Category Archives: Medicinal Plants

Medicinal Plants and their uses

When I was first learning about medicinal plants I was drawn to it because it was a more natural way to deal with health.  I wasn’t really sure just how effective medicinal plants could be because I had never really had the need.

I just noticed that when I felt a cold coming on and I took some Echinacea, the cold tended to go away quite quickly or not start at all.

Then I went through a period of time where I started having stomach cramps and I would vomit and then I’d be fine for a little while, but then it would come back again. After a few days of this pattern I was getting to the point where it seemed like I needed to go a doctor because I didn’t seem to be getting any better.

But I had a book on medicinal plants and I looked up stomach issues.  And one of the main things I noticed on that page was that dandelion is really good for stomach issues.

So I said what the heck, I’ve had dandelion before, I know it can’t hurt me.  Maybe there’s a chance it’ll make me feel better.

So I went outside and picked some dandelion.  I only ate a few leaves but over the next few hours my stomach felt a lot better.

I was quite impressed and actually surprised by how quickly it made a difference.  I kept eating dandelion everyday and the stomach problems never came back again.

I don’t know for sure that it was the dandelion that made the difference for me but it was nice to be feeling healthy again.  I still like to eat dandelion whenever I can because it tastes good and It’s good medicine.

Step one for learning medicinal plants and their uses:  know the preparations

When you’re studying medicinal plants and their uses one of the things you learn is that there’s lots of different ways to prepare medicinal plants that serve different functions.

Depending on how you prepare a plant for use, you’ll get different aspects of the medicine.

Here are some of the major ways to prepare plants

Tincture
A tincture is a concentrated alcohol-based liquid form of a plant medicine.  By soaking plant material in drinking alcohol we can extract a variety of compounds into a simple liquid form that provides it’s benefits at doses of only a few drops.

Always check the ratio of herb to alcohol with a reliable source before making a tincture.

Tea
Everyone is familiar with this preparation where the herb is steeped in hot water.

This extracts a different subset of plant components and thus can have a different effect on your body than taking a tincture.  .

Salves
A salve is an extraction of plant components into a form that can be applied to the skin.

Often it involves mixing a hot water preparation of the plant with something like beeswax.  When the mixture cools, it hardens into natural body butter.

Food
Often medicinal plants can also be used as a nutritious food. One of the best examples of this is dandelion.

You don’t have to be sick to eat a dandelion.  It’s one of the most nutritious plants on the planet and it will keep you healthy if you eat it as part of your diet.

Oils
You can also extract plant compounds into oils like olive oil.  It’s a bit of a variation of salves so you have some options for how to create topical treatments.

These are probably the easiest, safest and usually the most effective ways to prepare and use medicinal plants.

As you learn more about the different plants that you work with, you’ll get to learn how each plant affects you differently depending on how it is prepared

If you learn to use plants this way, you’ll be able to do basic medicinal applications of plants.

Step two of learning medicinal plants and their uses:  Developing your repertoire

One of my mentors who taught me a lot about plants once told me that the really good herbalists work with the problems they encounter by using only a handful of different plants that they know really well.

They learn all the different ways to prepare them and develop a keen awareness of how each plant impacts the body.

So when you go out to start learning this and you’re trying to decide which plants to work with, one of the things that will give you the most success is to look for simple plants that are common, and have a lot of different uses.

Dandelion is one of my selected few plants.  The more I use it the more uses I discover so my experience of dandelion keeps getting deeper and deeper.

Plus it’s extremely common.

It would be pointless to have amazing knowledge of an extremely rare plant because every time you needed it, you would have to make a big trip out of it.

By choosing just a few of the most common and widely applicable plants to focus on. You learn a lot more quickly, you learn a lot more deeply, and the skill becomes much more practical for your everyday life.

Cultivating awareness

Pay attention to how different plants or preparations affect your body.

All plants have different qualities that are described differently in different cultures, but have a general consistency from place to place.

For example, it’s very common for people to experience the medicine from spices like pepper or cinnamon as having a warm quality.

Likewise a common experience of peppermint is that it feels cool.

This informs your decisions about what plants to use because the different qualities of plants relate to the various imbalances of sickness.

