By Bob Bahr
Danita Sayers pays attention. Part of it is her personality, part of it is her job, part of it is her circumstances. She lives in a remote portion of the Wind River Mountains, by design. And she thrives there because Sayers understands the land and its flora and fauna.
Many SKBers know about her extensive experience with grizzly bears, but at last September’s SKB Artists Rendezvous in Dubois, Wyoming, she took the podium to offer a presentation she titled, “Botanical Journals: Finding the Small Stuff.” In rapid fire, Sayers sketched out a dozen or so scenarios a person hiking, working, or living in the Winds might encounter, and what native plants might help with any resulting issues.
For every dire (or at least uncomfortable) scene she set, she’d announce, “We got something for that,” then explain which, possibly overlooked, plants could address the problem. By the end, the assembled SKBers were hollering back at her, “We got something for that,” and laughing … and learning.
Here’s the rundown, as best as I could type as Sayers schooled us in a scant 20 or so minutes. I’d trust Danita’s herbal advice with my life, but you shouldn’t wholly trust the article below—I wrote some of it, and my sources aren’t as sure as Sayer’s sources, namely, her study of books, her experience living in the mountains, and what she learned from various tribes. Please use this article as a starting point, and do more research. Ethnobotany is a compelling subject that offers ideas that could save your life … or at least tame your upset tummy.
The suggestion here is to begin a botanical journal, detailing through drawings and text the look, location, and experience surrounding particular plants encountered on walks, hikes, and focused outings in the woods and mountains. Anyone can build a resource on herbal remedies in this way. It also connects one with the planet, with Nature.
Sayers started with yarrow, which, like many of the mentioned plants, look like a weed to folks used to seeing and working with tended crops. Yarrow (Pedicularis groenlandica) has distinctive inflorescences (blooms or groups of blossoms) that are umbel in shape (like an umbrella, roughly. The blossoms are yellow or white. Yarrow is toxic for animals, but humans can use it in a number of ways. “I know someone who used yarrow to treat her elevation sickness,” Sayers says. “She was able to walk out of the wilderness after using yarrow. It absolutely works, and unless you have an allergy, you will not get sick.” Yarrow’s been known by soldiers for millennia as an astringent, which staunches the flow of blood from a wound. “Yarrow leaf stops bleeding and disinfects wounds,” says Sayers. “Native Americans have bags of this stuff. Your wound will not get infected if you put yarrow on it.”
“Do you suffer from chronic fatigue?” Sayers asks. “We got something for that. Fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolium), so called because it is one of the first plants to recolonize an area destroyed by fire. It increases endurance energy and stamina. Athletes are increasingly using this to enhance performance. You make a tea or tincture out of it.”
“Got some sniffles? Try some usnea,” Sayers says. “It’s anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-viral. You can make it into a poultice or a tea.” Usnea (it’s an entire genus), sometimes called old man’s beard, is pale green or grey, and lives all over the world on shrubs, bark, and branches of trees. It looks similar to other fungus-lichen organism (called a fruticose lichen by botanists) such as wolf lichen but one can ID usnea by the somewhat elastic nature of its branches (as opposed to more brittle branches that snap). Usnea is effective against even staph and strep infections.
Another fruticose lichen of interest is wolf lichen (Letharia vulpine). A bright yellow/chartreuse green color (“doesn’t it just look like a poison color?” asks Sayers), wolf lichen is worn by Native Americans as a talisman against toxic people and bad energy. “People wear it,” says Sayers. “You have probably walked by people who were wearing it.” It itself is poisonous—on par with strychnine. Wolf lichen is a complex organism that is in fact a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and a lichen. It lives on conifers.
Osha’s merits have not been hidden under a bushel basket. The flowering plant—another one with umbel inflorescence similar to Queen Anne’s lace or yarrow—is known in Wyoming as bear root. Its leaves look like curly parsley. It is prepared as a tincture, decoction, or tea, and can treat all viruses except retroviruses. Here’s a short list of the ailments addressed with osha (Ligusticum porter) by various tribes: colds, coughs, hangovers, sore throats, arthritis, aches and pains, digestive problems, fever, diarrhea, pneumonia, flu, scorpion stings, skin infections, heart troubles, anemia, tuberculosis, anticonvulsants, appetite stimulant, headaches, earaches, and sinus and respiratory infections. However—and this is a big however—it is in the same family and looks similar to hemlock, a deadly poison. One can tell it from poisonous hemlock by its celery smell and hairy roots, which are chocolate brown. (Hemlock is musty smelling; its roots are branched, and its roots are white-fleshed.)
Wild licorice (Glycyrrhiza lepidota) has a root that can be roasted or simply chewed. “Wild licorice coats everything in your mouth and esophagus and it will stop a cough,” Sayers says. “It is absolutely fantastic.” In the fall, it fruits in burs, which can be differentiated from cocklebur because cockleburs will prick and stick your finger. Meriwether Lewis ate one prepared like a sweet potato and declared its taste “agreeable.”
“Let’s say a hobo spider crawls into your backpack that is sitting around,” posits Sayers. “If that spider bites you, it will cause an abcess. Sticky curlytop gumweed (Grindelia squarrosa) will cure it. Get the flower, get the sticky rosin, and make tea. Sticky gumweed also works for brown recluse spiders.” Curlytop gumweed also helps asthma, dry upper respiratory infections, and skin ailments of many kinds. “The root of the gumweed can treat chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and hypothyroidism. You can just eat three leaves a day, or make a tea. It’s an alternative to going on steroids.” Sayers warns that curlytop gumweed is also a selenium concentrator. Selenium is an element that “has a narrow window—too much and you die and too little you die.”
