Ragweed to the Rescue: Medicinal Uses
If you are one of the millions of Americans who suffer from hay fever each year you are probably not a fan of the lowly ragweed. This raggedy looking weed grows prolifically and blooms when the goldenrod blooms. It's green flowers are so hard to notice that you might not even realize that it is out there amongst the golden sprays.
Many herbalists will say that if you have terrible hay fever in the late summer/early fall, you are probably allergic to ragweed not goldenrod. And they're right! That is certainly true for most allergy sufferers. However, while goldenrod is not the villain we all make it out to be, it certainly does cause hay fever for some people. And it's medicinal, too!
So why am I talking about this noxious allergy-inducing ragweed? Because it is miraculously effective for treating hay fever and respiratory allergy symptoms. Yes you did hear me right. According to herbalist and author, Guido Mase, ragweed is the strongest herbal anti-histamine we have (stinging nettle is the runner up).
There are relatively few references to ragweed's ability to treat histamine reactions. I first learned about this plant while on an herb walk with Guido along Burlington's waterfront several years ago. For years I eagerly wanted to make a ragweed tincture to test out it's abilities, but you usually can't find the tincture and the only ragweed I cold find was along the roadsides. In fact, almost everywhere you walk in Peacham and Barnet, diminutive unassuming ragweed lines the roads.
Thanks to a re-wilding project at my house, a year ago, I finally had ragweed growing in my field (where it is three to four feet tall!). I eagerly harvested the top six to twelve inches of the leaves and stems, chopped them up, and stuffed them into a mason jar and covered them in organic vodka. This is the folkloric or simplers method of tincture making and it really is that simple. You then label the jar (the hardest part), let it sit for four to six weeks in a dark cool place, giving the alcohol ample time to extract the phytochemicals (plant chemicals). For most herbs, this simple way of making tinctures is quite sufficient. It certainly works well for ragweed!
Guido says that you can harvest the ragweed while it is in flower and pollen is dusting the leaves. A tincture with the pollen is still effective for allergies – even ragweed allergies! But if you are at all concerned about this, you can harvest the leaves and stems when they are younger, more supple, and flower/pollen free (as I did). This year, my ragweed tincture making was a bit late as I have a baby who is not always patient about hanging out in the field harvesting herbs. I made this season's batch while the plant was in full flower. Susan Weed and Michael Tierra (two more authors/herbalists) recommend tincturing while it is in flower.
Since this is a very under-utilized plant in modern times, there is much less guidance out there about how to use it in terms of dosage, precautions, and herb-drug interactions. All I knew about ragweed was this scant amount of information from that herb walk – it is an anti-histamine and it has to be used fresh (hence making a tincture from the fresh plant rather than a tea from the dried herb). I felt confident giving it to my husband since he could not check any of the boxes that would make him more vulnerable to unpleasant side effects – he was not pregnant or breastfeeding, did not have liver or kidney disease, and was not on any pharmaceuticals.
The tincture was ready about the time of year when asthma really kicks in for my husband. The mold in the damp leaf litter, the late summer dampness in our basement, and his perennial dust allergy conspire to give him frequent asthma attacks in the late summer/fall. While he does finally have a back up inhaler (due to my urging), we use herbs as a first line of defense and for the last twenty years, that works 99% of the time.
So when his asthma kicked in, I gave him a large dose of tincture (4 droppers). It was like a magic trick. Within a few minutes his allergic response and the asthma it triggered disappeared. From experience, I know that he needs a large dose. Fifteen to thirty drops is a much better place to start for most people.
I encourage people to do more research before consuming a new plant, especially if you are not experienced with using herbs. While there is little information out there, you can read more about ragweed in Mathew Wood's book, “Earthwise Herbal” and Michael Moore's book, “Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West”.
This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of the North Star Monthly.
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