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Healing Properties of Spring Flowers

It’s hard to imagine spring is well underway as we look outside and feel the chill in the air. Just last week it snowed, AGAIN, and overnight the temperatures routinely have been dipping well below the freezing mark. How are plants and animals supposed to survive under these unpredictable conditions? Well, as we know, nature is truly resilient. I always marvel at how early spring plants seem to emerge, despite conditions that one would think would kill them. Our gardens are full of tulips, crocuses and daffodils already, but for me, the wild plants bring the greatest joy. The first plant I usually notice in the spring is the tiny yellow flower of the coltsfoot. Although not a native species, for me it typifies the return of spring. Looking a bit like a dandelion, look for clusters of it along roadsides, usually in the harshest, poorest soils. While no leaves are visible yet, later, a large horseshoe-shaped leaf will emerge and persist through the summer months. Coltsfoot has proven medicinal properties, including its use to treat respiratory conditions, gout, flu, colds and fever. However, it contains several toxins that cause serious harm, including liver damage and cancer, so it warrants caution. Spring Beauty is, as the name implies, a beautiful little early blooming flower. The five pink or white petals sport fine pale stripes along their length. These plants have a pleasant scent but are small and inconspicuous, as they poke out of the soil in dark moist woodlands. The starchy root is rich in vitamins A and C and can be eaten raw or cooked. It has a pleasant nutty flavour and reportedly tastes like a cross between a potato and a chestnut when cooked. Bloodroot is another early bloomer. The flowers have 8-16 white petals with a bright yellow centre. It is a woodland species, mainly growing in rich deciduous woodlands. The leaves are oddly shaped and are multi-lobed (5-9 per leaf). Each pair of leaves wraps itself around the stem of a single flower. Interestingly, the foliage and rhizomes are toxic and consequently, this plant is not often eaten by mammalian herbivores. The juice of plants in this genus possesses anti-bacterial properties with pharmaceutical applications, including use as an anti-plaque mouthwash. Native Americans used bloodroot’s orange sap as a dye for baskets and clothing. It was also used to decorate weapons and implements, and when mixed with animal fat was used as a war paint. Round-lobed Hepatica is another diminutive and very attractive plant, with small pinkish flowers and waxy, green, fuzzy leaves. The flowers have six petals and can be white, red/pink or blue/violet. There are many claimed medicinal uses of these beautiful plants, including: treatment for gallstones and liver ailments, as an anti-inflammatory, as a metabolic and circulatory stimulant and astringent, for relief of stomach discomfort and as an appetite stimulant. One over-riding caution linked to this species is that the raw plant should never be consumed and it should always be processed before use. Skunk Cabbage is another early bloomer in our dark wet forests. True to its unsavoury name it is a beautiful little plant, with a smelly aroma. The flowers are very unflower-like and are deep purple with bright yellow highlights. They will often emerge through the snow, in early spring, before the leaves come out. The leaves are broad and bright green and emerge in low clumps on the forest floor. Like so many of our native plants, skunk cabbage has medicinal uses, such as an expectorant to treat bronchitis and asthma. Other reported uses include treatment for: epilepsy, headaches, vertigo and rheumatic problems. This is only a sampler of the myriad early spring flowers that grace our forests and fields. Want to know more? North Durham Nature has created a new Facebook page, Wildflowers of North Durham, which will allow you to share your questions and post your own photos. Or, for more information on Ontario’s flowers, check out http://ontariowildflowers.com. In closing, you should never eat or use plants for medicinal purposes without medical advice. Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line at www.avocetnatureservices.com and on LinkedIn and Facebook.

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