Home   |   About Us   |   GROW: The Book   |   Blog   |   Join Us   |   Shop   |   Forum Rules

Variation in plant properties? — The Grow Network Community
We are franker towards others than towards ourselves.

- Friedrich Nietzsche

Variation in plant properties?

MaryRoweMaryRowe Posts: 361 ✭✭✭✭
edited October 2020 in Herbal Medicine-Making

This is a newbie question, and may head too far into the woods in more ways than one, but....

I am just getting serious about learning herbal medicine, though I have been making natural dyes from plants for the yarn I spin and the fabric I weave for most of my adult life. One thing I have learned is that the same plant grown in different places can have quite different properties. For example, the pokeberries that grow in dry, poor soil on the east end of my farm give bluish-purple hues, while those grown in the richer, damper soil on the north side give pinkish-red colors. The wild bidens from around the pond give bright yellows, while those growing in the yard give intense oranges. There was a hedge of five privet bushes at a house I rented years ago before I found my farm. Four of the bushes gave the usual privet colors-boring yellows and olive drabs-- but the one on the end--though it seemed to be exactly like the others-- gave an intense spring green. Cuttings from this plant when rooted and grown in other locations just gave the usual privet colors, so I figure this particular plant must have had its roots down into a pocket of some mineral to give it this property.

So how serious is--and how do you deal with-- this kind of variability in the medicinal properties of herbs? On one hand, plants of the same type must all have the same general properties, or the books and other guides we use wouldn't work. On the other hand, the differences between purple and red, yellow and orange etc. matter to me, and comparable differences in medical properties matter even more. Is there a way to learn the variables in a given plant species, other than years of experience working with the plants in a particular location?


  • toreytorey Posts: 2,571 admin

    @MaryRowe Great question. You are right in that plants all have the same general properties but a lot does depend on soil quality and other environmental conditions. Many indigenous healers have specific, sacred locations that they will go to for certain plants even if that plant grows somewhere closer to them. But western herbalists have similar practices. Like real estate it can be Location, Location, Location.

    Part of it is choosing a harvest location that is away from any sort of pollution and is in optimal growing conditions for the particular species. Part of it is intuition. Part of it is years of experience working with the plants.

    For you it is a bit easier because you can see the results in the colours right away. Medicine making can take weeks and if you are comparing preparations from different pickings, you need to have a method of assessing the potency of each of the medicines. Lab testing could assist but in my experience that is a very expensive proposition. When you have worked with plants for a long time, you will develop a relationship with the plants and they will “tell” you if they are a potent medicine.

    The best thing is good record keeping. So you will know where you harvested a medicine from, what the seasonal weather is for that particular year, the time of day and season, if it was a particularly good batch.

    Sorry I can’t offer a more scientific explanation. 

  • judsoncarroll4judsoncarroll4 Posts: 3,221 admin

    Very generally speaking, I believe that herbs that grow wild, in higher elevations are more potent than the same herbs grown in a garden, regularly watered. Of course, some herbs are found in swamps or prairies, so it depends on the species. But, many herbs can be grown in the garden with excellent results. Check out Richo Cech https://strictlymedicinalseeds.com/books/ Beyond that, evaluating the vibrancy and health of the individual plant is most important, it "viriditas" or life energy is the most important thing.

  • Jack_Went_SplatJack_Went_Splat Posts: 59 ✭✭✭
    edited September 2020

    @judsoncarroll4 Very interesting info you have put forth here. We are so fortunate to be living in the high mountain (7800 ft elev) desert here and are looking forward to discovering all the natural plants growing on the property as well as seeing what will grow with a small amount of cultivation.

  • MaryRoweMaryRowe Posts: 361 ✭✭✭✭

    Thank you both for these helpful suggestions! Certainly you have to be even more careful about location and growing conditions with medicinal herbs than with dye plants--I will gather elderberries from along the roadside for my dye vat, for example, which I would never do if I meant them for food or medicine. And then there is the best collecting time to think of--season of the year, stage of the plant's growth, time of day, even moon cycle according to the old-timers.

    I wasn't thinking so much about healthy/unhealthy or strong/weak plants and properties though, as merely different ones--like red and purple. And I expect you are right--that takes time, experience, and building a relationships with the plants. One of my main goals as I start to work with medicinal plants is to slow down, open up, and give the plant a chance to guide me. And I hadn't thought of it till you mentioned it, but good record-keeping has to be important. I haven't done that with my dyes--just depended on memory (which is NOT getting better with age!). Herbal medicine is much more complicated than plant dyes or culinary uses, and I mean to start keeping records now. The Richo Cech book looks very useful too. Thanks you both!

