Imagine yourself in an earlier time. A time when only native people inhabited our local mountains. As you walk up the trail along the creek, weaving through aspens on a warm summer day, what would you see? Chances are you’d see familiar vegetation in a wilderness that is chock full of medicinally useful plants.
A couple of days ago, I was on a hike with a friend in the Eagles Nest Wilderness. As we set out, we immediately came across some stunning deep purple flowers on a sunny hillside. They were larkspur. The name larkspur can be remembered by looking closely at the blossom. A sharp “spur” protrudes from the back of the flower. Larkspur is a traditional cure for head and body lice, and can still be found in health food stores. The related species tall larkspur will bloom in mid summer along mountain streams.
A bit further up the trail in an open green meadow, we came across many plants about one foot high, with a clustered white flower on the top. The plant is valarian, and with its root, a strong sedative tea can be brewed which is useful for managing emotional stress or pain. That’s right; mother’s little helper is just a short hike away. Valerian root is also available commercially.
At yet another sunny bend in the trail, we spied the blue green leaves of sagebrush. We took a couple of leaves and crushed them between thumb and forefinger to catch the wonderful fragrance. Sagebrush is not cooking sage; rather it is a bitter sage. A person can steep some sagebrush leaves to make a bitter tea, which is useful in settling an upset stomach. Sagebrush is also known as wormwood sage, and native people used a strong brew over a couple of weeks to expel internal parasites, such as roundworm.
As we made our way uphill, we passed some lodgepole pines on the meadow’s edge. Beneath the pines in partial shade grew many six to eight inch tall yellow flowers known as heart-leafed arnica. A salve can be made using the entire plant, which can be applied externally, and is useful for joint inflammation, sprains, and sore muscles.
As we rounded a corner near a large granite outcrop, we caught sight of the first rose blossom of the year. The fragrance of wild rose is truly marvelous, and the scent of a single blossom can lure you off the trail. A sun tea can be made with rose petals to make rose water, and can be used to treat sunburn, sore feet, a weathered face, or tired eyes. A drinkable rose tea can be brewed from a few flowers and buds and is an effective treatment for diarrhea.
As we climbed in elevation we crossed several side steams that were lined on their banks with willows. Willows require lots of water and therefore grow thick near streams, springs, and seeps. Try a little experiment sometime, and snap off a fresh willow twig with healthy smooth brown bark, and chew on it for a little bit. You’ll quickly be reminded of the unique taste of aspirin. Willow bark is useful in all the same ways as aspirin. Also, a strong willow tea is handy as a first aid treatment for washing wounds.
There’s more to wild flowers and native plants than their natural beauty- there’s history. Many modern medicines were discovered based on remedies originally found in native plants. The ancient cultural knowledge of medicinal plants was passed on over time to each new generation. Today we can look through the eyes of the past, when we walk pristine trails, and explore the fascinating world of medicinal plants.