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Irish Wildflowers: The Power of Plants, Part Two

We’re back in the average Irish garden and fields to see what benefits and uses there are for the wildflowers around us. In part one, we looked at dandelions, burdock, and nettle, and here we are discussing ribwort plantain, the vivid mullein, and the aromatic wild garlic.

Ribwort Plantain (Slánlus), Plantago lanceolata

This native and hardy plant has been tracked through pollen records which tell us it has been present in Ireland for over 5,000 years! It comes as no surprise then that it is mentioned repeatedly in Irish history and lore – not only in the form of tincture, a poultice and a salve, but also as the main feature of a children’s game. Nowadays commonly viewed as little more than a pesky weed, ribwort plantain (often called plantago) has a rich history of traditional medicinal use throughout various cultures, and is once again, entirely edible!

Ribwort Plantain is yet another nutritional powerhouse that may be right there in your garden – containing calcium, and vitamins C and K. The leaves are best when collected young, as they get more fibrous and bitter as they grow. The roots, seeds, and flower buds can also be cooked; they can help make an earthy stock for soups and stews. Older leaves are perfect to brew a tea with, wonderful when paired with fresh mint, and popularly used to promote respiratory wellbeing! The plant has expectorant and mucilage properties, so it can not only help clear congestion but may also sooth the mucous membranes. An interesting alternate use is the spraying the cooled brew on sunburnt skin to cool and promote healing; another handy ‘outdoors’ tip is applying a poultice of the plant to bug bites or stings – and if making a poultice isn’t an option, a quick couple of chews of the leaf and the now shredded ribwort plantain can be applied to the skin.

Great Mullein (Coinnle Muire), Verbascum thapsus

Another native plant with a long history of use, mullein can grow up to two metres in height; it has velvet-like leaves which are soft and thick, and blooms with bright yellow flowers.  The name mullein may come from the Latin mollis, “soft”, or the Common Celtic melinos, “yellow”. It is also known as Aaron's Rod, a reference to the Old Testament story of the rod which broke out in golden blossoms. Mullein can be ingested, however it does not offer much nutritional benefit, and is much better suited to be brewed as a tea, or infused into topical oil.

If you have access to some wild mullein, or perhaps are nurturing it in your garden (it is a favourite winter spot for little ladybirds), tea can be brewed from the dried leaf, flower, or both combined. The leaf tends to be more on the bitter side, whilst the flower offers a sweet and aromatic brew. Simply add boiled water to the dried flowers, and let steep for around 20 minutes. Strain very well (those fuzzy hairs are not enjoyable to drink), and add a little honey to sweeten further if needed. Mullein tea is a traditional treatment for respiratory complaints such as coughs, colds, and sinus discomfort. It not only has expectorant and mucilage benefits, but also soothes and may also have antispasmodic properties.

Wild Garlic (Glaschrreamh), Allium triquetrum

Thought to be introduced to Ireland around three hundred years ago, wild garlic can easily overcome an area, filling it with the familiar scent. It is much lesser used in cooking than its typical garlic-bulb relation that we are probably much more accustomed to, however wild garlic’s stem, leaf and flower are all edible. Although milder than its cousin, it can really brighten and enrich salads and other savoury dishes. The stem can be chopped and used similar to chives, or whisk the lot into a beautiful pesto.

Historically, wild garlic was used during both World Wars by the soldiers to prevent illness and gangrene, as well as in a topical form to sterilise wounds – no surprise, as wild garlic has many more sulphur compounds than its kitchen-bound relative. It is also rich in magnesium, folic acid, and may even act as a prebiotic – encouraging the growth and helping along good bacteria in our gut. This, along with the antibacterial and antiviral properties of garlic, means that tucked away in the Irish countryside is a powerhouse of immune support!

Bonus Plant!

Meadowsweet (airgead luachra in Irish, currently scientifically known as filipendula ulmaria) is commonly found in Irish woods and wetlands, and played an important role in medicine. In the 19th century, salicylic acid was isolated from Meadowsweet, (then known as spiraea ulmaria) and was found to be a pain-relieving substance. This compound was eventually synthesised, and sold in tablet form; branded as none other than Aspirin: 'a' for acetyl and ' –spirin' for spirea.

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