When Debbie McSweeney of Peabody found a recipe for a medicinal salve her great-grandmother used to make, she became hooked on herbs and plants and their medicinal uses.
Her great-grandmother’s salve called for several backyard plants considered weeds by many, but hailed for their medicinal purposes. She has been studying herb and plants for medical and healing purposes for a year, working to complete a course under herbalist Rosemary Gladstar.
McSweeney said she was surprised to learn that many plants growing wild in her backyard, like dandelions, had medicinal purposes. McSweeney learned that dandelions can be eaten in a salad and can help with liver and kidney ailments. Dandelion leaves and roots can also help with swelling, skin problems, stomach problems, and to treat other ailments.
“When it turned spring it was customary for pioneers and others to eat dandelion greens,” McSweeney said. “They didn’t do it for health reasons, just it was there and eatable and they suffered from less of the common ailments we do now.”
Red clover blossoms were customarily eaten in a salad or drank in a tea and is purported to be an anti-tumor medication.
“Not saying pioneers didn’t get sick,” she said, “but many people were able to avoid a doctor until a very serious medical issue arose. I’ve been able to do that and so have my family since utilizing herbs.”
While she believes in conventional medicine, McSweeney believes Americans as a whole are overly medicated for things that could be treated by simple plants growing in yards and pastures across the country.
“We treat with herbs first and most of the time it takes away the ailment,” she said. “My husband is a citizen of Ireland and he said it is common to treat things with herbs before getting a prescription. I think in this country we are so bent on instant gratification that we don’t want to wait for herbs to work and want a pill to make us better now.”
While herbs may work slower than prescription medication, McSweeney prefers them because they don’t have the side effects many medications now do and are much gentler for the body to process.
“A lot of medications are made from plants,” she said. “They isolate a chemical in plants that do a certain thing and work to develop it. It’s the added chemicals that can cause issues with the body.”
McSweeney does not diagnose or prescribe herb treatments, but if friends have problems, say stomach issues, she recommends different plants they could try.
She makes salves, teas, and tinctures, herb and alcohol concentrated drops, for anything from wasp stings to diarrhea.
“It’s really amazing the things plants can do,” she said.
When visiting friends and family she often hunts for plants and herbs not found locally to use for her class and home remedies.
“Last year when that really awful flu was going around,” she said, “shortly before then I was visiting my mother out west. There is a moss that grows on the trees there that is a great anti-viral and works for strep or staph infections. We started taking it when we felt we were coming down with the flu, and we avoided the hospital and doctor.”
Many of the remedies McSweeney makes work best as preventive medication, she said. Like prescription medications however, the body can ingest too much of a good thing and get sick from herbal remedies.
“That’s one of the biggest superstitions with herbs,” she said. “People think it’s natural so I can take as much as I want, but just because it’s natural doesn’t mean you can’t overdose and you should still be very careful.”
Another danger with herbalism is plant misidentification.
“Scientific names are important,” McSweeney said. “There might be a plant here called by a certain nickname, but it could in fact be an entirely different plant somewhere else.”
For example, butterfly weed is a common nickname for different wildflowers across the country, but some when ingested could be toxic, McSweeney said.
“Some places it has purple flowers, but here it has orange flowers and few people can figure out which one is actually good to ingest,” she said. “The orange plant found here has many medicinal uses, where the purple one does not.”
McSweeney grows many of the herbs she uses and sells her salves at local farmers markets.