Author Archives: darasaville

Old World Herbs in the American West

Elderberry Eilean Donan Castle.JPG

Medicinal plants surrounded Old World castles. Elderberry outside Eilean Donan Castle in Scotland.

Around the globe plants and people have been making relationships since the early days of humanity. Five thousand year old clay tablets from Sumeria, ancient Chinese texts, and an Egyptian papyrus from the second millennium BCE collectively describe over 1,000 medicinal herbs. There is ample evidence of Neanderthal use of medicinal herbs for pain relief, antibiotics, wild food seasonings, and ritual burials in archaeological finds dating back more than 50,000 years. Even today more than half of all modern drugs are created from plants. In Old World Europe, where much of our current American herbal apothecary originates, relationships with plants stem from a long continuum of historical and cultural traditions that were much closer to the natural world than ours. Old World relationships with herbs include a legacy embracing supernatural magic, astrology, and the personalities of plants in everyday life. While the American herbal tradition is pieced together from a multitude of herbal lineages, many traditions have been fragmented and its strongest and most accessible influences often emerge from a relatively recent culture of dominating nature. Stirring up nostalgia for a simpler way of life and creating a vision for a healthy and vibrant future, the recent popularity of medicinal plants represents for many an escape from our over-consumerist existence while providing a window into our shared past. Wildflowers have the ability to serve as a source of inspiration and contemplation, a metaphor for understanding the natural world and our own ephemeral nature while simultaneously representing the endurance of life. Despite differences, connecting the Old World and New World herbal traditions is not a far reach, as many of these plants migrated with people to occupy gardens or naturalize in new areas while others have close biological relatives across the ocean. For many of us, these plants represent a continuum of our shared ancestry. The three herbal shorts that follow describe some of the historical and cultural background of Saint John’s Wort, Vervain, and Yarrow that shapes our views and uses of these plants today and also allows us to share a snippet of our ancestors’ experience.

Imagine brightly colored garlands of white Yarrow, golden Saint John’s Wort, and purple sprigs of Vervain hanging over doorways, decorating our homes and businesses.  These plants once had a much broader role in the lives of people beyond serving as food and medicine. In Medieval Europe, they were not merely beautiful and fragrant decor but vital personalities integrated into daily life for the purposes of healing, protection, and magic.  They were seen as living entities with their own character and powers beyond what can be observed with the usual senses or quantified by any measurements. Celebrations, festivities, and ceremonies dotted the calendar year and provided numerous openings for plants to move into the center of sacred rituals that bound societies together. Verbenalia, a special day of alter decorating in Ancient Rome, was named for the sacred plant Verbena. Likewise, Saint John’s Feast Day, celebrated since the fourth century CE by Europeans, featured the protective powers of bonfires topped with flaming Saint John’s Wort. Plants featured in so many aspects of life by lifting the spirit in celebration and giving people the strength and empowerment they needed to face the fears of their time. Whether is was Saint John’s Wort for witchcraft in the Dark Ages or Vervain for modern day political burnout, plants have long been companions and symbols of health, protection, and resilience. As native residents of multiple continents and healing herbs in varied and geographically widespread cultures, Yarrow, Saint John’s Wort, and Vervain are among the plants that create an herbal continuum across time and space. When we explore their history they can even pull back the curtain, revealing the cultural and biological world known to our ancestors.

Saint John’s Wort

Old World: Hypericum perforatum

New World: Hypericum scouleri, H. spp

Saint Johns Wort wild PA flowersSaint John’s Wort is a plant with an ancient history of use in medicine and ceremony. Famous for its wound healing powers and affecting the supernatural realm, it was a preferred wound care herb for returning knights from the Crusades and a defense against evil and black magic, going back at least to the Middle Ages. It was customary to pick flowers on June 24, the eve of Saint John’s Feast Day, for floral garlands that were strung together with Vervain and Yarrow. These were hung over doorways to prevent the passage of harmful spirits or spells. Bonfires were topped with cuttings of Saint John’s Wort and set alight to disrupt dark and deadly forces during especially perilous times of year that were marked by increased supernatural activity. The protective powers of this herb were so potent that it was also referred to as fuga daemonium, ‘devil’s flight’. It was commonly thought that the devil hated the plant so much he stabbed the leaves repeatedly with a dagger causing all the tiny red dots to appear on August 29, the day of Saint John’s beheading. The blood of the Saint increased the plant’s protective powers. This story explains the botanical name Hypericum, meaning ‘over an apparition’ or ‘over an icon’ and perforatum, ‘tiny leaf punctures’. The protective magic and lore of Saint John’s Wort are related to this plant’s medicinal uses. During the Middle Ages, psychiatric problems were often perceived and described as effects of evil and witchcraft, thus it is no surprise that Saint John’s Wort has long been used in combination with other herbs for the treatment of a variety of mood and mental health conditions. As a symbol for healing, it became the flower emblem for the Saint John Ambulance Brigade founded in 1877 and the potency of the herb was even recognized by King George VI, who named one of his racehorses Hypericum. The popularity of Saint John’s Wort endures and it has become one of the most widely researched and studied herbal medicines of the modern era.

Vervain

Old World: Verbena officinalis

New World: Verbena hastata, V. macdougalii, V. spp

Verbena Bosque flowersVervain is one of the most highly esteemed of the Old World herbs due, in part, to its strong association with sacred and magical properties. Its protective symbolism and ability to evoke a sense of well-being resulted in long-standing and widely practiced traditions such as the sprinkling of Vervain infused water around a gathering to clear negative or harmful influences and invigorate the guests. Stretching across Mesopotamian, Greek, Roman, Middle Age, Druid, and modern cultures this herb was placed on altars, woven into crowns, used to evoke enchantments, protect against evil, and heal a variety of ailments. In ancient Greece Vervain was associated with Gods as it purified Zeus’ table before celebrations and was woven into Aphrodite’s crown. This plant’s use in love charms continued well into Medieval times and its aphrodisiac effects were considered to be so potent that it could re-conjure lost love and convert enemies. The Romans also placed high value on Vervain as a sacred purifying plant and used it in ceremonies and celebrations including the altar-decorating festival of Verbenalia. Messengers, heralds, and ambassadors all wore Vervain as a badge of office and military leaders wore it for protection in battle. During the Middle Ages, this powerful herb was used in practices of dark magic and witchcraft, but also as an antidote to those forces by hanging it along doorways with Saint John’s Wort and Yarrow for protection against such malevolent influences. Among the Welsh Vervain was known as ‘Devil’s Bane’ and was dipped into holy water to be used around church buildings and cemeteries safeguarding these places and also prepared it as incense for exorcisms. Druids were also known to use Vervain in ceremonies and left offerings before harvesting. According to Christian texts this sacred herb was even present at Christ’s crucifixion and used to heal his wounds. Vervain continues to be used for a variety of herbal applications but one of its oft forgotten uses is for treating edema and clearing urinary stones though diuresis. This once prominent use may be the origin of the name Vervain, from the Celtic ferfain, meaning to drive away (fer) a stone (faen). Few other plants share such a revered and enduring place in herbal lore.

Yarrow

Old World: Achillea millefolium

New World: Achillea millefolium, A. millefolium lanulosa

Yarrow flowers gardenYarrow is one of the most famous of all medicinal plants and finds a place in herbal traditions around the world. It is an herb of mythical stories and a central plant of ritual, ceremony, and healing. Native to both the Old World and the New, it is common across continents and is one of world’s oldest known herbal remedies. Found in a 65,000 year-old Neanderthal grave in Iraq, Yarrow’s medicinal and ceremonial history is one of humanity’s oldest stories of the connections between plants and people. The legend of Yarrow continues into the ancient world at the Siege of Troy around 1250 B.C.E., where its healing powers were employed. Following the advice of his famed teacher and great healer, the centaur Chiron, the warrior Achilles is said to have treated the wounds of his ally Telemachus using the herb Yarrow. This story not only illuminates Yarrow’s long-standing medicinal importance but it also helps to explain its botanical name, Achillea, along with its leaves of thousands (millefolium) of dissections. Hundreds of years after Troy, Yarrow was one of the plant remedies carried aboard a Roman ship dated between 140-120 B.C.E. and its medicinal properties were later recorded by Pliny the Elder and Dioscorides in the first century C.E. Along with Saint John’s Wort and Vervain, Yarrow was a primary herb of protection against evil spirits in Medieval times and was hung as a defender of health and safety. Today Yarrow remains one of our most widely used apothecary herbs across geographically and culturally diverse healing practices.

These three plants along with numerous others represent links in the herbal continuum of the people and plants in the Old World and New World. While some parts of the traditions have been left behind, others remain as the connectors between worlds and serve as bridges to our ancestors. Plants may symbolize many things in our lives from nourishment to beauty to healing to ecological functioning but their ability to unite us with our own lineages and to each other takes on new importance in the modern era when fractures and divisions seem larger than ever. During a recent journey to the Old World where my ancestors once walked the land, I felt this deep connection offered by familiar plants not only to my family but to all of humanity. Let us immerse ourselves in the oneness that plants put forth and soak in our commonality.

 

References:

Applequist, Wendy, and Daniel Moerman. “Yarrow (Achillea millefoilum): A Neglected Panacea? A Review of Ethnobotany, Bioactivity, and Biomedical Research.” Economic Botany 65, no. 2 (2011): 209–225.

Culpeper, Nicolas. Culpeper’s Complete Herbal. London: Arcturus, 2018. (Originally published in 1653.)

Grieve, Maude. A Modern Herbal. New York: Dover Publications, 1971. (Original publication 1931, Harcourt, Brace, & Company.)

