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INTRODUCTION

As we’re settling in for the long winter nap, depending on your climes, the lucky ones of us are getting out to ski, hike, bike, or some other outdoorsy activity. We may not be thinking about foraging wild plants and mushrooms that are a mushy mass or dried to a crisp in many places this time of year. The unlucky ones of us may be stuck inside nursing the sniffles or gut gurgles and thinking what meds or comforting home remedy concoctions we can take to relieve our miserable symptoms. Part 1 of this series, “Free Food and Medicine,” focused on rules and resources for foraging wild plants and mushrooms. This is Part 2, introducing the use of common medicinal plants. Part 3 will discuss toxicity of these plants.

Terminology

Ethnobotany, herbal medicine, herbalism, traditional medicine, natural-based medicine, wildcrafting, indigenous/native plants—all mean similar things, and that is the harvesting and use of medicinal plants from the wild. These practices are more empirical and associated with knowledge passed through the generations. Phytotherapy (or phytomedicine) refers to the more science-based discipline of the use of medicinal plants. 

A Very Brief History of Medicinal Plant Use in HUMANS

Medicinal plants were part of mankind’s wellness arsenal well before Iza trained Ayla to be a medicine woman in the Neanderthal/Cro-Magnon (Early Modern Human) period of “The Clan of the Cave Bear.” Evidence for their use has been demonstrated from up to 60,000 years ago. It was recently reported that Ötzi, the 5,000 year old Tyrolean Iceman found in Alps, had the medicinal fungus birch polypore in his supply bag and intestines. 

While plants were used as medicine since Ötzi’s time and way before, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries there was a fall in the therapeutic use of herbal medicines with the rise of more rigorously tested and approved medicines. However, things have certainly changed in modern times. There is now a resurgence of interest in traditional medicine and getting back to our roots, so to speak—to the tune of over $100 billion for the world global herbal medicine market. Europe and Asia have been using plant-based pharmaceuticals for many years and in some countries health insurance covers these herbal therapies.

Think Local: Pack or Pluck?

Using nature’s medicine can be a bit more complicated than plucking and gnawing a green stem or nibbling a tasty berry. Should you ditch your properly stocked traditional medical kit with prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications, and shop instead in the wilderness drugstore? Aren’t wild plants really safer than commercially available medications? After all, humans have been using them for thousands of years. They won’t interact with my blood pressure medication, right? They can’t be addicting like opioids, right? Bottom line or top of the soil, you should be properly educated about the harvesting and preparation of wild plants and mushrooms before consuming them for their medicinal properties.

It is worth reviewing the general foraging rules here:

  • Do not consume any plant or mushroom before it is positively identified and properly prepared; this means, in most cases, cooked. Eat only a small amount at first to make sure you can tolerate it.
  • Make sure you are not trespassing on someone’s property when picking wild plants.
  • Make sure foraging is allowed if you are on public lands such as in a park (sometimes a permit is required).
  • Don’t unnecessarily trample or otherwise perturb the surrounding environment when plucking that tasty or therapeutic morsel.

As well, depending on where they are growing, wild plants and mushrooms can be contaminated with infectious agents (think E. coli), and pollutants such as heavy metals, so be careful where plants are picked. There is no sense in becoming sick from the substance that is trying to heal you!

Harvesting wild plants.
Photo by: Nancy Pietroski 

General Pharmacological Categories of Medicinal Plants

Trying to cover the pharmacological properties of every medicinal plant and mushroom in this article would be a herbulean (a portmanteau of herb and herculean!), if not impossible task. In The Wild Medicine Solution by Guido Masé, the herbalist proposes a paradigm for the use of medicinal plants for three physiologic “hubs:” neuromuscular tone, digestive and metabolic activity, and cellular functions. He advises that with regard to conditions such as infections, broken bones, kidney disease, etc.—of course these are better managed with the drugs of modern medicine. Masé sums up herbal medicine thusly: “Technological medicine, often focused on short-term gains, is having a difficult time with the epidemics of mental health and malaise, diabetes and obesity, cardiovascular inflammation and cancer. Yet when you look at traditional herbal medicine, you find that aromatic, bitter, and tonic plants consumed in a habitual, cultural context are the precise prescriptions for these ills… Our minds, our guts, our immune systems all evolved in the context of consuming wild plants, and we have eradicated this context quite effectively (though perhaps not consciously) over the last two hundred years…a blending of modern technology and the best of nature-based tradition is the synthesis that will bring us to the next phase of evolution and understanding.”

