem, including nausea, indigestion, nervous stomach, overindulgence; milder version of the strong peppermint; my favorite places to find it are the lowlands of the Peninsula (natural areas of Filoli, San Francisquito Creek, SF Watershed, etc).