When someone has a fever, you’re not going to give him or her a “hot” medicine like cinnamon.  We’d be more likely to give something like peppermint because it encourages the body to sweat but it also has a cooling affect that will help the fever.

Another good quality of plants to pay attention for is the relative level of wetness vs. dryness or astringency.  You’ll notice that some plants leave your mouth feeling dry.

Plantain is an excellent common plant that has that astringent quality and if you make a poultice with the leaves it will actually suck the stinger from a bee right out of your skin.

Pay attention for these qualities when you use different plants and even with the foods you eat in your day-to-day life.  Really be present and develop your awareness by asking yourself some good questions.

Is it hot or cold?

Is it wet or dry?

Where do you feel the effects in your body?

Some plants will seem to affect your head while other will be down in your body more. It’s all good awareness that will inform your use of medicinal plants.

Preventative medicine

A lot of time people get into medicinal plants because they want to know how to heal their problems in a more natural way.

And while you definitely can learn to do that, sometimes the best way to look at using medicinal plants and their uses is to consider that the real benefit of medicinal plants is in how they can keep you from getting sick in the first place.

By learning to pay attention to your body and how the environment is impacting you, you’ll learn to recognize the advanced signs that you be getting ill and you’ll know which preparations to take that can just give your immune system that little boost.

A lot of times the underlying problem is that people aren’t getting enough nutrition in their food.  When you start to think about all your food as being medicine, it’ll impact every choice you make in such a way that moves you towards greater health and wellness.

A Story of Bitterroot

Bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva, L. columbiana, L. pygmaea) was once a staple food for the Okanagan, Ktunaxa and Upper Nlaka’pamux People. It was the most important of all roots. Its bright and beautiful pink flowers bloom in June, adding a hue of colour and magic to the rocky ecosystem where it thrives. Years ago, it was once traded as a dried good, and was also eaten. The prime harvesting time was right before the flowers bloomed, when the outer part of the roots were still easy to peel off. Once processed, the root was roasted or steamed in steam pits and eaten.  It was also dried and stored for later consumption. Traditionally, it was dug using digging sticks, which were dug into the earth and used to pry up the roots. (As shown in picture below.)

Nowadays, bitterroot has become a rare sight due to overgrazing and the encroachment on its habitat by humans and cattle. To come across this beautiful plant is an honour, and this past June , in eastern Washington, I was fortunate enough to find huge patches.

Bitterroot thrives in the desert, on rocky patches, where it digs its roots into the hard, dry soil. To me, the colours of the desert (the ponderosa pine and sagebrush desert) always seem so stunning in their surroundings. Out of nowhere, among the dry, crackling grasses and the hard, red earth, are the bright pinks, yellows , blues and oranges of the wild flowers, as well as the glimpses of deeper blues and whites of our feathered friends, swooping overhead.

As I kneel down to connect with this plant, my digging stick in my hand, I think of all the other people who have dug this plant before me, who have relied on it for a source of food. I know that when I eat it, I am connecting further with this land, this desert. The more wildness I can bring into my body, the closer to the earth I become.  The earth continues to grow and change and live and die without us humans. We are not needed by the earth for its regeneration and well being. The more we use things from the earth, and make deep and meaningful connections, the greater our respect and reverence. As I walked and dug carefully, only harvesting a few plants from each patch, I felt the flowers blooming a little brighter.

In this desert rattlesnakes make their home, as well as mountain lions, coyotes, bighorn sheep and elk, and many other creatures. Plants adapt to only a few inches of rain per year by growing close to the ground and by minimal photosynthesising (hence the abundance of light green plants). Its a blessing to come across open streams and canyons, where the ecosystems change because of the amount of water present. Weaving our way through canyons and meadows, up steep mountains and cliffs, all to find our next source of water, our next source of food, our next place to sleep.

All photos by Steve Leckman.

For more information on bitterroot and desert plants, check out:

Food Plants of Interior First Peoples (Royal British Columbia Museum Handbook) by Nancy J. Turner

Plants of southern interior British Columbia and the inland northwest [Paperback] by Parish, Coupe and Lloyd