The journey to the upcoming Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference & Celebration is one of the most amazing drives in the American Southwest, starting in the colorful desert elevations and winding upwards through oak and piñon covered hills, dramatic rock filled canyons, and into the lush aspen and fir forests at cloud height. The plant life in these Sacramento Mountains is diverse and wondrous, with both plentiful and rare species of medicinal interest. Both Phyllis Hogan and 7Song will be leading lovely plant identification walks at the event, and my partner Kiva Rose offers below a short overview of some of the herbs you can expect to find there. For more information about this year’s TWH conference or to register, go to: www.Planthealer.org/intro.html
HEALING PLANTS OF TWHC
Warming Herbs from High Places: 4 Upper Elevation Forest Herbs of the Sacramento & Guadalupe Mountains
by Kiva Rose Hardin
The plants I’ve chosen to write about here are not necessarily the most common, well known, or widespread. I’ve chosen them based on their medicinal value, and my personal experience with them. All four of them are exceptionally healing herbs with a long history of use in traditional medicine. They also all happen to be rather warming, and are perfect to study, harvest, and prepare for the cold moons ahead.
In some cases, as with Oshá, I am specifically writing about them because I know they tend to entice herbalists and I want to provide a realistic look at the ethics of harvesting the plant as well as talk about a potential replacement in some situations. With both Angelica and Oshá, I want to stress the importance of having a solid knowledge of field botany and the ability to positively ID a plant from a field guide (preferably a dichotomous key) before even attempting to harvest either plant because of the danger of mistaking them for potentially toxic lookalikes.
If you attend the TWHC, please use your common sense, respect, and ethics when you harvest ANY local plants. As with many high elevation ecologies of the American Southwest, the Sacramento and Guadalupe Mountains contain many sensitive and endemic species. Be sure to positively identify (preferably with a dichotomous key such as Flora Neomexicana) any plants down to at least species level, and that you are harvesting in a sustainable manner! If in doubt, don’t harvest.
Abies concolor – White Fir
Ecology & Abundance: An ornamental in many parts of the country, White Fir is native to the America West, including the mountains of New Mexico. All of the species within the Abies genus that I have worked with have very similar properties so if you find other Firs nearby they’re very likely to act and taste in the way I describe here.
I especially like working with trees so that I can carefully harvest without doing any notable damage to the plant or population. In the mountains of New Mexico and Arizona, White Fir tends to be an understory tree in mixed conifer forest, usually growing underneath much larger tree likes Douglas Fir or various Spruces.
Medicinal Traits & Actions: Like many conifers, White Fir is a stimulating expectorant that can help facilitate the clearing of respiratory bogginess and stagnation. Unlike some conifers, White Fir is tasty and gentle and less likely to cause aggravation of heat signs. The sap and resin of this Abies species is one of the sweetest and most appealingly aromatic of all the conifers I’ve had the pleasure of tasting.
I like to work with this plant when I’m seeing any sort of chronic lung issue that’s resulting in a wet cough, inability to actually cough up the fluids, and general feelings of coldness, lethargy, and weakness. I find that it works particularly well in combination Aralia spp., Sambucus spp., and Inula. Oshá, Lovage, or Angelica can be added in cases where cold signs are especially pronounced, or if the signs are more mixed and include respiratory tension, then Lobelia and Cherry or Peach are more indicated.
Additional Thoughts or Notes: White Fir is also a great addition to many foods, whether savory sweet. Infused into vinegar, oil, butter, syrup (simple syrup or maple syrup), honey, salt, or just chopped finely and added when desired. It has something in common with Rosemary but is much less sharp, and also has a delicate citrus flavor. Too much will taste bitter, but used in moderation almost everyone enjoys the the aromatic tang, I even think it makes a great homemade ice cream flavor!
Actaea rubra – Mountain Cohosh/Sweet Medicine
Ecology & Abundance: A widespread plant throughout much of the United States, it prefers high elevation mixed conifer forests in the mountains of the Southwest. While certainly not weedy in its distribution, it is a hardy plant and can survive floods, logging, forest fires, and more. It often grows on wooded slopes, but can also be found in shady arroyos, and sometimes even in heavily logged areas.
Medicinal Traits & Actions: Actaea rubra essentially shares all the well known medicinal traits of its close (and much more popular) relative, Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa), only it’s far more widespread and adaptable. It’s specifically useful for cold signs in the reproductive system, such as achy, crampy pains in the uterus. It’s also more generally helpful wherever there are cold signs accompanied by overall joint pain and body achiness. It’s a warming, sweet and acrid herb, so you want to use it where movement is needed and there are little to no excess heat signs. It’s not necessarily the right herb to use on its own for stabbing, sharp menstrual cramps with a red tongue and flushed skin. Look more for paleness, fatigue, and achiness. I find this herb to be incredibly helpful in cases of liver deficiency and vacuity, with symptoms of delayed or scant menstruation, lethargy, sensations of coldness, and digestive sluggishness and stagnation.
