This last week I had the pleasure of visiting a friend in Portland, Oregon. What a welcome vacation. I was taken by the incredible diversity of vegetation. In addition to a lot of native plants and unfamiliar species, there were a lot of introduced European species in the city. Seeing all the familiar plants of England felt like home after having lived in London. Below are 5 of my favourite plants that I saw in Portland.
1) Hawthorn, Crataegus spp.
Hawthorn is a beautiful tree that produces a cluster of strong-smelling white flowers in the spring and red berries in the autumn. The young leaves and fruits are edible. Although not hugely flavourful, no doubt one could find clever and delicious ways to prepare them. I personally enjoy the fruits as a trail nibble. Hawthorn has become one of the stars of herbal medicine as quite a few clinical trials have demonstrated good quality evidence for the treatment of mild to moderate heart failure. Hawthorn can also be used to treat high blood pressure and support circulation throughout the body.
2. Lemon balm, Melissa officinalis
Lemon balm is a gentle herb that always makes me smile. Maybe that’s just the first introduction to her gentle mood-uplifting and calming properties. I always get excited by the delicious lemony scent that arises when I rub the leaves between my fingers. There’s something about it that says, hey, look on the bright side of life. The delicious volatile oils make a great tasting tea that can be helpful to sooth digestion as well. I was feeling bloated after a few too many biscuits and gravy and a gentle tea of lemon balm mixed with some neighbouring spearmint fixed me right up.
3. Common fig, Ficus carica
What could be more exciting than walking down the street and finding some stray figs that have found their way into public space? Figs have long been a favourite of mine due to their delicious taste and hidden inner beauty. I have always been fascinated by the pollination of figs, the result of a symbiotic relationship with tiny wasps. A female wasp lays her eggs inside the enclosed flowers (imagine a small immature fig), the larvae hatch and mature inside the fig eventually flying away bringing pollen to new fig flowers. Most commercial Common figs ripen without being pollinated and do not produce seeds, so generally no, you are not eating dead wasps when you eat figs.
4. Japanese knotweed, Fallopia japonica/ Polygonum cuspidatum
I love plant controversy and when plants get the better of people I find it humbling. Japanese knotweed has gotten a lot of attention as a noxious weed in recent years due to its ability to grow through concrete, posing a threat to manmade constructions everywhere such as roads and building foundations. The tastiest edible parts are the young shoots that come up in the spring. They are extremely nutritious and contain lots of vitamin C and resveratrol. The latter is a potent antioxidant that has previously gotten attention for being in red wine (grape skins), but Japanese knotweed contains several times more. You can now even buy resveratrol supplements made from Japanese knotweed. It’s time to rethink our relationship with weeds and how to deal with them in healthy way!
5) Pokeroot, Phytolacca americana
Pokeroot is a poisonous plant that demonstrates all the subtlety of food versus medicine versus poison. The whole mature plant including the fruit is poisonous containing lots of saponins, soap-like compounds, that in high doses seriously disrupt the digestive system. However, the young shoots can be eaten, although I wouldn’t recommend it if you didn’t know what you were doing. In small doses the root is prepared as a tincture (alcoholic extract) in herbal medicine. There isn’t a lot of scientific evidence in humans to support the traditional usage of Pokeroot, but it was widely used by the Eclectic Physicians of the 19th century. The Eclectic Physicians were serious frontier doctors, very much informed by local Native Americans, who put herbal medicine to the test in real life or death situations. They kept fabulously detailed records of how they treated patients, preserving that knowledge into the modern era. Pokeroot supports lymphatic drainage and is best used where lymph nodes are enlarged and in conditions with a lot of pus, like severe acne.