Weed or Feed? Identifying Edible Herbs
By Lynn Carrick
Walking in my own front yard, which I must admit is not traditionally landscaped, I can find hundreds of varieties of wildflowers and herbs. It's quite a surprise to find out what interesting and unusual plants we have growing right under our noses. But many plants have near "twins", the effects of which are vastly different, so it is important to be sure of them before feeding or eating them or using them in some medicinal preparation. Spending a little time in my yard with a good field guide and a magnifying glass or jeweler's loupe helped me to identify almost all of the plants that grow there.
Horses seem to identify useful or nutritious herbs mainly by smell, which is fortunate, since a horse's vision was not designed for this purpose. Taste is likely another factor in the identification, as these two senses are so closely linked. Physical shapes, colors and other attributes of herbs, however, have been the main identifying characteristics for humans for many centuries. Tasting an unidentified plant could have drastic results, so it's essential to be sure of the species you are examining.
Flowers that grow on herbs provide significant and obvious identifying characteristics; however, blooms don't last long, in most cases, and the highest benefit of the herb may be achieved at some point in its growing cycle other than the flowering stage. It's very important to become familiar with a plant throughout its life so that you can identify it any time of year.
Within the pages of Natural Horse Magazine over the past months, many herbs have been mentioned as being edible to equines. Let's take a closer look at some of them: (See sidebar for definitions of the terms used to describe plant parts.)
Alfalfa; Medicago sativa - (unsurpassed source of micronutrients, with high protein, vitamin, and mineral content) This perennial plant is not only widely cultivated but is also found growing wild on the borders of fields and in low valleys. A smooth straight stem grows 12 to 18 inches tall from an elongated taproot. The leaves are pinnate and trifoliate with oblong-obovate or linear-oblong leaflets. Blue or purple flowers in racemes appear from June to August and eventually produce spirally coiled seed pods.
Burdock; Arctium lappa, Arctium minus - (helps with blood disorders, and toxic conditions that result in skin eruptions; helps liver and kidney function; is cleansing; a good digestive aid; also used for arthritis, eczema, rheumatism) Burdock can be found all over the northern US and Europe. The long, fleshy gray-brown root is white on the inside and gives rise to a furrowed reddish stem with fuzzy branches. In the first growing year of this biennial plant, it will only have basal leaves, but in the second year, stem leaves appear. Both types of leaf are cordate, green and hairy on top. The underside is downy gray. Loose corymbose clusters of purple flowers appear from July to September. This is the all-too-familiar plant that gets the spiny, pine-cone-like burrs on it in late summer that get caught in the manes and tails and cling to saddle pads.
Calendula; Calendula officinalis - (excellent blood-cleansing and antifungal actions, widely used for skin and gastric complaints) Calendula is basically a garden plant which bears large yellow or orange terminal flower heads from June to October. It has an angular, branched stem covered in fine hairs that grows one to two feet high. Its leaves are alternate, sessile, spatulate or oblanceolate, dentate with widely spaced teeth, and hairy.
Chicory; Cichorium intybus - (leaves are rich in nutrients; has a beneficial effect on the liver; general conditioning tonic; aids digestion) This perennial can be found cultivated in both the US and Europe, as well as growing wild along roads and in waste areas. Stems, leaves and roots all contain a bitter, milky juice. The rootstock is yellow on the outside and white inside. The stems are stiff, angular and branching. Leaves near the base of the plant are lanceolate and coarsely toothed, while the leaves nearer the top of the plant are whole. From early summer to mid autumn, chicory produces light-blue to violet-blue flowers with terminally toothed rays.
Clover, Red; Trifolium pratense - (general tonic, promotes healthy coat; contains calcium, essential oils) This is another perennial plant which is common all over North America and Europe. Its reddish stems grow from a short rootstock and are covered with flattened white hairs. The leaves are palmate, both at the base and along the stems, and bear three oval to oblong-oval or obovate, minutely toothed leaflets which sometimes have white blotches on them. The flowers range from rose-purple to magenta and in some varieties nearly white and grow in a dense ovoid head.
