Abundance in an Inhospitable Place: Plants of the Sonoran Desert

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When most think about the idea of a desert, an abundant ecosystem does not come to mind. Many deserts around the world defy this idea and I had the upmost privilege of exploring this diversity and spending time in the territory of the Tonoho O’odham, Pascua Yaqui, Apache and the Gila River nation. My dream of returning to the Sonoran desert (now as a herbalist!) came true in March when my teachers offered a weekend long course at a private and remote hot springs in Arizona. Finally I would get the opportunity to meet the plant superstars I had been learning about for years and hang out with coyotes and snakes! Okay, luckily I didn’t meet any snakes but I did meet a lot of plants. I got to share this journey with my herbal partner in crime Larkin from Forestheart Botanicals, a fellow student of the wildseed school and lover of all things plants. Together we drove across miles of desert, sweated profusely under the magnifying glass of a sun and fawned over all the wild and weird plants we discovered. At the end of our trip after two weeks of exploration, we felt more settled in this new bizarre world and we fell totally in love with the harsh and fierce Sonoran. In the end however we longed for our wet coast life once again. Here is a look at some of the amazing medicinal plants that thrive in the desert.

 Yerba Mansa, Anemopsis californica

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During our time at the hot springs, we were surrounded by Anemopsis c., a plant I had been keen on since I learnt about it in my first year of herb school. Anemopsis has large, soft green leaves and when in bloom has a gorgeous white flower. The taste and smell of Anemopsis is unforgettable, pungent and aromatic. These aromatics contribute to its wide array of usages as the essential oils are very anti-microbial. Thymol is one of those constituents which is why Anemopsis is recommended in infectious conditions such as sinusitis, MRSA, UTI’s and yeast infections. Thymol has the ability to kill biofilms, a slime like layer that protects bacteria from antibiotics. This makes Anemopsis a herb of interest in the age of the antibiotic resistance. It also can be used in inflammatory conditions as it helps to improve lymphatic function, stimulates circulation and its astringent tannins help tighten tissues.  It also aids in reducing uric acid formation, making it useful in gout as well as arthritis. Anemopsis can be used as an immune system stimulant, a first aid remedy for venomous bites and infected wounds and is a great go-to for a sore throat.  It was a treat to get to experience this plant!

Chapparal, Larrea tridentata

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As I sat on one of the rolling hills in the hot Sonoran sun overlooking the vast desert I had a long moment with Larrea. She has been named “La Gobernadora” for a reason and its obvious when you are in her presence that she is the queen of the desert. As far as the eye can see, this plant, also known as creosote bush or chapparal, dominates the landscape. Larrea is what is known as an allelopathic plant, meaning that the toxic resins that leech out into the surrounding soils inhibit other species from growing. That’s one mean way to survive in the desert! After it rains in the Sonoran all you can smell is the acrid and yet somewhat delightful smell of Larrea due to its resinous leaves. Chapparal leaves are an incredible antimicrobial and antifungal, making it useful topically for infections, athletes foot and candida. It can be used for arthritis and pain conditions, acne and is amazing after burn care. Larrea also can work internally for sun exposure. If you take a large dose after a long day in the sun, the antioxidants help rejuvenate skin cells! Larrea does not have the most appetizing taste though and should not be taken in large doses on a regular basis as it has a strong effect on the liver. This liver effect can be beneficial in short term dosing. Taken for a hangover, Larrea can help inhibit damage done to the liver from free radicals. It can also help with skin cancer and malignant tumors when applied topically to affected area. I fell in love with chapparal, but lucky me I got to bring some oil home with me.

Ocotillo, Fouqueria splendens

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This gorgeously weird cactus is bound to catch your eye in the desert. With its incredible firework like flowers and flailing arms, ocotillo does not blend into the landscape. The root is what is used traditionally, but due to concerns about protecting this plant the inner bark of the branches is considered to be just as useful and has less impact on the plant. Ocotillo is a protected plant in the state of Arizona, in case you find yourself wanting to harvest, keep this in mind and harvest one branch from plants that are thriving. It is quite the experience to process ocotillo as you must smash the long spikey branches with rocks in order to get at the inner bark. The workplace hazards of being a herbalist!  Fouqueria is used for “stuck” conditions, where there is a congested lympathic system and poor absorption of fats and oils. It helps promote absorption of nutrients by enhancing the microvilli in the digestive tract. It is great for pain conditions in the lower half of the body such as painful ovulation or menstrual pain, especially when there is digestive issues present or delayed menstruation. It is one of the best herbal options in managing the agonizing pain of a herniated disk. Take a large dose of the tincture, or tea (its gross) to deal with acute painful episodes of disk pain. Be advised though, this herb is a vasodilator which means it may induce a headache with large doses. Take ocotillo to help with hemmorhoids, prostate englargement, varicose veins, pitting edema, constipation and general sluggish digestion. The beautiful flowers are rich in flavonoids and make a nice tart tea. Yay Ocotillo!

