With the flowers in bloom and the berries filling out, it is the season of the herb walk.
A warm summer’s evening spent wandering through a park, or a day in the mountains discovering gifts from the plant world, is in my opinion the most pleasurable way to learn herbs. Let’s begin.
One of the first teaching received on a herb walk is the lesson of taste. Wandering through meadows and forests, sampling leaves, roots, berries and flowers increase understanding of a plant’s medicine. Sweet tasting roots or berries carry nourishment for those burned out by stress. A plant that dries up the mouth, it could very well be used to bind loose conditions. Pungency favours cold conditions, such as depression and constipation.
Where a plant grows also offers clues about the its medicine. For example, every gardeners’ favourite perennial, chickweed (Stellaria media) shows its medicine through its environment. Ever notice how this plant keeps the ground cool and moist. It avoids areas blessed by the sun all day. Chickweed cools hot dry conditions. It is a useful poultice or salve for burning eczema and soothes skin over exposed to the sun. Plantain (Plantago spp.) is another plant used to cool hot conditions. This plant is considered colder than chickweed. Rub it leaves to discover they are cool to touch even when growing all day in the sun. Plantain is very useful for easing the burning of ulcers.
Ever notice nothing grows around pine trees (Pinus spp.). It does not like other plants. It is pine’s medicine that keeps the other plants away. The volatile oils in pine are strongly anti-bacterial. Consider the powerful household cleaner named after the pine. As rain slips from the pine, it carries with it the plant’s volatile oils into the ground. This kills the local soil bacteria which other plants need to grow. The death of the bacteria makes the soil acid, adding to its inhospitality.
Relieving sinus infections with steam infusions of pine needles is a traditional remedy. To make a steam infusion, boil several cups of water and pour it into a large bowl. Add
a handful of pine needles. Lean over the bowl and cover both your head and the bowl with a large towel. Breath in the pine scented water deeply. Gone is the sinus infection.
Wandering deeper into the forest Old Man’s Beard (Usnea spp.) is found hanging from the trees. This remarkable plant is not really a plant. It is a symbiotic relationship between an algae and a fungi. The outer grey green covering is algae. Gently pull on a strand and a thin white elastic is found. This is the fungi. The algae grow on the fungi. Notice that it grows where the bark of the tree has been disturbed.
At one time, old man’s beard was considered a tree parasite leaching nutrients from the tree. It is now known that old man’s beard lives on air and simply uses the tree as a perch. In California’s old growth forests, old man’s beard is used a canary to measure air pollution. It dies off when the air is not clean. Old man’s beard is now appreciated as tree medicine. The algae on old man’s beard outer surface have anti-bacterial properties. By dangling where the bark of the tree has been torn, old man beard protects the tree from infection.
All over the world old man’s beard grows. In many of these places, it is used to remedy lung infections. Studies are now being done on its effectiveness in treating tuberculosis. Old man’s beard is not only effective medicine because of the algae’s anti-bacterial action but the fungi is an immune stimulant.
In the stillness of the forest, the herbalist admires the economy of nature in the symbiotic relationship between algae and fungi. This curious couple lives on air, protects the lungs of the planted, the trees while offering medicine to human lungs.
The true beauty of the herb walk is not necessarily learning that fireweed (Chamerion angustifolia) is an anti-inflammatory or that yarrow (Achillea millifolium) stops bleeding. The beauty of the herb walk is the realization that awakens in the heart. Discovering leaves are cool and moist on a hot day, falling into the sweet fragrance of bed straw (Galium triforum) and delighting in juicy berries leads to a deep appreciation of the powerful interdependence of life on this planet.
Herbs for Life is written by Abrah Arneson, a local clinical herbalist. It is intended for information purposes only. Readers with a specific medical problem should consult a doctor. For more information, visit www.abraherbalist.ca. Arneson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org