TELLURIDE – When I returned home, I opened my notebook and saw that I had listed 38 plants. Some I’d heard of: raspberry, wild rose, potentilla, valerian. Some that I hadn’t: yellow dock, biscuitroot, green gentian, bane berry.
I had walked for two hours with certified clinical herbalist Melanie Kent and in that short time, she had pointed out nearly four dozen plants and their edible and medicinal properties.
Indeed, as we approached the trailhead Kent explained that she was not formally prepared for this walk, like she would be for one of her plant classes. Yet, we had hardly started up the trail when Kent spotted her first specimen. She leaned over a small white flower and held it between her fingers.
“This is in the mustard family,” she said. “You can tell because it has four leaves. All flowers in the mustard family have four leaves.”
Dozens and dozens of times I had passed those white flowers growing out of the mud and wet on the side of the stream and never given them a second glance. I quickly unearthed a pen and notebook from my backpack and started scribbling.
Kent picked a few white flowers and tucked one into her mouth. “It has a peppery, zingy taste to it,” she said. I sampled one and it definitely had a bit of a bite. Not a dollop from a bottle of French’s – very subtle – but there.
Next stop, arnica, a yellow flower with heart shaped leaves that grows close to the ground. The plant covered the floor of the spruce and fir forest next to the path. The flowers and leaves can be used to make an external liniment that reduces swelling from a bruise or sprain, Kent explained. (Arnica is not to be taken internally; in the right dose arnica can cause cardiac arrest.)
Kent said she prefers to put collected leaves and flowers in a small jar and cover them with olive oil, but if you are in the backcountry and sprain an ankle or suffer a bruise, the leaves and flowers can be made into a poultice by smashing them and mixing them with water. (Again, don’t put this mixture on an open wound, she warned, as the arnica could get into the blood stream.)
Further up the trail she identified a willow bush. Willow is in the aspen family and, like the aspen, the inner bark contains salicylates or compounds that are similar to those found in aspirin. The bark or cambium relieves pain and reduces inflammation and can be used in a tea, she said. The best time to harvest the bark is when the leaves are budding and the energy of the plant is in the leaves and the branches. And certainly one need not chop down an entire tree in order to extract the salicylates. Cutting a branch and peeling the bark will do the trick, Kent pointed out.
It was the pull of dealing with a real life situation in the backcountry that drew Kent to the study of plants and their medicinal properties.
“For the people before us, this was their medicine chest,” she said, sweeping her hand across the meadow in front of us. “I find it empowering that I can look at these plants and know the benefits that can be derived from them – in case it came to that.”
We passed a currant bush, in the same family as the gooseberry bush, marked by leaves that look like those of the maple tree. The bush’s berries are edible, though not choice.
Stinging nettles next. Those tall and scraggly looking plants that are generally considered weeds, are very high in iron and rich in vitamins and minerals. Kent makes a pesto from tender, young nettles, which, she promises, when ground up lose their trademark “sting,” and she recommends nettles to anyone suffering from an iron deficiency.
We found bluebells growing in the damp shade of a group of tall evergreens. Bluebells are tall and colored a rich green with the heads of their trademark flowers drooped over. These bluebells were thriving and reached mid-waist; their flowers and leaves are edible.
Also along the trail grew yellow dock, which has a thick stalk with small white flowers that turn rusty red as they age. The plant is edible but will give you an upset stomach if you ingest too much. The seeds can be harvested and ground up into a flower, Kent said. The roots can be used to cleanse the liver.
Osha and valerian crowded a meadow, a place I have passed a hundred times without realizing it was filled with medicinal plants. Osha leaves look like giant parsley and the tiny white flowers are clustered in an umbrella shape. Pick a leaf and the plant’s signature strong medicinal smell is unmistakable. Roots, taken after the first frost, have the same smell, but even stronger, and when chewed or dissolved in a tincture will cure acute respiratory ailments.
Valerian, a well-known herbal sedative, is a more delicate looking plant with a small cluster of white flowers and lance-shaped leaves at its base, that toward the top become pinnate-divided leaves. Valerian can also be identified by its unique smell – likened to dirty gym socks. Dried valerian leaves can be made into a tea that can reduce stress and anxiety and relieve insomnia.
Kent emphasized that when harvesting plants there are a few important rules to follow. Check to see that the plant is growing in good soil (that it is not poking out of mine tailings or growing along a roadside that has been sprayed). And practice what Kent called “ethical wildcrafting.” If you see a carpet of arnica, do not pick all of your leaves and flowers from the same spot. Along a three-mile span, one might find enough arnica for a small jar. This especially applies when harvesting the roots of plants, as harvesting the root kills the plant.
But not all of the plants we passed offered readily accessible medical benefits. Indeed, some of the plants Kent pointed out are categorized as Class 4 plants, plants that have extremely strong medicinal qualities and require a practitioner with a high level of experience to successfully administer them.
For instance, the stalk of the humble skunk cabbage, that ubiquitous plant that comes up early and has big hearty leaves, is a cardiac sedative and was used by Native Americans to make an insecticide and as a poison on the tips of their arrows. The root of the bane berry stimulates the uterus and in the hands of an expert practitioner can be used to bring on labor.
The potency of some plants, while encouraging caution, shouldn’t deter one from partaking of nature’s wild bounty. The dandelion, a plant considered a weed by many, offers an incredible array of medicinal and edible benefits. The leaves are a choice bitter salad green. “Bitter greens prompt our digestive juices and help us digest food,” Kent pointed out. Dandelion flowers can be used in salads as well. Kent even has a recipe for tempura dandelion flowers that she said is outstanding. The root can be made into wine. The plant is rich in vitamins A, D, E, and B-complex. And the leaves and root have a diuretic quality that not only stimulates urination, but helps to replace potassium and other minerals lost.
“Plants are old and though we may not think that way, our bodies are old, too,” she said. “Our bodies recognize the nutrients in plants. It is like fitting the perfect key in the perfect lock.”
Melanie Kent holds herb walks throughout the summer. Her next walk through the Ah Haa School will be held Thursday, July 17 from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. For more information on this walk and others contact the Ah Haa School at 728-3886.