I was hurriedly descending the lowest slopes of Mt. Baker, through a giant old-growth forest, trying to reach the road before nightfall.  My ride was waiting there, and I could see my friend in her car, just below me through a break in the trees.  The trail continued at a gradual angle 1/4 mile sideways before switching-back to the parking area.

The Seeker, from the Gaian Tarot by Joanna Colbert


I was young, so even though going off-trail would create erosion, my young mind thought that cutting downslope was an acceptable choice since someone was waiting for me.  Wrong.  In the dim light, I scrambled over fallen trees and jumped down steep inclines, not taking care to avoid damage to the forest, nor to myself.

Instant Karma hit as I crossed over a little stream.  My momentum was fast forward, but my leg fell into some kind of hole which had a broken root that caught my thigh.  Direct hit, causing the worst charlie-horse I’d ever received, and that’s from a kid who grew up with 6 siblings, always playing outdoors.  It took me a while to catch my breath, and about 10 minutes to move the remaining 100 feet down to my ride.

The pain increased as I sat in the car.  By the time I returned to town an hour later, the pain was worse than any I had experienced in my life.  Years later, after taking EMT training, I realized that I had suffered a hematoma, which can be as simple as a bruise, but can be as serious as constant internal bleeding.

As soon as I elevated my leg, the pain decreased a bit, from a “9” on the scale of 1-10, to an 8, and after a few minutes, to a 6.5.  But whenever I lowered my leg, the pain would increase to an 8 again. I  couldn’t sleep that night, and the next day, the pain was a “5.5” when my leg was elevated, but a “7.5” when walking.

Four Basic Tenets of Herbal Medicine

At the time, I was trying never to use modern medicine, and instead, was endeavoring to learn about herbal replacements.  Unfortunately, I didn’t even know the basics.  For instance, I acted like there was a cure-all for everything.  I had behaved like many of us in our teens and 20s behave, thinking that we can do anything however we want, partially because modern medicine mitigates our risks.

When I impetuously scrambled off-trail, I had broken the first tenet of holistic herbal medicine: prevention.  Then I broke the second tenet:  immediate and consistent treatment.  Not only did I sit in the car with my leg lowered, but because I was avoiding modern medicine at the time (and testing my manhood, of course), I refused ibuprofen.  Reduction of severe pain actually helps the body heal faster, but also, ibuprofen reduces swelling, exactly what I would have needed.

Fortunately, in Bellingham where I was living, there was (and is) an herbalist, Linda Quintana, who runs a store downtown on Railroad Avenue called Wonderland Teas & Spices. It took me a couple days to get my tough self over there, but one look at my swollen, bruised thigh, and Linda grabbed a bottle of Arnica Oil from the shelf and told me to apply it every couple hours.

The next day, my thigh was tender, but there was otherwise no pain.  That bottle of Arnica Oil traveled with me for the next 10 years, although I forgot about it for a couple days the next time I was injured.  By then, I had turned 30 and had “discovered” the wisdom of ibuprofen, but after a couple weeks enduring a sore, hyper-extended elbow from too much wheel-barrow work, I remembered the Arnica Oil, and within a week, my elbow was cured.

Sometime later, I returned to that place where I suffered the hematoma, and growing along the banks of that cascading stream, right where water sprayed off some rocks, grew a beautiful Arnica plant.  There are a few different species in the genus Arnica, so I’m not sure which one Linda used in her oil, nor which one grew along that stream, but seeing it there was astonishing.

The third tenet of herbal medicine is to harvest the highest quality of herbs, and process them in the best ways, in order to produce herbal remedies that actually work.  For instance, have you ever tried Celestial Seasonings herbal teas, and then switched to Traditional Medicinals?  The difference is astounding.  Traditional Medicinals was co-founded by herbalist Rosemary Gladstar who offers a renown herbal medicine correspondence course that Linda Quintana originally recommended to me, and in which my wife Kim is now enrolled.