Leroi-Gourhan, Arlette. “The Flowers Found with Shanidar IV, a Neanderthal Burial in Iraq.” Science 190, no. 4214 (October 1975): 562-564.

Richardson, Rosamond. Britain’s Wild Flowers. London: National Trust, 2017.

Solecki, Ralph S. “Shanidar IV, a Neanderthal Flower Burial in Northern Iraq.” Science 190, no. 4217 (November 1975): 880-881.

 

This essay was adapted from the original publication: Saville, Dara. “Herbal Tales Connecting the Old World and the American West, Part II.” Plant Healer 4, no. 2 (2019): 78-87.

Desert Mesa Medicine

Petr landscape 3

The desert mesa is a landscape where we are confronted with the history of the land and the culture of people; a place where we cannot hide from ourselves. The endless vistas, open expanses, and clear blue skies put everything on display including our deepest vulnerabilities. Thought to be empty, hostile, ugly, or worthless the desert mesa is often overlooked and neglected. On the fringes of civilization, it is little visited except as a place to dump household waste, yard clippings, or worse. Take a walk with me, however, and feel the vitality pulsing through this unique place as we explore some of the plants that contribute to the character of this land. (To meet more desert plants, see my previous posts Desert Aromatics of the American Southwest and Herbal Tales from the Chihuahua Desert.)

Globemallow (Sphaeralcea spp.)

The captivating tiny orange flowers of our local Globemallows were one of the first wildflowers to ensnare my heart. Since then I have gotten to know many species blooming in varied colors and growing in a wide variety of environments, making it one of the most reliably abundant medicinal herbs in our area. The genus ranges across the Mountain West (primarily S. coccinea) but other species prefer the drier soils of the greater Southwest and Southern Great Plains. Due to their propensity for cross hybridizing, it can be very difficult to differentiate individual species. Globemallows have a close relationship with native desert bees, whose lives unfold in harmony with the coming of unpredictable rains that spur this plant’s seeds to germinate and summon the bees to gather nectar and pollinate Globemallow.

Globemallow has a long history of use in the Southwest and has been found regularly at archaeological sites including Chaco Canyon, where it is more frequently found in ceremonial kivas than residential or food prep rooms, suggesting ritual and/or medicinal usage. The continuum of this plant’s close relationship to humans carries over into historic Pueblos, Hispanic communities, and otGlobemallow_Petr 1her modern herbal traditions where Globemallow is commonly called upon for a variety of health complaints including skin conditions, respiratory ailments, digestive issues, urinary inflammations, and hair care. As a cooling and demulcent anti-inflammatory that stimulates macrophage activity and promotes healing, Globemallow is useful whenever there is hot inflamed soft tissue. This includes chronic or poorly healing infections, dry coughs, sore throats, urinary infections, hemorrhoids, ulcers, splinters, abscesses, rashes, bites, and stings. Globemallow is also an effective tonic herb for immune system imbalances such as autoimmune conditions where it can help reduce inflammation and encourage effective immune functioning without over-exciting the system. This plant is prepared as a leaf tea (with or without flowers and strained through a cloth to catch potentially irritating tiny hairs), poultice, bath, or leaf and flower tincture prepared by preserving a strong tea with 25% alcohol. In addition to uses already described, Pueblo People have also pounded roots and mixed them with salt water as an infection or venom-drawing poultice or hard cast for broken bones and rubbed leaves on sore muscles for a rubifacient effect. Navajo consider Globemallow to be a Life Medicine and use roots to stop bleeding, treat skin ailments, indigestion, poor appetite, and coughs and colds. Navajo people also smoked dried leaves as tobacco and some tribes have also used Globemallow roots to make face paint or prepare pottery. Hispanic herb traditions include many of the same uses but also as a bath for babies with thrush or chronic diaper rash and a hair and scalp rinse made from mashed leaves and flowers.

 

Datura (Datura wrightii)

There are few plants with more allure than the gorgeous and foreboding Datura. Prehistoric and historic usage of the plant highlights this duality as it is commonly found Datura garden flower closeupat ancestral Pueblo archaeological sites dating back centuries but modern New Mexico Pueblos have no uses for the plant and often describe it with both attraction and fear. Although there are 20 species worldwide, most occur in the American Southwest and Mexico and favor dry areas with natural or human disturbance such as foothill drainages or urban areas from sea level up to 7,000 feet. Dunmire and Tierney (1995) theorize that Datura may have been brought up to the Southwest from Mexico as part of the exchange of ideas and goods and that Datura’s non-contiguous and spotty distribution and its association with sacred sites may be explained by its relationship to prehistoric cultures. Further supporting this theory is the local common name Toloache, derived from the Aztec name Toloatzin. A powerful and poisonous plant, Datura beckons both pollinators and herbalists with its offers of intoxication and transformation. Hawk moths, lured by the scent of night blooming flowers, descend into the depths of the tubular blossom in search of nectar. With wings beating against the corolla, they dust themselves with pollen and often fall to the ground or fly away erratically in search of their next intoxicating flower.

Likewise humans have along history of seeking similar pain relieving or otherwise transforming experiences with Datura. The first recorded medicinal uses come from an ancient Babylonian tablet and include references to its poisonous, sedating, and aphrodisiac qualities. As a highly toxic plant, Datura teaches us caution and respect for the powers of the plant world. Furthermore, alkaloid proportions can vary between plants, increasing the danger of misuse and highlighting the importance of relationship with this plant. I have personally witnessed rashes develop from simply brushing bare skin against its leaves and Dunmire and Tierney noted that simply smelling a flower can make some nauseous or sedate children into drugged sleep. Consuming 20 seeds can be fatal and there is no shortage of disturbing stories from people who have tried to consume the plant. One of the best such tales comes from Jamestown, Virginia where soldiers boiled and ate spring shoots (likely D. stramonium) with hallucinations and foolishness ensuing for 11 days before they returned to normal with no memory of the events. Clearly, Datura should not be consumed internally and is reserved for topical use or minor inhDatura PETRalations as emergency medicine. As a topical remedy, Datura leaves and flowers are one of our best analgesics and are commonly prepared as a bath, poultice, infused oil, or liniment. These can be helpful for wounds, headaches, cramps, achy muscles, sports injuries, arthritis, hemorrhoids, and hot inflamed skin conditions. I find Datura especially helpful when there is an emotional or psychological component to a person’s pain as this plant can be deeply transformative beyond the physical realm. A few inhalations of Datura, Mullein, and Salvia Sage smoke also makes a valuable emergency medicine for asthma constriction and severe allergic reactions as it relaxes bronchial spasms and reduces excess secretions. Common side effects of misuse include dry mouth and blurred vision.

As previously mentioned, Native American relationships with this plant vary with some using the plant medicinally, others using it ceremonially, and some avoiding or fearing it. Uses are consistent with what has already been described but include additional ceremonial and medicinal knowledge, the details of which are largely unknown outside the respective cultural groups. Ethnobotanist Daniel Moerman referred to Datura as “the most universally used hallucinogenic and medicinal plant known to humans” (1998 p.194). He reported that the Cahuilla, for example, smoked dried leaves to transcend worlds, have visions, encounter spirits, transform into other animals, diagnose illness, and give hunters increased power and connectivity to animals. Many other tribes have used Datura in similar ways including the Paiute, who ate seeds while gambling to guess the opponent’s hand, or the Zuni, who used it to see ghosts, empower rain priests to bring water, and enable victims to identify perpetrators in their dreams. Hopis used it to cure meanness and the Navajo ate fruits soaked and boiled and mixed with clay to neutralize toxicity.

Make Tea: Joint Fir (Ephedra torreyana), Cota (Thelasperma megapotamicum, T. gracile), and Indigobush (Dalea formosa)

There are lots of great tasting tea herbs out in the desert and Joint Fir, Cota, and Indigobush are just a few of them. Joint Fir, also known as Mormon Tea, is an unusual looking plant that is easy to recognize with its photosynthetic stems and cone-like structures. There are numerous species that range across the American West, with E. torreyana Mormon Tea closeupbeing the most common in our area. Gather the stems and use them to make a tasty tea for enjoyment of a wild beverage or as a medicinal preparation. Joint Fir is useful for respiratory conditions as a decongestant, increasing lung capacity, and also as a preventative for seasonal allergies. It is also included in formulas for the urinary system when an herb with diuretic, astringent, and anti-inflammatory action is needed.  Also being high in calcium, Joint Fir can be added to nutritional teas for convalescence or as a preventative for osteoporosis. Dunmire and Tierney (1995) reported the Pueblo use of Joint Fir to quench thirst by chewing the stems. Lastly, it is worth mentioning that Southwest Ephedra species do not contain ephedra alkaloids, the stimulating chemicals associated with Chinese Ephedra.

Cota, also known as Greenthread or Hopi Tea, is a wiry little-noticed plant until its dainty yellow flowers appear. It is spread across much of the American West and Plains states and habits open sunny areas with cota-twin-flowers.jpgmoderately dry soil along roadsides, acequias, and semi-arid grasslands. Gather the stems with or without flowers, dry them in folded bundles, and use them like tea bags. This is a delicious tea with a wild taste and also serves as a mild medicinal.  Acting as a gently purifying diuretic, it is often formulated for urinary system irritations, arthritis, and fevers.  Cota, often combined with one of the mints, is also a traditional remedy for upset stomachs and blood purification.