Additional Thoughts or Notes: When used where not indicated, Actaea species can cause a frontal headache and possibly a generally hungover and overheated sensation that’s very unpleasant. Should you feel that Actaea is indicated for a person demonstrating heat signs, moderate it’s warming, moving tendencies with more appropriate herbs in a formula. This is a very blood moving herb, and like most in that category, is not appropriate for pregnancy.
Ecology & Abundance: Angelica is not uncommon in the American West, but certain species can be much rarer than others. Angelica ampla is considered to be endemic to the Sacramento Mountains in New Mexico. This species of Angelica prefers high elevation wetlands
Like Ligusticum, Angelica is a member of the Apiaceae family, and can be mistaken by the inexperienced for a number of other, toxic species. Know your field botany, and only harvest when you have confirmed identification beyond a shadow of a doubt. Yes, I said beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Medicinal Traits & Actions: Seeds and roots are both very useful, the seeds being milder and more palatable to most folks. Angelica is probably best known as an aromatic bitter used to calm and move stagnant, cold digestion. It is indeed very useful this way, and I frequently combine a bit of Angelica or one of its close relatives when giving cold alkaloidal bitters like Berberis or a cathartic like Iris to help prevent cramping or excess coldness where there are existing cold signs or a colder constitution.
In addition, Angelica is a stimulating diaphoretic, especially the seeds, and very useful in stimulating the immune system at the first signs of viral onset in someone with chills and little sweating, along with other cold signs. Likewise, Angelica is a diuretic and the seeds are a traditional treatment for gout. Personally I only use Angelica in very specific chronic cases of gout where the person has clear cold signs, suppressed urine, and no acute inflammation.
Look for cold and stagnation, such as boggy lung conditions, suppressed/scant menstruation, lack of sweating and cold sensations during viral onset, chronic constipation and flatulence, or achy pains.
Additional Thoughts or Notes: Not recommended during pregnancy, for those already exhibiting heat signs, or in large doses for those with existing overstimulated digestion. If in doubt, using something gentler and more general, like Yerba Buena or Chamomile.
Ligusticum porteri – Oshá
Ecology & Abundance: Oshá is sometimes considered at risk, especially at the edge of its range here in southern New Mexico. It can be very locally abundant, but given the plant’s popularity (okay, fine, cult status) and the tendency for individuals, schools, and companies to dig it out with wild abandon, I strongly suggest moderation and caution when harvesting.
Medicinal Traits & Actions: Oshá shares much in common with Angelica, including its actions as a stimulating diaphoretic, immune stimulant, respiratory stimulant, and stimulating expectorant, and warming aromatic bitter for stagnant digestion. However, it seems more generally appropriate in nearly all respiratory infections or respiratory centered viral onset, with signs of sore throat, yellow phlegm, difficulty expectorating, and often a spasmodic but unproductive cough.
Note that while Oshá is generally seen as a lung herb, it’s far more multifaceted than it’s often given credit for, and can also be used in sinus infections, for the achy joints that often accompany influenza, treating acute allergies, water retention, and even for altitude sickness. Even tiny amounts of the root or any preparation of the plant can dramatically help the headache, dizziness, and other symptoms of altitude sickness, especially if ingestion is started before symptoms become acute.
Oshá is great as a tincture, elixir, infused in honey, and any number of other preparations, but I do prefer to give small amounts of the fresh or dried to root to be sucked on slowly whenever the person is willing to deal with the taste of what my late teacher, Southwestern herbalist Michael Moore, termed “celery from hell”. It combines very well with herbs such as Aralia and Elderberry which can both potentiate the Oshá and make it go further while still retaining its effectiveness.
Additional Thoughts or Notes: Do note that Oshá is frequently mistaken for other members of the Apiaceae family, including some very toxic genera. You must be 100% sure of your ID to harvest with this plant. Another potential concern is that other roots can become entangled with that of Ligusticum’s during growth and it can be difficult to differentiate between them. Trace every root from the plant to ensure that you don’t accidentally add Aconite root to your Oshá infused honey in a potentially deadly mistake.
Ligusticum leaves are quite tasty, and I love them in all sorts of stews and with wild game. Like Lovage leaves, not every cares for it, so start with a light hand until you get used to its unique flavor. Seeds and flowers are also both flavorful and medicinal.
While not exactly an analogue, Lovage root has many actions and traits comparable with Oshá’s, and should be considered as an easy to grow replacement for many of Oshá’s milder and most commonly desired medicinal actions, including as an aromatic (and thus having an antibacterial action on the respiratory tissues) and warming expectorant.
Ligusticum is a blood moving herb and not appropriate during pregnancy.
Resources & References
Western Herbs in Chinese Medicine: Methodology & Materia Medica by Thomas Avery Garran
Western Herbs According to Traditional Chinese Medicine: A Practitioner’s Guide by Thomas Avery Garran
Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West by Michael Moore
Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West by Michael Moore
The Herbal Medic by Sam Coffman
Writings by and Personal Correspondence with 7Song
Writings by and Personal Correspondence with Jim McDonald
(RePost and Share Freely – with credit and web address please)
For more information about this year’s TWH conference or to register, go to: www.Planthealer.org/intro.html