Category Archives: gardening

Wild-Spirited Gardening

Garden Penstemon Milkweed

Rocky Mountain Penstemon and Showy Milkweed

The magic of wilderness allures herbalists everywhere. There is nothing like walking through misty woodlands on a cool spring morning with beloved plants emerging from their winter slumber or strolling through familiar desert canyons singing summer’s song with a cacophony of colors dotting the landscape. Herbalists, like all lovers of nature, are drawn to the forests, mountains, canyons, stream banks, and meadows where wild plants grow. Walking through places where you know the individual plant beings all around you is comforting and welcoming. They beckon our return again and again. Wildcrafting herbal medicine is an important practice for many herbalists that connects us to the wild hearts of the plants we love. Yet many of us are finding local ecosystems in flux with habitats changing as weather patterns take unexpected twists that deviate from our anticipated norms. Here in the desert Southwest that has meant less reliable raGarden Pleurisy Yarrow Mulleinins, increased fire danger, and shifting plant communities. In the last decade, I have seen once-robust plant colonies shrink and water-loving plants disappear from many locations in the surrounding high desert wilderness. While I have always been conservation-minded, this observation has prompted me to shift the focus of my work with plants and students. In order to promote more sustainable practices, I have migrated toward a love of urban weeds, wild commoners, and the cultivation of medicinal herbs in an urban garden that reflects the wisdom and beauty of the surrounding wild lands.


For the desert valley herbalist, a sustainable herbalism practice incorporates both the principals of bioregionalism and also water-wise gardening. As a bioregional herbalist, I rely heavily on plants that are offering themselves to me in my daily life; those that call out to me as I walk the urban sidewalks, trek across desert sands, and hike through wooded mountainsides. For example, Wild Lettuce (Lactuca serriola) demonstrates a quiet acceptance for our need to pave, manage, and control nature by growing out of the cracks of parking lots as well as a stubborn resistance to be tamed or dominated by it. Her medicine offers comfort for the nervous sysGarden Poppies Bee Balmtem, pain, persistent coughs, and sleep disturbances. Chaparral (Larrea tridentata) sits quietly under the boiling desert sun, holding the secrets of ancient wisdom acquired through long life and overcoming difficult living conditions. She also provides a potent surge of healing power in the face of the most tenacious infections. Figwort (Scrophularia lanceolata) has become a reliable friend of the mountain meadows, always there for me, even in the hottest and driest of summers. Her medicine has moved many past stagnant plateaus in healing severe or chronic wounds. I harvest these and other abundant plants from my local bioregion with great reverence and gratitude. Every wilderness excursion, whether it is to exposed desert plains or mystical mountain lakes, leaves me feeling humbled by the vastness of life around me. I am consistently filled with awe for the mysteries that abound.


While working with these and other common plants from the surrounding wild lands, I also feel an equally potent bond with my backyard botanicals. Attempting to take the pressure off of wild populations of more sensitive plants, I have created a medicine garden that incorporates what I have learned from my walks in the countryside and recreates some aspects of the wilderness in my own urban land. Companion planting, as taught to me by the wild plants themselves, is a main tenet of my approach to creating urban habitat for mountain herbs in a hot desert valley. During my visits to favorite mountain locations I have observed the relationship between plants and their local habitat preferences. I often find Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) growing with Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) in open hillsides or with Beebalm (Monarda menthaefolia), along intermittent streaArnica flowers gardenmbeds. These plants grow in harmony side-by-side in my garden as well. Other plants, such as Arnica (Arnica chamissonis), simply need more shade to attenuate the higher ambient temperatures it experiences in the lower elevations of my desert valley garden. To provide this and recreate the dappled light effect of the forest, I have planted Arnica underneath a shade ramada covered with mature Clematis vines (Clematis ligusticifolia). The soil also has been adapted to carry more organic matter through yearly mulching of tree leaves and other decomposing plant debris. Water is delivered by drip irrigation to supply the vital fluids of the once wetter years when monsoonal rains consistently provided afternoon downpours in late summer. Garden tending practices are also influenced by the wild habits of plants. Allowing them to complete their reproductive cycles, practicing minimal intervention until harvesting time, and allowing plants to migrate around the garden according to their own will creates a wild-spirited environment driven in large part by the plants themselves. It is also a lesson for me in letting go, watching things unfold, avoiding the temptation to try to control nature, and most importantly accepting my place in the wild landscape. Even the rocks used as stepping-stones to provide passage through the semi-wild botanical haven have been collected from wild places. Some contain the fossilized hints of an even wilder ancient past when Permian era oceans ruled the landscape. My Southwest medicine garden is home to a variety of native mountain dwellers, many of which are sensitive in their local wild habitats here in central New Mexico. Recreating higher elevation wilderness in my backyard are Arnica, Angelica (Angelica grayi), Bee Balm, Pulsatilla (Pulsatilla patens), Skullcap (Scutellaria spp.), St, John’s Wort (Hypericum formosum), Self Heal (Prunella vulgaris), Lobelia (Lobelia cardinalis), Rudbeckia (RudbecGarden Yerba Mansa Red CLoverkia lacinata), Hops (Humulus americanus), Choke Cherry (Prunus virginiana), Geranium (Geranium richardsonii), Goldenrod (Soldago canadensis), Yarrow, Valerian (Valeriana spp.), Raspberry (Rubus spp.), Penstemon (Penstemon strictus) and Elder (Sambucus nigra) among many others. I use these plants in remedies on their own or combined with ceremonial harvests of wild counterparts to imbue the preparation with the true spirit of wilderness.


