June opens herb walk season.
This is the time of year for plant medicine enthusiasts, armed with identification guides and prior knowledge of who likes to grow where, roam forests, meadows and swamps in search of the medicinal herb.
Sunday, we picnicked at Crimson Lake and hiked through its forest. Here’s just a few of the plants we spied.
The first plant we came across, growing almost on the path, was arrow leaf coltsfoot (Petasites sagitatus).
Coltsfoot has a dense fluffy white flower. I imagine is how it came by its name.
Coltsfoot’s root is used to settle down irritated dry cough.
Recently it has fallen from favour.
Coltsfoot contains a chemical called pyrolizidine alkaloids which when taken in excess can cause liver damage.
The key word here is excess. Using coltsfoot to get relief from a hacking cough and get a good nights sleep, will not cause liver damage.
The blue bells of lungwort (Mertensia paniculata) were in full bloom and plentiful.
Lungwort, as it name suggests, is medicine for the lungs.
The suffix wort is from old English.
It was frequently used to identify medicinal plants.
The leaves and flowers of lungwort are used in teas to heal inflamed bronchi as wells as conditions deeper in the respiratory tract, such as pleurisy.
Frequently it is combined with coltsfoot.
This is something I often notice on herb walks. Medicinal plants which are used to complement each others actions frequently grow in close together.
Scattered close to the ground, bunchberry grew in the dabbled light of the forest.
I have seen bunchberry in forests throughout Ontario, the Yukon, B.C. and Saskatchewan.
This unassuming plant is one of my forest favourites. It always appears so organized on the chaotic forest floor. It tends to do things in fours, four leaves and a four petal flower.
Frequently it produces four berries. This little plant is used to relieve inflammation.
The root is chewed to ease tooth ache and the leaves can be brewed in a tea to relieve aching muscular pain.
This pain relieving action is attributed to its salicylates.
Salicylates are found in many plants, including strawberries and peppermint, but some plants have enough of them to be classed as medicine which eases the pain of inflammation.
Mountain meadowsweet (Spirea beauverdina) is another herb high in salicylates.
Dotting the shady dry hill sides of the forest, Mountain meadowsweet is a tiny shrub with finely toothed elliptic leaves.
In July delicate clusters of sweetly scented white flowers will bloom. Many use the flowers for medicine. I prefer the leaves.
Tasting a meadowsweet leaf gives clues to its medicine. It tastes like aspirin.
The first aspirin was derived from salicylate containing willow. Meadowsweet is most valued as a digestive tonic.
Taken as a tea over a period of time it will balance stomach acids and tone the bowel.
On the dry hillsides there were also lots of blue berries (Vaccinium myrtilloides)in flower.
Besides making the very best pies, blueberries are medicine for the eyes. The blue of blueberries is due to anthrocyanodises. Anthrocyanodises improve the regeneration of a pigment in the eye called rhodopsin. Rhodopsin is essential for night vision. In other words, eating blueberries improves night vision.
The leaf of the blueberry shrub also has significant medicinal value. First Nations people add blueberry leaves to teas to help balance blood sugars.
Blueberry’s European cousin, the bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) was one of the favourite herbs of the 11th century mystic, abbess, herbalist Hildegard de Bingen.
I was first introduced to Hildegard de Bingen through the divine music she wrote.
Later, doing historical research on European herbal medicine, I came across her writings.
Hildegard used bilberries for both gallbladder and kidney stones and like the First Nations` managing blood sugars.
In couple of weeks, I will head back out to Crimson Lake to see who else is growing and mark the progress on the plants I have already noted. This is the traditional way herbal medicine was taught.
Believe me, studying a plant in a book, is a totally different experience than watching it grow in the forest.
Just an end note, the law says never picks plants growing in provincial or federal parks. Good ethics says never pick without a land owners permission.
Abrah Arneson is a herbalist living in Central Alberta.