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.
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!