Couchgrass (Elytrigia repens)

Appearance:  Believe it or not, if you are a gardener, you probably already know and hate this plant by the name “quackgrass”.  Couchgrass (pronounced “cooch-grass” in much of Europe,  it’s native birth place and medicinal origin) is a profusely common, introduced weed in North America.  To the untrained eye, Agropyron repens looks like every other waist-high wild grass— with perhaps the most distinctive exception displayed by its leaves.  Each leaf (or “blade”) of couchgrass looks as though somebody  pinched a crimp in it with their fingernails— about one or two inches away from the tips of the leaves.  While this does not serve as a definitive means of identification, it provides a good point from which you can begin the process of “ruling-out” look-alike grasses in your area, one species at a time.  If you wish to gather this plant for medicinal use, find some samples of what you think might be couchgrass, then take them to your local extension agent, a botanist, or somebody else who is up on identifying grasses.  Unless you are very experienced at using a botanical key (a scientific, reference used to identify plants through recognition of their taxonomic features), attempts to identify couchgrass will be a hit-or-miss proposition.  Fortunately, none of the look-alike grasses are toxic— but they’re probably not medicinal, either.

Habitat & Range:   Couchgrass native to the Mediterranean area.  It now makes itself at home virtually everywhere on earth.  In North America, expect to find it areas where livestock grazing, farming, or other human motivations have delivered the seeds.

Cycle & Bloom Season:  An aggressive perennial which reproduces by seed or spreading rhizomes.

Parts Used:  The rhizomes (horizontally creeping roots).

Actions:  Antimicrobial, astringent, anti-inflammatory, mild diuretic.

Affinities:  Urinary tract.

Preparation:  Tincture, decoction of the fresh or freshly dried rhizomes.  As a dietary supplement, the fresh leaves.

Specific Uses:  Historically, many animal lovers have come to know Agropyron repens as “dog grass”, because dogs, cats, and other animals love eating the fresh spring leaves of the plant.  Our dogs are no exception— we have clumps of “dog grass” growing in the  in front of our house, and whenever an opportunity arises (one which doesn’t interfere with a game of Frisbee), they both actively graze on the plants. It is very interesting to watch how they   actually differentiate the couchgrass from other grasses in their intuitive drive to eat the plants. But even more interesting is the way they instinctively use this plant to fulfill  special health care needs. Specifically, they will eat couchgrass to the point of vomiting, and while humans may find this somewhat disgusting, an inquisitive herbalist with a holistically-oriented mind can clearly see what the animals are doing— they are either using the grass as a digestive cleansing agent or they are vomiting so they can re-ingest their stomach contents.  The latter may be indicative of poor nutrient absorption— eating food twice, in effect, allows for more complete absorption of certain nutrients.  For more on this lovely subject, see the section on gastrointestinal problems.  The point is this: if your animal eats grass, it is likely to fill a nutritional or medicinal need, and such activities should not be overlooked when assessing your animal’s holistic health— even if you do wish to look away and forget about it.

As a food, a patch of couchgrass provides a rich source of vitamins A and B, iron, rough fiber, and silica (for healthy bones, hooves, nails, coat, etc.) for grazing animals.  However, most of the medicinal values of couchgrass are contained with the rhizomes of the plant.       Couchgrass serves as an excellent tonic and disinfectant for the urinary tract.   It is a soothing, anti-inflammatory demulcent and saponin-based diuretic with mild antimicrobial activity, and is considered a specific remedy for chronic or acute cases of cystitis and urethritis, where the root tea or tincture will help reduce inflammation, inhibit bacterial reproduction,  and lessen pain during urination.   It should be noted that although couchgrass has been shown to possess broad antibiotic activity1, it may be too weak to be effective against infections which are already well-established.  In such cases, couchgrass should be combined with stronger antimicrobial herbs— such as echinacea, thyme, or Oregon grape (or goldenseal— provided it from cultivated, not wildcrafted sources).   As a diuretic, couchgrass increases the volume of urine by stimulating sodium excretion,  helping to wash away waste materials from the body via the kidneys. This makes couchgrass an effective adjunct to various liver-supporting, alterative herbs (such as dandelion or burdock), especially in the treatment of rheumatism or chronic skin problems.

The demulcent properties soothe inflammation and it can also be used for kidney stones and gravel, and because it is very gentle on the kidneys seldom irritates the bladder or urethra during long term use, it is a primary herb to consider when treating the symptoms of Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease (or Feline urinary Syndrome – FUS) in cats, a condition which is usually due to factors other than infection.

For use in urinary problems, the best way to administer this herb is in the form of a cooled decoction.  Make the decoction by gently simmering a heaping teaspoon of the chopped, dried root, or two heaping teaspoons of the chopped fresh root (rhizomes), in eight ounces of water for about twenty minutes.  The decoction can be squirted directly into the mouth of the animal.  A safe starting dose is 2-3 ml (about 1/2 tsp.) per 20 lbs. of the animal’s body weight, twice to three times daily.  If direct administration is too difficult, the dose can be added to the animal’s drinking water— try to figure out how much your animal drinks, then add enough couchgrass to meet dosing requirements.  Glycerin or alcohol tinctures can be used at half the above dosage, and are best if diluted into water.  Keep in mind that this is a very subtle herbal medicine—  the needs and systemic requirements of the animal you are helping may require several increases in dosage over several days, or weeks of administration.

Availability:  Couchgrass is not a very popular herb in America (it is very popular in Europe), and some of the dried rhizome that you find in the herb stores will be on the verge of becoming useless dust.  Fortunately, it grows everywhere— the only problem is identifying it among other weeds, and finding the physical stamina to dig the stubborn rhizomes.  If you meet this criteria, you can easily become a garden hero in your neighborhood (on the other hand, everyone may think you’re nuts for actually wanting the stuff!).  The golden rule: beware of pesticides.  Finding “clean” couchgrass can often be difficult.

Propagation & Harvest:  As far as propagating couchgrass— go ahead if you don’t mind sacrificing the engine on your rototiller and don’t care if it strangles the rest of the garden.  The rhizomes can be harvested anytime throughout the growth season, but are usually strongest when dug in the fall.  The best medicines are made from the fresh rhizomes, but dried roots are useful too, if used within a year of digging.  Good luck— the stuff is really tough!

Alternatives and Adjuncts:  For urinary inflammations that are secondary to infection, combine with Oregon grape, organically-raised goldenseal, thyme, or echinacea.  For stones or any other cause of urinary tract inflammation, marshmallow, corn silk, and plantain are valuable adjuncts.  If blood is present in the urine— see your holistic veterinarian— your pet needs stronger measures than couchgrass.

Cautions & Comments:  No toxicity has been noted for couchgrass, although excessive amounts may lead to vomiting or diarrhea.  Always be careful about verifying the source- cleanliness of this herb— it is on just about everybody’s “noxious weed” list, and pesticide residues can remain with the plant for several years.

References:

  1. Leung, AY. Encyclopedia of common natural ingredients used in food, drugs and cosmetics.” New York-Chichester: Wiley, 1980.