  • toreytorey Posts: 2,571 admin


    A lot of gardeners do soil testing to see what there gardens might be lacking. That is one way of knowing the mineral content of what your plants have available. There are signs of deficiencies that experienced gardeners will pick up on and know right away if their plants aren't getting enough of a certain mineral. But mineral content of soil alone won't help to determine the medicinal properties. I'm not very experienced with dye plants but would assume mineral content of the individual soils that the plants are grown in would contribute to the colour variation between plants of the same species. Please correct me if I am wrong in that assumption.

    There are volatile oils that make up the scent of many plants so you can sometimes tell the potency of a plant if it has more or less of an odour. This can indicate whether or not the desired properties are potent or not. The presence or lack of caretenoids or anthocyanins in some plants may be obvious in whether or not the flowers are vibrant and true to their colours. Although, for dye plants that may not be true.

    I have found when wild plants establish themselves really well in a particular area, it is an optimal growing area for that plant and it will be a good medicine as it is getting everything that it is supposed to have for the medicinal constituents to have developed. Plants will grow in marginal areas but not usually as prolifically as in optimal conditions, nor will the plants be as health or vigorous. Even at that, it will depend on environmental conditions as well. I did very little harvesting during the wildfire seasons of 2017-17 here because of, not only the ash fallout, but the sun was blocked for a good portion of the summer so plants were unable to have proper photosynthesis, affecting, in my opinion, the quality and potency of any of the medicines.

    AS @judsoncarroll4 has stated, some plants are often better wild harvested than garden species and plants from higher elevations may be better medicine. I know for one, that I wouldn't harvest Osha below 4500 feet. I also like to harvest my fireweed blossoms from a higher elevation, usually in the third or fourth year after a fire. They feel so much more alive and vibrant.

    And yes, a lot does have to do with the time of day, season or moon cycle. Some night blooming plants will be at their peak during that flowering period, so that is when they should be harvested. Different plant parts will be harvested at certain times of the year for higher medicinal value. It is fairly easy to test for Vitamin C content with litmus paper. Young spring conifer tips will be much higher in Vitamin C than later in the summer, although winter harvested needles are next highest in Vitamin C content. Roots are generally harvested in the fall when the plant has put its energies there for winter storage. Rose hips are better after a frost. Greens are harvested in the spring to capture that new growth potency.

    Sometimes you won't know until the medicine is made and then you will be able to see colour and possibly scent changes in the tincture or oil, along with the taste. You can taste the difference between a potent medicine and one that would be less effective or taste the difference in what a herb will be used for. Rosalee de la Foret is doing a Taste of Herbs course right now that focuses on taste as part of choosing a good herb for someone, so taste is a big part of learning about herbs and what they will be good for and how to use that taste to judge the potency. I just tested a tincture I made in 2011 and it tastes every bit as effective as when I made it, so I have no concerns about using it even 9 years later.

    I don't know if that helps explain it any better or not. Mostly good record keeping, especially as to whether the preparation has worked effectively or not. Again, experience. This is where herbal apprenticeships are very helpful.

  • MaryRoweMaryRowe Posts: 361 ✭✭✭✭

    These are all good points, well worth keeping in mind, and I agree, in the end it has to come down to experience and record-keeping. I expect that different factors matter more or less with different plants. With some dye plants, I can tell by the scent of the vat how clear and true my color will be--goldenrod is probably the easiest for that--but with others the scent doesn't seem to matter. Some plants, like pokeberry, give more intense colors in drought years, but other plants, including some other berries, give better colors in wet years. Mineral content of the soil certainly does matter with dye plants; I wonder if I will be able to find parallels between how the soil in a certain area affects both the dye and the medicinal properties of a given plant.....A plan is beginning to form in my head from this discussion that maybe the way i should proceed is to come up with as complete a list as I can of factors influencing a plant's properties, then work with one plant at a time till I get to know it well as a medicinal, looking at how each of those factors affect it. (Probably just re-inventing the wheel, but it seems like a bright shiny new idea to me at the moment anyway.)

  • LaurieLovesLearningLaurieLovesLearning Moderator Manitoba, Canada 🍁 zone 3, PrairiesPosts: 3,678 admin

    @MaryRowe I think that sounds like a great idea! 🥰

  • toreytorey Posts: 2,571 admin

    @MaryRowe Many herbalists will recommend that you learn one plant at a time and really get to know it before moving on to other plants. When I do plant walks and there are a lot of inexperienced participants, I will always say at the beginning for them to pick one or two plants that we find and focus on learning those. A plant walk can be very overwhelming for newbies, thinking that you have to absorb everything that I speak about.