Indigobush Dalea flowersIndigobush, or Feather Dalea, is aptly named for its striking richly colored and feathery flowers. These fascinating flowers are color-changing, starting off with a yellow banner (the largest petal on a pea family flower) that changes to maroon after pollination, signaling other potential visitors that the nectar is already gone.  This small woody shrub is frequently found on gravelly slopes in southern New Mexico and neighboring desert regions. Indigobush also makes a tasty sweet-scented tea that is made simply for wild refreshment but also has a local medicinal history.  Traditional uses include bathing in the tea for arthritis relief, growing pains, and bodily pains as well as treating colds with feverish conditions.

 

by Dara Saville, May 2019

 

References:

Carolyn Dodson, A Guide to Plants of the Northern Chihuahua Desert, (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2012).

Charles Kane, Medicinal Plants of the American Southwest, (Lincoln Town Press, 2011).

Daniel E. Moerman, Native American Ethnobotany, (Portland, OR: Timber Press, 1998).

L. S. M. Curtin, Healing Herbs of the Upper Rio Grande, (Los Angeles, CA: Southwest Museum, 1965).

Michael Moore, Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West, (Santa Fe, NM: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1989).

Michael Moore, Los Remedios, (Santa Fe, NM: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1990).

Michael Moore, Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West, (Santa Fe, NM: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2003).

William W. Dunmire and Gail D. Tierney, Wild Plants of the Pueblo Province, (Santa Fe, NM: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1995).

William W. Dunmire and Gail D. Tierney, Wild Plants and Native Peoples of the Four Corners, (Santa Fe, NM: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1997).

Rediscovering Our Connection with Life and Land

pedicularis parryi meadow 6As we move through the transition of winter’s darkness and into the new year, it is a time most suitable for considering new perspectives in our lives.  Here is some food for thought….

Herbalism means different things to each one of us as we all practice in unique ways with individualized approaches and goals. We may consider ourselves to be practical herbalists providing clinical services, artists creating heartfelt herbal products, or educators facilitating personal growth. We may take a logical or analytical approach or, instead, allow ourselves to be directed by the emotional or spiritual realms. We may embrace bioregional herbalism based in local plants or choose to focus ourselves in a particular cultural tradition that appeals to us. No matter how or why we practice, herbalism affords the opportunity to move outside of ourselves, leaving behind the mundane business of our everyday lives to enter the energetic flow that is the network of all life. This process of engaging life beyond the boundaries of the individualized self may be called “unselfing” or “interbeing” and enriches our herbal practice as well as our daily lives by connecting us more deeply to place and its emanating life. Have you ever walked across a high alpine meadow filled with blooming wildflowers? If so, then you may have experienced the cacophonous din of diverse and vibrant life forms interacting with one another. You may have felt the reverberations of boundless vitality penetrate you, luring you into oneness with the meadow underfoot and the overarching sky. Experiences such as this can be had anytime and anywhere through the processes of unselfing or interbeing. Embracing this approach deepens our place-based wisdom, redirects our energy back into a reciprocal exchange with life, creates a foundation for solving current environmental issues, and illuminates our wild nature inviting us into a limitless world beyond our wildest dreams.

 

Looking beyond ourselves to realize our interconnections with the world around us is nothing new. Trees have been doing it for eons and bacterium for even longer. Life doespine ponderosa sierra nevada not grow in a vacuum and living beings exist because of the community to which they belong. That is to say, trees, humans, and other life forms have both endogenous and exogenous sources of knowledge and assistance that help them to survive and thrive despite the difficulties and challenges that present themselves. As David George Haskell described, the Ponderosa Pine survives in locations with hot dry summers through a combination of internal wisdom and mechanisms as well as help from an external complex of soil organisms including mycelium. When afternoon showers are absent and its own water saving strategies are not enough, the tree is nevertheless able to obtain moisture through its own deep and spreading root structure augmented by a vast network of fungi that, conducted by electrical charges, draws water from the depths upward through the mycelium and into the tree roots. Ponderosa Pine also sustains itself through an interrelation with fire. Before fire suppression policies and modern forces of climate change, forest fires tended to occur much more frequently, regularly consuming fuel in smaller amounts, and clearing the understory but causing little harm to tree canopies. This fire pattern aided the Ponderosa, whose thick bark and high branches protected it while the forest floor was cleared of competition for its own seedlings. Thus the Ponderosa makes itself stronger and more successful through external relationships and interconnectedness with other living systems.

 

Like the Ponderosa Pine, people have also been thriving for millions of years, in part, due to a multitude of relationships with other organisms and life systems. Our ability to use tools, our advancing intellect, and many other endogenous assets have no doubt helped us to evolve into the widespread species we are today but we could not have made it on our own. It is our interconnection with plants that nourishes our bodies with vitamins, minerals, sugars, and refreshed oxygen to breathe that provides critical resources for our survival. Nothing illustrates more clearly the profound impact of the interrelations between humans and plants as the process of respiration. In a deeply intimate exchange, the reciprocal giving and receiving of life force between species through the flow of oxygen and carbon dioxide forms a profound bond. What memories or ancient truths may be imprinted upon these gaseous molecules flowing freely between plants and people may never be proven but can certainly be known through oneness that transcends species. It is these essential exogenous relationships and interactions that provide an access point for reconnecting to life and land as well as a foundation for unselfing and interbeing.

 

How then can we come to such a place of mutual understanding between our ego-centric selves and the rest of the living world to which we belong? Cutting through the layers of self, eventually coming out the other side, and rediscovering our connection with all living beings and life systems is a multi-faceted process of letting go of what gets in the way. Born from The Source of Life, most of us spend our days engaged in distractions, limited by coping mechanisms, and developing defenses to life’s difficulties. This process ultimately moves us away from that eternal connection to life and hinders our ability to connect with plants, rivers, clouds, animals, and the earth. As an English speaker, I am yerba mansa flower solo 2keenly aware of the everyday barrier that language can be in recognizing the value of life beyond ourselves. Other than humans (and perhaps our pets) all other life is referred to as ‘it’, implying the lifelessness of the rest of the world and our separateness from it. Researching and learning deeply about what interests us most is one aspect of pursuing relationship with the living place as it brings us into understanding about what a place is and how it functions. Furthermore, transcending our minds, allowing our hearts to take the lead, and letting our senses loose to perceive beauty in the world around us puts us back on the path to reconnection. You don’t have to be in an alpine wildflower meadow to do this. A Yerba Mansa plant in the backyard garden fills the air with its pleasing pungent aroma, steeping my lungs in the plant’s vitality and drawing me in for a closer look. Entranced by the radiant glow of the gleaming white flowers, an otherworldly palette of colors reveals itself containing within it all hues of the universe. In this moment, I am Yerba Mansa and the rest of the world dissolves. Perceiving beauty and wonder in the world brings us out of ourselves and allows us to rejoin The Source of Life, becoming less of an individual and more part of an interconnected system of life. It sets us free to imagine how a tree experiences its surroundings or to contemplate what it feels like for the river to move freely toward its delta. Iris Murdoch and others have referred to this as a process of “unselfing”, or transcending your individuality or even your own species to become part of the entire community of life. Murdoch described a moment of seeing a kestrel in flight. Immersed in its pure beauty, she forgets about what worries her, nothing exists except the kestrel, and when it flies away she has gained a new perspective. The experience of unselfing allows us to embrace an herbal practice based on interconnection not only with plants, but also with entire ecosystems or places. When we are in tune with and engaged in sustained mindful observation and deliberate interaction with our surroundings, we begin to acknowledge that we are a natural part of ecosystem functions (for better or for worse) and we can discern when those systems are out of balance. This allows us to share in the wisdom of the land as we deepen our relationship with the wilds and develop new understanding about how plants work as medicines. This gift also bestows upon us the responsibility to act in ways that nurture the health of plants and the living systems that support them through respectful interactions and working toward more sustainable environmental policies. Ultimately the process of unselfing invites us into ascension beyond ourselves, where our relationships are formed and our insights are gained through profound connections to the network of life.

 

The concept of interbeing is similar to unselfing in that it moves us beyond ourselves as individuals and into the collective consciousness of life. This idea is based upon the notion that there is no birth or death; that birth is simply the continuation of something that has always existed in some form and death is a transformation of that thing into something else. Thich Nhat Hanh provided many examples of this including an ocean wave. A wave is born of the collective ocean water, rises, crests, crashes, and returns to the ocean waters only to be reborn again and again. He furthers this notion by saying that the wave is interbeing with the ocean, clouds, rain, earth’s atmosphere, the moon, and beyond. Since we are also made of water, this example includes us, too. Likewise, sunflower 2when we pick an edible fruit or wildflower and eat it, we are interbeing with that plant, the soil, pollinating critters, oxygen, rain, clouds, sunshine, and the entire cosmos of everything that is interconnected and played a part in the flower’s existence. As herbalists, we can easily see our own interconnection with plants but if we take that further and extend it to all living systems, our interbeing is infinite and possibilities are limitless. We not only see ourselves as part of nature but we can see the interconnectedness of everything including our own actions. This understanding allows us to look into a sunflower, see the seed, and realize that we are looking into eternity as that seed holds the essence of innumerable generations of sunflowers born from the sun’s energy that originated from some other cosmic source and so on. When we apply this kind of thinking to our herbal practice we can easily slip out of ourselves and into the ecosystems and lands around us and see infinite possibilities for wisdom, harmony, and fulfillment in our wild nature and the limitlessness of life. We can share our being with that of the plants we love, the river that nourishes life, or the land that sustains us all. As Thich Nhat Hahn reminded us, we can become solid like the mountain or fresh like an opening blossom. We can embody the qualities of the river, unyielding, relentlessly moving toward its goal, employing patient softness to wear down even the hardest of obstacles. Through interbeing we return to The Source of Life for a clearer understanding of plants, places, ecosystems, and ourselves.