Linda, Rosemary, and the current proprietors of Traditional Medicinals know how to propagate, wildcraft, harvest, and process herbs so that their medicines are effective.  So if you have tried herbal medicines that don’t work, look deeper.  Do your research, test products, and discover what works for you.  Order products straight from knowledgeable producers.  The best mail-order source I know of is from Northwest wildcrafter, herb farmer, and permaculturist Michael Pilarsky who runs Friends of the Trees.

The fourth tenet of herbal medicine is to learn the plants in your area, and to test them to see what works for you as an individual.  Fortunately, in our region, we have a plant guide published by Lone Pine which is excellent for identifying plants based on family characteristics.  Lone Pine has at least 3 books in the series based on region, but for our area, Plants of Southern Interior British Columbia and the Inland Northwest covers the most territory.



Treating Trauma, Cuts, Headache, Pains, Colds and Other Infections

  • Arnica species, in addition to being anti-inflammatory, are anti-bacterial when applied to wounds, so they can be a good choice for all kinds of trauma.  Used internally, Arnica increases body temperature, so it is good to ward off chills, and induce fever in case of colds.  I’ve still never used it straight from nature, so you’ll have to look elsewhere for processing instructions.  However, I am planting Arnica in my garden this year, so I’m looking forward to researching it more.
  • Willow species are the source of salicylic acid, aka aspirin, which is a great pain-killer for headaches and certain other aches, but cannot be used when a person is bleeding because it thins the blood.  To use, just make a decoction (simmer for a few minutes) of the bark and/or twigs, and drink a cup which is often equivalent to one or more aspirin.
  • Yarrow is similar to Arnica in that it, too, increases body temperature or induces sweating when taken internally, so people use it as a tea (hot infusion) to treat colds and flu, hoping to kill the virus.  It’s also good for cuts, because when applied externally, it stops blood flow and helps wounds heal.  I just apply the leaves straight on, but I’m not sure how antibacterial it is, so always take care to avoid infection by flushing simple wounds with pure water.
  • Fir species pitch, and in fact probably all species within the pine family to which fir also belongs, has always been used to patch up cuts, but like all these remedies, there is a proper way to do it, and it would take a full article to explain how each medicine can be used, so just like in your Lone Pine field guide, I’ll keep my statements short and rely on you to research further.  Take a look at my notes on pine in the October 2010 issue of Seattle Backpackers Magazine for more benefits of this great family of plants.
  • Nettles are very useful for many reasons, and you can read about their many herbal uses in a fun chapter by Susun Weed in her book Healing Wise, but in the backcountry, their external application (whipping) can stimulate blood flow to cure sore joints, while their internal consumption is great nutrition, especially to treat anemia after blood loss.  Take a look at my notes on nettles in the October 2010 issue of Seattle Backpackers Magazine for more information.
  • Red Alder and oaks are great trees to cleanse the skin, as the tannic acids create an inhospitable habitat for bacteria, so if you don’t have any soap, at least rinse your hands with an alder decoction before eating and after eliminating. My October 2010 article in Seattle Backpackers Magazine includes notes on oak in the final paragraphs.