    To be able to tell what a batch of dye will be like, just from the scent, means you already have a very good relationship with the plants that you are using. Switching to assessing potency of medicines should be easier for you than others who are new to experimenting with herbal medicines.

    One other thing. Sometimes you will give a herb and it will have little to no effect. Doesn't mean there is anything wrong with the medicine. It could be that the patient is resistant to this medicine for some reason. It may have to do with pharmaceuticals or diet/lifestyle or simply the person's constitution. You could give the same herb to someone else with great results. So when you have a group of herbs that will work for a certain condition or illness, you have to narrow it down to which one is most appropriate and will be most effective for this patient. And a small amount of herbal medicines can have the opposite of the desired effect on the individual. For example, valerian is a great sedative but for a very small percentage of the population, it will excite rather than calm. Nothing wrong with the medicine, or the person, just a different reaction.

    More complicated than prescribing a pharmaceutical.

    I also wanted to say that I look forward to more discussions on the subject of dyeing. I have a wheel, although I haven't spun anything in a very long time, but natural dyes were one of the things that intrigued me about spinning my own wool. But I am familiar with some of the colours that might result from my experience with the colour that appear in tinctures or oils.

    What colours of dye does yarrow give? I know it has a blue hue in oils but wondering if that comes out as a dye?

  • MaryRoweMaryRowe Posts: 361 ✭✭✭✭

    @torey I haven't worked much with yarrow because there is not a lot of it growing around here (you need a large pot full of your plant for a good dye bath) and I try to conserve the few stands I have on my land because yarrow is so useful for other things. It's one of the few medicinals I know anything about--I've been out repairing the fence, for example, nicked my finger with a tool, and rather than hiking back to the house for antiseptic and a band-aide, wrapped my finger in some yarrow and a plantain leaf till I got done. I also make my own smudge sticks, and like to include yarrow in those.

    But natural plant dying is a truly addictive hobby, and I have experimented with pretty much every type of plant on my 30 acres. My yarrow experiments never yielded colors worth sacrificing my few yarrow stands for. I got yellow with alum mordant, gold with tin, and dark greens with copper and iron mordants. But there are many plants that will give those colors--no need to sacrifice such a valuable medicinal as yarrow for them. I never heard of anyone getting blue from it (true red and blue are the hardest colors to get from natural dyes) but I met a lady at a sheep-to-shawl event once who had some alpaca wool dyed a lovely chestnut brown, and she said she got that from the cultivated yarrow you get at the nursery, using the tannin from oak galls as a mordant. (I kind of suspect that the color was due as much to the oak galls as the yarrow, but then I wasn't the one who dyed the yarn.)

    Natural dyes are truly fascinating. I'll start a thread over in the DYI forum and see if anybody else would like to talk dyes with us....

    --And thanks for the reminder about the variability in individual responses to herbal medicines. I sort of knew about that once, but it had long since slipped my mind. All the many variables with medicinal herbs can be overwhelming to the newbie for sure. But I think it is important to be aware of them from the start all the same.

  • dottile46dottile46 Posts: 425 ✭✭✭

    @MaryRowe great questions. I've read that if you "coddle" medicinal plants they tend to have "weaker" medicine than those that live more naturally. Never thought about where they plant themselves as making that much difference.

  • MaryRoweMaryRowe Posts: 361 ✭✭✭✭

    @dottile46 I have some land (and no near neighbors to complain about what it looks like), so I am able to let the wild plants I use for food and dyes grow wherever they want to, and arrange my garden and yard around them. When I first moved out here years ago, I tried "corralling" my favorite wild plants into areas convenient for me, but found that whether I tried transplanting or growing from seed, my efforts were rarely as successful as just letting the plants choose where they want to grow.

    Some plants are very particular about the conditions they like, only grow in a narrow range of places, and their properties, as dye plants at least, seem to be pretty consistent from plant to plant. Other plants, like pokeberry and bidens, grow in a surprising range of soil conditions and micro-climates, and the properties of individual plants--again, in my experience with them as dye plants--vary just as much.

    Interesting that "coddled" medicinal plants may have weaker "medicine". I have read that is true of many culinary herbs too--less flavor if you give them too much care. I know that many--but certainly not all--dye plants produce more intense colors in drought years when they are stressed.

Sign In or Register to comment.