 

Through this practice of unselfing or interbeing we can transcend ourselves by reconnecting with the universal feral nature within us, thereby recognizing our inseparableness from the rest of the wild world. This reconnecting fosters deep relationships with plants, animals, rivers, mountains, canyons, forests, and wildflower meadows while allowing us to see ourselves as part of those ecosystems. As David George Haskell and others have suggested, leaving behind the notion that we are somehow separate from life systems, the disrupters or tarnishers of wildness, we can begin to see our actions including the damming of flowing steams and the logging of forests as acts derived from wildness. If we accept that the massive eruptions of prehistoric volcanoes and their accompanying large-scale remaking of the landscape including extico cement creek trailnctions as natural events, then so too is the paving of cities around the world invented and undertaken by primate minds and hands. The difference is that we can actively decide to make changes in the way we live our lives. With this understanding we are open to value the heavily altered riparian corridor as much as the remote National Park lands and we can begin the difficult job of evaluating and reconsidering our role in these places. As Thich Nhat Hanh succinctly stated, “Only when we’ve fallen back in love with the earth will our actions spring from reverence and the insight of our interconnectedness.” Through this paradigm of recognizing our full integration with wildness and our natural place within ecosystem functions we can not only deepen our relationship with place and medicinal plants but we can also make more insightful decisions about how to mitigate or solve the environmental problems our modern way of living has created.

 

All meaningful relationships must be reciprocal, involving a mutually sustaining exchange of give and take. How long can a relationship endure that is largely one-sided? That is modern humanity’s great question. In order to reconnect with place, we must rediscover the reciprocal flow between life, land, and ourselves. We can begin by learning as much as possible, falling in love with life (not limited to our own lives), and realizing that we can turn the subsequent gifts of that process into actions that revitalize land, plants, water, animals, and therefore ourselves. Moving beyond the idea that we are distinct from or elevated above the rest of life and re-entering the ancient reality in which plants existed and began acquiring wisdom long before humans, allows us to learn and grow in harmony with the place where we live. It affords the opportunity to create a mutually beneficial relationship with place and all life, which facilitates us becoming native to our locale regardless of where we grew up or where our ancestors originated. Unselfing and interbeing ultimately allows humanity to transform its role in the world to become a healing force for the land rather than subjugating it as a commodity. From this perspective we can see clearly that environmental degradation contributes to our own suffering and that caring for plants and place is nurturing ourselves. Rediscovering and exploring our connection to place through immersion in knowledge and steeping in pure present moment beauty may be what saves us all.

This essay was originally published as: Saville, Dara. (2017-2018). Unselfing, Interbeing, and Rediscovering Our Connection to Life and Land. Plant Healer Quarterly, 8(2), 22-29.

References:

Haskell, David George. (2017). The Songs of Trees. New York: Viking.

Nhat Hanh, Thich. (2001). A Pebble for Your Pocket. California: Plum Blossom Books.

Nhat Hanh, Thich. (2002). Under the Rose Apple Tree. California: Parallax Press.

Desert Aromatics of the American Southwest

Milne Foothills Snakeweed Juniper

Aromatic plants have been an integral part of landscapes and human cultures, playing important ecological and ceremonial roles since the beginning of history and beyond. The deserts of the American Southwest are home to a wide variety of medicinal plants including many that speak through the language of scent and appeal to our love of certain fragrances. Sauntering through the Sage covered mesas, one can sense the aromatic particles upon the wind and feel the movement of energy across the land. This interaction has the power to transform our state of being by shifting our awareness away from our minds to a world of present moment sensory immersion. While these plants undoubtedly have their own unique personalities, ecological purposes, and herbal actions, they do have overlapping characteristics. The following selection of plants, ranging from lower elevation to higher elevation, all share the work of relieving congestion, dispersing stagnant energy, shifting our consciousness, and captivating us through potent aromatic communication.

 

Chaparral or Cresosote (Larrea tridentata)

Ranging across the greater Southwest, Chaparral (aka Hediondilla or Gobernadora) is found in all the major deserts and is a dominant plant in the Chihuahua Desert, sometimes forming expansive nearly monotypic stands where overgrazing has occurred. The sensory experience of becoming acquainted with Chaparral brings the seeker into vast desert basins where visible heat, the penetrating aroma of Chaparral leaves, and the humbling exposure of standing under endless blue skies and unrelenting sun may converge to create an altered state of awareness. Here the antiquity of the land resonates not only from pottery sherds, petroglyphs and pictographs, and ruined village walls, but also from Chaparral stands with ancient individuals reaching up to 11,700 years old. Having arrived in the Southwest from ancestral populations in South America, Chaparral has slowly advanced its range and, aided by cattle grazing in recent years, has transformed the region’s deserts often inhibiting the growth of grasses and other desert annuals. This plant’s relationship to the land reveals its medicinal workings as it usurps local resources, overtakes the local ecology, shifts biotic balances, and creates a new reality on its own terms. This observation helps us to understand its ‘brute force’ style of medicine and why it is so helpful for the most serious microbial infections or unrelenting deep body pain where significant transformation is necessary. If, in a geologically short period of time, it can transfochaparral quebradasrm the harsh and unforgiving environments of the major deserts of the Southwest, forming monotypic stands thousands of square kilometers in size, imagine what it can do in the human body’s ecosystem. (For a more in depth discussion of Larrea, see my previously published piece Ecological Herbalism, Part One in the Plant Healer spring 2016 edition.)

Until the historic cattle-grazing era, which often relegated Chaparral to the category of invasive shrub, it enjoyed a long history of being valued by local people as an important resource for making medicine and items of material culture. Dried leaves, flowers, seeds, and twigs are commonly prepared as a 75% tincture, infused oil, salve, soak, liniment, poultice, or as a purifying smoke (not inhaled). Larrea is so potent that I most often use it as a topical and recommend it internally only for short periods of time due to the extra work required by the liver to process it. Chaparral’s stimulating effect on the liver, however, makes it a useful herb for the easement of arthritis or other joint pains, as well as for allergies or other autoimmune conditions where bodily purification is called for. Furthermore, Chaparral’s powerful dispersive effect and potent activity against a number of stubborn microbes including fungus, yeast, and bacteria make it a useful first aid herb or an excellent addition to formulas for serious illneChaparral golden flowersses such as bronchitis, TB, E. coli, Staph, and MRSA. I have found it to be indispensable for treating athlete’s foot and other fungal infections and will sometimes add it to formulas to clear other unrelenting conditions. Recent studies have also shown Chaparral’s potential in cancer treatments such as breast cancer and melanoma as well as chemo protective applications for skin cancer. These research results seem well supported by Chaparral’s stubborn and relentless nature along with its propensity to spread across the land, transforming its ecology along the way.

Native Americans of the Southwest used Chaparral for a variety of ailments consistent with those described above and some regarded it as a panacea. Additional uses include drinking tea for bowel and gastric complaints, as an emetic, or for treating fevers, venereal disease, or menstrual cramps. Chaparral leaves were also powdered and applied to a newborn’s navel or to the mother to induce milk flow and used as bedding to ease postpartum or menstrual cramps. Charcoal from Chaparral was even used for tattooing. The Seris of Sonora, Mexico commonly prepared Chaparral either as a hot leaf or ash poultice, tea soak, or as a purifying smoke or steam of leafy branches for a person experiencing postpartum discomfort, headaches, stingray wounds, or other pains. The Seri also harvested and sharpened Chaparral wood for making useful tools such as nails and harpoon points and used the heated and cooled lac (produced by the insect Tachardiella larreae) as a plastic-like adhesive and sealant for many purposes including arrow making and repairing or sealing pots and baskets. The Hispanic herbal tradition continued many of these same uses especially as a poultice, soak, or salve (mixed with Osha ,Tobacco, and/or Trementina de Piñon) for arthritis, skin or saddle sores, and ringworm. Chaparral tea has also been used as an antiseptic for urinary inflammations.

 

 

Sand Sage (Artemisia filifolia)

Ranging across sandy soils of the greater Southwest and into the Southern Great Plains, Sand Sage or Romerillo is a defining and dominant plant in many areas. Sand Sage tends to grow in expansive and exposed places, like the volcanic mesas along the Middle Rio Grande, where vulnerability and perspective are on center stage. The plants that grow there offer an embrace of these and other qualities along with their herbal actions. This plant has a long history of medicinal use by native peoples, Hispanic communities, and others primarily for digestive and respiratory complaints as well as arthritis and antimicrobial treatments. Like its close relative Estafiate (A. ludoviciana), Sand Sage lacks the phytochemical thujone and thus distinguishes it from the common Sagebrush (A. tridentata) and Fringed Sage (A. frigida). While the more pungent Sagebrush and Fringed Sage are used as a bitter tonic to increase gastric secretions for cold and sluggish Sage filifolia PETRdigestive issues, Sand Sage is helpful for reducing gastric secretions in digestive problems caused by heat and inflammation. Sand Sage leaves chewed or prepared as a warm tea or poultice also promote digestive health by protecting gastric mucosa, healing ulcers, inhibiting H. pylori, and acting as a choleretic to increase bile production. The aromatic camphor present in the leaves make the hot tea, warm poultice, or steam inhalation of Sand Sage and other species useful for clearing respiratory congestion and infection and easing coughs and sore throats. Sand Sage also has a history of use for arthritis treatments, usually prepared as a warm poultice, infused oil, or soak. Additionally, Sand Sage is a mild but broadly effective topical and internal antimicrobial useful for wound care, bacterial, fungal, and parasitic infections. The Penitentes of northern New Mexico are said to have used Sand Sage as a healing wash for their self-inflicted back lacerations. Sand Sage has also been used for purification by burning the leaves or drinking hot tea for diaphoresis or cold tea for diuresis as well as regulating blood flow by stimulating delayed menses and controlling post-partum bleeding. Tewa and Hopi Pueblos have also used this widely abundant and important plant in sacred ceremonies.