Comfrey; Symphytum officinale - (highly nutritious; useful for preventing foal scours, and for lactating mares) Comfrey is a perennial and is commonly found in moist places in the US and Europe. From May to August, whitish or pale purplish flowers with a tubular corolla not unlike the finger of a glove grow in forked racemes. Its rootstock is fleshy and white with a thick clear juice inside while the outside is black. The hairy stems are angular and bear bristly, oblong lanceolate leaves. Tongue shaped basal leaves can also be noted, usually lying flat on the ground.
Echinacea; Echinacea angustifolia - (purple coneflower, strengthens immune system, has antimicrobial activity, helps tune up lymph system) The most distinctive feature of this plant is its purple flower. It features from 12 to 20 large, spreading, dull-purple rays and a flattened cone made of hundreds of tubular florets. The stem is stout and bristly and its hairy leaves are linear-lanceolate, tapering on both ends. It is native to the US, growing from the prairie states northward to Pennsylvania.
Fennel; Foeniculum vulgare - (added to the diet of a lactating mare, can increase the quantity of the milk; the seeds can be added to the horse's food about twice a month to discourage worms) In the Mediterranean area and in Asia Minor, this biennial or perennial plant grows wild. In the US and Europe, it often escapes and grows wild, as it is commonly cultivated in those parts of the world. The yellow flowers grow in large compound umbels from July to October. Roots are carrot-shaped and the stem is stout and pithy, with a grooved stem and thin bluish stripes. The leaves are decompound, dissected into numerous filiform segments which give fennel its fine, airy look.
Fenugreek; trigonella foenum-graecum - (contains significant amounts of vitamin E which is reputed to aid in fertility as well as encourage milk production after the birth) The taproot of this widely cultivated plant is very long and sends up a round stem with few branches. Yellowish flowers appear in June and July. Trifoliate leaves on hairy petioles have obovate leaflets. Its fruit is a legume which has an unpleasant odor and sixteen seeds.
Goldenrod; Solidago virgaurea - (promotes appetite and aids digestion, for arthritis and rheumatism; coat conditioner and mild diuretic) European goldenrod is a perennial which grows to a height of three feet in dry meadows and woods and in sandy, sunny places in Europe and northern and western Asia. It has a short rootstock with numerous fibrous roots. The stem is hairy, round, and striped, and bears alternate, oblong-lanceolate, slightly serrate leaves. The familiar yellow flowers bloom from July to October in terminal racemes or panicled racemes.
Horseradish; Amoracia lapathifolia - (excellent remedy for poor circulation; worm expellant, appetite stimulant) This spicy plant was originally native to southeastern Europe and western Asia, but escaped from gardens to grow wild both there and all over the US. It has huge, ovate to lanceolate basal leaves that can grow up to 2 feet long and over 4 inches wide, pointing sharply upward. The edges of the leaves are slightly dentate, and do not have curly margins (to differentiate between this and curly dock). Leaves that grow higher on the stem are sessile, lanceolate, and much smaller. During June and July, terminal panicles of white flowers bloom that are four-petaled and radially symmetrical. Later, tiny ovate seed pods can be seen. The taproot is huge and thick and can grow many feet into the ground.
Licorice; glycyrrhiza glabra - (known to improve fertility in mares, but not used during pregnancy) This perennial plant grows wild in southern and central Europe and parts of Asia but is also cultivated in other parts of the world. The flowers may appear from June to August in axillary racemes and are yellowish or purplish. The stems are cylindrical at the bottom, but become angular, further from the base. The rootstock is woody, with a brown and wrinkled outside surface. Inside, the yellow pulp contains glycyrrhyzin which is 50 times sweeter than sugar. The leaves are alternate and odd-pinnate, with three to seven pairs of dark green, ovate leaflets.
