Nov 052007

Is it absurd that I get so excited about a box of fresh roots that I can’t even get from the truck to the cabin without opening the package and that I don’t even want to eat until I fully explore, taste and admire each plant bit? If it is, I am a deeply absurd woman.

An apprentice and friend sent me the most lovely package of Bear’s Claw and Wild Ginger. It was so sweetly packed, the bundles of roots carefully wrapped in moist paper towels then sealed in plastic and accompanied by a poetic account of her journey into the mountains to find the plants. Somehow the package took a miraculous WEEK from the NW to the SW via priority mail. I think there’s a strange faery warp somewhere between there and here. Nevertheless, the roots smelled and looked freshly unearthed — fragrant, gorgeous and yummy.

Bear’s Claw, Oplopanax horridum, smells like earth and bacteria eaten trees and leaves and sex and a wet, rainy night. The whole plant gives me shivers. Not many non-local plants get me very excited but this one is a distinct exception. I could give you a list of all the things the plant is good for, but the truth is that Bear’s Claw just makes me feel ~good~ all dreamy and satisfied and rooted. Bear Medicine at its best, along with Osha and Burdock. Totally different plants, but they all give me a similar feeling and sense of well being, and they all have that deep, dark root connection to the underworld and dreamtime.

A primary use for this plant is for type 2 diabetes, pre-diabetes symptoms and other blood sugar woes. Although there are reports of Bear’s Claw as a hypoglycemic, I found that using it in moderation can actually help prevent and treat hypoglycemia. It seems to me that glucose and insulin are not very well understood by the scientific community at this time, so traditional uses and personal experiences very much flavor my perceptions of related treatment. So far, I’ve found Bear’s Claw to be really great for the afternoon blood sugar blues many people are prone to. You know, that brain fog so deep you can’t find the door accompanied by shaking, dizziness and relentless nausea? Of course, cutting down carbs, remineralizing and exercise are the only real and lasting treatment of most forms of insulin troubles but this is a nice plant to help rebalance during a lifestyle adjustment.

I’m a little concerned about the growing popularity of this NW & Alaska native with the media lately. And I’ve read several reports of herbal companies in China being interested in scooping up lots of traditional Alaskan medicines for mass resale. Being a ginseng relative at all, I can see Bear’s Claw becoming one of those overblown fad herbs all pumped up by ignorant health industry CEOs. So if you use this plant, use it respectfully and moderately. Also, try to get it from the actual human being doing the harvesting so you can be more sure of ecological ethics involved. I guess I would say that about any plant but especially those endemic to certain ecosystems. Oh, and remember that you can use the stem bark as well as the roots so as to better utilize a smaller amount of plant.

My previous warning applies equally to Wild Ginger, Asarum caudatum, a deep forest denizen of the northern Rocky Mountains and the NW. In many areas, the old growth rainforest this plant favors is being dramatically reduced by development and increasingly prevalent and hot fires. Some wildcrafters suggest picking no more than one in twenty plants, being sure not leave a visible impact on the community. I understand that its eastern relative, Asarum canadense, is more common so it might be wise to purchase from wildcrafters from that area. Though I haven’t used this species, I’ve heard they have similar properties.

Wild Ginger can make you hot and sweaty!  It also moves blood, and quickly, helping to bring on delayed menses in an efficient manner. I use it in a very similar way to the commonly available European Ginger root, but have an extra love for the peppery undertone of this American native. Anytime I need to warm up a formula, or get someone’s blood moving, this is an excellent choice. I spend a lot of time just smelling the dried root or tincture. There’s something truly comforting about this sweet little plant that a little like a warm, hearth loving grandma from the old days. Pungent, warm goodness.

Ok, I have to go play with my roots now 😉

Oct 112007

Ok, so none of these are actually exotic at all, they just come from a little bit further north than I can easily get to.

Wild Ginger (Asarum caudatum) – One of my less common allies. This plant is amazing, all the benefits of domestic Ginger but with an extra wild deep forest feel. I only get this plant from wildcrafters I know personally, since its delicate rainforest habitat is in danger of being eradicated. Wild Ginger is just so warm and yummy, it’s a great addition to many formulas and does tons on its own as well. A great plant for any cold condition that needs some local energy and blood to initiate healing. Fresh Wild Ginger Elixir is a wonderful addition to Elderberry Elixir, and warms it up for colder constitutions too. If you need to sweat, this is a great plant to help you. As an added benefit, both the root and leaf can be used.

Sweet Root (Osmorhiza Occidentalis) – Yummy, root beer flavored roots from the Rocky Mountains. This is a great anti-fungal medicine, as well as being wound healing and very belly soothing for all kinds of nausea, infection and general belly out of whackness. Did I mention it tastes good? Makes a fabulous syrup. I’m going to try this one in my garden over the winter and see if it survives to proliferate next season.

Wild Peony Root (Paeonia brownii)) – Mine comes from the Rocky Mountains of Idaho, wildcrafted for me by wonderful herbalist Darcy Williamson. Comparing fresh Wild Peony Root to the Peony root of commerce is like comparing fresh caught, woodfire grilled wild Salmon to dollar store Tuna in a generic tin can. Really. It’s still medicine and it’ll work if you really need it but it totally lacks class, panache and the ever essential taste of wildness. Wild Peony makes a gorgeous wintergreen scented deep violet colored tincture. It moves blood, stops cramps and relaxes tense muscles like nothing else. It was the one and only thing that stopped my extremely painful ovarian cyst cramps back in the day, and the one thing that removed the cyst, in only three months. Since then, I’ve used it many times for menstrual cramps (often works, but not always), cysts (nearly always helps, often resolves), stagnant blood and energy (works beautifully), tense, stressed muscles, anxiety and externally for bruises or other local trauma.

Devil’s Club/Bear’s Claw (Oplopanax horridus) – Poweful plant with a distinct taste and feel. Calming, blood sugar lowering and generally adaptogenic with an affinity for the lungs and adrenals. Really helps with those evil sugar cravings that potentially drive you to ripping open candy bar wrappers with your teeth. I haven’t yet had a chance to see its effects long term, but the short term mood and metabolism altering effects are impressive. My apprentice Kate from Washington graciously harvests this plant for me. Rhiannon helped me come up with the name Bear’s Claw, since neither of us liked the original, and rather degrading name. It’s especially appropriate since this plant is a traditional bear medicine and was first used medicinally because of native peoples observing the silver tipped bruins digging and using the root. Check out Matt Woods’ interesting and remarkably accurate understanding of the animal medicines as applied to herbs, he talks about it somewhat in the Book of Herbal Wisdom as well as in yet to be published material.

And on a northern non-root note:

Labrador/Swamp/Trapper’s Tea (Ledum spp.)- An amazing plant from the far north, this is just about impossible for me to obtain except through the rare Alaska/Canada connection which I am sadly short on just now (any volunteers?) I love its amazing taste and gently mood altering effects, as well as its impressive antibacterial and wound healing abilities. A side benefit is that if you drink enough of this stuff, the mosquitoes will be more likely to leave you alone. This plant has a bad reputation for being toxic, but I’ve not seen any dangerous effects from the tea. According to Michael Moore, the less pleasant constituents are not water soluble. The tincture is great for short term acute chest/lung irritation with persistent cough though.