Snakeweed (Gutierrezia sarothrae)

Snakeweed or Escoba de la Vibora is a common and wide-ranging plant on the high mesas, grasslands, and other sandy or overgrazed areas of the Mountain West and is a highly valued medicinal plant in Southwestern herbal traditions. A similar species, G. microcephala, is less frequently encountered and limited to the Southwest. It is distinguished by having only one or two ray flowers compared to G. sarothrae’s three to Snakeweed Mesa 1eight ray flowers. As a late-summer or early-fall blooming plant, Snakeweed brightens up the mesa at a time when few other plants are flowering and its intoxicatingly wonderful scent fills the air just as we begin our transition into the darker time of year.   While G. sarothrae is currently widespread across the American West, prior to cattle grazing this plant was once far less abundant than it is today. This may account for its scant presence in archaeological sites but its high importance in more modern herbal traditions across cultures. Snakeweed is a frequent member of plant communities in Oak Juniper woodlands and desert grasslands and was among the first specimens collected by Lewis and Clark along the Missouri River. Its semi-resinous aromatic foliage and profuse golden blossoms are commonly collected and dried to prepare soaks, liniments, infused oils, and teas for arthritis treatments, inflammation, joint soreness, and musculo-skeletal pain. Snakeweed is sometimes combined with other signature plants of the region including Datura and Chaparral for this purpose. Additionally Pueblo People use soaks, poultices, tea and/or vapors as an emetic, treatment for eye conditions, rattlesnake bites, bruises, colds and coughs, fevers, diarrhea, venereal disease, bathing newborns, postpartum care, and general purification.   For the Navajo, Snakeweed is a Life Medicine employed in previously mentioned forms or as plant ash rubbed on the body for upset stomachs, diarrhea, fever, headaches, nervousness, cuts and scrapes, swollen bites, during childbirth for delivery of the placenta, painful urination, and ceremony. Hispanic communities have similar and overlapping uses including colic, post-partum sitzbath or douche, malaria recovery, and menstrual regulation. Snakeweed has also been used in broom-making, yellow dye for Navajo weaving, Hopi prayer sticks, insecticide, and as filler for wall construction.

Juniper (Juniperus monosperma)

Juniper or Sabina is among the most widespread and habitat-defining plants in the Southwest (especially New Mexico) and ethnobotanists Dunmire, Tierney, and Moerman list more uses for it than any other plant. While some might accuse Juniper of impersonating a Cedar, they are actually part of the Cypress family and there are numerous species inhabiting vast middle-elevation acreages of the Southwest and others found across the country. Many Juniper species are used medicinally (excepting the Alligator Juniper) but since the One-Seed Juniper is most common in New Mexico that is Juniper and yucca petrthe species I know best. I sincerely enjoy drinking Juniper tea but others find it abhorrent so you might want to let folks try it for themselves before recommending is as part of any treatment. Many herbalists think of Juniper berry tincture or tea as an antiseptic diuretic for urinary tract infections and inflammations. Some may also include Juniper in digestive formulas as a carminative and to increase gastric secretions, in topical oils for eczema or psoriasis, or even use leaves and berries in incense. In Native American herbal practice, however, Juniper is legion. Among the Southwestern tribes, Juniper berry tea is a diuretic and leaf spring tea is used for clearing colds and coughs, calming digestive problems including diarrhea and constipation, soothing general aches and pains, and has many associations with the birthing process. Juniper tea serves as both mother’s muscle relaxant tea and as a cleansing bath for mother and baby, plants or ashes may be rubbed on newborns, and tea or smoke is sometimes used to aid difficult births. Furthermore, Juniper plays a major role in general gynecological care including teas for postpartum, contraception, and menstrual regulation. Bark baths soothe itchy bites or sore feet and heated twigs have been applied as a topical treatment for measles, bruises, and swellings. The bark powder is even used for earaches. Burning Juniper branches is also a treatment for colds and general pleasantness. Juniper’s association with cleansing and purification is strong and includes preparing diaphoretic baths, emetic or laxative leaf and twig teas, and serving as a protective charm against negativity or evil spirits. While many herbalists think of Pedicularis for muscle relaxation, Juniper is far more common and can also be used both internally and topically for this purpose. Indeed, I find Juniper’s invitation to open up the heart and mind through relaxation of the body an irresistible one, especially when there is a need for protective space and a desire for increased flow of thoughts and creativity.  Additional uses include cooking the berries with meats and stews, basketry, dye making, body paint, firewood, bows, ceremony, and prayer sticks. Hispanic communities adopted many similar uses including for urinary infections, stimulating digestion, soothing stomachaches, and its role in birthing and postpartum care.   Juniper is contraindicated for kidney infections, chronic kidney weakness, and pregnancy due to its vasodilating effect on the uterus.

Piñon (Pinus edulis)

Piñon Pine is a plant of the Four Corners states and is one of the plants I most strongly associate with the land and culture of the Southwest. Its rich green tones dot the landscape and contrast with the red soils of the Colorado Plateau to create one of the iconic Southwestern vistas. This slow growing conifer resides in lower more arid elevations from about 4,000 to 9,000 ft and may take 75-200 years or more to reach maturity. Its resin or pitch is a prized medicine and the nuts have been a staple of thePinon resin 2 region’s food since the earliest human settlements. This woodland habitat has seen significant losses over recent years at the hands of persistent drought, massive wild fires, and bark beetle outbreaks that have devastated vast acreages of Piñon Pines. Nevertheless, it remains at the center of culinary and herbal traditions wherever it grows. Piñon nuts have been found at nearly all ancestral Pueblo archaeological sites, later became a valuable commodity for Spanish colonists, and can be purchased from local harvesters from roadside pickup trucks today. Although good crops occur only every 6 or 7 years and 18 months are required for the nuts to develop, it is well worth the wait. This high caloric wild food has protein levels comparable to beef, all 20 amino acids (making it a complete protein), and can be eaten raw, roasted, or ground into flour. Needles, inner bark, and pitch are also collected for herbal preparations with the resinous pitch forming the foundation of one of the finest aromatic herbal oils. Trementina de Piñon, a local New Mexican herbal specialty, is prepared by warming fresh pitch and using as is or further processing into a salve. This famous remedy causes local inflammation to bring splinters to the surface for easier removal and is also a wonderful warming treatment for arthritis or otherwise sore muscles and joints. The soft citrus-like scent and warming effects of the resinous rub are enough to melt away tensions held in the heart, mind, and body.  Spanish New Mexicans may also add some native Tobacco and salt and apply it topically for headaches. Pueblo natives used the pitch similarly but they often mixed it with tallow to draw out infections from wounds or simply chewed and swallowed a small piece to clear up head colds. Navajo burned the pitch to treat colds and also used it as glue for broken pots and to seal woven baskets or jugs. Hopi applied resin to the forehead to protect against sorcery. Many Southwestern tribes have used Piñon in these ways and also used needle tea or inner bark decoction as an expectorant, diaphoretic for fevers, and flu treatment. Some also used the seeds to make pudding or seed butter and used the resin in dye making. Piñon also provides aromatic firewood and makes lovely citrus scented incense.

This essay is adapted from the original publications:

Saville, Dara. (2018). Signature Species of the Southwest, Part 1. Plant Healer Quarterly, 8(2), 111-117.

Saville, Dara. (2018). Signature Species of the Southwest, Part 2. Plant Healer Quarterly, 8(3), 77-85.

General References:

Carolyn Dodson, A Guide to Plants of the Northern Chihuahua Desert, (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2012).

Charles Kane, Medicinal Plants of the American Southwest, (Lincoln Town Press, 2011).

Daniel E. Moerman, Native American Ethnobotany, (Portland, OR: Timber Press, 1998).

L. S. M. Curtain, Healing Herbs of the Upper Rio Grande, (Los Angeles, CA: Southwest Museum, 1965).

Michael Moore, Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West, (Santa Fe, NM: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1989).

Michael Moore, Los Remedios, (Santa Fe, NM: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1990). Michael Moore, Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West, (Santa Fe, NM: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2003).

William W. Dunmire and Gail D. Tierney, Wild Plants of the Pueblo Province, (Santa Fe, NM: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1995).

William W. Dunmire and Gail D. Tierney, Wild Plants and Native Peoples of the Four Corners, (Santa Fe, NM: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1997).

References Specific to Chaparral:

Frank J. Vasek, “Creosote bush: long-lived clones in the Mojave Desert,” American Journal of Botany 67 (1980): 246-255.

Joshua D. Lambert, Shengmin Sang, Ann Dougherty, Colby G. Caldwell, Ross O. Meyers, J. M. J. Favela-Hernandez, A. Garcia, E. Garza-Gonzalez, V. M. Rivas-Galindo, M. R. Camacho-Corona, “Antibacterial and antimycobacterial ligans and flavonoids from Larrea tridentata,” Phytotherapy Research 26 (2012): 1957-1960.

Richard Felger and Mary Beck Moser, People of the Desert and Sea: Ethnobotany of The Seri Indians, (Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1985).

Severine Van Slambrouck, Amber L. Daniels, Carla J. Hooton, Steven L. Brock, Aaron R. Jenkins, Marcia A. Ogasawara, Joann M. Baker, Glen Adkins, Eerik M. Elias, Vincent J. Agustin, Sarah R. Constantine, Michael J. Pullin, Scott T. Shors, Alexander Korkienko, Wim F. A. Steelant, “Effects of crude aqueous medicinal plant extracts on growth and invasion of breast cancer cells,” Oncology Reports 17 (2007): 1487-1492.