This is how I have recreated the desert mountain habitats within a lower-elevation urban environment. However, the medicine does not stop there. As you might already know, planting a medicinal herb garden has rewards well beyond the harvest. The deepest and most profound medicine comes from the time spent together. Medicine whispers are perceived by the heart and produce effects that can scarcely be explained by words. The reciprocal relationship that one develops with the plants creates a cycle of symbiotic caring and nurturing of the soul as we are reminded of the interconnection between all beings. The awakening of the senses through smells, colors, textures, and plant songs produces a sensation of vitality and love of life that invigorates the one who sits quietly enough to receive this gift. Many a plant can produce these effects but, for me, Yerba Mansa (Anemopsis californica) is an herb that provides all of this and more. I have planted this desert bosque beauty extensively in my garden not only because of the powerful medicine it provides, but also due to its sensitivity in the wild. It is a small herbaceous perennial that suffers from flood plain development and current water management practices. Water diversion and urban flood control policies prevent the Rio Grande from meandering and flooding, which in turn decreases the wet boggy habitats that Yerba Mansa favors. In my garden, however, I can easily provide suitable habitat and I am amply rewarded with her potent medicine and unparalleled beauty. As many of you Lobelia planthave no doubt already realized, the more time you spend with medicine plants, the less you need to use them. You get your medicine by simply being together.   One evening as I was finishing up my work in the garden, I saw the energetic glow of Yerba Mansa. Not that I could see it, per se. I felt in my heart colors I had never seen before. I had been immersed in the pleasing pungent scent of Yerba Mansa roots for hours as I harvested Raspberry shoots and Globemallow roots (Sphaeralcea angustifolia) from her immediate vicinity. Just touch the soil where Yerba Mansa grows and you become deeply affected by her healing aroma. As dusk fell that evening, her white bracts emitted a radiant glow and she beamed so luminously, I felt for a moment as if we were one.

While this moment with Yerba Mansa was a powerful one, it is not an isolated occurrence. As the growing season progresses, plants evolve into new stages of development, and more wild-spirited revelations connect me to the larger landscape beyond. I feel the warmth of the afternoon sun in the golden spires of Greek Mullein (Verbascum olympicum). I smell the rich legacy of New Mexico’s herbal heritage in Bee Balm’s leaves. I hear the heartbeat of all wild animals in the wings of the hummingbirds hovering over Autumn Sage (Salvia gregii). I transcend time and place, hypnotized by Passionflowers (Passiflora incarnata). I see the divine colors of the high desert sunset in Yerba Mansa petals. A Sunflower stalk (Helianthus annuus) reaching for the clouds proposes the idea that there are eternities of plants inside each one of her seeds. As the awareness of our inter-being penetrates me, I am invigorated by all the energy of the universe that is present within us. At once I feel connected with the earth, the sky, and the cosmos beyond. I sit contentedly in my peaceful garden and stare endlessly into the heart of life. While in my garden I am completely enraptured by the physical beauty of the scene and enveloped by the ancient wisdom of plants. What better medicine is there anywhere?