Mexican Poppy, Eschscholzia mexicana

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Finding these poppies in the desert was like discovering secret treasure! Beautiful yellow flowers dotted the barren hillside, somehow thriving in the unforgiving heat. Poppies have long been loved by humans for dealing with painful conditions and Eschscholzia mexicana is definitely a friend for those of us who deal with pain, anxiety and insomnia. Eschscholzia (try remembering how to spell this!)is great combined with passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), milky oats (Avena sativa) and valerian (Valeriana officinalis) for insomnia in which one experiences restlessness, anxiety or overthinking upon trying to fall asleep or for generalized anxiety. Eschscholzia is a great analgesic and can be used for tooth pain, kidney stone pain, menstrual pain and herpes pain. Due to its ability to stimulate opiate receptors it can be used in withdrawl from pharmaceutical opiates but is often better when combined with other herbs. It tends to not work as well in mitigating withdrawal in cases of long term opiate use. Caution with combining this with opiates as it can have a cumulative effect and can potentiate the effects of pharmaceutical opiates. In contrast to this, california poppy or mexican poppy has a history of being a great children’s remedy for teething, irritability and insomnia.

It was incredible to meet all these powerhouse plants and begin to understand the ecology of such an incredible landscape. I can’t wait to visit again!

Fall CSH Update Part 2!

As July slid into August I took a deep breath. July was full of work, wildcrafting trips and getting the CSH advertised and out there. I thought August would be relaxing but I was clearly wrong..and now its September! I have been looking forward to writing about two of my favourite plants and sharing them with CSH members, but only now have I found the time!

Arnica spp: The Yellow Miracle Worker

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Whenever I mention to people that I wildcraft Arnica, their eyes light up. It seems as though Arnica has touched just about everyone, whether that’s in its homeopathic form Arnica montana or topically in a gel, cream or spray that thousands of different companies produce. Arnica has a great reputation, you might even find it in a pharmacy. Arnica has many different species, and I found it quite challenging to identify the species that I was harvesting. When you see spp. after the name of the genus of a plant,(as above), this refers to all species of the plant. On the west coast the predominant species are cordifolia and latifolia, but there is also A. mollis, A. longifolia and A. diversifolia.  Cordifolia and Latifolia and very similar, however Cordifolia (heart leaf arnica) has bigger basal leaves and fever leaves on the stem than Latifolia (Broad leaf arnica). Regardless of species, all arnica can be used interchangeably. Arnica loves high elevations, moist meadows and old growth forests. High in volatile oils and resins, these beautiful yellow flowers smell terrific but subtle. Most people know about the properties of the flower heads, but the whole plant is active with useful constituents, including the root. Arnica contains sesquiterpene lactones, bioflavonoids such as quercetin, phenol carbonic acids and courmarins. Lets talk about what that means in terms of healing that sprained ankle, bruised rib or arthritic joint you might have!

Arnica can be used topically for any kind of inflammation, as long as there are no open wounds as it can cause irritation. This plant is a very effective anti-inflammatory, which is believed to be due to its sesquiterpene lactone helenalin and its esters. These sesquiterpene lactones inhibit NF kB, a protein complex that controls the production of inflammatory cytokines. It’s a super complicated way of saying that these constituents reduce the chaos and mess of cells that occur when you injure yourself or when you are experiencing chronic inflammation. Helenalin also increases phagocytosis (white blood cell clean up crew) and helps to disperse healthy blood flow to the affected tissues. This makes Arnica a useful ally in so many painful conditions like bursitis, osteo and rheumatoid arthritis, sprains, bruises, and general muscular strain. Topically most people will use it as an oil or liniment (alcohol).

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Most sources will caution against using arnica internally as the sesquiterpene lactones are toxic and in high enough doses can cause cardiac arrest. I personally wouldn’t recommend using it as a tincture orally, but it has been used internally in low doses after traumatic injuries to reduce day after aches and pains. The homeopathic Arnica montana is a way safer option for this instance and is easy to find at a health food store.

