At the beginning of July last year, my partner Rick and I embarked on a week-long paddling adventure in Canada’s Yukon Territory after a frenzy of last-minute packing. Unfortunately, we realized on our first night camping that several important items never made it into our packs. Our food supplies were limited by the amount of space we had in our bear canister, leaving little extra food for unexpected delays in the wilderness. We also forgot to bring teas to warm us on chilly northern mornings and wind-blasted evenings. As a final testament to our forgetfulness, the first-aid kit was missing a few odds and ends that should have been replenished after our last expedition.
Even the most experienced hikers and campers sometimes forget important items that could be useful in emergency situations. Basic knowledge about local plants and their potential uses can make all the difference in ensuring safety and survival in the wilderness. Fortunately, some edible or medicinal plants in Alaska and Canada are the most easily identifiable plants and are likely to be available, in one way or another, when needed.
Before manufactured pharmaceutical drugs, people throughout the world relied on traditional remedies from local plants and natural resources. Many edible plants are also medicinal plants that can treat a wide range of ailments. Some plants can be extremely dangerous for the inexperienced forager, so it is important to distinguish between plants that help from those that harm. A good working knowledge of plants in the wilderness allows our surrounding environment to serve as a natural pharmacy when our modern medicines are not easily accessible.
Dr. Kristin Cox, ND, at Rainforest Naturopathic Medicine in Juneau doesn’t always take a first aid kit with her when she goes hiking.
“But I do make sure to observe and to be aware of what can be used in the forest, especially the most common plants,” she said.
For instance, alder (Alnus species) is a common shrub or tree found alongside rivers and open areas. For first aid, Cox uses fresh alder leaves as bandages.
“The leaves stick really well to the skin to cover blisters and other wounds. They contain medicinal components to help the healing process,” she said.
Another common shrub found throughout Alaska is willow (Salix species). The bark and leaves contain salicin, she said, a medicinal constituent found in aspirin. Brewing a tea or chewing on the bark and leaves can alleviate headaches, pains and fevers.
During the trip, Rick and I relied on our foraging skills and plant knowledge to recognize plants that would aid us in the event of an emergency. When in doubt, we left unfamiliar plants alone, even if they “looked” medicinal. If we had taken time to learn more about the Yukon plants before the trip, we would have been able to supplement our limited supplies with an even greater variety of wild medicines and foraged edibles. Nevertheless, our combined knowledge of Pacific coastal rainforests partially prepared us for survival since some plants in boreal forests of the Yukon were the same, or closely related, to those found in Southeast Alaska.
In my search for teas, I immediately spied the feathery green leaves of yarrow (Achillea species). A powerful medicinal herb, the leaves and flowers can also be eaten, powdered into seasoning, or used as a tea. The leaves soon became a regular guest in my mug to accompany wind-swept afternoons on the banks of the Yukon River. The wild-foraged teas provided an additional bonus. Unlike store-bought tea bags that have to be packed out with the rest of our trash, the dregs of foraged teas could be left behind to return to the earth.
In locations where yarrow was less abundant, fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium) leaves, flowers, and buds added floral flavors to my teatime. For upset stomachs, this tea would have been a soothing digestive remedy. Since most parts of the plant are edible, fireweed could have been added to the dinner menu if survival food was needed.
Everywhere we went, the fragrance of blooming roses greeted our senses. Prickly rose (Rosa acicularis) stems and roots can be used in teas according to some guides. Rose hips, the bright red fruit that remains after the flower is gone, are an excellent source of vitamin C. They are collected in the fall after the first frost and cooked after the seeds are removed. Because it was not rose hip season yet, the rose petals made a delicious perfumed trail snack and tea. For minor wounds, moistened rose petals would have been useful to cover minor cuts as a make-shift bandage.
In the end, the paddling trip was a success without any major incidents. Our forays into foraging for medicinal plants served as an excellent reminder for this crew to continue to improve our plant knowledge for future adventures.
As with any skill, learning to identify medicinal plants and their uses takes time, practice and patience. By being able to recognize and properly handle medicinal gifts from the forests, even the most forgetful forager can be prepared to adapt to emergency situations in the wilderness.
• Jennifer Nu is a freelance writer living in Juneau, Alaska.