Saxifrages and Orchids are some of the most otherworldy plants you might encounter in your herbal path. They are known primarily for their inherent beauty and not widely used in Southwestern herbal traditions. Nevertheless, they have much to offer the attentive herbalist in the field. North American Saxifrages include over 60 species and the genera Chrysosplenium, Ciliaria, Conimitella, Heuchera, Hirculus, Lithophragma, Micranthes, Mitella, Muscaria, Saxifraga, and Sullivantia. They are usually associated with more remote, less disturbed wild areas such as healthy forests and less trodden alpine meadows. They have a scant history of therapeutic usage that focuses primarily on applications to the urinary system. The name Saxifrage means ‘rock splitter’, referring to its diuretic action and use in ridding the body of gall and urinary stones. Alumroot (Huechera spp.) leaves and roots are a potent astringent used for vomiting, diarrhea, sore throats, mouth sores, wound treatments, and hemorrhoids, although not as abundant as other herbs available for these purposes.
Photos from top to bottom: 1. Five-Stamen Mitrewort or Green Bishop’s Cap (Mitella pentandra), 2. Stripped Coralroot Orchid (Corallorhiza striata), 3. Angelica (A. grayi), 4. Mitrewort or White Bishop’s Cap (Mitella stauropetala), 5. Snowball Saxifrage (Micranthes or Saxifraga rhomboidea), 6. Brook Saxifrage (Micranthes odontoloma), 7. Five-Stamen Mitrewort or Green Bishop’s Cap (Mitella pentandra), 8. Rattlensnake Plantain Orchid (Goodyera oblongifolia), 9. Northern Green Bog Orchid (Platanthera), 10. Spotted Coralroot Orchid (Corallorhiza maculata), 11. Lady Slipper Orchid (Cypripedium parviflorum), 12. Coral Bells Alumroot (Huechera pulchella), 13. Spotted Saxifrage (Saxifraga bronchialis).
Orchids are a large family with many species and are much more widely used as medicine in the herbal practices of China and India. Europe also has longstanding traditions of medicinal applications for orchids including being a famed aphrodisiac. Many orchids around the world are endangered or threatened due to overuse and habitat loss. They are difficult to propagate and cultivate due to their relationship with underground mycorrhizal communities. All orchids are dependant on these soil fungi to germinate and some, like Corallorhiza, remain parasitic throughout their lives. While I have seen a variety of orchid species in my nearby mountains, the populations are always quite sparse. This might be a contributing factor as to why they are seldom used here in New Mexico. Lady Slipper, Coralroot Orchids, and Rattlesnake Plantain, however, all have some history of medicinal use in the Southwest despite having limited populations. Lady Slipper (Cypripedium spp.) is an antispasmodic and sedative for cold, achy pains accompanied by depression. The more common Stream Orchid (Epipactis gigantea) has similar properties. Coralroot orchid roots (Corallorhiza maculata, spotted and C. striata, striped) are a treatment for certain types of fevers as well as nervous system agitations that stir up anger and frustration. Blue Vervain (Verbena spp.) often functions as an effective and more abundant alternative to Coralroot. The leaves and roots of Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera oblongifolia) are mucilaginous and used similarly to Plantain, Mallows, and Slippery Elm. In spite of their limited use as medicinals in my herbal training, Saxifages and Orchids have brought invaluable lessons to my plant journey. They illuminate how the core of herbal health emanates from within.
