First Spring Medicines: Corydalis, Usnea & Cottonwood

First Spring Medicines: Corydalis, Usnea & Cottonwood

Yesterday while planting my newest influx of native trees and shrubs, I noticed the season’s first blooming Corydalis, the Canyon’s usual second Spring flower who usually arrives just before or on the Spring Equinox. This sweet little relative of the West Coast’s Bleeding Hearts has many similar uses for chronic pain, tremors, various neuralgias combined with a nice alterative effect that helps to shift the body’s state while relieving severe pain. Also known as Golden Smoke, this fern leaved native will flower throughout the Spring in the Gila, and the green leafy bits persist until Autumn. It prefers shady, moist spots in mixed woods not too far from the river. I gather the whole plant, gold roots and all for tincture, tea and oil. Although effective on its own, I tend to use it in formulas to focus and strengthen its action. I recently used it for a tweaked neck with nerve pain by blending it with a little Vervain for a very effective medicine that relieved the condition overnight. I also use it in most of my chronic pain formulas, and find it useful for certain kinds of insomnia, especially that indicated by what I call “brain jangles”, endless internal mental noise and a certain sense of being spread too thin to really inhabit the physical body. It really helps to relax the mind and eliminate unimportant inner trivia when it’s impeding upon relaxation or sleep. This herb can be overtly sedative for some, so be cautious and observant when taking it.

Another lovely medicine I tend to gather in early Spring is Usnea, a light green lichen that dangles from conifer branches and downed tree bark. The huge winds this time of year tends to knock lots of it to the forest floor, where I happily gather it on walks and herbal explorations. Usnea is generally used as heat clearing antibacterial, especially for the urinary tract and resp. system, although it seems effective throughout the body in my experience. I also use it for external “hot” infections as a powder or salve. Internally, I tend to use a strong tincture since it is nearly completely insoluble in water. My favored preparation just now is a 70% tincture made with finely chopped Usnea. Some people cook their tincture with plant in it to aid in extraction and others even put the boot of macerating tincture through the dishwasher, but I just do the normal thing with mine and let it sit for six weeks. Seems to work fine for infections and immune stimulation so far, though someday I hope to experiment with the hot extraction process. Keep in mind that Usnea is fairly cold energetically, and so should be used in hot, inflamed conditions NOT in cold, boggy, long term conditions. For really hot acute stuff I like to combine it with Wild Honeysuckle flower/bud, Elder flower and a bit of Ginger to disperse better through the body.

Our Cottonwood buds are a bit late this year for some reason, but I assume they’ll be along shortly since the Alders and Willows are certainly up and going. Although I gather the bark from Autumn to Spring, the resinous buds are only available for a short time come early Spring, so care must be taken to notice when they’re ready for harvest. Ideally, this is when the buds are full but not quite popping, and a drop of resin is clearly visible at the end of each bud. The plant is a must in almost any salve I make, its disinfectant qualities and pain relieving power is amazing and easy to utilize. I often make a liniment with rubbing alcohol and fresh bark and find this to be a wonderfully penetrating rub for sore joints and achy muscles. I tend to use the liniment in cases where the pain or inflammation is deep and can’t easily be reached by the more pleasant smelling oil. I use the oil for wounds, burns, abrasions and muscles closer to the surface. The oil can be made with bark or buds, but I usually made it with twig and bud for the resin’s added antiseptic power and lovely aroma. And of course both bud and bark have many internal uses as well. I recently wrote more about in a longer post on Cottonwood, and Darcey just wrote a post including many Cottonwood tidbits as well. This very valuable medicine is available throughout much of N. America, just look for a Populus species near you! All of the species with sticky buds are worth infusing into oil and I think that ANY species, resinous or not, is valuable for it’s pain relieving and other properties. As a bitter tonic for the digestion, it has qualities similar to both Aspen (another Populus sp. that is more often utilized than the Cottonwoods in mainstream medicine) and even Willow.

I also noticed yesterday, the the Honeysuckles have their first leaves and that the Wax Currants have flower buds! Ok, back to planting Hawthorns, Elders, Saskatoons and other berry bushes for now.

6 Comments

  1. moiraeknittoo
    Mar 16, 2008

    I’m really enjoying reading your blog. I’ve long been fascinated by herbal lore and application, and was really pleased to find someone writing about it. I was gifted last year with a jar of cottonwood bud balm, and have been so thankful for it since. I’ve been trying to horde it, making it last as long as possible, but was so sad to learn that she wasn’t able to make another batch this year. I hope to find someone who would be willing to pass some along.

    In the meantime, thank you for updating as often as you do! I’m often lost on the finer details (being a total newbie to herbalism), but am really enjoying the information you are sharing and look forward to your posts.

  2. Kiva Rose
    Mar 16, 2008

    So glad you’re enjoying the blog! There’s lots of places to buy or trade for Cottonwood bud salve. How much do you want, I might be able to send you some or a blend that has Cottonwood in it…..

  3. AnneTanne
    Mar 17, 2008

    One of my favourite springflowers is Fumewort (bulbous corydalis, C. solida), a European relative of the Corydalis you have in your neighborhood. It is used for similar indications, but I must admit that I never used it myself.
    (Last week, I wrote a blog-entry about this ‘bird-in-a-bush‘, but it’s in Dutch….)

  4. Kiva Rose
    Mar 17, 2008

    Well, I can’t read Dutch, but that is a beautiful picture! What a gorgeous color that flower is.

    Bird in a bush is a good name for it too :)

  5. Pathfinder
    Mar 10, 2010

    It is really nice to see this blog ~

    So glad to read a little more about Usnea. I picked up some last month that came down with a tree’s branch in the storms while on my retreat at DharmaCreek on the Sonoma Coast as a friend had said it is a great antiviral, antibacterial and antibiotic.

    I’ve read to day that it is also good for urinary tract and yeast infections. What i have here is washed and dried straight from the tree. Dear Kiva Rose, how can it be prepared for use for these?

    • Kiva Rose
      Mar 10, 2010

      Hi Pathfinder, you may want to check out my larger monograph on Usnea here: http://animahealingarts.org/?p=443

      and also the section on Usnea in this post (under heat-clearing herbs) http://animahealingarts.org/?p=767

      To answer your question, a regular tincture or hot alcohol extraction is usually the way to go with Usnea, and there’s a bit more about that in the monograph link I posted.

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