Shakilur Rahman, Rizwan Ahmed Ansari, Hasibur Rehman, Suhel Parvez, Sheikh Raisuddin, “Nordihydroguaiaretic acid from creosote bush (Larrea tridentate) mitigates 12-O-Tetradecanoylphorbol-13-Acetate-induced inflammatory and oxidative stress responses of tumor promotion cascade in mouse skin,” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2011 (2011): 10 pages.

The Teachings of Saxifrage and Orchid

Saxifrage 5-stamen Mitrewort closeup ultra 2

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).

Coralroot Stripped Orchid closeupOrchids 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.

Angelica Greys plant cropped

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 lifeSaxifrage Mitrewort closeup ultra ,’ 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.

 

Saxifrage Snowball flowerhead closeupExiting 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

Saxifrage Brook closeup 2The 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 Saxifrage 5-stamen Mitrewort closeupanything 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.

 

Rattlesnake Plantain closeup

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 thBog Orchid closeupat 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:

Coralroot Spotted Orchid closeupThe 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 Lady Slipper Orchid closeuphopes, 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 Coral Bells flowers 2 croppedof 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.

Sandwort Fendler Jemez closeup

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.

Bioregional Herbalism

 

The Beauty of the Bioregional Approach to Your Herbal Practice

There are many ways to practice herbalism including a multitude of traditions all over the world, each with their own plants that form the core of that herbal path. No matter what traditions we are trained in, we can apply what we learn to the plants and the land around us. Every bioregion has plants that are heating or cooling, moistening or drying, calming or stimulating. Every area has plants that strengthen vital organs and body systems and run the full list of medicinal actions. Using our local plants we can create well-matched formulas for anyone with nearly any health situation. After all, these plants have co-evolved with people and have a long history of interconnection with those who have lived along side them. Aside from the actual medicine-making, there is more to glean from this way of practice. There is an opportunity for something deeper, something more profound that comes through spending time with plants in their native habitats or in the garden. We have the opportunity to understand them intimately, to share our lives, and to receive the gifts that come through relationship.

Sandia crest view 4

What is Bioregional Herbalism?

Every art, skill, or science has rules. Herbalists have a great degree of freedom within their profession due in part to the large number of paradigms and traditions within which we can practice. The bioregional approach is just one of many. When we choose this path, however, we can embrace the set of rules that apply here. The word ‘rules’ may provoke an unpleasant response, especially for those of us who are not inherently rule-followers. If we choose to do our work adhering to the rules of bioregionalism, we are accepting a challenge to accomplish our goals using only the plants available to us locally. This can of course also be extended to include all of the ingredients in our herbal products, not just herbs. I will be the first to admit that I do use some base ingredients that are not produced in my local area. It is important to remember though that even in ancient times, some items were acquired through trade from distant locations and were considered precious resources. For example I could use Jojoba or even tallow, but I prefer to use coconut oil and olive oil for my infused oils. As for the herbs, I have rarely found a reason to look too far from home. Following this rule of bioregionalism encourages our own creativity and intellectual curiosity. It pushes us to know each plant as thoroughly as possible and to work with them in new and different ways. Ultimately it drives us to new edges within our practices and ourselves.

CO Cement Creek trail

In order to accept this challenge of following the bioregional rule, we need to specify what constitutes a bioregion. Generally speaking a bioregion is an area that is defined by natural borders such as a watershed or mountain ranges and includes one or more ecosystems with characteristic flora and fauna. We could define a bioregion more broadly as a system of landscapes with both natural layers and human elements that reciprocally affect one another and create a unique combination of characteristics to define a whole place. Furthermore, we find systems of bioregions, one within another, like tree rings. The Rio Grande Valley is within both the Southern Rocky Mountains and Desert Basin and Range, for example. Every one of us lives within a bioregion and to live bioregionally means that we are aware of the natural and cultural history of our area and we commit to living in a way that takes into consideration the resources available to us where we live.

 

What Are The Most Important Tenets of Bioregional Herbalism?

First you must know the locals. Befriend the weeds, the commoners, and get to know the not-so-commoners, too (who are they and why are they not-so-common?). Grow what you can in your own garden and make these readily available plants from the wilds and your yard the foundation of your practice. Truly knowing the plants around you goes well beyond identification and medicinal uses and takes you into more intimate kinds of knowledge. It leads us to an understanding of their life cycle, their lineage, their personal experience, and even sharing consciousness.   The practice of bioregional herbalism keeps at its heart the plants found in the surrounding environment. It makes us look beyond our textbooks to see the teachers waiting for us in the suburban yards, urban parks, and wild lands beyond. Seeking relationships with local plants fosters a deep and powerful connection to our regional landscapes, allowing us to become more acutely aware of the inter-being of plants, people, and the land. Herbalism quickly crosses over from practical to spiritual when you feel the life force of your medicine and its inter-connection with you and everything else in the cosmos. Looking deeply into a plant, the exchange is intimate and the effect is penetrating. Like an ancient hunter who dons animal regalia in ceremony, you become one with the plant. You are the medicine that you seek. These realizations come from sitting with plants. They come from working with the plants that are living and evolving with us, sharing the same habitat, entwined with our own life experiences.

Milkweed single closeup

Showy Milkweed – Asclepias speciosa

In addition to knowing the plants, it is critical to understand the dynamics of the larger landscape to which those plants are connected. Knowing the natural and cultural history of your area helps you to understand the microcosm in front of you when you are looking deeply into a plant. It also helps us to see the interconnection between plants and people in your area and the reciprocal relationship between people and the land over time. When we enter the wilderness seeking relationships with plants there is always an imperative to know what’s going on in the broader picture. To know wild plants more deeply and to harvest them responsibly we must understand the way they function in their ecosystems and also how those ecosystems are connected to the larger physiographic region. Looking at Yerba Mansa (Anemopsis californica) as an example, we can clearly see the importance of understanding landscape dynamics, the personal history of a plant, and its relationship to the land as well as its relationship to us. You may come upon a large stand of Yerba Mansa and feel immediately captivated by this plant as its stunning visual beauty and pungent aroma grab hold of you and pull you in. If you don’t know the bigger story, you may get a false sense of security, abundance, and stability. This plant has been a significant part of the Rio Grande Valley for millions of years, carpeting large areas of the floodplain and associated wetlands. The aromatic oils of the roots altered the soil chemistry facilitating the growth of other plants and dispersing the waters and microbes of this slow-moving ecosystem. During the last 150 years, however, water diversion, urbanization, and flood control measures have transformed the riparian zones of the Southwest and the desert bosque environments upon which Yerba Mansa depends for its survival have become some of the most threatened ecosystems anywhere. When we understand what is happening in the larger system, we know that this plant’s habitat is in major decline. This knowledge changes the way we approach and work with the plant. Seeing that large stand of Yerba Mansa is no longer something to take for granted, it becomes something to cherish and protect.

Yerba Mansa flower red

Yerba Mansa – Anemopsis californica

Now that we have become familiar with the plants and the land, we are ready to consider our own role within all of this. That means we must alter our practice according to the first two tenets. Harvesting a wild plant is not a casual thing. It’s a sacred act that connects us to the plant’s history and its future. In fact, we are playing a role in determining what happens next. The actions we take and the attitudes we adopt are shaping that future right now. When we enter the wilderness we become a part of it, a functioning part of the ecosystem. We must ask ourselves what role will we play in that system of interactions and interconnections. As I have just mentioned, understanding that an ecosystem is threatened inspires us to interact with the plants that live around us differently. Likewise when you know that a plant has a life span many times longer than yours, it also changes the way you feel about those elders. Have you ever hiked amongst the Bristlecone Pines (Pinus longaeva) or through a Chaparral (Larrea tridentata) plain? If you have then you probably know these plants may live for thousands of years acquiring the kind of wisdom we humans can only dream of. This awareness will change the way we relate to the plants and it will bring something intangible and eternal to our medicine. Similarly, when you hike in the same places for many years and observe the changes in plant populations over long periods of time, you make different decisions about harvesting and may even chose to work with different plants. When you know the local history of use for a plant and the role it has played in other local societies and cultural groups, it affects the way you work with those plants in your own formulations. Part of the bioregional herbal practice must always include in-depth knowledge of the landscape to which we belong. Acquiring this knowledge and developing this understanding of the local dynamics between people, plants, and the land will ultimately shape the way you practice, influence the way you feel about yourself as an herbalist, and contribute to the kind of person that you are.

chaparral quebradas

Chaparral – Larrea tridentata

Why Practice This Way?

Accepting the challenge of the bioregional herbal practice comes with both practical and more profound rewards.   Using what we have available to us everyday, we can care for others and ourselves in a way that is affordable, sustainable, and empowering. Working with locally obtained herbs from our gardens and wild places and making our own medicines dramatically reduces the cost of natural healthcare. It also means that we avoid industrial harvesting, long distance shipping, and increasing demands on vulnerable plant populations for the most popularly consumed herbs in the worldwide market. This kind of homegrown and handcrafted healthcare also leads to personal empowerment. We are in-tune and connected to our own bodies as we forge health and wellbeing from the lands that we tend and love.