Many outdoorsy types have had giardiasis, an extremely unpleasant infestation of the small intestine by the protozoa giaridia. It is infectious and is usually contracted by tainted food or water sources contaminated by feces. So, Ms. Sayers has you drinking out of a creek—ill-advisedly. “You contract giaridiasis…fringed sage (Artemisia frigida), from the artemisia genus, treats giardia,” she says. “It treats malaria. The extensive Native American trade routes made fringed sage go all the way to the East Coast, where it doesn’t grow. And then, when the settlers fought with the Indians, their supply was cut off, and malaria became a problem among the settlers.” Sayers says ingesting three sage tops as if they were pills will keep giardiasis in check and eventually kill off the giardia offspring during that portion of its life cycle. Fringed sagebrush was used by many tribes for a variety of reasons and uses. “The Eastern Shoshone use fringed sage for veterans returning from war, those suffering from PTSD,” adds Sayers. “Go into a sweat lodge, roll it to release its oils, and rub it all over yourself. It has a chemical constituent that will remove a trauma.”
One variety of geranium (Geranium viscosissimum) is known as alumroot in the Rocky Mountains, and it is useful as an astringent. “Dig it up, cut off the side roots and the brown skin, then cut it in featherlike pieces and lay it on the wound,” Sayers says. “You could have a mishap with a hatchet and two weeks later walk out of the wilderness. It will save your life; it will stop the bleeding.”
Heartleaf arnica (Arnica cordifolia) is toxic, so don’t take it internally. And don’t put it on an open wound. But Sayers reports that it treats sprains, strains, pulled muscles, and bruises when pressed against the skin and wrapped in gauze. “It will serve as a counter irritant,” she says.
“OK, let’s say you need an aspirin. We got something for that. Willow and aspen contain the original substance that was used to make aspirin,” Sayers says. She recommends gathering the new shoots from a willow and the inner bark from aspen and making a tea. “The inner bark of aspen trees is eaten by pregnant deer before giving birth,” she says.
The Crow people called Matricaria discoidea pineapple weed because it grew on hard-packed ground. Topically applied, it can pull out slivers and stickers, treat boils, even draw out bone fragments. “Mash it up and use it as a poultice—it smells fantastic.” It also can be brewed as a tea that acts a mild sedative.
Sayers pushes angelica (Angelica sylvestris), another hemlock lookalike. “Mint is good for an upset tummy, but it makes acid reflux worse,” she says. “So eat angelica. But make sure it is not water hemlock. If you ingest water hemlock the effects begin in 15 minutes. You will not be saved.” How do you tell them apart? “The leaf of angelica is clasping; it goes all the way around. If the vein goes to the cut—pain in the gut.” She is saying that the veins of the leaf on angelica do not go all the way to the notches on the perimeter of the leaves.
Did that last bit scare you? “To relax, go back to pineapple weed,” says Sayers. “It’s our version of wild chamomile. So have a bit of tea. It tastes good, too. Better than chamomile.”
In the realm of sedatives, Sayers points out two indigenous to the Wind River Mountains. Elephant’s head (Pedicularis groenlandica) is a root parasite, meaning its roots pierce the roots of other plants to steal nutrients. It grows near water. She advises making a tea with the flowers.
Wild valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is another hemlock lookalike with beneficial traits. “It looks like hemlock, but it smells,” says Sayers. “Dig down to the root. If your fingers smell like dirty socks, it is valerian. Incidentally, it is the basis for valium.”
Buck brush (Purshia tridentata) can be used to treat a panic attack. “Some people call it panic root,” Sayers says. “It doesn’t just cover the symptoms. It solves it.” She goes on to describe how some Crow believe buck brush attracts men. “The woman would slip this in a man’s clothing and put some on her. Once she had him hooked, she’d make a bouquet out of it and throw it over her shoulder. If it lands in sagebrush, keep him. If it lands on dirt, throw him out.”
Timing is crucial with wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) leaves. Sayers reports that it is used to address grief. “But if you hold them until they wilt, the chemical reaction creates cyanide,” she warns. “Fresh strawberry leaves are good. Just remember: Fresh or dried, not in between.”
“A few bags of this used to be worth a horse.” Sayers is talking about bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva). “If you gather it just before it flowers, it will order your thoughts better.” The Oglala have many uses for it, from warding off night spirits, to use as a stimulant, to virtually all troubles internal.
The monument plant (Frasera speciosa, also known as green gentian) grows for decades and flowers only sporadically, but luckily, the blossoms aren’t the medicinal part Sayers recommends. “Smoke the leaves and it clears your mind,” she says. “Then you can make a good decision and find your way out of the wilderness if you are lost.” You can’t miss a monument plant. It sends up one stem, similar to the agave, that grows up to six feet tall.
Native Americans made a sort of ketchup out of buffalo berry (Shepherdia argentea). It did more than simply flavor their meat. “Buffalo berry counteracts the bad part of meat eating,” says Sayers. Plus, if you mash it and put it in your hair, and it makes your hair look fantastic.”
And, finally, broom rape (the Orobanche genus) will give you vivid colorful and positive dreams with no narcotics involved. Make tea from it.
Danita ended her presentation beautifully.
“The moral of all this is don’t overlook the small things as your eye reaches the horizon. You may think that journaling isn’t serious art. Maybe it is no more than a butterfly, but remember: Butterflies are beautiful.” Ω