Category Archives: Medicinal

Plant of the day: alum root

Heuchera_micrantha-3Tall, delicate sprays of tiny white flowers bloom from a shaded crevice of rock. Large scalloped leaves grow abundantly around the base of each stem. This is alum root (Heuchera micrantha), a member of the saxifrage family that was used for a wide variety of medicines by native Californians.

The minute flowers are lovely and intricate, with thin narrow petals that curl backwards around the white sepals like ribbons on a gift. Long white stamens are tipped with rust-red anthers.

The root of alum root was taken for sore throats, boils and liver troubles. Roots and leaves were chewed up and spat onto the skin, or mixed into a poultice along with Douglas fir sap, as a topical treatment for wounds. Leaves and stems were pounded and rubbed on the scalp to make hair grow, and also eaten for food–either boiled or steamed.  Heuchera_micrantha-2Heuchera_micrantha

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Plant of the day: yerba buena

Clinopodium_douglasii1This inconspicuous, trailing plant is one of the most prized herbs of the west coast. It has a strongly sweet, slightly minty flavor that made it valuable for both cooking and medicine. The city of San Francisco was named Yerba Buena until 1847; in Spanish, the phrase literally means “good herb”.

Yerba buena (Clinopodium douglasii) is a dainty little plant. It is widespread in the area, growing in the coastal scrub and deep under the redwoods. You can find it from Alaska to Los Angeles county. The paired leaves are a light spring green but often are tough and slightly sandpapery to the touch–though in sheltered, shaded places they can be quite delicate. In the spring, tiny white flowers appear along the stem, at the base of the leaves. It spreads from woody rhizome, but the prostrate stems also can grow roots, which is why you’ll often see it growing as a sparse, leggy mat.

The plant was used to season food, as a tea, and as a perfume; hunters would rub the leaves on their skin to disguise their odor from game. Yerba buena was taken medicinally to treat colds, fevers, pinworms, insomnia, kidney problems, toothaches, colic, upset stomach, thinness, and to become thin. It was also used as an aphrodisiac. Clinopodium_douglasii2

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Plant of the day: star-flowered false Solomon’s seal

Deep in the shaded understory, small star-shaped flowers gleam. Each spray of white blooms is arranged above symmetrical rows of corn-like leaves. This is star-flowered false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum stellatum).

This pretty little flower is found across much of North America, and goes by a whole boatload of names including false lily of the valley, starry false Solomon’s-seal, star-flowered Solomon’s-seal, starry Solomon plume, starry smilac, and spikenard. The Nuxalk Indians of British Columbia, and many other tribes, collected the ripe berries for food; the root was often used medicinally. The most-cited use was for stomach ailments but it was also used for earache, cough, arthritis, boils, menstrual troubles, venereal disease, and to stupefy fish. It is a very versatile plant.

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Plant of the day: narrowleaf mule ears

A large yellow flower blooms on a grassy hillside. The single flower head atop a strong, sturdy stalk looks rather like a small sunflower, with deep yellow ray petals. Leaves are mostly basal, and can be long and skinny or spade-shaped. Both leaves and stalks are slightly hairy and the inflorescence is flanked by many small, hairy bracts.

This is narrowleaf mule ears (Wyethia angustifola) which are somewhat more common than their shorter cousin, Coast Range mule ears. W. angustifolia grow to between 1 and 3 feet tall. It also lacks large, leaf-like bracts surrounding the yellow flower.

The stems and seeds of the plant are edible; they were eaten raw, and the seeds were pounded into a sweetened flour called pinole. The leaves and roots were used medicinally; roots were pounded into a poultice used to draw out blisters or treat lung ailments. A bath made from leaves was used to treat fever.

Narrowleaf mule ears is also known as California compassplant.


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Plant of the day: Pacific trillium

Three green leaves surround three white petals surround a cream-colored, three-parted pistil–each part offset from the other to form a lovely pattern. The whole thing sits perched atop a slim stalk like an elaborate parasol. This large, striking flower is Pacific trillium (Trillium ovatum, also known as wake robin). Ankle-high groves of it are in bloom along the steep ravine trail on Mt. Tamalpais; a stunning sight beneath the towering redwoods: beauty above and beauty below.

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This low-growing perennial thrives on shady hillsides and other places that stay moist but are well drained. Trillium is a member of the Melanthiaceae (the false hellebore family, which is a close relative of the lily family) and like lilies it has all of its parts in sets of three, including six yellow stamens. The white flowers turn purple as they age. Each year a fresh stalk sprouts from an underground rhizome.

The plant was used medicinally by various Native American tribes, but only externally–as far as I can tell. An infusion made from the roots was used as a wash for sore eyes, and to treat boils. The Skagit considered it poisonous.

Trillium has also been used as a love potion–the Makah tribe would apply a poultice made of pounded roots as a love medicine; unfortunately my reference doesn’t say what the desired result is, or where the poultice is applied.

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Plant of the day: hound’s tongue

Blue-purple blossoms are scattered among velvety leaves that rise from the ground like the perked ears of some alert subterranean beast. Right now, the young leaves are a beautiful palette of color–pale red veins spread across soft greenish purple. As they mature, the leaves deepen into pure emerald.

