Plants with purpose

I hang my kitchenalia from the upper cabinets. I tend to
favour hanging things up to any other method of storage.
I also dry small bunches of herbs that way. This is Comfrey.
When I was little my parents would take us out to the country for day tours.  Since they didn't own a car, we would go with the local equivalence of a rambler organization.  Once off the bus, the others would walk briskly and look up at the mountains.  We walked slowly and with our noses practically in the ground because we were looking for plants.  My parents were both biologists and both specialized in plants.  So they taught us their names and my father and I collected whole plants that we dried and labeled, just like real professionals.

I have ever since been able to name some plants without even thinking about it.  Their names would just pop into my head when I looked at them.  However I recently noticed that I wasn't been able to put a name to many plants anymore, so this summer I took out my books about local plants and started to read them.  My incentive was mostly from wanting to use the plants in creams and soaps.  Partly for their benefits and partly for their colour, but I have found that I have really enjoyed this refresher in botany.  I can now name practically all the plants that I encounter in the woods where I walk the dogs.  If I come accross one that I don't know I take home a sample and look it up.  It might just be a fantastic medicinal plant.  The result of this has been plant collection en masse.

It started innocently enough last year with drying a few sprigs of Mint and infusing some in oil.  I also made infused Rose hip oil.  And this summer I was given a Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) plant and gathered the leaves and of course then I started digging up the roots of Njóli (Rumex longifolius) for soap colour.  Soon after I picked rose petals to make rose oil.  Very soon thereafter I realized that Chickweed (Stellaria media) and Shepherds purse (Capsella bursa pastoris), both of which grew profusely in the allotment garden, were very good medicinal plants, so I collected a few to infuse in oil.  Then some more to dry.  And then there was the local Chamomile.  And by this time my mind had recollected most of the plant names and I just kept seeing these amazing plants everywhere around me.  And then I just went wild.