Bioregional herbalism also enables us to become more connected to the land and more deeply rooted in our home. Engaging in this kind of practice shepherds us into oneness with the plants as we incorporate them into our everyday lives. The plants, in turn, bring us into harmony with the habitat that we share. The medicines that we make are more than healing remedies; each sip of tea or drop of tincture may become a prayer to a plant that we know or a way of honoring the deepest kind of connection that binds all life together. Living this way creates the opportunity to combine daily experiential learning with fact-based research and to join these two types of knowledge together for a broad spectrum and in-depth understanding of the place where we live. Through this process we come to see more clearly the dynamics unfolding all around us and within us. We are part of our local ecosystem, inseparable from it, sharing the same fate ultimately. A bioregional practice provides an avenue for us to be more informed about our own habitat and to decide more deliberately what role we will play in that ecosystem. We can contribute to the health of the land by protecting vulnerable plant populations and becoming a force for conservation and restoration.

Tincture Alpine

In addition to making connections with plants and taking the time to understand what is happening in our local landscapes a bioregional practice will inevitably lead us to introspection and an exploration of what lies inward. While seeing our place in the larger whole is important, knowing ourselves more deeply is also a worthy journey. Plants can help us discover what has been lost within the deep woodlands of ourselves. When we work closely with a particular selection of plants we have the opportunity to develop relationships with them. The gifts of relationship lead us to new avenues in our work with plants, facilitate the process of self-discovery, and may become a catalyst for more profound realizations.   I have taken lessons from the mountain, the desert plains, the riparian forests of the valley, and even my own backyard medicine garden. These are the places I go to grow myself and humbly seek the wisdom of antiquity. All of these places are connected, as is all the life that inhabits these places. Walking in the Bosque I have felt that interconnection with Cottonwood elders and the young porcupines sleeping in the crooks of their branches. I have heard from the forest, the mountain, the mesa, and the river that all life is inter-being and whatever I do to restore plants and their habitats ultimately builds vitality within myself.

Yerba Mansa Path 3

How Can You Make This Kind Of Practice Your Own?

Bioregional herbalism and its myriad of gifts are accessible to everyone. There are several things you can do, no matter where you live, to bring this practice to life. Study with and learn from the local mentors available to you: people, plants, and the land itself. Learn not just about plants, but also their habitats, how people have interacted with the land and how they have worked with the plants in your area. Integrate the natural and cultural history of your bioregion into your herbal practice and make your work a continuation of, and a complement to, all that came before. In doing this, it is imperative to get out there in the mountains, valleys, estuaries, canyons, riparian zones, and in your garden. Spend time with the plants where they are. What are they offering you in this moment? What will they bring to your medicine? How can you create a relationship that is truly reciprocal? Most of us are eager to harvest, but what can we give back? Through this closeness with plants and their habitats, we come to understand our role in our local environment. We see what we must do in order to facilitate the health of the land and therefore our own interconnected wellness. Get involved in projects that will give back to the plants and bring new meaning to your life as an herbalist. Many (if not all) wild areas are under pressure from urbanization, resource extraction, habitat degradation, water management, climate change, and more. There is a need everywhere for people to stand up and speak for the plants and the land upon which they and we depend. Get involved in a project that speaks to you or start one yourself. When we have acquired an in-depth understanding of our local bioregion’s history, we can see more clearly what we need to do to safeguard it for the future.

In practicing herbalism with our local plants we find the best medicine for us right now. We discover the beauty of bioregional herbal practice: sustainable and affordable medicine that connects us to our local landscape, protects vulnerable plant populations for the future, returns us to our place in the natural world, and ultimately helps us to discover ourselves. Becoming more deeply connected to our local bioregion and the plants and animals that share it, we have the opportunity to bridge the past and the future by giving the land what it needs right now while receiving the gifts of respectful harvest. In living our lives this way, we will find our wild selves in harmony with our own habitats and we will make medicine with the power of the land behind us.

This essay was originally published as:

Saville, Dara. (2015). The Beauty of a Bioregional Approach to Your Herbal Practice. Plant Healer Quarterly, 5(4), 29-34.

Going Deeper with Pedicularis

Pedicularis groenlandica flowers 2.JPGThere is undoubtedly a deeply alluring quality to Pedicularis plants that has drawn the attention of many herbalists and plant lovers of all kinds. For some, it is simply recovery for overworked muscles or the relaxation of tension in the body that they seek. Others may be searching for the more subtle shifts and openings that such relaxation in the physical body can bring for the mind and spirit. Indeed the sheer beauty and mysterious underground workings of these varied plants are captivating for anyone acquainted with Pedicularis. Our local species have been both good medicine and tremendous sources of inspiration and learning for me over the years. Ranging from open prairies to semi-arid foothill woodlands to alpine mountain meadows, Pedicularis lures the seeker into wild and undisturbed landscapes where the gateways are wide open. It offers us a glimpse into an underground world of intricate interactions, community coordination, and a synergistic blossoming of new creation that resides both in the land and within ourselves.


(Photos from top to bottom: 1. P. groenlandica closeup, 2. P. parryi mountain meadow, 3. P. parryi closeup, 4. P. procera patch, 5. extensive P. groenlandica bog, 6. P. racemosa closeup, 7. P. procera closeup, 8. P. centranthera in rocky gravel, 9. P. parryi plants, 10. P. bracteosa plant) For more Pedicularis photos see my previous post on this topic.


Pedicularis Genus

The genus Pedicularis includes over 600 species, found in prairie, montane, sub-alpine, alpine, and tundra environments across the Northern Hemisphere. Of those, 40 species can be found in North America.   Pedicularis prefers habitats with undisturbed soil and moderate availability of minerals and water and generally avoids habitats with extreme environmental conditions of either high stress and disturbance or nutrient dense wet areas with higher levels of above ground vegetative competition (Tesitel et. at., 2015). The genus Pedicularis was previously grouped with the Scrophulariaceae until its parasitic members were relocated to the Orobanchaceae family where it resides today. This large genus is generally characterized by varied morphological differences, particularly in the upper lip of the corolla. Genetic and biogeographical studies suggest that all Pedicularis species originated in Asia, migrating to North America when the Bering Land Bridge was open during the Miocene (14-10 myr), subsequently dispersing across North America from ancestral Rocky Mountain and Southern Cascade Range populations, and eventually reaching Europe from populations in the eastern half of the continent (Robart et al., 2015).

 

Pedicularis plants are fascinating ecologically and may even be considered keystone Pedicularis parryi meadow 6.JPGspecies due to their important role in facilitating biodiversity. As hemiparasitic plants, they produce underground structures called haustoria, that create a direct connection between the xylem of the host and that of the parasite (Piehl, 1963). Pedicularis and other root hemiparasites produce their own chlorophyll and can thus survive on their own, but may obtain additional resources through these root connections to other host plants. These interactions vary depending upon the species of Pedicularis and the host plants, which commonly include asters, oaks, conifers, and grasses (Ai-Rong Li, 2012) but also include a wide variety of potential hosts from at least 80 different plant species in 35 families (Piehl). The transfer of secondary resources such as water, minerals, and alkaloids from nearby plants is well-established (Schneider and Stermitz, 1990) and has larger implications for the ecosystem in which Pedicularis makes its home. Pedicularis clearly benefits from this relationship, but there is also evidence that this phenomenon has a wide reaching ripple effect. While this hemiparasitic relationship can negatively impact the growth of the host plant, it is also associated with greater plant diversity in the bioregion (Hedberg et al. 2005). Pedicularis may inhibit the growth of plants with a propensity to dominate the landscape such as Goldenrod or grasses while its pollen-rich flowers attract bees and hummingbirds to the area for increased pollination and reproduction of other important species (Hedberg et al.). In fact, other flowering plants are likely to produce more fruits and set more seeds when growing in close proximity to Pedicularis plants (Laverty, 1992). In addition to curtailing the growth of dominating host plants and promoting the biomass and reproduction of other plants, Pedicularis also contributes to species diversity by reallocating nitrogen and other nutrients to neighboring plants through decomposition (Demey et al., 2013). These combined qualities make Pedicularis an important element in ecological restoration projects (DiGiovanni et. al, 2016).

 

Aside from their ecological importance, Pedicularis plants are known in herbal medicine traditions wherever they grow. Phytochemical analysis has been done primarily on Asian species but identifies a number of common constituents including iridoid Pedicularis parryi flowers 1.JPGglycosides, phenylpropanoid glycosides (PhGs), lignans glycosides, flavonoids, alkaloids, and other compounds (Mao-Xing Li, 2014). Employed mainly for its muscle relaxant properties, Pedicularis is typically used in formulas for general relaxation or recovery from physical injury. The synergistic effects of Pedicularis’ many constituents result in additional properties including being antitumor, hepatoprotective, anti-oxidative, protective to red blood cells, antibacterial, and cognition enhancing (Mao-Xing Li, 2014 and Gao et al., 2011). Resent research also gives implications for broader uses as a medicinal herb. Pedicularis has been shown to have antimicrobial activity against a number of pathogens including P. aeruginosa, S. aureus, S. epidermidis P. olympica, P. vulgaris, E. coli, K. pneumoniae, C. albicans, M. luteus, and others (Khodaie et al., 2012; Dulger and Ugurlu, 2005; Yuan et al., 2007). Significantly it has also demonstrated the ability to repair DNA and lower levels of glucose and other diabetic markers (Chu, 2009; Yatoo et al., 2016). Not surprisingly Pedicularis has also been used to increase endurance in athletic performance by reducing muscle fatigue (Zhu et al., 2016). This combination of traits would make Pedicularis a useful component in a wide variety of disease prevention and treatment formulas. Due to their hemiparasitic nature, Pedicularis plants may take on additional phytochemicals and healing characteristics by absorbing resources from neighboring host plants. Through this deeply-rooted connection to their ecosystem, they may become more than they could ever be on their own. This could be a drawback in the case of plants with toxic compounds such as some Senecio species that often serve as host plants (Schneider and Stermitz, 1990). Finding Pedicularis among Aspen stands however, is like harvesting two herbs in one as the Aspen subtly shifts the energy and properties of the Pedicularis increasing its anti-inflammatory pain-relieving nature. This hemiparasitic trait, however beneficial as a medicine, is also what makes them truly wild and creates challenges for cultivation.

