By Wendy Tremayne
All remedies for good health originate in the wild. They are derived from elements, bacteria, fungi, plants, and sometimes animals. A cure might come to us by way of a pharmacist, homeopath, herbalist, or our own garden and take the form of a pill, tea, injection, patch, salve, or poultice, to name a few. Synthesized, processed, or in a natural state, the way that medicines differ is found in the intent of the maker, the method used, and the environmental impact of its production.
Plant-based remedies that are foraged from the wild are a great choice if you wish to save money, reduce waste, and learn about health and the natural world. While big pharma’s patented complex compounds are polluting watersheds and consuming huge amounts of clean water, natural plant remedies’ only byproduct is organic compost. The fuel needed to produce a plant remedy in your own home is caloric fuel (your breakfast). Local plant varieties conveniently produce cures for ailments common to the region they’re growing in. For example, I live in southern New Mexico, where the sun is hot and the air is dry. Vegetation found in my region produce alkaloids for effective salves for sunburn and remedies to help the body hold moisture. For this reason you will likely discover that the best medicine chest is the one growing all around you.
Making your own plant-based cures is engaging, and in the right situation, the knowledge acquired for the task can save your life. Imagine hiking in a national forest and finding yourself in need of an analgesic, something to stop bleeding and reduce swelling. In this situation the pharmacy is entirely useless. Those willing to learn about plant remedies are afforded a choice that others do not have — the choice between local fauna, big pharma, or both.
Spring is the best time to begin to learn to identify plants. As vegetation wakes from winter and peaks during the warm summer months, the observer can witness a plant’s traits, stages of growth, and harvest it at just the right moment.
The steps include: plant identification, defining your medicinal needs, harvesting, and storing.
Step 1 – Plant Identification: Plant identification skills are honed by walking in nature and observing what is growing, where, and when. A field guide is essential. Find one that is focused on edible plants in the region where you live. A good guide will contain botanical drawings or photographs as well as a plant’s medicinal uses. One of the best ways to sharpen your skills is to make botanical drawings of the plants you find. Wendy Hollender, Coordinator of Botanical Art at the New York Botanical Gardens, designed a fine workbook titled, Botanical Drawing: A Beginner’s Guide.
Step 2 – Define Your Medicinal Needs: Write a list of your medicinal needs. Using your field guide, match a plant remedy to each need you have. You may discover that the local flora doesn’t contain everything you want. I can’t live without calendula for hand cream or relaxing chamomile tea. Neither plant is native to the Chihuahuan desert in which I live, so I grow them from seed in my garden.
Safety Tip: Never eat an unknown plant! Plants are equally able to cure, kill, and make us awfully sick. The cashew, for example, is poisonous when eaten raw. Those bought at the market have been shelled by way of steaming. The steam’s heat makes cashews safe for us to eat. As a beginner you must check your plant identification assumptions against a very reliable source. Seek a local herbalist or university agriculture department. Some schools have herbariums stocked with plants and expert advice. I recommend a fascinating little book that will scare you into being adequately careful of what you consume: Wicked Plants: The Weed that Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities by Amy Stewart, published by Algonquin.
The following are plants naturally occurring in the Chihuahuan desert (Texas, New Mexico, Arizona):
Antiseptic: camphor weed, chapparal, chickweed, desert willow, mesquite, eucalyptus
Intestinal tract: desert willow, mesquite, hollyhock, prickly pear, shepherd’s purse, ocotillo
Inflammation: soapberry, yerba mansa, jojoba (mucous membrane); sangre de drago
Backache: camphor weed
Water retention: chickweed, shepard’s purse, chaparral, yerba mansa
Sauna herbs (bath tea): eucalyptus, juniper, sage, sage brush, yerba mansa, camphor weed
Dry skin: jojoba
Diarrhea: mesquite, hollyhock, shephard’s purse, prickly poppy, sangre de drago, acacia
Stimulant: ephedrine, aka Mormon tea
Cold/flu: echinacea, California mugwort, yerba mansa, ephedrine (expectorant)
Cough: hollyhock, mallow, desert willow
Joint pain: camphor weed, chickweed, turkey mullein, yerba mansa,
Step 3 – Collection:
Materials and Tools:
Small sharp knife
Sack or backpack to carry samples
Paper bags to protect and separate plants
Marker for labeling
20x zoom loop Bausch and Lomb makes a great keychain loupe
Book Find a guide to edible plants for your region. (Cecilia Garcia and James D. Adams, Jr. just wrote a great guide book for those living in the western U.S. titled Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West: Cultural and Scientific Basis for Their Use)
Most parts of a plant are potent for medicine, such as the leaf, bark, flower, seed, root, and sap. Stems and branches are generally discarded. Avoid plants by roadsides and ditches or near any kind of contamination or waste. Always collect where the plant is abundant and never collect more than10% of the amount visible to you from an area. Never collect in national forests or wildlife reserves.
Once harvested you will want to prepare the plants to be stored and used later. Drying and extraction are the most common ways to prepare a plant for medicinal use. The simplest method for drying a plant is to place it in a paper bag and tack it to a wall for a week or two. Alternatively, plants can be dried out in the sun in a screen box. Steeping in alcohol, glycerin, or honey will extract the plant’s bounty while also preserving it.
Keep an eye out for my next CRAFT article later this month on drying herbs and making tinctures.
About the Author:
Wendy Tremayne is an event producer, conceptual artist, and yoga teacher. One of her projects, Swap-O-Rama-Rama, is a community clothing swap and series of DIY workshops that she created as an alternative to consumerism. Wendy lives in Truth or Consequences, N.M., where she is co-creating an off-grid B&B. Find out more on the Holy Scrap Hot Springs blog. Learn more about Wendy at gaiatreehouse.com.