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This is hound’s tongue, or Cynoglossum grande, a distinctive forest companion in the spring–often seen growing in oak woodlands, sometimes alongside yesterday’s plant, Indian warrior. Once you learn to recognize them, even the leaves are hard to mistake for anything else. Hound’s tongue flowers are simple yet pretty, ranging in color from rich blue to pink to (very occasionally) white. Each petal buckles up along the inner rim, forming a raised ring of humped white bumps around the pistil and stamens.

Indigenous Californians roasted the root as food, and grated it as medicine to treat stomach aches, burns, and venereal disease.

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Plant of the day: licorice fern

Notice the long, tapering tips on the fronds

Notice the long, tapering tips on the fronds

A fallen log is decked with soft green ferns. This is licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza)–a confusingly close relative of the much more common California polypody. Licorice fern can be identified by the tapering, pointy tips on its fronds and–at least according to one guide, Plants of the San Francisco Bay Region–the veins on the fronds are translucent (while California polypody veins are opaque and the leaf tips are rounded). As far as I can tell, both of these two polypody species have rhizomes that taste like a tart licorice–but I’ve only done my taste-tests haphazardly, and so might be wrong.

Native Americans chewed the tasty rhizomes for flavor, and also used it to treat colds and coughs, and venereal disease. Polypodium_glycyrrhiza1

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Plant of the day: Sitka willow

One of the early, sweet signs of spring is when the pussy willow buds start to emerge. This fuzzy little nubs pop out on all types of willow branches–look for them in the shrubby thickets of trees that grow along streams.

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Sitka willow (Salix sitchensis) has broad leaves that are green and leathery on top, netted with a complex tracery of tiny veins. Below they are covered with a fine white fur. Willows are abundant and versatile, and were used extensively by native tribes. Limbs were made into baskets, and bark into string. Willow bark has the same compounds as aspirin, and it was used as a painkiller–both eaten and applied topically as well. Various parts of the tree were used in many ways for cooking, such as  making a fire hearth from willow roots, drying salmon on branches, and wiping up fish slime with leaves. Shredded bark was used in baby diapers. Sitka willow was also a talisman–boughs were tied to boats for safe crossing when river water was high, and the plants were beaten with sticks to call for wind on hot days.

This willow grows throughout the west, north into Alaska and along the California coast as far south as Santa Barbara. It’s one of seven species of willow found in Marin county.

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Plant of the day: scouring-rush horsetail

A tangle of plants like tall, green soda straws stick out of the ground on the same stream bank where yesterday’s wild ginger grows. This is scouring rush horsetail, Equisetum hyemale. It’s a cousin of the more common giant horsetail, which looks like an oversized bottle brush with wiry arms that stick straight out from a slim central stalk. But instead of looking brushlike, scouring-rush horsetail is unbranched; it consists solely of a tall, single, hollow stalk. It can grow up to nearly 7 feet tall, always in a dense cluster, spreading throughout the area by slim black rhizome.

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The stems of scouring rush are remarkably tough–if you try to break one off you’ll find it unexpectedly hard to do. Equisetum’s flexible strength is due to silicon dioxide, and native Americans used it to polish wood such as canoes, bone tools, soapstone pipes, arrow shafts, and fingernails, or to make mats and baskets; later, settlers and 49’ers used it to scrub their pots and pans. Kids used it as a whistle, and the strawlike stem was used as a straw, particularly to give medicine to infants and others.

Scouring rush tea had a large number of medicinal uses, including for irregular menses, poison ivy, bleeding, infection, kidney problems, backache, lumbago, gonorrhea, and to treat lice. It’s described by Plants for a Future as “anticancer, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, diaphoretic, diuretic, expectorant, febrifuge, haemostatic, hypotensive and styptic…with an appetite-stimulating effect.”

The roots and young spring shoots were sometimes eaten; but large quantities are toxic due to the silica.

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Plant of the day: wild ginger

PAsarum_caudatum2alm-sized, heart-shaped leaves grow in a thick patch under a grove of alders on the river bank. This is wild ginger, or Asarum caudatum. The leaves and root, when crushed, release a sweet spicy smell; to me it’s not quite ginger-like but others disagree. In the old days the root was used as a substitute when ginger couldn’t be found.

Wild ginger root can be harvested year-round, but is supposedly best in the fall. The leaves can be made into a tea. Leaf and root were used both internally and externally  to treat headache, joint pain, indigestion and head colds. It was also used as a laxative, and a poultice of warmed leaves was applied to toothaches and boils.

Though these little plants are low-growing and seem fragile, they are actually an evergreen. They spread by rhizome in moist areas, forming clonal patches that are actually all one plant. This dense growth makes wild ginger a good groundcover for shady, moist native gardens–but it spread slowly, so is only for those with patience.


Plucked wild ginger leaves showing a chunk of underground stem, or rhizome

There are several other species of wild ginger,  all in this genus, that grow elsewhere in California, but this is the only one in the greater Bay Area. It also goes by the common names of longtail wild ginger and creeping wild ginger. It can be distinguished from its cousins in several ways, such as its small reddish-brown flower whose three petals have a long, dramatic taper like a showman’s waxed moustache.

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