Saxifrage and Alpine Meadows: Delving Inward
In a small wooded area not far from the headwaters of the Rio Grande I found everything in the cosmos waiting for me. Walking across a high alpine meadow a rainbow of colors waved in the wind as a multitude of miniature wildflowers announced their presence. Passing through a grassy bog punctuated by magenta flashes of Pedicularis groenlandica, I was drawn further into this high country’s magic. The allure of Arnica latifolia’s golden blossoms peeking out from the forest’s edge beckoned me into another world. Scanning the forest floor for familiar friends, I was guided from one spot to another and then another and …. I was everywhere all at once. There were old friends, new friends, strangers, and more. Valerian’s cluster of tiny pinkish flowers shouted out ever so politely for attention amongst the chatter of all the plants cohabiting the busy forest floor. Over there, Anemone invites me to discover something new. ‘Come see how I transform from petaled flower to bare seed head, from flower fresh flow to producing the fruits of life ,’ called the Anemone. From there I felt the elusive wisdom of Angelica grayi through the cacophony of forest whispers. I looked and saw the small whitish umbels floating in the air, a multitude of sphere-like shapes emanating from a central point like a child’s model of some far away solar system. Only Angelica has that call. Sitting with her is like having a cup of tea with the old woman of the woods. Sharing memories since our last long-ago meeting on another mountain range, it was like no time had passed. Finding comfort in old friends is good medicine. Moving onward through the dense green that is this place, I saw a tiny whiteness at the base of a large pine tree and I felt its distinctive tugging on me. I was immediately pulled into something totally new and unknown. Who is this plant? The tiny flowers of Bishop’s Cap Saxifrage (Mitella sauropetala) guide me into closer observation and deeper connection as I lay on the forest floor peering into the heart of the plant. The miniature flowers simultaneously resemble the most minute and intricate snowflakes while also reflecting the infinitely expanding grandeur of a star in the far reaches of space. Finally I am quiet enough to settle into stillness, contentedness, and perfect appreciation of this moment. Awareness deepens and the flow between us is unmistakable, eternal, enveloping. Interbeing with the plants, birds, mammals, earth, and air is all that exists. The peacefulness of the mountain is imprinted on me and becomes a greater part of who I am, more readily accessible in moments of need. Mindful of the intimate moment shared with Saxifrage, I am health, vitality, balance, and contentedness. This is herbal medicine, at its core.
Exiting the rich greenness of the woods and emerging back into the open alpine meadow, vistas of treeless snowy peaks greet me. White chickweed, deep purple alpine violets, creamy paintbrush, yellow potentilla, golden alpine sunflowers, and lavender fleabane all seemed to harmonize with one another creating a new symphony of life, in celebration of today. It was, however, the lavender fleabane that outshined them all on this afternoon. With a gust of wind, a purple wave rippled across the mountain with dizzying potency that almost threw me off balance as I was swept away into the collective flow of all life. At that moment, my awareness was drawn over the next hummock and I saw Snowball Saxifrage (Micranthes rhomboidea) standing out on the meadow amidst the polychrome panorama. Her orb of creamy white flowers once again called me in for closer inspection. Looking into the flowers clustered tightly around each other, I saw infinite potential as if looking into a kaleidoscope of life. Potential to be anything, everything, in many lifetimes and lifeforms. There are no limits to how far the spirit can go while the feet are still firmly planted in this meadow.
Mindful Bog: Saxifrage, Orchids, and the Wilderness Within
The streamside bogs of snowmelt tributaries to the upper Rio Grande are the kind of place where one can loose sight of all the things that bind us in life. They are conduits to the wild places within ourselves, places where anything is possible. They ultimately draw the seeker into another dimension of shared consciousness in which one is simultaneously deeply within and infinitely outward. It is a state of being in which time does not exist and space does not matter; only this moment is real. Sitting on a small dry stone and taking it all in, each inhalation brings the richness of the bog into myself while each exhalation releases the grime of everyday life. Each breath brings me closer to the transformation that occurs when I notice something beautiful and perfect in the natural world. One glance at the twirling inflorescence of Brook Saxifrage (Micranthes odontoloma) and I have slipped away, into the wilderness within me. The freeness with which this plant moves and dances in the slow breeze is as elegant as anything you can imagine. It takes me to that place of freedom, comfort, and beauty; that place where creative forces surge to refresh our most inner selves. It is in this landscape that self-renewal happens and maintains us though our everyday lives. Who knows how much time passes before I feel the tiny tug of Miterwort Saxifrage (Mitella pentandra). This small plant could be easily missed, even when in full bloom. Its flowers are no bigger than a few millimeters across and appear as alien as anything I have ever seen on earth. Miterwort Saxifrage can take you to the most distant and feral places within yourself; places you might not ever have known existed. With this plant, you can see infinite depths and soaring heights, and even explore the tiniest crags and lost corners of your inner landscape. What you find there might surprise yourself. This moment is perfect, eternal, and full of wonder. The beauty and mystery that I see in these Saxifrages exists within me and within everyone, everywhere. It is the common thread that entwines all life. It is the lifeblood of every wild place, without and within.