The plants that grow practically on my doorstep, most of which I have started to collect include:
  • Achillea millefolium - Vallhumall / Yarrow:  One of the best medical plants.  Used to treat colds and fevers, skin disorders and to stop bleeding.  Arial parts; stems, leaves and flowers are collected.  I have this dried and in oil but need more of it so I am still collecting it on my walks.
  • Alchemilla alpine - Ljónslappi / Alpine Lady's mantle:  Long history of using this herb for a variety of ailments, but all the Alchemillas have a reputation as women's herbs.  Can be used in skin creams for cuts and wounds and internally for menstrual problems and symptoms of menopause.  I have been collecting the leaves and flowers of this plant which grows profusely where I walk in the woods close to home.  
  • Alchemilla mollis - Maríustakkur / Lady's mantle:  Same as above.  This one grows everywhere and I have bunches of it hanging in the shed.
  • Arctostaphylos uva ursi - Sortulyng / Bearberry:  Great value in diseases of the urinary tract, it soothes, strengthens and tightens irritated and inflamed tissues.  However this should only be taken for a week at a time and not more than five times a year.  I have just started to collect small amounts of this.  
  • Calluna vulgaris - Beitilyng / Heather: Used for urinary tract infections and to drive out kidney stones, it is diuretic as well as cough suppressant.  In ointment it is good to rub on  affected joints.  This has been used in dyeing cloth and yarn, but produces an uninteresting tan/grey.  The flowering stems are collected and dried.  This is in flower now and I am collecting and drying some. 
  • Caltha palustris - Hófsóley / Marsh marigold:   It has been used locally as a painkiller and anti spasmodic as well as a expectorant cough medicine.  Young leaves are best used and either dried or boiled.  Older leaves may contain toxins.  It should always be either dried or boiled as otherwise it may irritate.  I have this growing by the pond in the garden, but haven't harvested it yet.  It will probably wait till next year.
  • Capsella bursa-pastoris - Hjartaarfi / Shepherd purse:  Good for cystitis and is styptic.  Arial parts collected all year long.  I have some of this dried and used it in my latest shaving soap, but again I need some more.  The allotment is a good place to collect this one.
  • Elymus repens - Húsapuntur / Couch grass:  This is excellent for the urinary system and kidneys.  It is good to treat cystitis, painful urination and is even good for an enlarged prostate.  It is the root that is collected, preferably in spring or autumn.  I have collected a fair amount of this invasive weed and plan to collect more later in the year when it should be even more potent.
  • Epilobium (syn. Chamaenerion) angustifolium - Sigurskúfur / Rose bay:  Externally it is healing.  Internally it is good for stomach complaints.  The leaves and flowers are used.  I picked bouquets of these pretty flowers and leaves and have them drying in the shed.  
  • Equisetum arvense - Klóelfting / Horsetail:  This strange and ancient plant is very diuretic.  It contains silica which helps to fix calcium so it strengthens bones and ligaments and is very good for hair, skin and nails.  There is some talk of it improving memory and concentration similar to Ginko biloba.  This is best harvested when young.  I haven't harvested this yet although it grows absolutely everywhere.  Next year.
  • Fillipendula ulmaria - Mjaðurt / Meadowsweet:  Good for heartburn and arthritis.  Leaves and flowers are collected in summer.  I have a gallon jar of this herb dried.  
  • Galium boreale - Krossmaðra / Northern bedstraw:  Apparently this was used to stuff mattresses, but it's main uses are similar to it's yellow cousin.  I have a fairly large jar of this herb dried.
  • Galium verum - Gulmaðra / Lady's bedstraw:  Good for eczema and psoriasis and in an ointment for cramped ligaments.  The whole plant can be used, mostly leaves and flowers.  The chopped up plant can be used as a rennet in cheese making.  The plant is related to Madder and it's roots and stems can be used to get a red dye and the flower tops yield a yellow dye.  I haven't used it as such, but I would love to try that.  I have large jar of this dried.
  • Matricaria maritima - Baldursbrá / Sea mayweed:  Anti inflammatory.  Flower heads are collected and dried, the good stuff is in the yellow part.  I have a gallon jar of it dried .
  • Menyanthes trifoliata - Horblaðka / Bogbean:  This is an arthritis medicine, both for osteo- and rheumatoid arthritis and it grows in my pond.  The leaves and flowers are best dried and gathered in early summer.  It haven't used this one yet, so it may have to wait until next year.
  • Rumex longifolius - Njóli / Northern dock:  This weed is great to make soap pink, but it is also very good for skin disorders such as eczema, psoriasis and itchy skin.  I have it infused in oil and some dried, but plan to dig for more roots later, in autumn for more potency.
  • Stellaria media - Haugarfi / Chickweed:  Good for cooling the skin and relieving itching, eczema, varicose veins.  Arial parts are collected in summer and dried.  It is excellent to pick fresh and toss in a salad as well.  I have it infused in oil and some dried.
  • Symphytum officinale - Valurt / Comfrey:  The most fantastic plant.  It's a terrible weed, but it has been used for ages to heal broken bones, wounds and skin ailments.  There are some concerns about toxic alkaloids, but many people still take this as a tea.  I'll just use it in creams since it's quite safe that way.
  • Trifolium pratense - Rauðsmári / Red clover:  Traditionally used to treat skin complaints and is considered good for symptoms of menopause.  It also has a folkloric reputation as a cancer cure, specifically breast cancer, but no conclusive research exists.  Mostly the flowers are used either internally or externally.  Apparently the flowers give a reasonable yellow dye colour.  I have two gallon jars of this pretty thing and will probably consume it myself as well as put it into creams.  
  • Tussilago farfara - Hóffífill / Coltsfoot:  Tussilago means cough suppressant so it comes as no surprise that this the best cough medicine.  It has been used for asthma, emphysema and smoker's cough.  It flowers very early and the flowers appear before the leaves and they along with young leaves are used.  Some concerns about toxic alkaloids in this plant, so best taken in moderate quantities and for a short time.  I have made a tea from this but I need to collect more of it if I find yung leaves.  Otherwise it will have to wait until next year.
  • Urtica dioeca - Brenninetla / Nettle:  This is one of those miracle plants and is often taken as a tonic.  It is also eaten in soups.  It's really good for asthma and allergies and as a hair tonic.  The leaves provide a good green colour.  I have a small plant, but haven't been able to collect it yet.  It should be collected in May and June, before flowering.  This one is definitely for next year.
  • Valeriana officinalis - Garðabrúða / Valerian:  Natures valium, this one.  It is calming and aids in sleeping.  The root is used and it is most potent fresh apparently.  It should be collected in spring or autumn like all roots since they are most potent when the top growth is dormant.  I am waiting for autumn to dig this up in a garden were the owners want to get rid of it.
  • Viburnum opulus - Úlfarunni / Cramp bark:  Long history of using the bark to treat period pain and even to prevent miscarriage since it is a smooth muscle antispasmodic.  I have two shrubs growing in my garden and they are getting a good pruning this autumn and I'm going to harvest the bark from the branches to dry it. 
My own private paradise. This woodland is a 2 minute walk
from my house. There I can find most of the plants I write
about here. The rest I find around the allotment garden.
Looking at this list I am amazed at the variety of beneficial plants I am able to harvest from my immediate neighborhood.  And I left out Dandelion, Viola, Calendula and a few more.  You'd think I was living way out in the country, but I live in a very urban area.  I guess it is just a question of opening ones eyes to the possibilities that are around.

I am still learning about all the plants so that I can use them with confidence to treat minor ailments in the family.  I bought a thingy (on a whim on the internet) to stuff capsules and some capsules to stuff.  It works pretty well although I think my vintage glass turkey baster works best for getting the herb powder into the bigger capsules.  I think it makes sense to ingest the herbs that way.  Even if I have read about making tinctures and decoctions, it just sounds as a bit of a bother, although quite a bit more romantic.

But in the end I'm really thrilled with this abundance of goodies from nature and will now officially stop envying inhabitants of warmer climates for their plants. 


  1. Your knowledge is truly amazing. I don't know much about plants except for the basic ones. I am imagining a hands on walk-around plant collecting course with you... and loving it... thanks for sharing! xo Jen

  2. Lovely post, Ambra..thank you:) Reminds me of how I first got into soaping...In 2000 I became fascinated with learning about medicinal plant life around me here in the hinterlands (I live a bit rural..), and started field trips to search/identify/ and respectfully collect what might help me with some of my ailments. I became truly obsessed with it, making tinctures and teas and soon picking up a book on homemade cosmetics for a buck at a local flea market. At some point I ventured on into soaping, but the knowledge of medicinal plants is something I have deepened since then and am so grateful for. I have a tiny, tiny garden (with not much sun..when it shines) but have planted all the medicine I that will grow there, for my teas..for my soaps..for slaves and such. It's a shame that this knowledge isn't integrated into everyones education. Kudos to parents and grandparents who have shared their plant wisdom with us


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