In this post I want to introduce you to some of the medicinal plant allies I’ve encountered here in the northern Arizona highlands and hopefully, encourage you to discover your own native plant allies!As an herbalist, my work and livelihood depend on a healthy planet and medicinal plants grown organically or wildcrafted, ethically and sustainably. Nature and the wild places are also my personal refuge and place of renewal. I spend as much time as I can exploring the forests, the mountains and scrambling among the crags and boulders. In the arid climate where I live, I am drawn to meander along small streams and water sheds. In my wandering I feel at home and am constantly delighted by the medicinal plants along the way.
If your serious about medicinal plants, in addition to spending time in nature, you’ll need to get down to some serious plant study. Here in northern Arizona, the Highlands Center for Natural History offers excellent educational programs on the flora and fauna of our bio-region. Seek out organization and resources where ever you live, like native plant societies, nature centers, and county extension programs. Your local apothecary might even offer medicinal plant walks! I also recommend filling your yard or landscape with native plants adapted to your bio-region. Landscaping with native plants is an excellent way to bring back local fauna lost to development, provide habitat for native birds and other animals, and to reduce water consumption.
(A Few) Medicinal Plants of Arizona
I have had the honor and privilege to work with medical plants for over twenty years. Some of the plants in this post, I consider dear friends and allies. I have been delighted to find them growing right here in northern Arizona. Should you encounter these plant beings on your own travels, please treat them and the ecosystems in which they live with the deep honor and respect. I recently wrote an article about the harvest and processing of local medicinal plants, available here. In short, wildcrafting is a delicate practice that requires knowledge and sensitivity. Please do not pick wild medicinals unless you have studied the practice and can do so ethically and sustainably.
Red Root (Ceanothus spp.)
On a spring hike near Sedona, my nose was alerted to this shrub long before I actually saw it. This blooming Red Root filled the air with the fragrance of lilac and was covered with beautiful butterflies drinking its sweet nectar. There are many inter-breeding species of Ceanothus in the western states, all have similar medicinal properties. The root bark is indeed red, hence its common name, and is also the part of the plant used as medicine. Red Root is a lymphagogue and astringent. Herbalists employ it for congestion in the lymphatic system, liver and spleen. It can be helpful to reduce pelvic congestion, fluid filled-cysts, tonsillitis, sore throats and inflamed lymph nodes. Red Root is sometimes called California Lilac due to its beautiful purple blossoms and lilac fragrance, and makes a beautiful native landscape plant.
Horsetail (Equisetum spp.)
In early spring I encountered this wee forest of Horsetail in one of our local creeks. More recently I visited this watershed and found the Horsetail at least a foot or so high. The aerial parts of Horsetail are nutritive, rich in silica needed by our bodies to support bone health and all collagen containing structures like cartilage, hair, skin and nails. Horsetail is also a diuretic, astringent, vulnerary and styptic. Horsetail likes to have its feet in water and will absorb any toxins (herbicides, pesticides and other urban runoff) in the water system. Before harvesting Horsetail in the wild the skilled wildcrafter will make certain the water source is free of contaminants.
Oregon Grape Root (Mahonia Aquifolium)
An old friend from the Pacific Northwest, I was surprised to encounter Oregon Grape Root in Arizona, but have to come to understand that its range is quite broad. The bright yellow flowers will eventually produce purple berries, sour, but edible. The golden roots are used medicinally as an antimicrobial, bitter (to stimulate secretion of digestive juices), and for liver and digestive complaints. Containing berberines, Oregon Grape Root is a good substitute Goldenseal, (which has been over-harvested in the wild and is expensive to cultivate). Like Red Root, Oregon Grape Root, with its bright yellow flowers, shiny green foliage, and Fall berries makes an excellent landscape medicinal for much of the west, including the Arizona highlands.
Valerian (Valeriana spp.)
I encountered a small stand of Valerian in the same creek system where the Horsetail was thriving. This sweet purple-pink flower provides cover to the somewhat smelly root that is used medicinally. Some people think Valerian Root smells like dirty socks and I have to agree–there is some truth to that. Nevertheless, Valerian Root serves as an effective sedative for many people who suffer from insomnia. It is also a strong nervous system and muscle relaxant and as such is sometimes used for anxiety and muscle tension.
When I meet medicinal plants in the wild, most often I am happy simply to greet them, take in their beauty, and perhaps a photo. Only rarely and under very specific circumstances do I take any of them home with me. Wildcrafting is the practice of gathering medicinal plants in the wild, in their natural environments. Ethical, sustainable wildcrafting is part art, part science and part spiritual practice. In its highest form, wildcrafting is performed with intimate knowledge and deep respect for the ecosystem and plant community. Permission is essential and something must always be given in return. Many medicinal plants have been harvested solely for profit and nearly to extinction. So please, when you encounter medicinal plants, greet them, enjoy them, respect them, and leave them. Be nourished by their wild presence and by your love and respect for the Earth.
To close, I want to share with you this beautiful poem by one of my favorite poets, Wendell Berry.
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
For the Earth,
Herbalist & Proprietress