Herbs with Kids – Plant Safety Basics and a Few Summer Remedies
August 2023, Children, Island Resilience

Herbs with Kids – Plant Safety Basics and a Few Summer Remedies

By Jane Valencia

Are you curious about learning how to use herbs in your yard or around the Island for medicine? A great way to start is to learn with your kids. And here on Vashon, chances are they know some herbal remedies already. Start there!

Do they have a favorite remedy for a nettle sting? What are their favorite wild summer berries, besides the ubiquitous Himalayan blackberry? Do they have other nature remedies they use?

Make a list of those plants, and then with field guides or other trusted resources, look up the plants together. Discuss them. Invite your children to share what they know, but before you – and they – start eating or working with the plants, take time to cultivate some essential skills.

Plant identification. Make absolutely sure the plants are what you and your children think they are, and that the plants are safe to eat or use as medicine. Check three different resources. Take special note of plant names. Sometimes plants share the same common name, yet are very different plants. For example, the herb plantain (Plantago sp.) vs. the banana-like plantains. Check the scientific names of the plants to be sure which plant you’re referring to.

Avoid working with plants that have poisonous lookalikes. Field guides devoted to edible and medicinal plants will note these and other cautions.

Notice the shapes and “edges” (margins) of leaves, the branching and leafing patterns, growth habits of the plants, various details regarding flowers, and textures – all elements of what’s known as “plant morphology.” Be observant of as many details as possible. Take note of distinctive characteristics.

If your family can tell the difference between a dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and a false dandelion/Cat’s Ears (Hypochaeris radicata), and identify at least four differences, you’ll be well on track!

Expand your awareness. Colors and smells, aspects of the plant that inspire playfulness and imagination, and even sounds (the rattle of branches or rustle of leaves, for instance) can carry your relationship with a plant to the next level. Noting details about a plant’s habitat and its communities (other plants that grow with it, types of insects that may be found with it, and so on) will also help you learn the plant “by heart.” Learn its stages of growth, so you can recognize it in any season.

Harvesting. Are the plants in their proper stage of growth for harvesting? Do they look vibrant and healthy? What part of the herb will you harvest? Some plants may be entirely edible or useful for remedies, such as Self-Heal/Heal-All (Prunella vulgaris), but others may only have leaves, flowers, or other specific parts that you can use.

Common sense. Gather plants from toxin-free environments, and away from foot traffic and animal poop or pee. Engage your children’s and your own observation skills and curiosity. Is it possible that the plants are “downstream” (literally or figuratively) from something questionable (a polluted water source, for instance)?

Practice “second sight” – look again to be sure you have the plant you think. What details about the plant will confirm its identity?

Kindness and respect (ethics and sustainability). Make sure there is an abundance of the plant, not just where you are, but elsewhere on the Island. If the plant is considered endangered, it should not be harvested from at all. Only harvest what you will use, and only take a small amount of what’s available. Be kind to the plants! They have their own lives, and serve many roles in nature. The gifts of food, remedies, and beauty or interest we receive from them should be regarded as such indeed.

Often, Island children (and grown-ups) “ask” a plant before taking from it, or give a gift to it. Respectful practices give us the opportunity to slow down, appreciate, and also confirm that this is a plant we want to harvest from.

Putting it into practice. Remedies for nettle stings and other typical children’s wounds, and finding delicious berries, are all compelling reasons to learn herbs with your kids, and make a good summer starting point. The following are a few plants, with notes on parts to use.

Narrowleaf plantain and broadleaf plantain (Plantago lanceolata and Plantago major) – leaves. The parallel veins on the underside make this plant easy to learn. A great vulnerary (wound healer).

Self-heal/Heal-All (Prunella vulgaris) – flowering tops or leaves. This is one of my favorites for its cooling, soothing properties for any skin injury that feels fiery.

Wild rose petal (Rosa sp.) and willow leaf (Salix sp.) – I recently used this combo for a child who skinned her knee, and she loved it! Rose petals are vulnerary and lovely, and willow is pain-relieving. Don’t use grocery store roses!

How to use the above plants: Make a poultice of the leaves or plant top by crushing or chewing the plant material and then putting the juicy plant wad on the irritated skin.

Yellow dock (Rumex crispus) – Kids often make poultices of the leaves for nettle stings, but try using the gel found in the shoots for that purpose.

Sword fern (Polystichum munitum) spores – Children like to rub the spores onto the nettle sting area.

Delicious summer berries include himalayan blackberry (Rubus armeniacus) – of course, red huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium), and salal (Gaultheria shallon). Coming soon to Island forests is evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum).


Botany In a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification by Thomas J. Elpel

Pacific Northwest Medicinal Plants – Identify, Harvest and use 120 Wild Herbs for Health and Wellness by Scott Kloos

Peterson Field Guide To Western Medicinal Plants And Herbs (Peterson Field Guides) by Christopher Hobbs, Christopher and Steven Foster

Self-Heal Herb (Prunella vulagaris) and Rose (Rosa sp.) by Rosalee de la Forêt.

Risks of Using AI in Herbalism by Juliet Blankespoor – How to find trusted resources for herbalism and foraging? Be sure to read this article.

Jane Valencia has taught herbs to kids and adults for 15 years, including with the Vashon Wilderness Program. She is author-illustrator of Paloma and Wings – An Herbal Comic.

August 7, 2023

About Author

jane Jane writes about what it means to be an Islander, and how we can nourish healthy community. A harper, storyteller, and herbalist, she also shares tales and art that she is sure the Island told her. Having lived with her family on Vashon for 20+ years, she is convinced of the Island's magic.