Treating Anemia, Diarrhea, Bleeding, Allergies, Asthma and More Infections

  • Rubus species, aka blackberries and raspberries, are incredibly useful beyond the sugars and vitamin C provided by the berries.  Same for almost all the plants in the rose family to which they belong.  Their flowers are also edible, but blackberries and their leaves are also high in iron, so can treat anemia, and leaves are also very astringent, so can treat loose bowels as well.  Thimbleberry leaf, I have discovered, cures my hay fever, especially grass allergies.  Just blow your nose into the soft leaf, then take another and breathe through it like a particle mask.  Take a look at my notes on these fruiting plants in the December 2010 issue of Seattle Backpackers Magazine for more benefits.
  • Oregon Grape is another northwest backcountry plant which is anti-microbial.  In fact, although it is not closely related to goldenseal, it is used very similarly to treat colds and other viruses.  Although you can make a decoction of the roots if needed in the backcountry, making a tincture is probably the best way to draw out the antiviral properties, so I carry some in my first aid kid (which also contains that arnica oil of course) that I made at home.
  • Elder species are also very important plants, including for medicine in the backcountry.  I keep some of its leaves around when I don’t have a tent because it confuses mosquitos.  It is also my saving grace, along with chickweed, when I have a flair-up of asthma, which happens after too much exposure to allergens like grass, especially when I didn’t treat those allergies right away by breathing into salmonberry leaves.  Elder flowers are the strongest of medicine, and care must be taken when using them, but the fruits are great medicine as well.   Just don’t eat the seeds, especially those from red elder, as they are considered poisonous, just like apple seeds.  Elder deserves its own article, so do some research, test it yourself, and let me know what you discover!
  • Usnea species are lichen, which are basically fungi that cultivate algae on them, and there are many kinds in our region.  Usnea species are easy to identify:  just take some off alder or other tree branches, pull it apart slowly, and if you see a latex-like cord stretching out, then you’ve got it.  A tincture would be best to draw-out the most medicine, but you can make a hot tea in case you need a strong antiviral in the backcountry.
  • Sphagnum Moss is great for bleeding.  It’s the basic species of bog habitats surrounding many undeveloped lakes in our region, and it is almost antiseptic because bogs are so acidic.  Sphagnum Moss is great as a pressure bandage and for menstrual pads, among other uses such as shelter insulation.
  • Cranberry species grow in bogs amongst the sphagnum moss, and cranberry is a scientifically-studied treatment for urinary tract infections, prevention of kidney stones, and general cleansing of body toxins.  I grew up with it, and my mom still sends a bunch out after she and my dad harvest them from our lake in Wisconsin every September.
  • Sundew is another incredible plant of the bog. Not only is it a carnivorous insectivore, but science has shown that it kills many bacteria.  I don’t know how to process it, but Linda Quintana of Wonderland Teas (mentioned previously) first turned me onto it, so she would be a great source as to indications.

Treating Dehydration, Electrolyte Sickness, Heat Exhaustion, Constipation, Stomach Aches, Coughs and Fungal Infections

  • Cedar is a great antifugal.  Soak your feet in a tea of cedar for athletes foot, burn cedar and apply the cooled ash for jock-itch, or carefully make a decoction for black-throat.  I haven’t tried the latter two, so take care, as cedar contains oils that are not otherwise edible.
  • Cherry includes a variety of edible and inedible species, but in our area, the Black Cherry has bark/sap that is not palatable.  However, it is a very strong expectorant that you’ll find in many over-the-counter cough medicines, so use it carefully in the backcountry to treat wet (productive) coughs only.
  • Mullein is one of my favorite plants during hikes into the backcountry of central washington, and it is another treatment for coughs, but this time, if you make an hot infusion (tea) from its flowers, or a light decoction from its leaves, it should be used to treat “dry cough” in my experience, as it soothes the throat and heals the lungs.  Pojar & MacKinnon report that people smoke the leaves, which might be good for wet coughs, so again, it’s best to research, research, research!
  • Thistle species are edible, and you can scrape off the thorns and eat the pith to get fiber in the case of constipation.  Further, you can chew the pith of juicy thistles, swallow the liquid, and spit out the pith if you are dehydrated, as it gives you a nice balance of water and nutrients for rehydration.
  • Coltsfoot apparently has quite a bit of sodium, and in fact, it does taste a bit salty, so for those of you who go overboard drinking all that water that they recommend in Wilderness First Aid trainings, and as a result get massive headaches due to lack of salt, you are suffering from electrolyte sickness.  Coltsfoot is a good plant to eat along with dandelion and chicory, the latter two being diuretics, in order to regain your balance between salts and water in your cells.
  • Seaweeds also contain salts and minerals, of course, although some more than others, so if you are hiking along the wilderness coast, it is a great food source if you have enough fresh water at the same time to balance your hydration.  Take a look at my notes on seaweeds in the December 2010 issue of Seattle Backpackers Magazine for more benefits of seaweeds.
  • Mint species are great in case you have heat exhaustion, as they have a cooling effect, so just eating a leaf helps, as does a cold infusion (leaves soaked in water), or if you have a headache from heat, you can also rub mint leaves on your scalp.  I got sick on moldy mint in the wilderness one time, so it tends to give me headaches now.  Therefore, like all these suggestions, test them carefully for personal preferences.
  • Cascara Sagrada (sacred bark in translation) is an understory tree in our region that was almost logged to extinction (a hundred years ago, before pharmaceutical reproductions) in some places due to its effectiveness as a laxative.  So if you have constipation, make a decoction from its bark.
  • Grasses are perhaps the most important plant to our society, as their seeds are the grains we eat, their leaves the feed for our livestock, thatched roofing material and so much more.  See my notes on grasses in the October 2010 issue of Seattle Backpackers Magazine for other uses, but as a medicine, one of the universal benefits of grass is for stomach aches.  Just look at cats and dogs, who eat it to cleanse their stomachs.  There are many causes of stomach ache, including dehydration, appendicitis, food poisoning, constipation, etc., so to start testing its effects, try wheat grass juicing to see how it effects you.

