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Backyard medicine: Herb walk educates about native Minn. plants

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Carolyn Lange / Tribune Doug Schmoll talks about the upcoming herb walk May 27 in his apple orchard in rural New London near Sibley State Park.2 / 3
Carolyn Lange / Tribune Doug Schmoll digs a mullein plant, known in the past as "cowboy toilet paper." Participants in an herb walk May 27 at Schmoll's rural New London orchard will learn about 40 to 50 different wild edible and medicinal plants. 3 / 3

NEW LONDON — Pity the poor plantain.

The flat, low-to-the-ground, broad-leafed weed that likes to poke through cracks in sidewalks and carpet routes on well-worn walking paths is used to being looked over and walked on.

But during the 20th annual herb walk May 27 at the Timberlake Orchard near New London, the plantain will be the star of the show where participants will learn about the healthful qualities of this native herb and many others that grow in west central Minnesota.

During two separate sessions, participants next Saturday will be led through the woods, along a trellised grape arbor and over the rolling hills of a blossoming apple orchard to identify and learn about 40 to 50 different wild edible and medicinal plants.

The walking tour and detailed educational materials provided to each participant will help people return to their own backyards and realize that they have "botanical herbs, not just weeds," said Doug Schmoll, who will host the annual spring herb walk at his orchard just north of Sibley State Park.

Embracing nature

For 20 years, Schmoll — along with co-sponsor Connie Karstens from The Lamb Shoppe in Hutchinson and several other individuals experienced in using plants for food and medicine — have used the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend to teach people how Native Americans and early settlers used plants growing underfoot.

Schmoll, who has owned and operated the Potpourri Health Food store in downtown Willmar for 40 years, said wild plants have been used for thousands of years in every culture for food and medicine.

He said today more people want to "embrace nature once more and start using products that are closer to the soil for good health."

To prove his point, Schmoll squats down near the edge of his grape vines, grabs a fresh plantain and twists it out of the ground to expose a mop of stringy roots.

"A mop is used to soak up things. It's used to pull and to draw. Like drawing water off of the floor," Schmoll said.

He rips off a piece of the leaf, chews it up to make a "snuff wad" and puts it on his arm to demonstrate how the plant can be used on an insect bite.

"Its cleansing action will disinfect. It will draw and it will stop the pain," he said. "So a bee sting, it should stop the pain in five minutes. It should not swell and it should not itch if you put it on there as soon as possible."

The common plantain, which seems to grow where no other plant can survive, is "never a substitute for (treating) anything that's chronic, degenerative or that would be life-threatening," Schmoll said, but it is "beyond comparison when it comes to infections, wounds and bites."

Walking farther into his orchard, Schmoll stops to caress a green growth of cleavers. The clingy vine sticks to his hands.

"It's a very powerful, powerful cleansing herb," he said. "Anything that grabs like velcro is going to grab onto toxins and it's going to pull things out of the system."

Many herbs, including cleavers, can be made into a tea or tincture.

Just a couple steps away he snatches a handful of chickweed and offers a taste of the leaves. "It tastes like corn," he said.

It does.

The dock plant that was growing under his apple trees can detoxify the liver, bladder and spleen, he said, and the Joe Pye weed can be used for kidney stones.

Waving an arm toward the woods, he said the white oak trees, wild chokecherry, sumac, buckthorn, wild grapes, prickly ash, willow and thistle all have "incredible properties" for health benefits.

Schmoll said herbs can be safely used to treat basic symptoms without side effects and serve as "complementary medicine" to conventional medicine.

He said 25 to 30 percent of today's pharmaceuticals are still made from plants.

Not only can plants be used for healing and nutrition, but some also have simple, practical uses.

Schmoll pulls a mullein plant out of the dirt where it was growing near the beehives on his property. With large velvety leaves as soft as a rabbit's ear, he said the mullein plant was commonly called "cowboy toilet paper" in the past.

God's cloak

Looking back on the 20 years he has led the herb walks, which have either been held at his orchard or at a farm near Hutchinson, Schmoll said the highlight has been the "thousands of people" who have attended.

The older he gets, he said the more he realizes how important it is to share his knowledge about plants to others.

Depending on the weather, the event typically attracts 150 to 300 people, with many driving from the Twin Cities.

The event, which costs $5 per person or $10 per family, includes regional vendors selling products such as honey, essential oils, herb formulas and books, and the event also will feature live bluegrass and gospel music with the Kingery Family.

For weeks prior to the herb walk, Schmoll spends late nights — after closing up his retail shop for the day — tending to his orchard.

Along with the grapes and apple trees, there are raspberries, pear trees growing in neat rows with garlic, spring onions, horseradish and many varieties of wild herbs growing in between.

There are stacks of beehives between the organic orchard and the woods on the property.

He does not use any chemicals on the land.

"It's kept in it's original, wild state," Schmoll said.

"We work with nature, not against it. We use the things that God gave us," he said.

"There's an old saying that nature is the cloak of God, and this is certainly the cloak of God out here."

If you go

What: 20th annual herb walk

When: Saturday, May 27, with two identical sessions — one at 10:30 a.m. and the other at 3:30 p.m.

Where: Timberlake Orchard, 22414 Fifth St. N.W., New London.

Info: Cost is $5 per person or $10 per family. To register, call Doug Schmoll at Potpourri Health Foods at 320-235-5487.

Worksheets with information about plants will be provided. Participants are encouraged to bring cameras, clipboards and questions.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750