Does this plant look like a lyre to you? (click on the photo for a larger image)
Uh-uh, doesn’t to me either. Never-the-less, I learned this week that it was named Salvia lyrata because of its striking resemblance to a lyre. I don’t get it. It is also known as cancer weed, because it has been used to treat skin cancer. Now that makes sense.
I found it growing in a sandy, gravel-y, practically soil-less spot in our yard, surrounded by a pile of scrap metal waiting to be hauled away. It took a while, though, before I actually stopped to take a closer look and positively identify it. Each time I walked by it for the last couple weeks or so, I intuitively called to it as I passed by, “Salvia!” The blooms look a lot like garden sage, so I suppose it was easy to leap to that conclusion.
As a general rule when I am curious about a new plant, I like to see what I can find out through direct experience on my own before I look up what others have written. One thing I must do before even that, though, is to positively identify it and check to make sure that the plant I am working with is not toxic.
The first thing I had noticed on close inspection was that it had square shaped stems and opposite leaves. Ah ha!! Likely Mint family! Probably safe to handle and taste. But I still wanted a positive ID.
I pulled out my Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs: Of Eastern and Central North America and flipped to the purple flower section hoping it would be there. It didn’t take long to find it, it was right on page 217.
Let the exploration with the senses begin!
I first leaned in to smell the blossoms, and when I didn’t smell anything, pinched a couple off and crushed them to see if they would release an aroma. Still nothing but a mild grassy scent. The leaves, however, had a quite distinctive, though mild, aroma. Not sure what to compare it to or exactly how to describe it.
I then took a little piece of the leaf into my mouth to taste. I chewed it between my front teeth only, and tried not to swallow any, though I’m sure a small amount of the juice made it into my body anyway. The taste was cooling, slightly astringent, and had a tiny little minty tingle to it. It seemed a lot like many wild salad greens, but it evolved into a little more complexity the longer I held it on my toungue. After I had spit it out, I found that it had a mild minty after taste, ya know, a cooling tingle. And then a little while later, a slightly bitter “after-after” taste.
A few minutes after tasting, I felt a very, very mild headache (really just pressure, not exactly pain) in my temples — not sure it was related, but it could have been. I also felt some diffusion, a sort of prickly sensation on the tip of my tongue where the leaf had been tasted. The prickliness came on shortly after the headache, and was accompanied by the mildly bitter “after-after” taste. The prickliness began to fade after about 10 minutes, but still a ghost of it lingered for a while after that. My tummy also began to move a bit just as the temple pressure was subsiding, suggesting an action on the gut, too. As the headache disappeared and the bowels began move just a little, it felt like a gentle whole body release of some sort, but it was very subtle.
After using my senses to begin knowing lyrata, some quick Googling of the plant name yielded the following, which is essentially what my field guide had already told me: Edible plant with medicinal uses. Leaf poultice or salve used for skin sores, skin cancer, and warts. Whole plant tea for colds, coughs, asthma, nerves. It is said to be mildly laxative and diaphoretic. Another source said, “has properties like those of garden sage; but it also contains acrid substances…” It mostly grows wild as a lovely weed — that means it’s tough! It can be mowed and stepped on and still survive! It is also sometimes cultivated in gardens.
So folks, this is what I know so far. This plant is super tough and quick acting, but is also very mild and subtle. It has a gentle yet confident strength. I will definitely be on the look out for more information.
Have you heard of this plant before? What can you tell me about it? Have YOU discovered any new plants lately?