Bears are the totem animal of herbalists. Some say it is because they have a keen sense of the medicine contained in roots. For example, the bears that live on the wind side of the Rocky Mountains have a deep understanding of Osha’s (Ligusticum porter) medicine areas. The first ritual a bear performs upon waking from hibernation is digging up Osha roots. The bear chews, mixing it with saliva (saliva is an excellent solvent for plant medicine as the enzymes it contains breaks down cell walls), until it’s a slimy paste. The bear then squirts this medicine rich in volatile oils and saponins all over its body, rolls around on the ground and rubs it into its fur. Osha is a strong anti-microbial and anti-parasitic. You can just image all the life that has taken up lodgings on the bear sleeping for several cold months in a mound of old leaves and dirt. Once clean, the male bears take roots to female bears and perform the same ritual for her before spring mating.
I do not question the bear’s understanding of plant medicine, however, the great gift a bear shows herbalists is their opportunist tendencies. Another way to say this is: “Don’t believe everything you read and only stick with that knowledge.”
It is early spring as I write this piece. My husband and I went forest bathing the other day in Gatineau Park. The water was everywhere, trickling down hillsides, rushing under bridges, overflowing into meadows, pooling on muddy paths. The trees were drinking deeply after their long winter sleep.
This area of the world is famous for its majestic white pines (Pinus strobus). White pines are towering trees, with long sweeping branches and soft tips, even though their needles are sharp. The wind sings gently as it blows through white pines.
The medicine white pine offers is strongly antiseptic with powerful volatile oil. The commonly gathered parts of the tree are its young needles, inner bark, resin and roots. Traditionally all these various parts of the tree are used in remedies to relieve colds, ?, and bronchitis. The needles, high in Vitamin C, are made into teas for colds. A salve is made from the pitch to warm a congested chest. The inner bark is a traditional survival food.
When I was walking in the forest the other day, it was too early to collect the new shoots from the tips of the pine branches. I was not seeing a significant amount of resin flowing from the trees and besides I was in a provincial park where it is illegal to gather plant medicine. I did, like a bear, take an opportunity to gather some white pine medicine.
As I walked I picked up a small branch from a white pine that had fallen in a recent wind storm. On the tips of the branch I found green/purple young pine cones sticky with resin. I plucked it from the branch and popped it in my mouth, using my tongue to access the medicine. My head cleared (I didn’t realize how foggy I was) and my sinuses burst open. The hundred scents of spring flooded my brain. I had just discovered medicine.
Unfortunately, it was the only branch with a few young pine cones on it in the area. I put the five cones in my pocket and my husband and I nibbled on them as we walked.
When we returned to the car, I walked over to the outhouse and just to the side of the outhouse someone had pruned several white pines leaving behind huge branches covered with young pine cones. One by one, I plucked them until my pockets were bursting with the cones.
On our way home we picked up a bottle of 94% alcohol, as a high percentage of alcohol is needed to extract resin.
Now the cones are macerating in a jar and I have great medicine to offer to those suffering with bronchitis, sinusitis, colds and chronic phlegmy coughs.
Bears use what they find. What is available to them at the moment. I recommend as a herbalist you take the bears’ lead and learn to use what you have available.