Along with the minuscule magic of Mitrewort and Brook Saxifrage flowers, come the bog orchids. Often sharing the same habitats with Saxifrage, Rattlensnake Plantain (Goodyera oblongifolia), Northern Green Bog Orchid (Platanthera huronensis), and Heartleaf Twayblade Orchid (Listera cordata) also conspire to contribute to the magic of the Rio Grande headwaters. Rattlesnake Plantain is an orchid that prefers the drier forest floor on the peripheries and is easily recognizable when it dons white stripes on its basal leaves. Like many other orchids whose flower coloration and markings can vary greatly within a single species, Rattlesnake Plantain may or may not have these leaf decorations. Positive identification of orchids is based upon lip shape rather than flower color, stripes, dots, or other colorations. Each tiny flower along its central stalk is a kiss from this bountiful scene. Its embrace welcomes me into this dreamy world where there are new discoveries to be had at every turn. Both the Northern Green Bog Orchid and Heartleaf Twayblade Orchid blend into the luxurious greenery of the bog and reveal themselves to the observant and mindful visitor. With green leaves, stems, and blossoms, they are perfectly camouflaged, but when noticed they beam their personality across the forest. Each has a unique flower that draws the seeker into the minuscule world of wonder that these beings share with Bishop’s Cap and Miterwort Saxifrages. In order to peer into the heart of Northern Green Bog Orchid, one must immerse herself in the bog, absorbing the cool dampness, enveloped in the life of the streamside. From this position, the allure of Heartleaf Twayblade Orchid is strong. The extended lower lip of this unusual green flower seems to reach out to me, pushing me into the depths of my own imagination. After just moments together, it is apparent that the smallest of beings are sometimes capable of creating the greatest effects. Even the subtlest of efforts by these plants was enough to shepherd me into a place of peaceful exploration within myself. The landscapes deep inside of me become as welcoming and inviting as the act of looking deeply into these tiny plants to see who they are. Indeed it is a continuum, the inner realm of these plants and the wilds within me. Trusting in the journey, I leapt completely into unknown territory. I traversed a multitude of thoughtscapes, trudged through endless fields of emotion, and finally arrived in a place of both nothing and everything, loneliness and companionship, desire and fulfillment. It was a terrain of dualities that completed one another and provided for everything. Ultimately in discovering them, I find myself. In knowing them, I become whole. In spite of the journey to find it, this inspiring place is accessible via many avenues at any moment. Looking deeply into Saxifrage and Orchid brings me there and I know that the wilderness within is the heart and home of my herbal health and vitality.
