Spring is coming—of that we can be sure. But for now, we are in a time popularly known as the “Winter Doldrums.” It’s cold. It’s gray. The holidays are long over yet spring has not yet begun. Heck, we can’t even watch football or go hunting anymore. Research has shown that this is actually the most depressing time of the year, and the time when most people show signs of fatigue and despondency.
So how do we make it through the next month or two without being sad, listless, and lethargic? Thankfully, there are a few plants that might improve energy levels while keeping depression at bay. Best of all, these plants can be found all across the U.S. and have been widely used by various tribes for millennia. Remember, before you try any of these remedies, make sure to follow the guidelines of a trained ethnobotanist or herbalist who can help you decide on the best dose for you.
Hawthorn (Crataegus sp.)—The fruits, flowers and leaves of all Crataegus species are edible, and yes amazingly medicinal. I use hawthorn in all sorts of recipes. I make ketchup, muffins, wozapi, and juice from the berries. I use the leaves and flowers for a delicious tea. Hawthorn is widely used to treat cardiovascular disease, and recent research suggests that it does an excellent job improving heart health. Further, hawthorn berry tea is excellent in treating feelings of stress, sadness and depression.
Hops (Humulus lupulus)—Hops grow wild over most of the U.S. and were traditionally used by many tribes to make bread rise. The tea has also been used to induce sleep and relaxation. Never underestimate a good night’s sleep and how it can contribute to your overall emotional health.
Pineappleweed (Matricaria discoidea)—Pineappleweed is a native plant that is closely related to chamomile. The flowers and foliage have a delectable, pineapple scent—hence its common name—and are used to make delicious tea that is wonderful in treating nervous tension and stress-induced insomnia. Pineappleweed grows commonly on disturbed sites such as walking paths and along the edges of parking lots.
Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza lepidota)—Wild licorice is my go to remedy for asthma and allergies. The root makes an ultra-sweet tea that is useful in making my allergies and breathing difficulties disappear for days. However, this same tea is known as an effective energy enhancer. A cup of licorice root tea can keep you going during this dreary time of year. Who knew that Native people had energy shots before anyone else?
Dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale)—Yes, that dandelion. Even people on the rez seem to hate dandelions. My auntie had two broken down cars and six dogs in her yard, but she still hated dandelions and would dig them out of her yard every chance she got. Instead of digging them up and throwing them away, remember the entire dandelion is edible and medicinal. Researchers out of the University of Windsor are currently seeing promising results in the use of dandelion root tea to treat cancer. A tea of the leaves and roots has even been shown to consistently lower blood sugar. Finally, eating dandelion greens and/or drinking dandelion root tea may help alleviate depression, particularly in young people. That would make dandelion an excellent alternative to prescription anti-depressants.
Rose (Rosa spp.)—Wild roses are beautiful, easy to grow, and require almost no care in order to thrive in your yard. They also make excellent winter forage for birds and other wildlife who love to eat the rose hips (fruits) that grow all over these useful shrubs. Rose hips contain very high levels of Vitamin C—way more than orange juice—and can therefore prevent infection, make you feel more energetic, and increase your metabolism. The mildly sweet tea is delicious, tasting something like a cross between an apple and a cranberry. Besides tea, you can also remove the seeds and use the red fruit in muffins, sweet breads, and syrups.
Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica)—Many of my students claim that I have a nettle obsession. I eat them in everything from dumplings to pesto and for a variety of illnesses ranging from seasonal allergies to rheumatoid arthritis. Nettles have a bad reputation because they do, indeed, cause a stinging sensation if you touch the tiny hairs that grow all over the plant. However, my grandma taught me that, if you harvest nettles barehanded and put up with the temporary stinging, you will be rewarded with an amazingly delicious and nutritious wild edible that has been used by tribes all over North and South America. What’s more, in 2013, researchers out of the Jaypee University of Information Technology, found that stinging nettles reduce feelings of depression—particularly in people with Type 2 diabetes.
I also want to say a few words about the undeniable benefits of sunshine. In addition to Vitamin D—a lack of which has been directly correlated to feelings of lethargy and depression—being out in the sun means that we are getting exercise, which is also important to feelings of wellbeing. If you are like me and you don’t want to go outside when it is -10F, consider a Vitamin D3 supplement. Lots of folks might also be wondering why I didn’t mention plants such as St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) and lavender (Lavandula spp.). While it is true that these are wonderful plants for naturally treating depression, anxiety, sadness, and the winter doldrums, they aren’t native to Turtle Island. Other plants that you might want to incorporate into your doldrum-fighting arsenal might include spicy chilies, and even chocolate. (I just gave you permission to eat chocolate! You’re welcome.)
DISCLAIMER: This document is for informational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. No liability exists against the authors or anyone involved in the making of this document (Linda Black Elk, ICTMN, or others), nor can they be held responsible for any allergy, illness or injurious effect that any person or animal may suffer as a result of information in this document.
Linda Black Elk (Catawba) is an ethnobotanist and restoration ecologist. Her research focuses on indigenous food sovereignty, medicinal plants, and eliminating food deserts. Linda is an instructor at Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates, North Dakota, and in her spare time she loves to hunt, forage, eat and heal.