Avena sativa: Slow down and Chill out

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Who would think that the mushy plain cereal grain we all know as oats makes amazing medicine! I know as I was growing oats in my plot at the local community garden I had many questions. UH..is that grass you are growing? When I told people it was oats, they always assumed it was for food. Not so! Avena is super easy to grow (but fairly laborious to harvest) and can be tinctured or dried for tea. It was my first time growing it from seed, and part of my own personal learning curve was figuring out when to harvest it. Avena needs to be harvested in its “milky” stage; the bud oozes what looks like milk when you squeeze it. This stage only lasts a few days, so the harvest window is small. If you are imaging me squeezing these tiny little oats every day in frustration and anticipation then you are correct, my lack of patience certainly shined during this process. At first I was sure I had missed the window and then was schooled by my teacher that when it is too late the oats will turn paper like and brown. It was in this moment of impatience that I gained a new appreciation and understanding of avena. She’s definitely teaching me to chill out and be less of the type A person who needs to do everything all the time and to do it perfectly. With this lesson, the oats (finally) went into their milky stage and with delight I did my harvest. This too required a great amount of patience as pulling these little buds off their stem was not as relieving as I thought it would be. Alas, I have my avena tincture ready to go out for the CSH and lots of extra dried oats for tea. Thank you avena!

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Avena sativa is your best friend when it comes to being a high strung, overworked nervous wreck. Its for those who are exhausted;maybe from depression, maybe burnout from activism, from chronic illness or even trauma. Avena is there to gently and bring us back to health and stability.  Avena as medicine works slowly though, whether or not your at your most “turbo” level, as my partner would put it. Avena nourishes our nervous system with important minerals and antioxidants, but the science is lacking in how it improves nervous debility. We just know it works! The eclectics, our herbal founders who were legitimate doctors before the western medical establishment took over, used Avena in treating various forms of addiction from morphine to tobacco use. Its certainly worth a try when there is a desire to wean oneself off substances such as benzodiazepines, opiates, alcohol or stimulants. For most however, dealing with addiction requires much more than Avena, but its certainly a good support buddy to help with the debility that comes with withdrawal. In any case, give Avena a good three weeks to work its magic, its worth the wait.

I’d Rather Be Wildcrafting: Update on the Fall CSH box!

July has been a busy month as I prepare for the fall Community Support Herbalism box on top of all the other beautiful madness that summer brings on Salt Spring. I can’t complain, I’ve been busy out in the sunshine on mountains and beaches harvesting and exploring the bio-diversity of British Columbia. Many people have been asking what I will have in the fall box (September 21st) and I thought I’d give an update on what can be expected and on my journey so far. Its been amazing to have the motivation to wildcraft and prepare medicine knowing that its going to be in medicine cabinets throughout Canada by the fall. Here is a little preview of what I’ve been preparing so far in case it finds its way to you this autumn equinox.

Beauty by the Sea: Grindelia spp.

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If there ever was a plant that could completely lure you in with your eyes closed, gumweed or Grindelia would be it. For the fall CSH share I am excited to offer a gumweed honey extract, an extraordinary experience for the senses. It was also exciting to wildcraft this particular plant this year as I had found my special trove of Grindelia last year a little too late. This year I monitored a small plant stand near my house to gauge its flowering time before heading out to my location where it is abundant. I brought along my dear friend who was visiting from Ontario. When I introduced her to the taste and smell of gumweed she was smitten. As the name might illuminate, gumweed is a sweet smelling plant that wants to coat everything it touches in its delicious resin.

The species you will find in our coastal bio-region is integrifolia but there are many different species across North America and Mexico including G. squarrosa, G. robusta and G. camporum amoung many others. Grindelia loves to grow in open, gravel-like or disturbed areas with some species preferring saline coastal regions. There are some differences across species in terms of their constituent levels, but they can all be used interchangeably. Grindelia species contain varying levels of resins (Diterpenes: grindelic acids), essential oils (such as a-pinene), and flavonoids (such as quercetin and luteolin). These constituents contribute to Grindelia’s array of therapeutic indications.