Orchids’ Unexpected Gifts for the Seeker:
The magic of orchids is not relegated to high altitude bogs as I discovered one afternoon in the Sangre de Cristo Range of northern New Mexico. These mountains, along with the Jemez described below, form the southern terminus of the Rocky Mountains and are an extension of the wild wonders found further north. Here is a place where orchids grow in somewhat drier habitats including semi-shaded pine needle beds and more open meadows of middle elevations. Hopeful for such an encounter, I was gifted with the unanticipated meeting of Lady Slipper Orchids, Stripped Coralroot Orchids, and Spotted Coralroot Orchids all in one hike. Having only seen Lady Slippers through the lens of someone else’s camera, I longed to experience this plant for myself for some time. On this particular day Lady Slippers offered me the experience of learning to let go of my own ideas or imagined realities and being open to the perfection of the present moment. Releasing myself from the constraints of desire, I stumbled across a single Stripped Coralroot Orchid not far from the trail. As strange-looking as a candy cane growing out of the forest floor, this plant called my attention away from hopes, wishes, and other thoughts that prevented me from obtaining satisfaction in the here-and-now. It lured me into the magic of the present moment and sharpened my appreciation of the place where I stood and breathed in harmony with the forest. As soon as I absorbed and experienced this gift, I turned and saw the Lady Slipper’s yellow flash through the vast greenness. It was as if these plants conspired to provide me with a much needed realization about releasing ourselves from focusing on what we do not have or have not achieved so that we can instead become mystified by what is already around us and within us. As the day continued many more perfect moments were to be had in the company of the closely related Spotted Coralroot Orchid and a menagerie of other beautiful forest beings. Once again, the orchids shepherded me back to the foundations of what herbal practice means to me: finding medicine and mindfulness in the beauty and teachings of living plants and rediscovering that inside of me.
Saxifrage Family Brings Me Home:
The Saxifrages seem to have my number. They pop up again and again in my plant adventures, always offering themselves as a catalyst for my personal growth and ability to find contentedness and wellbeing in life. As you may already know from my previous writing, I am deeply connected to the place where I live, having fallen in love with my closest wild places including the Sandia and Jemez Mountains. What draws me so profoundly into this world around me is the distinct and unparalleled beauty of the landscapes, the plants, and the interactions between the two. Coral Bells (Huechera pulchella) is one of the plants that reveals the entrancing and unique world that is central New Mexico. Growing among Permian era sea fossils atop Sandia Peak, Coral Bells presides over the land of enchantment, as New Mexico has come to be nicknamed. Endemic to only the mountains outside of Albuquerque, Coral Bells is a treasure to behold as it grows out of limestone rocks made from ancient ocean beds that now tower nearly 11,000 feet over sea level. I say it is a treasure because it evokes myriad and cherished aspects associated with my home: familiar comforts, loving family, supportive community, striking beauty, alluring remoteness, varied wilderness, and dramatic vistas to name a few. Along with Coral Bells one will also find the more common and wider-ranging Alumroot, Heuchera parviflora, in both of these mountains and beyond. Similarly to other Saxifrages described here, Alumroot has tiny flowers that draw the observer into another world of close perception and appreciation for the finer details of life that we often speed right past. It is as if, they offer a conduit to the greatness and unity of all life and remind us that we share interbeing with everything from microbes to clouds to the intergalactic mysteries beyond our comprehension. Along with the resonance of Coral Bells and Alumroots, comes Spotted Saxifrage (Saxifraga bronchialis) as the icing on the cake. Although not a common find on my mountain adventures, I know a few places where it grows locally. This Saxifrage family member has its own way of calling your attention with speckled petals and prominent red anthers. Simply living its life in perfect beauty, it suggests that we all do the same. If we embrace the gifts offered to us by the natural world around us, we have the opportunity to find fulfillment, to cultivate our wellness, and to grow as herbalists. To have discovered such teachers of wisdom and sources of inspiration in my nearest wild places is why I love my home and perhaps it is why you love yours, too.
Whether we are walking in wild places, putting herbs in the kitchen crockpot, or working with clients and students our experience as herbalists is largely defined by where we put our focus. For me being an herbalist has always been about my relationship with plants and the land but more recently it has also become a search for meaning. How do we make sense of the world we are in? How do we know what is the right thing to do? What matters the most when so many large issues loom? Plants have always helped me to find my way in the world but Saxifrages and Orchids have a unique ability to lure me into the present, allowing me to be dazzled by the perfectness of each moment and fulfilled by each respiration shared with a plant. They guide me into new and unexplored territories and bring me the calmness and clarity necessary to find my path. This moment is always what matters most and when embraced, we realize that health and happiness emanate from within.
This essay was originally published as:
Saville, Dara. (2016-17). The Teachings of Saxifrage and Orchid. Plant Healer Quarterly, 7(1), 69-81.