Exploring local healing plants

Posted: Sunday, July 21, 2002

Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow ... gasp ... ohhhh, owwwwwwww!

I just smacked the webbing between my thumb and finger with my hammer - so hard I blank out momentarily from shock!

This painful accident happened several years ago while putting together a kitchen cart. A few moments passed, and my partner, who had been putting together another cabinet, asked with deep concern, "Are you going to be OK?"

And after a few more moments, he continued, "Of all the medicinal plants you know, which one would most help ease the pain and speed the healing process? (Already half my hand was beginning to turn purple.)

With what little of my brain was available for thinking at this point, I attempted to conjure up images of helpful healing plants. ... Ah ha! I knew just the one - my old friend plantain. Fortunately it was still growing this late summer day.

Holding my throbbing hand, I headed outdoors. Across the street a partially vacant lot harbored plenty of this miraculous healer. I asked for consent to visit and interact with the area, acknowledging by my request that I honor all life forms here. I recognized consent had been given by my sudden awareness of a healthy group of plantain.

With several larger leaves in my one good hand I returned to the kitchen, put on a pot of water, waited for it to boil, then dropped in the plantain and turned off the heat. The leaves steeped for about 15 minutes. I wrapped them around my now brightly bruised hand, changing the leaves often over the next hour.

In a while the pain stopped. When I removed the leaves for the final time, even though I was aware of the substantial healing properties of this plant, I was astonished that the bruise has disappeared - completely! And it never reappeared.

Common plantain (Plantago major), English plantain (Plantago lanceolata), and goosetongue (Plantago maritima) all belong to the plantain family, Plantaginaceae.

All grow in our area.

Most gardeners struggle to keep common plantain out of their lawns, though it is a hardy survivor worldwide growing in most disturbed areas, such as roadsides, waste areas and avalanche tracks. An old name for common plantain is white man's footstep, pretty much self-defining. In our area, according to early records, this plant has been growing for more than 204 years.

An all-time favorite of herbalists, it can be taken as tea internally to treat eczema and skin disorders and is well known for its ability to soothe urinary tract infections and ease dry coughs. Externally applied, both common and English plantain heal sores and wounds (and serious bruises from hammers!).

Psyllium (Plantago ovata), one species of plantain, is the bulking agent in commercial fiber products. It also lowers serum cholesterol levels and decreases gallstone formation.

Goosetongue (p. maritima), also known as sea plantain, is a delectable sea vegetable growing in the intertidal zone on coarser sands and gravel and favored by any foraging herbivore or grazer, including geese, deer, bear and humans. It can be eaten raw or cooked. Marie Olson, Tlingit elder, says Tlingits have always eaten goosetongue (suktitl') either raw or steamed lightly, never overcooking so that all vital nutrients are preserved.

Other edible or medicinal plants one might see this time of year are Sitka burnet, chocolate lily, fireweed, goldenrod, Nagoonberry, rose, salmonberry, thimbleberry, yellow rattle, red elderberry, jewelweed, monkeyflower, pineapple weed, yarrow and many more.

Beware, however, that we have some deadly poisonous plants too, making accurate identification absolutely essential.

Carol Biggs is author and photographer of wild edible and medicinal plant pocket field guides and encourages looking to nature as counselor and teacher for spiritual wellness, stress relief and self-esteem through the Alaska Nature Connection. Contact members of Juneau Audubon Society at ckent@alaska.net.

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