Grindelia is most known for its usefulness in treating respiratory issues, typically those that are dry, paroxysmal and congested. I’ve used it successfully for those middle of the night coughing fits that leave your rib cage feeling bruised. It effectively relaxes the smooth muscles of the lungs and soothes the throat. This anti-spasmodic action could be due to the grindelic acid, one of many diterpene constituents found in Grindelia. As an expectorant, Grindelia helps to expel mucus from the lungs and hydrates the respiratory system. The combination of its anti-spasmodic and expectorating properties make it quite useful in treating smokers cough. The mixture of flavonoids present can also help control allergic reactions, from asthma or allergies such as hayfever by inhibiting the cox-2 inflammatory pathway and reducing the release of histamine (Frances Brinker 2006).Grindelia notably was part of the American Pharmacopeia until 1960 as a medication for ashthma!(Micheal Moore 2003)  In addition, its anti-microbial resins help ward off not only lung infections but also urinary tract infections.

Aside from its respiratory properties, Grindelia has also been studied for its therapeutic topical indications. Due to its anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties, Grindelia works wonders for eczema and other dermatitis like skin irritations like poison oak. Apply a fresh hot infusion of the leaves and flowers or dilute the tincture and apply.

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Summers Here: Hypericum perforatum

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St Johns wort, or Hypericum perforatum, is by far the hottest celebrity of the herbal world. A household name, St Johns Wort has had some of the most coverage by clinical studies and is even a herb that your doctor might know about. You could write a whole textbook on this plant and cite thousands of resources that cover its therapeutic properties. However, despite its scientific back up this plant will not give away all of its mysteries, and that’s what gives it a touch of magic. St Johns Wort holds a special place in my heart as its one of few plants that has grown around me both in Ontario and British Columbia. Not only that, but I recently moved to an amazing house with a garden where it grows like a weed. This year I made both an oil and alcohol extract. I will be offering the alcohol extract for the September CSH. St Johns wort’s blooming period is right around solstice, so perfect as this plants flowers are bright yellow and vibrant. I’ve noticed through my workplace that people are extra interested in this plant during our darkest months of January and February. Instead of going for other natural anti-depressants, people tend to gravitate towards St Johns Wort. Me and my coworker feel strongly that people are craving that brightness that this plant captures during those long days of light. Just looking at it in its jar steeping, both in alcohol and oil, makes me feel content. Fun trick, hold up the leaves to the light and check out the tiny pinpricks of light that shine through, that’s where it gets its name perforatum. Or rub the petals between your fingers and watch them turn red.

 Hypericum perforatum is best known for its anti-depressant action, and it deserves its fame as its been documented in medical writings since greco-roman times for its mental health benefits(Stargrove et al.). Much has been studied since, and St Johns wort climbed to fame in the 1990’s as a standardized extract*. It has been used to treat mild to moderate depression, anxiety, PMS, SADS, menopausal related mood disorders and insomnia with numerous clinical studies to support its efficacy. Some feel St Johns Wort can achieve similar effects to anti-depressants such as MAOI inhibitors or SSRI’s without the list of side effects. How St Johns Wort works on a chemical level still remains somewhat a mystery.  Stargrove et al., state that it may function as a general neurotransmitter re-uptake inhibitor for all five neurotransmitters. In reducing the re-uptake of these neurotransmitters, such as dopamine or serotonin, we are allowing these feel good chemicals to be more available for the brain. The only downside of this amazing plant is how tricky it is to combine with other medications. St Johns Wort acts on a enzymatic pathway in the liver called CYP450, which is where many other drugs are metabolized. Without getting too into pharmacokinetics, this means SJW can either increase (inhibit metabolism) or decrease (induce metabolism) of the amount of the drug in your system which can create dangerous situations. Yes, plants can be just as dangerous as medications sometimes! Not to fear, just remember to do some research before combining it with other medications or supplements.

Hypericum perforatum has even more amazing benefits than just those that are psychological. This herb can work wonders for neuralgia, sciatica and rheumatic pain. It can be used internally and externally for its pain relieving qualities. Topically it can also speed up healing of bruises, wounds, varicose veins and burns.

These are two of the four plant extracts I will be offering in the fall CSH, Grindelia honey and St Johns Wort tincture. Stay tuned for the rest and contact me at florasapienherbs@gmail.com to become a member and receive a share.

* A standardized extract is an encapsulated plant extract that isolates one or more constituents and contains a certain percentage of this constituent per capsule. This form of herbal medicine tends to be more recognized by the scientific world and therefore more research is available.

Herb, Nutrient and Drug Interactions. 2008. Stargrove, Mitchell Bebel., Treasure, Jonathan., Mckee Dwight.

Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West. 2003. Micheal Moore

Brinker, Francis. Topical uses for Grindelia Species. Journal of American Herbalists Guild. Vol. 6 no. 2 2006.