Mullein Greek trio


Anyone can create such a healing garden that will connect oneself with the beauty and wisdom of wilderness. In fact, it is our imperative to do so not only for our own sake, but also for the benefit of wild lands in a changing world. Sustainability is a hot topic in all areas of our lives theses days. For herbalists, that means arming ourselves with the knowledge of our local ecosystems and knowing the status of plants in our surrounding areas. Living in a marginal environment with volatile weather and long-term drought, I have come to understand the quiet beauty of desert plants in their rugged life journey. While ethical wildcrafting practices are important everywhere, they are of paramount importance here where even hearty Horehound is vulnerable to persistently dry soils. I am fortunate to live in a crossroads of western ecosystems that includes the Rocky Mountains, Colorado Plateau, the Great Plains, and the Desert Basin and Range. With all this plant diversity that surrounds me, I am filled with awe for the learning possibilities that nature provides every time I enter the wilderness. Regardless of having access to an incredible variety of plants and habitats, I am aware that all are vulnerable to changes in weather and climate. Deepening our relationship with Passionflower vines 1common local plants and cultivating our own urban wilderness helps sensitive plants to continue to thrive in shifting environments and provides a platform for sustainable herbal practice now and in the future. While this may be the origin of my desert valley herbalism practice with weeds, commoners, and cultivated herbs at the heart of my work, it has evolved into much more than that. It has become a practice that sustains me in body, mind, and spirit. I have experienced the beauty and wisdom of the wild landscape reflected in my own backyard.


This essay was originally published as: Saville, Dara. (2014). Gardening Natives. Plant Healer Quarterly, 3(3), 54-61.  Check out my ongoing Plant Healer column, Of Wilderness and Gardens, for more musings on plants and wilderness.


Photos from top to bottom: Yarrow, Butterfly Milkweed, Mullein; Bee Balm, Poppies, Chamomile; Arnica and Creeping Thyme; Yerba Mansa and Red Clover; Lobelia; Greek Mullein; Passionflower.


For the Love of Weeds ~ Wild Lettuce and Company

A weed by almost any account…

Horehound the weed-2What do we mean when we call a plant a ‘weed’? Usually that indicates a plant that is growing where we don’t want it to be, a plant that spreads prolifically, or a plant that competes with others we regard to be of higher value. This Horehound (Marrubium vulgare, see photo) certainly is growing with great abundance, having spread throughout my garden on its own accord. It also grows out of the cracks in the concrete walkway leading to the shed in the hinter-lands of my yard. I’ll admit that it also crowds out some plants with more demure personalities. But what about the connotation of the word ‘weed’? Usually it is negative and that is where some of us beg to differ. Weeds, as a group, are my favorite plants. They offer nutrition, medicine, food and habitat for pollinators and other wildlife, and they hold down the fragile desert topsoil after disturbance. I love their tenacity, persistence, and their willingness to stand by our side, regardless of how destructive we may be to the natural cycles of things. I feel that they accept us as we are and offer so much, so freely. Horehound for example, is a pure beauty. Not in the traditional sense, of course. Its got tiny, barely noticeable flowers and produces annoying burrs that get stuck in everyone’s clothes and hair. But that wild form and that penetrating aroma! One whiff and I am taken back to times and places of healing and recovery. Bitterness, expectoration, and the bees simply love her.


Weeds are inevitable in our lives so why not make the most of it? Just like our digestive Arugula wild Bosque flower croppedsystems, which are colonized by microbes, so too will our gardens and urban areas become prime habitat for opportunistic plants.  As with our own bodies, we want those to be helpful or useful organisms and lucky for us most common weeds are actually very valuable plants.   Many of those pesky weedy plants growing in your yard and garden make tasty and nutritious foods and they make great medicine, too.  As foods, many weedy greens, flowers, and seeds add an array of wild-spirited phyto-nutrients to your diet.  Wild Lettuce (Lactuca serriola) and Wild Spinach (Chenopodium) are two of the most abundant wild vegetables that make up my spring and summer diet.  Harvesting invasive mustards such as London Rocket (Sisymbrium irio) and Wild Arugula flowers (see photo) are another way to add easy wild beauty to your meals while incorporating a little punch of mustard flavor.  Likewise, Siberian Elm (Ulmus pumila, see photo) and Common Mallow (Malva neglecta) provide a seemingly endless supply of tasty green seeds plentiful for the picking during early spring and mid-summer. I particularly enjoy using weeds in my food and medicine because of their wonderfully tenacious and persistent nature and their ability to adapt to wide-rangingSiberian Elm seeds 3 conditions, thriving in even the most inhospitable of environments. Weeds are unique and intriguing in their paradoxical way of being in the natural world. They are stubborn in their resilience, yet yielding in their willingness to be harvested and included in any herbal arts. I like imbuing my meals and formulas with this sort of life force and plant personality because we all need a little more durability and adaptability at times. If there were ever herbs to help us meet success against the odds, we will find that medicine in ordinary weeds.



