I know it sounds hokey but when we listen to the plants they tell us how they can help us, “ said Shanoon, the herbalist.
I spent an afternoon in early October with 5 others following Shanoon along a Slocan Valley, British Columbia pathway while she pointed out dozens of naturalized plants that can be harvested and used for food, medicine, and general health. Shanoon has spent the past 25 years gathering plants in the Kootenays (central and western British Columbia) to make into teas, tinctures, syrups, and lotions for use by her family and friends. She’s become highly sensitized to the particular healing qualities of each plant and understands how each unit of an eco-system serves a purpose.
Wild herbs can be highly effective medicines. Shanoon’s locally-sourced, homemade arnica lotion helped her daughter heal so quickly from a broken jaw that doctors were amazed when the bruising disappeared in a few days. She raised her kids on local herbs and plants and they never visited a doctor during their childhoods.
When we use whole plants as medicines rather than relying on pharmaceuticals, we access the pure, complete, and unadulterated compounds in their natural form. This is much more powerful for healing than consuming artificially extracted single ingredients.
5 Benefits of Using Plants for Healing
1) The body can assimilate the whole forms of the compounds more effectively than isolated single elements.
2) When we use locally-sourced plants we know exactly what’s in them and not in them – no additives, no chemicals, no fillers.
3) No plastic packaging and no fuel used for transportation.
4) The obvious bonus: its free!
5) Then there’s what some might call the hokiness factor – that esoteric, unquantifiable quality that comes from touching the plant, connecting with the spirit of the plant, and putting our love into the foods and medicines we make ourselves.
Shanoon, a walking plant encyclopedia, told us which parts of each plant to use, which parts to avoid, and when to harvest them.
Here’s a sampling. Please keep in mind I’m not a herbalist – check with expert sources before consuming any plants that are new to you because some are poisonous or contraindicated for certain conditions. Also, be sure you are identifying correctly and not getting plants mixed up!
We ate some chunks of root – stronger tasting than store-bought! Smells heavenly. Grows low in moist areas.
Leaves taste like cucumber. Harvest in spring for tender salad leaves. Grows under trees.
Shanoon pointing out that the squirrels had grabbed up all the wild hazelnuts before us. The indigenous people of the area, the Sinixt Indians, would bury the nuts to decompose the tricky slippery shells which can’t be cracked open. Squirrels have their own secret method for opening the shells.
Hemlock – do not touch, do not eat. Highly poisonous. Ooooh, I touched it before she said don’t touch it. Wiped my hand on my pants right away! Still alive, still alive. Hemlock killed Socrates in a horrible convulsive death.
Hemlock often grows in wet spots alongside watercress. People have to be very careful they don’t get any pieces of hemlock (root or leaf) when they pick the watercress. Hemlock is deadly.
Oregon Grape Root
Dark green leaves look like holly leaves. Shanoon scraped off the outer bark of the root and we had a bite of the bitter yellow inner root. Good for the liver. I palpated (poked) my liver (under the right lower rib) and it is sensitive. Ouch, it needs some help. Ate some blue Oregon Grape berries – edible but very bitter. The liver thrives on bitter foods. Good-for-you bitters also include dandelion leaves which are high in Vitamin A. Upscale whole foods markets are now selling dandelion leaves at $4.99/pound. La, tee, dah, I’ll pick my own, thanks (chemical free, of course). I’ve come to love my dandelion root tea – I dig up fat roots in summer, clean, chop, roast in a low temp oven until lightly browned, toss cooled roots into boiling water, steep, sieve, drink. Yum!
Yummy tasting red berries. Spit out the seeds though. The trees look kind of sad at this time of year but berries were still deelish. Hawthorn is used for the heart, angina, blood vessels – do some research to see which parts to use. Shanoon makes syrup with the berries.
The leaves have a tasty tangy flavor. In summer this plant has yellow flowers. Golden Rod can help with kidney stones.
Oooooo, those red berries are tart! Add sugar to make a sauce or jelly with the berries.
Scrape the outer bark off the sasparilla root to eat the inner root. Indigenous peoples would take sasparilla root on long journeys and eat it for energy. Mild tasting.
Shanoon is careful to only dig up a few of each root in each location when she harvests – leaving enough to allow the plant to continue imbuing its life-force and benefits to the earth.
Humans still don’t have a full understanding of how each plant contributes to the overall harmony and balance that is created by the intelligence of nature. Plants that are commonly deemed weeds contribute in ways we have yet to grasp, for example the lowly dandelion with its liver healing qualities.
I hope this inspires you to do some research and explore in your own area. There is a veritable feast to be had when you know which plants to use!
What are some of your favorite wild plants? How do you use them for cooking and eating?
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