Uses of Plants In and Around the Forest
by Candice Cantin Packard
Native use of plants as medicine is often looked upon as something of the past which has little relevance to our current needs. However, as a professional Herbalist and Member of the American Herbalist Guild I would like to share with you many of the plants that are still in use by herbalists like myself. These plants have pertinence to our times because of their long history of safe use as applied to many ailments and conditions. I will discuss some of the plants that are familiar to most people and that grow in the Sierras.
The manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp.) can be found all over California. The name manzanita means “little apple” as it has small reddish berries which are ripe late in the summer. The tea or alcohol extract of the leaves is used for cystitis (bladder infections) which is due many times to an over-alkaline urine from improper eating habits. The glycosides in manzanita, especially arbutin, are metabolized and excreted in the urine as hydroquinone, an antimicrobial waste product that is most active in an alkaline pH. Take a handful of the leaves and place them in 2 cups of hot water and let steep for 15 minutes. Taken along with some cranberry juice, this will re-acidify the urine and help you to get rid of the bladder problem. Due to the high tannin level in manzanita leaves, any more than two or three days of the herb will start to irritate the stomach lining and even kidneys. The smaller leafed, ground cover manzanita, artostaphylos uva ursi, is slightly milder and has a less harsh action. It has the same smooth reddish bark, pink flowers and leathery leaves as the larger manzanita varieties. Manzanita should not be used during pregnancy due to its strong action.
I have also used manzanita tea externally as a wash to treat outbreaks of poison oak. Its astringent properties are helpful in drawing out impurities and tightening up the skin.
Another common herb found throughout the area is California Mugwort (artemesia vulgaris, var. Douglasiana). This is one of my favorite herbs. I love to bruise the leaves and smell its strong, clean aroma. It seems to clear the head and definitely the nasals. It is a colony plant and forms stands of several to hundreds of individuals all interconnected by underground rootstocks. In its full growth of late summer, the plants are from 3 to 7 feet tall. It has a warm, bitter, spicy taste. Mugwort circulates the blood, especially through the lower abdomen and uterus, aiding in menstrual difficulties and cramps. However, due to its uterine stimulating properties it should not be taken by pregnant women. It is also a bitter tonic and as such it treats stomach disorder, improves digestion and cures and prevents parasites and worms from finding a home in you. The natives and current day herbalists use it for colds, flues, fevers and sweating therapy. I have been to some native sweat lodges and it is still used as part of the sweating ceremonies currently conducted. The dried mugwort can also be burned like incense and wafted through the area to keep mosquitoes away and to clean the air.
The leaves can be harvested from late spring through , fall. Gather just the fresh leaves and discard the brown, dried leaves. Make a tea with a small handful of the fresh or dried herb in one cup of boiling water and let steep for ten minutes. The cold tea may be used as a digestive bitter, one tablespoon before meals and a cup of the hot tea may be used to bring on a sweat to relieve a fever. It tastes real bitter and quite unpleasant but it has a great value.
The dried leaves are also used to stuff little dream pillows. I have done this numerous times and find it to be a pleasant smell to go to sleep with.
Another California native is the elderberry (sambucus nigra). The flowers are gathered when they are in full bloom and are used for colds, flu , fever and clearing the skin. It can be used both internally and externally. Elder flowers, mixed with equal parts of mint and yarrow blossoms is an excellent internal cleanser for detoxification of flu and colds.
Elder flower oil and ointment is made by covering the flowers in a little olive oil and storing in a warm place for two or three days. Take some cheese cloth and pour the oil through it. Discard the herb and save the oil. Heat the oil, do not boil it, and dissolve a little bee’s wax in the oil to achieve an ointment consistency (one cup oil to 3/4 oz of bee’s wax). This ointment is excellent for burns, cuts, scratches, abrasions, and chapped hands.
The red elderberry (sambucus racemosa var. microbotry) found in the very high regions of the Sierra is considered toxic and is not used as a medicinal.
I use these herbs in my herbal practice and have found them to be very effective. Used properly, most herbal medicines are gentle and do not accumulate in the body as do many pharmaceutical preparations. Our bodies are accustomed to plants and their healing ways. They have been and continue to be our companions and friends throughout our lives.
Candice Cantin Packard is a registered herbalist and works out of her home and herb garden in Placerville, California.
Are there more?
The following describes some Native American uses of plants found in the Sierra foothills. The information was obtained from a research paper written by Robin Barron on ethnobotany.
Scouring rush (Equisetum avense) has silica as a component. Its abrasive stems have been used as sandpaper by Native Americans’ Soapweed (chlorogalum pomeridianium) grows prolifically in the Sierra foothills. Among its general uses are crushing the bulbs with hot water and using it as soap. Brushes were made from its fibrous bulb coat.
Fruit from the Buckeye (Aesculus californica) tree is large and toxic when raw. Nisenan and Miwok peoples have been known to, leach the Buckeye fruit and cook it similar to acorns. Buckeye must be leached for longer periods than acorns and are less nutritious. However it has been reported that they were eaten. Several tribes used the Buckeye to catch fish. They threw mashed nuts into streams which “stupefied” fish so they could be easily picked up.
Nisenan tribes are reported to have used the burned Poison Oak (toxicodendron diversilobum) root mixed with pine nut grease for tattooing.
Incense cedar (Calocedrus decurrens) limbs were used to make bows. Bark from large cedar trees was used to cover the sides of conical structures while oak poles provided the infrastructure.
The following were reference sources used by Robin:
Duncan, John W., 1964, Maidu Ethnobotany
Hill, Dorothy, 1972, Maidu Uses of Native Flora and Fauna Strike, Sandra, 1993, Ethnobotan