Wildcrafting: Developing a bioregional approach to herbalism

Much has been written about the importance of developing a bioregional approach to herbalism particularly in relationship to sustainability.  As anSlide01 herbalist having an understanding of your bioregion allows you to more fully engage with your surroundings and to have an intimate knowledge of its micro environments and plant populations.  Many of the “popular” herbs that we rely on are grown all over the world.   Their energy footprint including transportation costs, etc., as well as, the sometimes unethical practices of harvesting can be mitigated by utilizing herbs “outside your door”.  I believe our challenge as herbalist’s is to discover, utilize and teach others about what grows locally, so we can become more self-reliant and less dependent upon mail order herbs.  This article is an outline of the process that I have used and teach in my bioregional wildcrafting classes.

Slide04Defining a bioregion:  This is a helpful process in trying to understand the various ecosystems that encompass a specific area and to being able to identify various plant populations that grow within in them.  In my case I live in Central Oregon (Crook, Deschutes and Jefferson counties) which comprises a variety of ecosystems.  Using the following link: http://www.plantmaps.com/interactive-oregon-ecoregions-l4-map.php  which is specific to Oregon I have identified the various ecosystems that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has defined that make up the area that I live.  I assume that these interactive maps are available for all parts of North America.

Plant Identification:  This by far is the most challenging part of the process and I have spent endlessSlide09 hours scouring photo’s and plant descriptions to determine a plants identity. We are fortunate that we live in an era where there are so many resources available to us including on-line plant databases, plant identification apps and books.  Searching for plant lists is another helpful tool.  These lists are often available through native plant societies, university databases, herb schools and various other sites.

Here are a few links for plants specific to Oregon:

http://science.halleyhosting.com/nature/bloomtime/lists/or/or.html

http://www.oregonflora.org/atlas.php

http://www.botanicalstudies.net/botany/plantlists.php

Slide06Before you start this process it is vitally important to identify poisonous plants that grow in your area.  Typically I will review plant lists and determine if the plant that is listed has a history of use (see traditional use section below). Having a plant list in hand is a great first step, but you still have to be able to positively identify plants that you find.  Having a basic understanding of botany is particularly helpful in reading through plant descriptions or having the ability to identify plant families at least narrows down the Slide17possibilities.  Having a working knowledge of plant families can be quite helpful in at least narrowing down your search. A great book is Thomas Elpel’s “Botany in a Day: the Patterns Method of Plant Identification” and his website:   http://www.wildflowers-and-weeds.com/Plant_Families/Plant_Families_Index.html

In looking for a plant identification book I prefer one that is indexed by the color of the flowers the number and type of leaf pattern.  A rule of thumb is to identify the plant from three different sources before making the final confirmation as to its identification.   There are some excellent websites featuring photos of plants in the Pacific Northwest, Mark Turner’s book and internet site is extremely helpful:  http://www.pnwflowers.com.

Finally Hitchcock and Cronquist book “Flora of the Pacific Northwest” is an invaluable resource for species identification.  Once you have identified the plant then researching its medicinal value is the next step in the process.

Traditional Uses:  There are numerous books written about the medicinal value of medicinal herbs although they tend toroot digging feature more common or popular herbs.  In my bioregion which is mostly scrub and sagebrush these are not helpful.  Identifying Native American use of plants has been the most helpful path as I have found.  For my area I have identified the following Native American tribes who have used plants specific to my bioregion.

  • Cowlitz-South central Washington
  • Klamath-Southern Central Oregon
  • Okanagon-Colville reservation in Washington and British Columbia border.
  • Warm Springs-North central Oregon
  • Paiute-Great Basin region, Warm Springs reservation*
  • Shuswap-Southern interior plateau of British Columbia
  • Skagit- Upper, Northern Cascade Range, Washington
  • Snohomish-Northeastern side of Puget Sound, Washington
  • Thompson-Southwestern British Columbia
  • Umatilla-along the Umatilla and Columbia Rivers in Oregon
  • Washo-Near Lake Tahoe on the Calif.-Nevada border.

*Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Indian Reservation comprised of Warm Springs, Paiute and Wasco tribes.

Armored with this information I have done searches and read some of the original ethnographies that are available through inter-library loan.  Additionally I have almost wore out my copy of Daniel Moreman’s amazing book “Native American Medicinal Plants“.   Two other invaluable books in researching traditional uses are Steven Foster and Christopher Hobbs, “Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs” and  “American Medicinal Plants” by Millspaugh.  It is important to recognize that the information we have available is by no means exhaustive and only a reflection of the information that was collected through a colonial framework.

index

Rosa woodsii

Materia Medica:  Once you have identified the plant’s traditional and/or contemporary uses it is helpful to start to categorize its medicinal properties so that you can incorporate into your materia medica and medicine making, noting which parts of the plant are used.  For example, if a plant is within a certain family such as Rosaceae you already know that it is probably astringent due to the tannins. For example Woods’ Rose (Rosa woodsii) was used by the Paiute tribes as a decoction of the root for diarrhea, a poultice of various parts of the plant as a burn medicine, a decoction of the inner bark of the shrub for colds, a poultice of the mashed fungus galls for open boils, and an infusion of the leaves were taken as a spring tonic.  The Thompson tribe used the hips to help women in labor to hasten delivery and a decoction of the roots were taken by women after childbirth to tonify the uterus.  They also made a decoction of branches of rose, chokecherry and willow for diarrhea and vomiting.  Pioneer women used the hips of wild rose in jelly, pudding and syrups.  Knowing these uses helps you to incorporate it into your arsenal for addressing any number of conditions where you might have used other astringent herbs.

lomatium dissectum

Lomatium dissectum

Another example is Fernleaf Biscuitroot (Lomatium dissectum) which was used by the numerous tribes including the Paiute, Northern Paiute, Thompson and Okanagan-Colville tribes.  It was used as a dermatological aid for sores, for pulmonary issues including tuberculosis, as an analgesic for pain and arthritis, a decoction of the roots was taken for colds and numerous other uses. In looking at contemporary information on this plant, it has been found to have antimicrobial and antiviral potential.   It is fairly easy to see how one could incorporate the roots into oil for salves, cooked roots into cough medicine and roots soaked in alcohol as a liniment.

Astragalus purshii

Astragalus purshii

Research pays off, for example some plants have a documented use of being used internally yet they have emetic potential such as Wooly-pod Milk Vetch (Astragalus purshii).  Astragalus purshii  was  primarily used externally as a wash, although the Kawailsu tribe did use it internally for menstrual pains.  As a dermatological aid a decoction of the whole plant was used as a wash for the head, hair and body.  It was also used in the sweat lodge as a disinfectant, and was poured over hunting equipment, when the hunter was having “bad luck”. Since it does mention that it could be an emetic I would recommend only using this plant externally.  It is important to be stewards of the land therefore ensuring continued abundance of the plants that we harvest.  There are several websites that outline the steps to take to ensure we are properly caretakers of our bioregion.  Explore, learn and share your knowledge.

Ethical Wildcrafting and Stewardship:

  1.  Follow the abundance
  2. Avoid and protect unusual, threatened and endangered plants
  3. Gather in small, thoughtful numbers
  4. 
Browse, don’t graze
  5. 
Know where (and where not) to harvest
  6. Be okay with an empty basket
  7. Err on the side of less
  8. Promote abundance
, spread seeds, try to take parts of roots, not the entire plant
  9. Harvest to the plant’s needs
  10. 
Bring the right tools
  11. Assess for environmental toxins
  12. Share your gratitude-giving thanks

https://www.unitedplantsavers.org/images/pdf/2012_nursery_directory.pdf

http://7song.com/files/Wildcrafting%20Herbalist.pdf

 

 

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