Treating Toothaches & Other Topical Pain, Irritated Skin, Insect Infestation, Stings, Insomnia, Stress, Melancholy, Low Energy

  • Cattails are probably the most important plant for you to know in survival situations.  Take a look at my article on cattails in the December 2010 issue of Seattle Backpackers Magazine for more information, but as a medicine, the gel found between the leaves seems to be a topical anesthetic (and some say antiseptic, but I’m not sure about that) so I’ve used it topically on a toothache as well as for sore joints with nice success.
  • Horsetail is a kind of  “nature’s toothbrush” due to the silica it contains, and I’ve used it successfully when without a toothbrush in the wilderness after my teeth started to feel uncomfortable.
  • Cottonwood is one of the poplar species, which are the source of Balm of Gilead, a mixture of poplar buds and something like bee’s wax to make a salve for rashes, eczema, sun-burn, and other skin irritations.  Cottonwood buds are the most aromatic amongst poplars, so we are fortunate to have them.
  • Pearly Everlasting grows along most logging roads and elsewhere in our backcountry.  Its flowers are one of my favorite substitutes for lotion, keeping my skin soft and young-looking  🙂  It blooms from summer through fall, so it is available much of our year.
  • Plaintain species, especially lance-leaf plantain, cure bee stings like nothing else.  One of the miracle herbs, just pick a leaf, chew, and spit the green mush onto a bee sting for immediate pain relief.  It also draws things out, so don’t be surprised if the stinger is gone the next day and you can’t find where you were stung.  Further, since anaphylaxis is a leading wilderness emergency, plantain may be attempted in case nothing stronger like benadryl is available in case of allergic reaction to stings.
  • Tansy is a great plant that can keep bugs away if you surround yourself with it, or rub it onto your skin, but like anything, it’s best to check for allergic reactions at home before using any of these plants for the first time in wilderness settings.  I’m not sure of its internal effect, so don’t confuse it with the next similar-looking plant….
  • Pineapple Weed is wild chamomile, in the same genus as the cultivated German Chamomile.  It can be used in the same way, with a calming effect in case of stress, and a relaxing effect in case of insomnia.
  • St. John’s Wort, like the last 4 plants, also grows along sunny/gravelly patches of our region like along logging roads or fields, and it is a popular anti-depressant, although scientific studies have been totally inconclusive.  Try it as a tea in case you are feeling melancholic, especially on dark days, because taken internally, it makes you sensitive to light, increasing sun-burn.  Used externally, it is ironically said to have skin-healing properties, so I put it in my salves nowadays.
  • Devil’s Club is considered by many to be the most sacred medicine of our region, and it is used similarly to ginseng which is in the same family.  If you have low energy, for instance, make a small, light decoction from its root, and drink a tablespoon to see how you feel later.  However, don’t use too much or you’ll be sorry like some of my camp staff did (without permission) during a survival trek a few years ago.  Headaches all around.


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