See the table below for a summary of medicinal plant types, their physiologic hub actions, and examples.

Source: Masé G. The Wild Medicine Solution. Healing With Aromatic, Bitter, and Tonic Plants. Healing Arts Press, Rochester, Vermont. 2013.

Medicinal Plant Forms

Below are some types of the forms in which medicinal plants can be formulated for ingestion or topical application. Some of these are very simple, such as steeping plant parts to make tea, while others are more complicated and require multiple step processes. See the Resources, some of which contain detailed information on the preparation of these forms, especially regarding potency and suggested dosing.

Oral

  • Herbal teas – decoctions (stems, barks, roots, rhizomes; boil and reduce) and infusions (flowers, leaves; steep in hot or cold water)
  • Liquid dosage forms – tincture (alcohol/water) and fluid liquid extracts (more concentrated than tinctures)
  • Solid dosage forms – capsules, tablets, freeze-dried products, lozenges
  • Standardized extract – liquid extract with specific or guaranteed amount of plant component

 

Liquid extract of Chicken of the Woods mushroom
Photo by: Nancy Pietroski 

Topical

  • Poultice - mass of plant material kept in place with a cloth
  • Compress - herbs bound in fabric and rolled onto the body
  • Ointment - oil-based preparation

General Rules When Self-Treating with Herbs/Plants/Mushrooms

  • Only herbs recommended in respected herb books should be used
  • New or unproven remedies should be avoided
  • It is better to discontinue the herb consumption if no benefit or result was obtained after a moderate period of time, of if adverse reactions take place
  • Patients or physicians should not engage in drug usage for complex conditions without training and plant-specific knowledge
  • Drug interactions and contraindications must be considered on an individual basis
  • It is better to avoid herbal remedies during pregnancy

Source: Boon H, Smith M. The Complete Natural Medicine Guide to the 50 Most Common Medicinal Herbs. Robert Rose Inc. Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 2004.

Most Common Medicinal Mushrooms

Besides being delicious, there are a number of mushrooms that have been used in traditional medicine for eons. These are the top ones touted for their immune-boosting and mood-affecting properties:

  • Chaga
  • Cordyceps
  • Lion’s Mane
  • Oyster
  • Maitake
  • Reishi
  • Shiitake
  • Turkey Tail

RESOURCES ON MEDICINAL PLANTS AND MUSHROOMS

Some Books/Literature

Interesting…when doing an Amazon search on “medicinal plants” (under “All”), primarily books are displayed (lots of them)—you can take your pick. When searching on “medicinal mushrooms,” primarily edible products are displayed. Who wouldn’t want to sup some of this powerful stuff?

 

Similar to the map of foraging books in Part 1, this is a nice series of regional books on medicinal plants depending on where you are living or visiting:

Davison K, Frank BL. Chapter 68. Ethnobotany: Plant-Derived Medical Therapy. In: Auerbach’s Wilderness Medicine, 7th Edition. Elsevier, Philadelphia, PA. 2017.

Hobbs, C. Medicinal Mushrooms: An Exploration of Tradition, Healing, and Culture Herbs and Health Series. Botanica Press, Summertown, Tennessee. 1986.

Whitehead AJ et al. Endemic North American Plants as Potentially Suitable Agents for Wound Cleaning Under Resource Scarce Conditions. Wilderness Environ Med. 2019 Dec;30(4):401-406. doi: 10.1016/j.wem.2019.06.002. Epub 2019 Oct 17.

Wasser SP. Medicinal Mushroom Science: Current Perspectives, Advances, Evidences, and Challenges. Biomed J 2014;37:345-356.

Schools/Courses

There seems to be an unlimited amount of herbal-related schools and courses available online and in the field; choosing which one to attend can be challenging. Below are several schools/courses that are described as relating to wilderness medicine/first aid; I have not taken any of these courses, so cannot recommend a particular one.

  • Wilderness Herbal First Aid, Northeast School of Botanical Medicine www.7song.com
  • Backcountry Herbal Medicine, The Fosse/Kennicott Wilderness Guides
    https://kennicottguides.com/multi-day-trip-overview-1/intro-herbal-medicine/

Happy Healing!!!

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