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WILD AND EDIBLE PLANTS III: ALASKAN TREASURES
Hello and welcome. This is my third video on wild plants in Alaska. This one is about medicinal plants. I must admit, I had a hard time selecting from the many plants I could discuss.
I’ve selected four. However, if you have questions about any other Alaskan plants, please ask in the comments, and I will answer if I can.
Quote: “To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.”
A group of us in my online company, Wealthy Affiliate, has been reading Napoleon Hill’s “Think and Grow Rich.” In the book, Mr. Hill emphasizes the importance of a mastermind group.
It is made up of people who are supportive of your cause and who can contribute their own information and interpretations to the whole.
Our Plants Class is a good example of such a group. We gathered for a common cause, we pooled our knowledge, and we celebrated in learning new information.
This mutual joining together resulted eventually in the publishing of a plant book containing our findings.
Quote: “Herbalism is based on relationship – relationship between plant and human, plant and planet, human and planet.”
“Using herbs in the healing process means taking part in an ecological cycle.” (Wendell Berry)
The first plant on my list is devil’s club. (Latin: Echinopanax horridum or Oplopanax horridus) This plant is the only Alaskan member of the ginseng family. It inhabits the woods.
Devil’s club is a very prickly shrub with long stems, heavy with sharp spines. The stems can be sprawling or erect – I’ve seen some a good nine feet tall. The odor of the plant is sweet and very pleasant.
Its very large leaves are shaped somewhat like maple leaves with seven to nine sharply pointed lobes. The underside of the leaves is covered with fine spines.
Flowers are small and whitish; later they form into bright red, flattened, and shiny berries, gathered together in a pyramidal spike.
“Panax” is the part of the name linked to ginseng. Panax comes from the Greek word for “panacea,” or cure-all. Devil’s club has antifungal, antiviral, antibacterial, and antimycobacterial properties.
Ginseng is best known as an energy booster. Traditional Alaskan Native uses of devil’s club indicates it follows the same role. Isn’t it interesting that Alaskan Natives use the plant for the same purposes as traditional Oriental users?
Various parts of the plant were used for different purposes. Many Alaskan Natives believe devil’s club to be a source of healing and spiritual powers. Here are some of the ways it was used:
Stems and branches were cut into pieces and boiled into tea to treat fever. Haida Indians rubbed berries on their heads as treatment for lice and dandruff, and to make their hair gleam.
The white pulp of the inner stem could be chewed as a laxative. It was also used both internally and externally for a treatment for staph infections, or as a remedy for venereal disease.
The root, baked until dry and the pulp broken up in the hands, could provide relief for swollen glands, boils, sores, and other infections. Leave on for three or four hours only, as it can burn.
Tea from the inner bark of the root was also used for tuberculosis, coughs, colds, stomach troubles, and fever. Take in small doses or it acts as a stimulant.
A tincture from the inner, cambium layer of the stem – lime green in color – can be used to regulate blood sugar levels. The plant has other uses as well.
Quote: “True medicine comes from the earth, not from a lab.”
Quote: “Nature itself is the best physician.” (Hippocrates)
Now let’s collect some yarrow (Achillea borealis). We’ll take every part of the plant that’s growing above ground. This hardy perennial can be found growing in almost any kind of soil.
Its alternate, very feathery, slightly hairy leaves led to the common name of milfoil, or thousand-leaves.
Yarrow has been used as a medicinal since the Trojan Wars. Its Latin name, Achillea, comes from the Greek hero, Achilles. Yarrow was used by his soldiers to help stop wounds from bleeding.
It’s very effective. If you cut yourself and can find any yarrow growing nearby, just wrap some of the leaves around the wound. You will be surprised at how fast the bleeding stops.
There is also the legend that Achilles’ mother dipped him in a yarrow bath when he was a baby as a way to protect him from injury. When she dipped the baby, she held onto one heel. Achilles later died of a wound to his heel.
Quote: “Mother Earth’s medicine chest is full of healing herbs of incomparable worth.” (Robin Rose Bennet)
Yarrow can be used as a tea remedy for severe colds, or, if you make a tea and add a bit of Tabasco sauce, go to bed and cover up, it will break a fever. One of our class members found the tea to be a great remedy for a hangover.