Mint; Mentha spp. - (digestive aid, liver stimulant, antibacterial, antiparasitic) Many varieties of mint grow wild throughout the US and Europe. Peppermint (Mentha piperata) has a square, branching stem tinged with reddish purple, with opposite, dark green ovate to lanceolate, serrate leaves. Axillary and terminal spikes of small purple flowers bloom from July through September. The most significant identifying factor is the minty smell of the entire plant. Spearmint (Mentha spicata) has square, leafy, glabrous stems about two feet high which bear sessile or short-petioled oblong or ovate-lanceolate, unevenly serrate leaves. From July to September, slender, interrupted, leafless spikes of pale purple flowers appear.
Raspberry leaf; Rubus strigonus (wild) or Rubus ideaus (cultivated) - (helps tone the uterus and muscles of the pelvis; can be used near foaling to help with contractions, and is good for helping to avoid hemorrhage during delivery) Wild red raspberries grow all over North America and the cultivated variety can also be found growing wild in Europe. Both are shrubby plants with white flowers, though the wild variety has prickles on the stems. The cultivated variety has cordate leaflets, as opposed to the acuminate leaflets of the wild variety. The underside of the leaflets of the garden raspberry is also usually downy white. In each variety, the stems are biennial; the first year a stem grows, it does not bear the familiar red fruit which is made up of cohering drupelets.
Remember that some plants have very similar characteristics to others, so it's important to identify them carefully. Make sure all the characteristics match, and follow plants throughout their growing season, having the patience to be certain of their identity before gathering them for yourself or your horse. And while you're out on the trail, you might remember to keep an eye out for your horse's favorite delicacies as well. You might learn something about how he's feeling or what he needs, as he sniffs and tastes along the way. And don't forget to take time to smell the wildflowers!
acuminate - gradually tapering to a point
alternate - arranged singly at different points along a stem or axis
axillary - growing from the angle between a stem and branch, leaf stalk or flower stalk
basal - growing at the base of the plant
biennial - having a complete, two-year life cycle
compound - having more than one definable part
compound umbel - a flower formation in which each ray of the umbel has an umbel of its own at the tip
cordate - heart shaped
corolla - the petals of a flower
corymb - flat-topped flower cluster with pedicels of varying lengths
decompound - having compound divisions
dentate - sharply toothed, with the points of the teeth facing straight out
dissected - cut into fine segments
drupelets - a small drupe, or fleshy fruit with a single hard "stone" like a peach
filiform - threadlike
floret - small flower in a cluster
glabrous - smooth or shiny and not hairy
lanceolate - widening to a maximum point at or near the base and tapering at the tip, like the head of a lance
leaflet - a separate blade or division of a compound leaf
legume - a one celled fruit that splits along two seams, such as a pea.
linear - long and narrow, with nearly parallel sides
oblanceolate - having a pointed base and growing wider toward the top, and usually a rounded end.
oblong - a shape that is longer than it is wide, having rounded ends and roughly parallel sides
obovate - egg-shaped, but with the wider end at the tip rather than the base
ovate - shaped like an egg with the broad end at the base (near the stem)
ovoid - same as "ovate"
palmate - compounded, divided, lobed or ribbed so that the divisions or ribs spread out like a hand
panicle - a raceme compounded by branching
pedicel - the stalk of a single floret in a cluster
peduncle - flower or flower-cluster stalk
perennial - living through three or more seasons
petiole - leaf stalk
pinnate - having leaflets arranged in opposing rows along the petiole
raceme - long, often pointed, flower cluster in which flowers grow on pedicels which grow out from the peduncle
serrate - having toothed edges, the points of which angle toward the tip
sessile - having no stalk
shrubby - like a shrub, or woody plant with no definable stem
spatulate - having a narrow base with a broad, rounded end, like a spatula or spoon
spp. - abbreviation meaning "species"
taproot - single, central root which generally grows straight into the ground
terminal - growing from the tip or apex
trifoliate - composed of three leaflets
umbel - flower cluster having all rays originating from the same point and being more or less flat on top