Wild Flower Medicine on Canada Day
Yesterday we wandered in the forest just west of Rocky Mountain House. The wild flowers were lovely. Star-flowered false solomon seal was making fairy like gardens with delicate twinflower. Bunchberry’s white flowers carpeted the forest flower. Labrador Tea was offering up clusters of delicate blossoms and orchids graced the edge of the trail. Bringing the forest a splash of colour and sweet perfume was the beloved wild rose.
The challenge with being an herbalist is I cannot just admire the flowers along the trail; I am compelled to consider their medicine. To begin I sniff the plant. Now I do not rudely stick my nose in the plant. I gently approach the plant while sniffing, until its scent fills my nose. Then nibble on a plants leaf or flower, letting the plant’s many tastes mingle with my taste buds. An herbalist’s taste buds tell her a lot about a plant’s medicine. A trained herbalist can taste tannins, alkaloids, volatile oils, and mucilage just to name a few medicinal chemicals palpable at first taste. Then there are the a medicinal actions, many plants let the tongue know right away if it is immune stimulating or relaxing to the digestive system. Unfortunately the art of identifying a plant’s medicine requires more space than a column. The art of knowing a plants medicine is more for the herbal apprentice.
What I wanted to write about was some of the medicine blooming in the forest. Bunchberry’s bright red berry (Cornus canadensis) cools burns, calms itching bites (the mosquitoes are hungry this year) and soothes a nettle or poison ivy rash. Collect the berries, mash them up and pat them over the burn or sting. The berries draw the heat out of the burn, immediately cooling it. A poultice of ripe strawberries has a similar action.
Tasting bunchberry leaves, I know the plant contains tannins. I suspect that reduces bleeding and protects the lining of the small intestines from infections. Traditionally bunchberry has been used as eyewash for pink eye and ease upset stomachs.
The berries are a source of vitamin C and other flavonoids, for this reason they were often part of a traditional cold formula.
A stand of labradour Tea (Ledum glandulous) is a pharmacy. Teas made with this generous plant’s leaves have long history of calming frayed nerves and bringing on sleep. Traditional herbalists use it to ease the restlessness that occurs as one recovers from a long-term illness.
A cough syrup made with the plant’s leaves relieves a dry hacking cough and will support the body’s effort in fighting off bronchitis. Herbal veterinarians have used a hydrosol made from labrador tea’s flowers to treat Lyme disease, apparently with some success.
Some books on herbal medicine caution against the use of labrador tea. Large amounts of labrador tea will cause vomiting. Enjoying a single cup of labrador tea a day causes no harm.
The twinflower (Linnaea borealis) is so tiny it hard to believe that it contains medicine. But it does. It is difficult to find research on this plant’s medicine. I suspect its size protects it from being researched. I cannot image harvesting this fragile plant in significant enough quantities to make medicine. I have heard though that First Nations in eastern Canada used twinflower to support a woman in her pregnancy or with difficult cycles. I suspect this plant has an anti-spasmodic action on the uterus. I have not however confirmed this, as I can hardly bare the thought of picking its flowers.
Star-flowered false soloman’s seal (SFFSS for short) (Smilacina stellate) like most plants from the lily family, particularly wild lilies, carries medicine in its roots. This lily’s roots carry a sweet taste. Roots are a plant’s pantries where winter reserves are stored as sugar. Plant sugars are often complex molecules. SFFSS sugars moisten dry coughs, creaking and cracking joints or chronic constipation.
As I write this piece I am back in the clinic, I have clients this afternoon. Honestly though, in the back of my mind I am plotting and planning my next trip to the forest. Perhaps if I work late tonight, I can skip town tomorrow afternoon! I can never get enough of the forest’s medicine.