It’s used to soothe menstrual cramps, unstuff sinuses, increase appetite, relieve stomach cramps and gas, among other uses.
We gathered yarrow every summer. I dried mine on the same hanging window frame in my living room that I used to dry other herbs, such as my rose petals.
When the yarrow was dry, I’d strip the flowers and feathery leaves from their stems and store the dried plant in a large, square, clear plastic container.
When I opened the jar to extract some of the herb, my fingers met with a soft, fluffy mass that was a delight to touch. The texture of the plant made its use even sweeter.
Quote: “Lose yourself in nature and find peace.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
Our third plant is fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium). In Britain it’s called the great willow herb.
This plant is another perennial with a long, single stem from 1 ½ to 8 feet tall. Leaves are alternate, long and narrow, smooth on top and paler green underneath, and grow all along the stem.
The large, showy flowers grow in spikes at the end of the stem.
Fireweed is both an edible and a medicinal and is useful from the time it first appears and even after its dried stalks fall to the ground.
When it first emerges from the ground, it’s a red shoot. Gather a cup or two and chop into bite-sized pieces. Marinate in vinegar and oil, adding a clove of chopped garlic, minced onion, and a few mint leaves. Chill and serve.
You can gather very young shoots and boil, or the plants when still very young and up to 6 inches tall. Add to salad or, when very small, cook in boiling, salted water. Use leaves, green or dried, to make tea.
A stem from a grown plant, cut in half lengthwise, can be placed on an infection to keep the wound from healing too quickly and to draw out infection.
Once the stalks have fallen, they can be split into narrow strands and woven into a strong twine. At one time this twine was used to make fishnets.
Quote: “A weed is a plant whose virtue is not yet known.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
Fireweed honey is a treat. Here’s a recipe:
10 cups sugar
2 ½ cups water
1 tsp alum
18 pink clover blossoms
30 white clover blossoms
18 fireweed blossoms
Put sugar and water in pan. Add alum; stir over high heat. Bring to a rolling boil and boil six minutes. Remove from heat and add blossoms, stirring in well. Strain; pour into hot sterilized jars; seal.
We Alaskans say that when the fireweed is in full bloom, summer is almost over. Early or late winter can be predicted according to the fireweed blooming cycle.
Quote: “The plants have enough spirit to transform our limited understanding.” (Rosemary Gladstar)
Our last plant is a tree, the cottonwood, or balsam popular. The cottonwood (Populus balsamifera) is a member of the willow family.
As it is so often true of us, young and old species of cottonwood can look very different and are sometimes mistaken for distinct species. When young, the tree can be 40-50 feet tall, with a symmetrical shape.
With age, the tree’s limbs become very thick, irregular, and crooked, and start to point downward.
Bark of the young trees is smooth and green. Furrows increase with age. Bark of the mature trees has dark grey ridges and deep furrows.
In winter or early spring, brown, very resinous and fragrant buds form on the end of branches. With the advance of spring, male and female catkins grow on separate trees.
In summer the seed capsules split and a cottony mass bursts out, thus giving the tree its name of cottonwood.
Notice that the cottonwood is in the willow family. Cottonwood, like its willow cousin, contains the natural aspirin glycosides salicin and populin, used to reduce pain and inflammation.
Quote: “If plants can provide food for our survival, they surely can provide medicines to cure our diseases.
Let’s go herbal.” (Thorangini)
Gather the cottonwood buds when they are fully formed and before they open, to make Balm of Gilead. This recipe is from Janice Schofield’s book, “Discovering Wild Plants.
Janice says the salve can be used for piles, burns, cuts, diaper rash, and assorted skin irritations. Here’s the recipe:
Balm of Gilead
1 cup balsam poplar (cottonwood) buds
1 ½ cups lard (Oil and beeswax may be substituted for the lard)
1 dropper liquid vitamin E
Boil buds and lard in top of double boiler. Heat (covered) over boiling water for two hours, then strain and squeeze through a muslin cloth. Return strained oil to pan; add vitamin E; stir well. Pour into containers, cool, and cap.
Quote: “A man doesn’t plant a tree for himself. He plants it for posterity.” (Alexander Smith)
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