 

Working with Pedicularis draws the practicing herbalist into the prairies and mountains where she can harvest and craft remedies that are born of the wild places around her. Since Pedicularis is not commonly cultivated, most of us obtain this medicine throughPedicularis procera patch.JPG wildcrafting in places where this plant grows abundantly. Residing at lower latitudes and middle elevations P. centranthera, P. racemosa, and P. procera are most common where I live and have therefore become my favorite allies in this genus.  There are also quite a few other species (see species profiles below) that I find in abundance when I venture into the ecozones to the north. Leaves and flowers can be harvested at different times in the growing season depending on the species and location. Lower elevation P. centranthera flowers early in the spring while most others growing at higher elevations flower in mid-summer. Be sure to leave lots of flowers and avoid disturbing roots to maintain healthy wild populations. This is a lower dose herb, so you won’t need to take much. I usually tincture some fresh in the field and take the rest home for other preparations such as infused oils, salves, and smoke blends to help with injured or overworked muscles, encourage restful sleep, to release tension residing deep within the body, and also as a catalyst to encourage shifting in the depths of ourselves when we need to see things in a new light. There is, however, something more profound, almost magical, that these plants have to offer. One of the students in my program, forgetting the plant’s name, captured that sentiment when she referred to it as “that plant that sounds like a Harry Potter spell”. While this genus has a large membership, I’ll mention just a few that I encounter in my region.

 

Pedicularis groenlandica:

Pedicularis groenlandica meadow.JPGP. groenlandica has fern-like leaves and magnificent flowering racemes with elephant-shaped flowers, giving it the common name of ’Elephant Head Betony’. To discover an alpine meadow blanketed by P. groenlandica is like falling in love. As my eyes met this magenta mountain meadow, my first reaction was to dive in head-first, to literally fling myself into it whole-heartedly. I felt a compelling attraction profoundly pulling me into the landscape, like two souls split part and now reunited. Knowing that this plant favors boggy places, I thought better of it and instead gazed drop-jawed at the majestic beauty, walked carefully amongst the little plants, and found a place to sit and soak it all in. I knew that later I would be making deep body healing salve born directly from the landscape, but for now P. groenlandica was nourishing me in the most intangible ways. I will never forget the happiness I felt from head to toe as I laid eyes on this striking scene. Simply knowing that such places exist in the world is comforting medicine for me. P. groenlandica’s mesmerizing inflorescence heals both directly as absorbed by the body and also indirectly as absorbed by the heart. Thriving in open wetter places with a tendency towards stagnancy, think of this species when the release of muscular tension is needed to promote more movement in the musculature, heart, and mind. This plant will help us to let go and move on from problems that may be holding us back.

 

Pedicularis racemosa:

Also known as ‘Parrot Beak’, P. racemosa flowers have a unique formation resembling aPedicularis racemosa  closeup.JPG white bird’s beak along with serrated lanceolate leaves, thereby differentiating it from other members of the genus described here. This plant inhabits the forest edges acting as liaison between worlds, an intermediary between light and dark. Approaching this plant, I feel it beckoning me to come deeper into the forest in search of fulfillment that only the wilderness beyond can provide. Just as its parasitic roots spread underground subtly shifting the energy of the forest ecosystem, it infiltrates the heart and implants trust and faith where fear, distrust, or other difficult emotions may reside. Working with it as plant medicine provides more than relief from musculo-skeletal aggravations; it also helps us to bridge the disparities in our own lives by connecting us with lost parts of ourselves. It summons from our own depths, the aspects of our being that we have ignored and helps us to be more complete individuals and more holistic practitioners. P. racemosa ultimately invites us to discover the unexplored magic within ourselves.

 

Pedicularis procera:

Pedicularis Procera 7.JPGP. procera, or Fern Leaf Betony, is the giant of the family with large red stems and subtly striped pinkish flowers and has a way of making itself noticed in a densely populated forest environment. In fact, it stands out so much that I have seen its intricate beauty beaming forth from its towering stalks far off in the distance. I have heard it calling me off the beaten path inviting me to make my own way in the world and to discover all that the forest has to offer. Its large fern-like leaves contribute to a lush green environment relished by the desert herbalist. While all the members of this genus have a special place in my heart, this species is a treasure to work with due to the size of each plant. It is a favorite for remedies that relax the muscles, and alleviate pain, allowing us to accept ourselves as we are, and let go of what we need to shed. As a semi-parasitic plant P. procera, like other member of this genus, shares traits from nearby plants incorporating itself into the roots of the forest as well as the depths of the human body habitat when used as medicine. Of all the species discussed here, this one is the most likely to be consumed by browsing animals, who also benefit from Pedicularis re-allocating forest medicine. P. procera extends the community’s connections to an even wider circle, perhaps making it the most accessible of all species.

 

Pedicularis centranthera:

A small member of the genus that dons white flowers with spectacular magenta tips andPedicularis centranthera patch.JPG small fern-like leaves, P. centranthera is mighty in its workings. This species prefers the semi-arid lower elevation pine and oak forests in my area and is usually seen growing in pine needle mulch. Capitalizing on early spring moisture from snow cover and melting runoff, it is one of the first plants to flower in this ecosystem every year. It is further adapted to these warmer drier elevations with its ability to shed its above ground parts, retreat back into its roots, and disappear during the hottest months of summer.   Once a favorite species to harvest in my nearby wilds, I have seen its populations reduced locally due in part to environmental disturbances from land management decisions designed to reduce wildfire threats (forest thinning with masticators that destroy the understory) but also due to overharvesting in easily accessible areas. Consequently I have in recent years shifted my work toward the more abundant species found in the Southern Rocky Mountains to the north. This illustrates the concerns that many of us have for medicinal plants that are not cultivated, allowing for sustainable harvest and wide scale use in herbal medicine. My relationship with this plant also demonstrates how we can receive the medicine of plants without harvesting anything physical or tangible. P. centranthera has been an important teacher and source of strength and inspiration in my life. Through the time spent learning about this plant and yielding to its influence, I have learned much about the role of being a community coordinator; someone who brings together all the individual assets of a community and puts them to use for the benefit of the entire system. P. centranthera has shown me how to organize my community by bringing together the talents and passions of the people where I live to manifest the changes we want to see in our world and to improve the lives of everyone. Furthermore, this plant has also shown me the strategy of retreating periodically to rest and restore oneself so that we will be ready when the seasonal burst begins anew.

 

Pedicularis parryi:

Pedicularis parryi meadow 2.JPGIn a moment of pure euphoria, I first discovered this plant as I crested a hill on an alpine meadow and looked out across a field of flowering P. parryi and companions. The cacophonous riot of shapes, colors, and textures of the varied flowering plants in this place seemed to shout out a chorus of thanks for the day and stood as a testament to the biodiversity-facilitating powers of Pedicularis. This plant’s flowers are similar to P. racemosa’s creamy white bird beak corolla, but with fern-like leaves typical of most other species that I know. Instead of racemosa’s forested environment, however, parryi grows in open high altitude meadows, shining light on issues we may be holding onto but do not have the clarity to understand or process. P. parryi is more direct in its workings than the other forest species and may be best suited to those of us with more concrete ways of perceiving the world and less able to shift ourselves with the more subtle workings of other Pedicularis species.

 

Pedicularis bracteosa:

P. bracteosa is similar to procera in its lip shape, larger stature, and preference for forested habitats but its flowers are creamy white to light yellow instead of the often Pedicularis bracteosa plant.JPGstriped light pink to peach tones of procera. I first met this plant growing in close proximity to P. racemosa on the edge of a very dark and wild looking forest inhabited by Saxifrages, Orchids, and other sensitive plants known to favor undisturbed environments. At once I could feel the synergistic effect of these plants working together to create an ambiance of wild flowing vitality and an entrancing mood of introspection that beckoned me inward; into the forest and into myself. It was almost as if the underground haustoria were penetrating me, drawing me into the vibrational and energetic world of life in this forest, making me one with this landscape, taking me back to the source of knowledge and reconnecting with the continuum of life. It seemed in that moment as if all answers could be found right there in that forest and indeed, many were.

 

Pedicularis’ infiltrating personality, ecological importance, and medicinal magic have given it a beloved place in many herbalists’ hearts. This plant’s most profound activity occurs where no one can see, as its’ workings take place underneath the surface of the earth and in the depths of ourselves, releasing us from where we are stuck in our bodies, in our minds, and our hearts. In addition to its well-known muscle relaxant qualities, resent research also suggests a wider role in the prevention and treatment of diseases including diabetes and varied microbial infections. Pedicualris and other hemiparasitic plants can significantly change plant communities by fostering species diversity and floral quality in native plants as it coordinates the collective resources of the community and allocates them for the benefit of the entire system. Although this plant is not endangered in the Western United States, we must be certain to harvest with knowledge about each species’ ecological status and respect for local native plant communities. Pedicularis is not cultivated and increased demand for this herb could cause concern for wild populations, especially those that are more easily accessible. As you wildcraft this plant, take time to identify the species and observe the size, health, and frequency of populations you find. Working with Pedicularis is certain to draw you into new territory within yourself and within your practice. Pedicularis is both medicine and teacher, willing to guide us wherever we are to go.

This essay by Dara Saville originally appeared in Plant Healer‘s Good Medicine Confluence Class Essays for 2017.

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