Many of our most common medicinal weeds are so adaptable and successful that they are seen ubiquitously across much of the country. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), Plantain (Plantago major), and Clovers (Trifolium spp.) are all plants that are widely familiar and help to create shared experiences and herbal practices for people across the continent. However, what plants are considered to be weeds varies depending on where you Geranium filaree patch 2live. For example, Burdock (Arctium minus), St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum), Mullein (Verbascum thapsus), Self Heal (Prunella vulgaris), Nettles (Urtica dioica), and Dock (Rumex crispus) are all useful herbs that are considered to be weeds in some regions. Local medicinal weeds most commonly seen in my area include Dandelion, Sunflower (Helianthus annuus), Plantain, Redstem Filaree (Erodium cicutarium, see photo), Shepherd’s Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris), Sweet Clover (Melilotus spp.), Common Mallow (Malva neglecta, see photo), Siberian Elm, and Wild Lettuce among others. Collecting a basket full of these weedy herbs will provide you a wide variety of medicinal effects including nutritives, diuretics, choleretics, astringents, demulcents, emollients, styptics, lymph and blood movers, stomachics, immune modulators, anti-spasmodics, and more. These persistent plants can be made into tinctures, salves, creams, sprays, tea, food, liniment, poultices, soaks, and anything else you can dream up.  Working withMalva neglecta flower2 weeds, we integrate ourselves more deeply with our immediate surroundings, we create a more sustainable and cost-effective practice, and we can produce formulas for health and well-being while alleviating the pressure on less common medicinal plants.  In a world of changing plant communities and growing human populations, I am always grateful for those plants that are willing to grow alongside us in the perpetual and dramatic landscape alterations that we make.


Wild Lettuce:

Wild Lettuce (Lactuca serriola) is one of the local weeds that I most commonly call upon in my herbal practice. I love its scruffy yet elegant form, its an abundant and nutritious spring green, and its medicine is as good as any of the other herbs that I find growing around me.  It was one of the first herbs that transformed my thinking about weeds years ago.  While pregnant with one of my children, I came down with a vicious and unrelenting cough that rocked my third trimester world.  My herbal mentor at the time gave me a formula that effectively relieved the coughing when nothing else worked.  It was a weedy remedy that included Wild Lettuce.  That experience changed my life as I began to realize the power that resided iWild Lettuce rosette.JPGn some of the overlooked and under appreciated living beings all around me everyday.

Wild Lettuce is a prolific reproducer that thrives in the most hostile of environments. I often see this plant growing happily out of cracks in the sidewalk, in vacant lots, or along the busiest of highways. In its early stages (see upper photo) Wild Lettuce can be confused with Dandelion or other weedy green rosettes, so look for the spiny hairs on the midrib under the leaves and on the mature stem (see lower photo). In the spring (around here that’s March and April), Wild Lettuce leaves are still young, supple, and good tasting.  Gather them for cooking at this time befoWIld Lettuce leaves and pricklesre the central main stem begins to form.  Use it as you would any other leafy green in your daily culinary arts (see bottom photo).  Once the central stalk grows, it becomes rather bitter tasting and much more fibrous in texture.  Now it is moving into its medicinal phase.  This plant’s mild pain relieving action and its anti-spasmodic properties make it a great addition to any formula for coughing, cramping, or other twitchy uncomfortable situations. I also add the tincture to sleep formulas, especially for those who toss and turn at night. In order to incorporate the milky white secretions from the woodier parts of the plant, tincture Wild Lettuce fresh and include the main stem. This plant can grow in dense stands where ample water resources exist (such as your garden) so make sure to look for mildew, which can grow on the leaves and appears as a white powdery film.

Ready to get started?  Try making your own Wild Lettuce Polenta Casserole.  This is a simple and versatile recipe that can be prepared with endless variations according to the foods that are in season around you.  Its gluten free and you can make it vegan by replacing the butter with coconut oil and leaving out the cheese.  Here’s what you’ll need:

Polenta Layer:

  • 4 cups of water
  • 1 1/2 cups cornmeal
  • 2 TBSP of butter or cooking oil of choice
  • a sprinkling of dried crushed Bee Balm (Monarda) or Oregano
  • a sprinkling of Cayenne to your taste
  • 1/2 cup pecorino cheese (optional)
  • a pinch of salt

Vegetable Layer (Use vegetables of your choice, but here’s what I like.):

  •  1 to 2 chopped onions
  • 3 cups of chopped mushrooms
  • 2 cups of chopped Wild Lettuce leaves
  • 2 or 3 chopped garlic cloves
  • add more herbs of your choice including more Monarda, fresh Basil, or Rosemary
  • enough oil to saute the vegetables

Cheese Layers:

  • 2 cups of grated cheese  (I like to use sharp cheddar, but it comes out nicely with others, too, including dill havarti.)


