Medicinal Plant Trail at Willoughby Farm and Conservation Area

by Kristine Brown

This dream began as my project for the Illinois Master Naturalists program and the need for herbal education in the area in which I live. I’m very passionate about teaching herbs to the community and felt that Willoughby was the perfect place to offer information about medicinal herbs through both formal trail hikes and self guided tours. Willoughby Farm and Conservation Area was just starting to be built up with plans to create a learning center in the farmhouse as well as over 3 miles of hiking trails, several gardens including a vegetable garden, herb garden, rain garden, butterfly garden and prairies. I felt the medicine tree would be a welcome asset for the Farm and Conservation Area.

The trail began in the late spring of 2009. The entire farm and conservation area was covered with invasives such as Japanese Honeysuckle, Autumn Olive and Tree of Heaven. The first year was spent mostly ripping out honeysuckle and identifying the existing plants.

In the last year I have identified Stinging Nettle, Yellow Violets, Greenbriar, Mayapple, Elder, Red Buds, Roughleaf Dogwood, St. John’s Wort (H. hypericoides), Tall Bellflower, Slippery Elm, Mulberry, Jewelweed and Black Walnut.

As a member of United Plant Savers, I learned of the Community Grant opportunity and applied for the grant. I was thrilled to learn I qualified and began making a list of native medicinal herbs so I could begin a search for purchasing them. Unfortunately, it is hard to find a lot of the medicinal herbs needed in this area so I had to do a combination of local purchases and mail order purchases to complete the list of plants I needed.

I began purchasing plants in the spring of 2010 and planting. Goldenseal, Ginger, Solomon’s Seal, Wild Yam, Hops, Celandine Poppy, Jacob’s Ladder and Mayapples were part of the first plantings. Each week my two youngest children and I would go out to the trail to weed, plant and communicate with the plants. Some weeks, our return found plants trampled by careless hikers or plants eaten to the ground by the local deer. As the invasives were cleared out and the medicinals planted, we noticed an increase in visits from other creatures as well. We discovered lizards, moths, saw deer, followed raccoon tracks along the stream bank and spent time with a box turtle as he crossed the trail. Every week we removed any trash we found along the trail, both new and old.
Through the United Plant Savers Spring Seed giveaway, I acquired seeds for starting Wild Hawthorne, Witch Hazel and Osage Orange and through the fall giveaway, more Goldenseal roots to be planted out to increase the stand I planted in the spring. I also purchased some Black Cohosh and Bloodroot roots for fall planting.

The trail lies dormant right now, having succumbed to winter’s call to slumber. Most of the invasives have been removed and the trail is coming to life with medicinals. Over the winter I will work on getting signage together to identify the plants as well as create pamphlets for the trailhead to help hikers identify the plants and learn more about their traditional medicinal uses.