Magical May Medicinals

Maybe I’m biased as a late-May baby (the 23rd, if you’re wondering), but the middle to end of the month of May is quite possibly one of the most magic-filled moments in the natural world. At this point, irises of all colors have made themselves known, trees are pretty much completely leafed out and full of color, and tentative summer flower buds are beginning to emerge above lush, green basal foliage. The birdsong is plentiful, bees are back to buzzing about, and tiny discoveries await hidden amongst the foliage and flowers of Pleasant Run and beyond.

Hidden amongst the large, boisterous blooms of peonies, giant alliums, columbines, and azaleas, some of the more inconspicuous species of flowering plants lurk in the shadows. Amongst them, some of the oldest and most historied plants in human cultivation with mystical lore. What they lack in floral features, they often make up for in ethnobotanical functionality (as well as some very attractive foliar qualities). This week, we’re exploring three foliage-friendly-finds that are prized primarily for their nearly-year-round attractive foliage, although arguably, the flowers are just as interesting if not more so due to their unassuming and succinct nature. Let’s get cozy with the subtleties of mid-to-late May: Alchemilla mollis ‘Thriller’, Galium odoratum, and Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Summer Wine’.

You know a plant is powerful when it receives its own write-up in the gardening column of The Guardian. If you weren’t already aware, Alchemilla mollis ‘Thriller’ is so much more than just a shade-tolerant groundcover with velvety soft foliage and tiny lemon-lime-yellow-green star-shaped flowers, resistant to browse by deer and rabbits and able to naturalize into a delightful patch wherever it’s happily established. The downy palmate leaves, which are present three of four Mid-Atlantic seasons, are known to elevate their textural interest a step further by gathering morning dew and rain droplets like translucent jewels.

Lady’s mantle dew that can be found on the leaf surfaces most spring mornings is said to obtain purifying, healing magic. For centuries, alchemists would carefully collect the droplets to incorporate as a base into their formulas. As you might notice, the word “alchemy” contains our protagonist plant right in the name – in fact, Alchemilla literally means “alchemy”, derived from the Arabic root, Alkemelych. This little plant is so bewitching that even its name has magic in it. Its common name, lady’s mantle, refers both to its association with the Virgin Mary as well as to its scalloped leaf margins that resemble that of a mantle – the cloak of anointment that an individual receives when called by God to fulfill a divine purpose.

Besides its magical history, there are legitimate healing properties that lady’s mantle possesses. The astringent properties are wonderful for tonifying both the internal and external body due to mucilaginous and tannic compounds, helping to reduce inflammation and irritations of the skin, stomach, joints, and nerves. The flavors of both the flowers and the foliage are subtle enough, and the plant itself safe enough, that it can be consumed and regularly used in teas, tinctures, or even used as a delicate garnish on culinary creations.

And wow, if you’ve not experimented with some of the edible spring weeds popping up in your yard (that you’re likely ripping out without a second glance), this is your sign that there is more to a “weed” than meets the eye. Cleavers, those famously annoying tall plants with sticky, whorled leaves and tiny white flowers, are actually wonderful anti-inflammatory plants that can be used alongside lady’s mantle on a regular basis. Perhaps you’re painfully aware of cleavers, as it were – but did you know that they actually belong to the Galium genus? That’s right, those seemingly innocuous garden nuisances share a genetic line with our ornamental Galium odoratum, and wouldn’t you know it, they share basically all of the same exact medicinal properties. In fact, all Galium species are essentially interchangeable when it comes to their anti-inflammatory, diuretic, and eliminatory properties that help to clear our bodily systems (especially our lymphatic regions) of toxins. Like lady’s mantle, Galium makes a lovely healing salve, helping to alleviate swollen lymph nodes and act as a vulnerary for external wounds. Galium odoratum’s common name, sweet-scented bedstraw, refers to its clinging, cloying properties being perfect for stuffing mattresses. And what’s better than a plant you can use to stuff your mattress, support your kidneys, AND create an attractive groundcover in the shady landscape all at once?

With creeping rhizomes and an unfaltering ability to not only handle, but thrive, in adverse site conditions such as heavy woodland shade and black walnut juglone, it’s actually quite surprising that Galium odoratum isn’t used more in the landscape. At a mature height of only about 6-12” but with an established spread of up to two feet, it really is quite a charming and underutilized groundcover capable of making a visual statement under larger perennials or shrubs.

A shrub, for example, like Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Summer Wine’. Now, arguably, this selection does not offer quite as much medicinal magic as its two predecessors, but that’s not to say it doesn’t contain some mysteries of its own. As part of the same argument, Physocarpus opulifolilus ‘Summer Wine’ has a pretty overt floral display in comparison to Alchemilla mollis ‘Thriller’ and Galium odoratum. “So,” you may be asking yourself, “what’s it doing here then?”

In fact, consuming large quantities of Physocarpus opulifolius can be toxic, with large doses of decocted bark threatening to be fatal. Sadly, someone must have had to be a guinea pig to make that discovery, so surely ninebark had to be thought to contain some type of beneficial properties, right? RIGHT?! Well, kind of. Many First Nations tribes, notably those in the British Columbia region and the upper Midwestern United States, have a history of using ninebark roots and bark as an emetic – or, in layman’s terms, as an herb to promote vomiting. Basically, it was the Ipecac of pre-Colonial North America (which you really shouldn’t use, either).

These days, we revere Physocarpus opulifolius as an ornamental flowering shrub with a penchant for attracting springtime pollinators, who help the showy reddish fruit capsules to develop come late summer. The fruit capsules provide late season interest to the dark burgundy-purple foliage of ‘Summer Wine’ ninebark, and persist into the winter unless eaten by birds. The gorgeous, exfoliating, papery bark becomes the star of the show in winter after the shrub has defoliated, combined with its lovely arching habit that gives the landscape an element of grace that is largely unmatched by many other native deciduous shrubs.

So, while you might fret that this old-school medicinal no longer has a relevant or recommended use, you’ll be happy to know that your bird friends will be absolutely thrilled with your decision to include Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Summer Wine’ into their diverse seed diet. It also makes a wonderful specimen for the cut flower garden, with its dark foliage adding a heavy-contrast element to late spring and early summer arrangements.