  • Add more color with sliced tomatoes or thinly sliced red bell peppers.
  • Add protein by sprinkling with ground nuts and seeds such as almonds or hemp seeds.
Wild Lettuce Polenta Casserole

Making Wild Lettuce Polenta Casserole


  • Cook your polenta and layer it on the bottom of your casserole pan.  To cook the polenta, bring the water to a boil and add the remaining polenta layer ingredients, whisking constantly.  Cook this mixture on a low simmer, whisking frequently, for about 15 to 20 minutes.  It should be smooth, not gritty in texture, and the water should be fully absorbed. When it is finished, put it in the bottom of an oiled casserole pan.
  • In another pot, saute the onions, garlic, and herbs for the vegetable layer.  Add the Wild Lettuce leaves and a small amount of water.  Cover and cook for several minutes.  Then add the mushrooms and continuance cooking, covered, until the vegetable are to your liking.
  • Back to the casserole pan with the polenta in it. Layer half of the cheese on top of the polenta and then add the vegetable layer on top of that.  Cover it with the rest of the cheese and your other toppings.
  • Cover the casserole with foil and bake in an oven preheated to 350 degrees for about 10 minutes or until the cheese is melted.

by Dara Saville, April 2016

To learn more about how to identify and work with weeds as food and medicine, join us for our next round of Local Medicinal Weeds, Wild Food Foraging, or any of our other classes.


The Medicine Wreath ~ Health and Ceremony

Approaching winter and a season of holiday celebrations means gifts, decorations, and gatherings with friends. It is also an opportune time for reflecting on what matters most to us as we take leave from routine and make space for as much hibernation as our modern lives will allow.  I use this time to make handcrafted gifts for those closest to me and I also look to winter herbs that I can incorporate into my seasdsc_0223_med_hronal ceremonies and rituals.  One of the rituals I anticipate most eagerly is making a medicine wreath on the Winter Solstice.  Collecting the plants for the wreath is a process that I undertake with awareness and appreciation.  I walk through my garden of mostly dormant plants and I hear the winter whispers: the roots spreading and mingling underground, seeds laying in wait for warmer days, and the stillness of the latest frost that has settled over the land. I give thanks for these plants and the goodness that they bring into my life and I also allow myself to let go of what I have lost during the year.  Sometimes this may be a wonderful experience to say good-bye to an unpleasant job or to see your child grow out of diapers.  Other times the ceremony may take on more profound meaning as we process more difficult losses such as having a family member or pet pass on.  Winter is a natural time of acknowledging the cycle of life; a time of recognizing all things coming into and out of being.  It provides an occasion for honoring what has been; what is gone.  Gathering the medicine wreath herbs is a process that embraces this connection between the past and the present as I take last season’s dry flower heads and dormant leaves and combine them with the pungent evergreen still full of vitality.  It is a ritual that centers on acceptance of change, slowing down, and living life with deliberation and awareness.



The plants chosen for the wreath are offered by my medicine garden.  Last year’s wreath was made of sprigs of Juniper and Rosemary, Oregon Grape and Strawberry leaves, Horehound, Echinacea seed heads, and some Snowberries and Salmonberries.  I select for color, aroma, and texture as well as for a plant’s healing properties. Juniper and Rosemary provide a rich evergreen background along with enduring aromas and antiseptic properties.  Oregon Grape is a staple herb in my practice, treasured both as an evergreen garden plant and a multi-use medicine that provides tonification of the mucous membranes and protection against a multitude of microbes. Strawberry leaves’ red tone brings color to an otherwise drab-looking winter garden and calms upset stomachs and improves digestion as a tea herb. Horehound looks after respiratory health during cold and flu season and provides more healing aromatherapy as we come and go from our home.  The highly esteemed Echinacea seed heads honor the universal healing process that they promote in our bodies.  All these herbs are brought together to safeguard the health and wellbeing of everyone who passes through our front door.

My family made this wreath last year.  Underneath everything is an old wire hanger shaped into a circle. We used some fine hemp cord to attach all the Juniper and Rosemary to the hanger and then added the rest of the plants by tucking their stems into the evergreens.  We discussed the ancient ancestral roots of our wreath-making ceremony and wondered what Roman families put in their wreaths over two thousand years ago as they honored the return of the light and the greenery it would bring.  During our winter wreath-making ritual we see that we are the continuum of what has been. We know that nothing is ever truly lost.

By Dara Saville, December 2014