Common Gromwell – Lithospermum Officinale: Edible & Medicinal Uses of the “Ugly Duckling” of Wild Plants

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In Chippewa, odji’biknamun refers to one species of gromwell. Common gromwell (lithospermum officinale) was noted in Haliburton Flora in a dry sandy waste area and in open damp ground beside a swamp. I found the pictured specimen in the middle of a spruce grove. The spruce had grown over an old foundation for a homestead that burnt down many decades ago.

None of Ontario’s native gromwells are listed in Haliburton Flora, however, a list of them are in the Growing Lithospermum Spp. section below.

Common Gromwell – Lithospermum Officinale
Common Gromwell – Lithospermum Officinale

Edible Uses of Common Gromwell

Dried gromwell leaves have been used for tea. But try with caution if at all, as even the leaves contain hormone inhibiting properties.

While some parts of specific species have been eaten in certain cultures, it’s more of a medicinal plant and caution must be taken due to its effect on hormones and possible carcinogenic compounds.

Common Gromwell – Lithospermum Officinale
Common Gromwell – Lithospermum Officinale

Medicinal Uses of Common Gromwell

Common Gromwell is primarily said to support these body systems:

  • Endocrine
  • Integumentary
  • Urinary
  • Reproductive

Medicinal tags include Anti-Inflammatory, Antispasmodic, Diuretic, Lithontriptic, Febrifuge and Sedative. See Medicinal tag key for more information.

Common usage includes the extract for external anti-inflammatory uses like as an eyewash, a burn salve, and in salves for skin conditions with eruptive lesions.

In some Eastern medicine modalities, it’s more common to use the powdered nutlets as a diuretic and lithontriptic to flush out kidney stones or for other urinary issues.

Some have used its root teas and extracts internally as a contraceptive too, however one source mentioned a possibility of permanent sterility (unverified, so take that with a grain of salt for now). The effect it has is to reduce follicle-stimulating hormone to prevent ovulation entirely.

Caution is advised for internal consumption of anything that effects hormones so powerfully. All parts of gromwell inhibit the secretion of the pituitary gonadotrophic hormone. It’s been studied in vitro for thyroid diseases due to its effect on thyroid stimulating hormone. Likely it effects many more hormones than these. Professional supervision for internal use is highly recommended.

Having once spilled tea tree oil on my arm, I am personally more wary of plants that effect hormones than most carcinogen warnings. I ended up with a few shorter menstrual cycles, skin rashes, headaches and nausea, and anxiety symptoms from that oily accident. It was three months before I felt normal.

Alternative Uses of Puccoon

A red to purple dye can be obtained from the roots.

The nutlets can be used as beads. Some of the species are called stoneseed or marbleseed on account of these hard nutlets.

Growing Lithospermum Spp.

While the title species is not native to Ontario, we have many native species. These are hoary puccoon (lithospermum canescens), golden puccoon (l. caroliniense), fringed (l. incisum), American gromwell (l. latifolium), western false (l. occidentale), and soft-hairy false gromwell (l. parviflorum).

If you like the idea of obscure native plants to landscape with, gromwells are barely spoken of! Maybe it’s partly because of their tendency toward waste spaces, a niche nonnative invasive plants tend to fill up quickly. Admittedly, half of them are “ugly” too, in many folks eyes. Field guides even overlook this species! Some species flowers are barely noticeable and the leaves tend to be well tattered when I find them, so someone is eating them. But it seems faunal associations for the native gromwells have not been well recorded. I’ll try to find a native patch to watch closely!

Hoary, golden, and fringed are the exception to the ugly duckling title. They all have bright yellow and orange blooms that stand out. Hoary and golden have a sort of phlox look to them, and fringed reminds me of daffodils. These three gromwells have the potential to catch on in native landscaping and we may cover them specifically as a native species some year soon.


Do not consume if breastfeeding, pregnant or trying to conceive (presently and possibly with the future in regard).

Some compounds in gromwell have been shown to be carcinogenic. It also effects hormones, and thus should be taken internally only with professional supervision.

And the Usual Cautions:

1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation. Tannins are toxic if consumed in excess.

2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk. For instance, saponins commonly cause stomach upset.

3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored.

4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.

5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.

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