Oregon grape and cascara may not be as bright or showy as the dahlias in your garden, but don’t be fooled—these humble, hardy plants are merely downplaying the many benefits they offer to our world. Besides drought tolerance, preexisting climate adaptation and acting as wildlife food sources, most plants native to the Pacific Northwest have a food or medicinal use as well, some of which rival Western, Chinese or Ayurvedic herbs available in the store! And when you think about it, how could our indigenous peoples have thrived in this region of the world for so long without having tracked the local flora so closely?
On the Garden Hotline, we often recommend native plants to callers. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that the selection of native plants available to us from nurseries are only a small sampling of the enormous buffet of plant life comprising our region’s wide-ranging, incredible diverse ecosystems. Many of these plants are so delicate in their needs that they resist efforts for cultivation! The best way to really meet your neighboring flora is to go where they grow. A reputable field guide like Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast by Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon is an indispensable resource to have at your side, and even better to take a plant-loving friend along as your personal guide.
Keep Your Garden in Balance
In your own yard, choosing to refrain from the use of pesticides can help you ensure that your plants’ medicine is safe for you and your family to use however and whenever you choose. Pesticides—including insecticides, fungicides and herbicides—can not only pose a hazard to human health, but also may bring delicate ecosystems out of balance and make it easier for invasive, pernicious plants to dig in their roots.
To dip your toe in the deep pool of ethnobotany and wild plant medicine, we’ll start here with a few commonly known Pacific Northwest native plants and a short overview of the medicine hidden therein:
Oregon Grape (Mahonia spp.)
Aside from its toothy evergreen foliage, hummingbird-beloved flowers and sour yet palatable berries, Oregon grape root is an herbal medicine powerhouse. Its primary constituent, berberine, is a bitter alkaloid that stimulates liver and skin protein metabolism and also acts as an antimicrobial for skin and the intestinal tract. As a digestive bitter, it is known to stimulate hydrochloric acid, hormones to stimulate the pancreas and gallbladder and protein carriers for Vitamin B12 among others. Externally, an infused oil, salve, tea, tincture or powder can be used to disinfect skin wounds. The dusty blue berries contain high amounts of Vitamin C and flavonoids. Avoid root in pregnancy or with certain liver conditions.
Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata)
Our region’s towering, sweetly scented mother tree has so much medicine to share. Her essential oils provide herself protection from insects, fungus, bacteria and viruses and generally have the same effect when applied to human wellness, though short-term, low doses internally are necessary due to the remedy’s strength. Infuse the leaves in oil to use in salves, brew a tea for footbaths (1 cup dried leaf to 10 cups water, boiled for 10-15 minutes), or make a tincture to use externally as a strong antifungal for skin and nail issues or antiviral—especially for warts. Cedar has also been known to stimulating the immune system by encouraging white blood cell scavenging. Avoid use during pregnancy, with breastfeeding or kidney weakness.
Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)
Technically a member of the pine family, this far-reaching favorite is easily identified by the many “mouse rear ends” appearing to hang from its cones. Use the fragrant pitch topically for skin irritation and disinfection or make it into a salve to gently soothe inflamed bones and joints or sinews. Gather the lime-green new growth (abundant source of Vitamin C and electrolytes) for tea, infused vinegar or honey, elixir or even sorbet! Douglas fir’s gentle anti-inflammatory nature plus its vitamin C content make it a helpful ally to fight off the beginning of a cold and to soothe a lingering cough. Generally a gentle cure, but it is always a good idea to check with a natural medicine provider before using if pregnant or breastfeeding.
Trillium (Trillium ovatum)
The sweetheart of our native flowers, this woodland beauty has an affinity for women’s health but its traditional uses are wider in scope. Known as “birth root,” this plant has been used by native tribes to ease childbirth. Due to its astringent nature, contemporary herbalists like Michael Moore suggest using a tincture of the whole plant for fibroid bleeding or post-partum hemorrhage.
