Plant Spotlight:
Japanese Knotweed

Stephen Harrod Buhner, the champion herbalist of the Lyme world, has called Japanese knotweed the most important herb for Lyme infection, though he has also over time said that about more than one herb. This isn’t the contradiction that it appears to be: different herbs are better for different people and their individual situations. Also, as all of us learn more over the months, years, and decades, our opinions can change. This is one trait of the brilliant doctors and herbalists that I have chosen and had the luck to work with and learn from—they are not stagnant. People like Dr. Dietrich Klinghardt, Dr. Paul Anderson, and Stephen Buhner actively observe and are not only willing to be proven wrong based on those observations, but that’s why they observe: in order to be proven wrong, if they can be. This should be one of the ways that we choose our healthcare team: not, “Are they always right?” because there can’t ever be such a thing, but, “Are they dynamically committed to truth and growth?”

Not only do opinions and standards of care in medicine change, but so does the landscape of the world around us. It isn’t sensible to expect only native or local forest plants to grow in an area where the forest has been replaced by the city. Delicate plant life—accustomed to growing in thick layers of moss, light rain and patchy light coming through a hemlock canopy, and where only the smells of the conifer trees and gently decomposing leaves are in the air—may not survive on a roadway island, surrounded by and built on concrete, with the roar of car engines, and cadmium and petrochemical toxins pumped out of exhaust pipes a few feet away. The plants that can and will volunteer to grow in these areas are most typically called weeds, identified by well meaning governmental and other organizations, and a real fight ensues as we battle nature in tearing out, burning, poisoning, etc. what has come to fill an empty niche.

 Picking Japanese knotweed shoots as a spring vegetable high in vitamin C.

Picking Japanese knotweed shoots as a spring vegetable high in vitamin C.

Japanese knotweed is a good example of a useful “weed”, like dandelion, which was brought deliberately to the New World by European settlers as an important spring food, high in minerals and vitamins, and providing a bodily “spring cleaning” after a winter of eating a dried, storable, relatively low nutrient diet intended more for basic survival through winter than to promote the fine functions of vital life. We tend to forget that things like multivitamins and grocery stores that have fresh food year round didn’t always exist and that for a good part of human history, meeting basic nutrient requirements was not easy. Having a prolific little plant, high in nutrients and requiring no more effort to consume than picking it and eating it, pop up in the spring all by itself, contributed significantly to human health where it was available. No wonder earlier people brought it with them across an ocean and that it grows naturally in our yards and around our homes—this used to be part of why it was so loved.

Himalayan blackberry, maligned in the Pacific Northwest as a thorny, hard to eradicate bush, that can take over forest understories and lines the roadways, has berries with one of the highest concentrations of antioxidants in the plant kingdom, and is therefore a good adjunctive treatment for common urban and modern diseases, most or all of which include a free radical excess (cancer, EMF sensitivity, chronic fatigue, etc.). Milk thistle, categorized as a “noxious weed” by several states, is a potent liver protector and restorative agent - capable of treating disorders like hepatitis, restoring the liver after severe and otherwise irreparable damage, and, as an example of its uniqueness, it’s used in hospitals in Europe to prevent death in cases of Amanita phalloides (death cap mushroom) poisoning. All “weeds” have a purpose—they are filling some niche in the ecosystem or they wouldn’t be present, because there wouldn’t be any space for them to grow.

Japanese knotweed, a tall and fast growing shrub with stalks like bamboo and beautiful cream colored sprays of flowers, was brought to North America as an ornamental. The sprouts in the spring are bright pink and can be picked and eaten like asparagus. The medicine for Lyme disease is made from the rhizome, a root-like structure that, in this plant, spreads so quickly and prolifically that it’s difficult to eradicate once it has taken hold. It often grows by waterways and even a small piece of the rhizome that breaks off can travel downstream and root where it lands, creating a new colony that is a genetic clone of the first one. So, no one can say that there isn’t a lot of medicine available to treat our Lyme disease epidemic!

 The neon pink youngest sprouts, poking above the sand. By the end of the growing season, most of these nubs will be over 6 feet tall.

The neon pink youngest sprouts, poking above the sand. By the end of the growing season, most of these nubs will be over 6 feet tall.

Japanese knotweed is broadly antimicrobial, including against spirochetes and Bartonella. It increases blood flow to areas that are often otherwise protective harbors for bacteria: the eyes, heart, joints, and skin, improving the immune reaction and medicine delivery to those areas and treating local symptoms. It’s anti-inflammatory, that contains a high amount of resveratrol, the same compound researchers claim is the main antioxidant in red wine, and its compounds are able to get through the blood brain barrier. It decreases autoimmune activity, while also increasing appropriate immune response. It decreases Herxheimer reactions by blocking endotoxins and supporting the liver and detox pathways. Japanese knotweed is also anti-fungal, anti-coagulant, anti-cancer, lowers cholesterol, and was used historically to treat severe burns. It has hundreds of scientific papers proving these and other uses. While it can be sad to watch native flora replaced by new “invasives”, there may be a deep rationale to it, and whether there is or not, it’s something that is happening, so it’s wise and practical to both embrace the new plants and landscapes and protect the national parks and other islands of the old flora. If our “weeds” are generally as useful as this one, it’s hard to complain.

The majority of the information in this post was learned from Stephen Harrod Buhner, one of the most advanced herbalists of our era and one of the most generous with his time and knowledge. I strongly recommend both his more Western science based books, like Healing Lyme, Herbal Antibiotics, etc. and his more esoteric books describing deeper functions of plants as medicine and humanity’s role on the planet: Secret Teachings Of Plants, Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm, and others.

The material above is not meant to be taken as medical advice, nor is the information here nearly complete enough by itself to make accurate or wise treatment decisions. Please talk with an appropriately trained healthcare provider before using this or other herbal medicines.