Speaking the Language of Plants
If we are to work with wild plants for medicine, we must first study their external forms so we can learn to correctly identify them. Once a plant has been positively identified, it can be harvested and made into medicine. After we’ve made the medicine, we need to understand the medicinal activity of the plant so we can correctly administer it for the ailments we wish to heal.
Early in my wildcrafting career, I was on a backpacking trip with a couple of my classmates in mid autumn. We were walking the Timberline Trail on Oregon’s Mount Hood in search of medicinal plants. As we made our way around the mountain, I saw the familiar leaves of red baneberry. I excitedly showed the plant to my friends and explained how I had identified it.
We decided that there were enough plants here to make a harvest. We sat with the plants, prayed, made offerings, and then began to dig up the roots. After a little while of digging, I noticed that the plant I was digging up had small seed pods on it. “Something is not right here,” I thought. Red baneberry, of course, has bright red berries. “If this isn’t red baneberry then it must be black cohosh!” I had been searching for our native black cohosh for years.
I pulled out Michael Moore’s Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West and read: “Cimicifuga laciniata, a sparser plant, with shorter and less elaborately divided basal leaves, is found only around the base of Mt. Hood in Oregon and across the Columbia River Gorge in Washington. It is found at much higher elevations, and with decades of extensive logging, has been reduced to a few stands in wilderness areas. It is a threatened plant and should not be picked.” Upon further examination I noticed that only a few of the plants in the stand had flowered and set seed.
I was horrified and embarrassed. Not only had I harvested the wrong plant, but I had harvested an endangered plant. From that day forward I paid closer attention, making absolutely sure of the identity of any plant I was going to harvest.
Picking the wrong plant can have serious consequences and be potentially life threatening. Before you venture off in search of plants to harvest, it is important to have a fundamental understanding of plant identification and an awareness of both toxic and threatened, endangered, and sensitive plant species of the area. Don’t let your excitement get in the way of careful observation.
-excerpted from Pacific Northwest Medicinal Plants to be published April 2017