Salal (Gaultheria shallon)
A friendly and reliable stand-by in our gardens, this understory shrub is a great first-aid medicine and more! As a poultice, younger leaves can be chewed or crushed and applied externally to stop bleeding and ease pain, especially from insect bites and stings. Internally, it has been used as an astringent and anti-inflammatory primarily for diarrhea with cramps and medium fever, to soothe the tummies of children with colic and gas pains, and to quiet a dry cough. The notoriously delicious berries are very high in bioflavonoids, meaning they can strengthen capillary walls.
Huckleberry, Evergreen and Red (Vaccinium ovatum and V. parvifolium)
Speaking of tasty berries, evergreen and red huckleberries are quite possibly the most well-loved of all our region’s native fruit. High in vitamin C and bioflavonoids, these wildly delicious berries don’t taste “healthy” at all! As for other used, the leaves and stems have quinic acid, which was once used to treat gout. More regularly, research has shown that consumption of the leaf extract promptly decreases blood sugar levels in cases of diabetes. The leaves are of an astringent and antiseptic nature with a proclivity to the urinary tract.
Violet (Viola spp.)
Sweet, gentle violet is ready to soothe your overheated, irritated body and soul. Its subtle yet profound medicine stimulates the lymphatic glands and is especially good for moving lymph in swollen glands. Its mucilaginous texture is also cooling to an inflamed digestive system. And speaking of cooling, violets can help clear up inflamed skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis and acne, reduce a fever and even help shrink tumors, cysts and lumps (note: more effective if taken both internally and externally). Nutritionally, the leaves and flowers are high in various minerals and vitamins A and C. The pretty little flowers are also edible!
Kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)
If your urinary tract isn’t happy, kinnikinnick could be your best friend. In the regional herbalism world, “uva-ursi” is used as a strong cleanser for acute UTIs or cystitis, especially when brought on by food and alcohol binging. Use as a tea for only 1-2 days (3 days or more could irritate the stomach lining and kidneys) along with cranberry juice to increase the acidity of the urine. A kinnikinnick sitz bath—essentially an herbal infusion you sit in—can be useful for painful bacterial vaginosis, yeast infections and initial outbreaks of genital viruses like herpes and warts.
Red Alder (Alnus rubrum)
One of the largest nitrogen-fixing plants in our area, red alder’s medicine is expansive and versatile. Not only can one forage and consume the protein-rich catkins (admittedly tastier if fried), this understory tree has immune-stimulating, anti-infective and anti-inflammatory qualities. In a bind, use a poultice of the leaves for venomous stings or other external wounds to get pain relief, disinfection and decreased inflammation. Internally (as a tincture or infused honey) red alder can be helpful for hypo immunity or to move a lingering cold/flu with swollen lymph glands. Also especially helpful for general topical pain relief—even in the mouth! Alder contains salicin, a pain-relieving glycoside that is a precursor to aspirin, so avoid usage if you are allergic or are on blood-thinners or another NSAID.
Curious to learn more about herbal medicine or ethnobotany? Our region abounds with schools and organizations that can help you dip your toe in the vast pool of herbology and wild plant medicine. Here are a few to consider:
• Cedar Mountain Herb School
• Community School of Natural Therapies
• Wildroot Botanicals
• The Hermit’s Grove
• Alderleaf Wilderness College
• Raven’s Roots Naturalist School
• Wilderness Awareness School
• Wolf College
To learn more about Pacific Northwest native plants or how to grow your landscape without pesticides, contact the Garden Hotline at (206) 633-0224 or www.gardenhotline.org. You can also find us on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and YouTube.
FDA Disclaimer: The information presented in this article has not been evaluated by the FDA and is for informational, reference and educational purposes only. It should not be interpreted as a substitute for diagnosis, prevention and treatment by a health care professional. Always consult a qualified physician before making any herbal modifications.