Visiting home is always such a bittersweet occasion, but the older I get the sweeter it seems and the less bitter the bite. I grew up in a town very opposite from Eugene – geographically and mentality wise. Baker City is in fact not in California as most people presume but rather is nearly as far on the Eastern side of Oregon as one can get.
Located 2 hours west of Boise, Idaho, Baker City is nestled between two ancient mountain ranges (the Elkhorn Mountains and the Wallowa Mountains) and surrounded by Sagebrush/Juniper/Rabbitbrush communities. You don’t have to go far to get out of the desert – travel up to the mountains for an hour and you will find yourself at an elevation of 7,000 feet!
I make it a point to visit Baker City every year as my father, grandmother, and extended family still live there. The Sieg family have been in the valley for generations and grandma can still remember stories from her great aunt about traveling the Oregon Trail.
This year I made it a point to learn and harvest plants of the area. I cannot tell you how surprised I am to find plants I know grow in the Willamette Valley, growing in the high desert. How did I not notice these plants growing up? How did I not realize these plants were there when I was visiting last year?! Here are a few examples of plants which I didn’t realize grew in Baker until last week:
Snowberry, Oregon Grape, California Mugwort, Larch, Rabbitbrush, Stinging Nettle (I knew it was around but never noticed the abundance), Indian Poke, and Elderberry to name a few.
This knowledge humbled me – the idea that I can grow up in a place and ‘think’ I know it, but come back in a few years and realize a whole new world is there in front of me.
I visited one of the only bookstores in town, Betty’s Books. I used to work there in high school and am good friends with the proprietors. At the store I picked up an awesome book that stayed with me all week. Medicinal herb books of the high desert region are not abundant so this one is a real gem.
The book is called Healing Plants of the Rocky Mountains by Darcy Williamson.
Williamson gives great descriptions, harvesting, uses, and recipes for these high desert plants. I was most excited to learn about medicinal uses for Sagebrush other than just for incense.
To get to the point of this blog I will give you a list of the plants that I was able to harvest and what I plan to do with them.
California Mugwort Artemesia californica Seems to grow in higher elevations with Sagebrush. Collected a few stalks and am drying them to add to incense. (Mugwort can actually help prevent and heal Poison Oak dermatitis.)
Catnip Nepeta cataria Found it growing next to a creek near the Wallowas. Gathered a few flowering stalks and put them in a jar to make an alcohol tincture.
Elderberry Sambucus spp. Grows abundantly along creek sides. Gathered berries mostly south of Baker near Durkee. Garbled berries and put them in quart jar to make an alcohol tincture. Freezing the rest to eventually make a syrup*.
Juniper Juniperus spp. Junipers tend to grow on the south side of Baker Valley. I collected the ‘berries’ which are actually cones and am drying them in a food drier in order to eat them to help my hypoglycemia.
Mullein Verbascum thapsus Pretty much grows everywhere from the valley to up in the Sagebrush hills. It certainly surprised my ranching family to hear that such a weed as Mullein is amazing for lung issues! Harvested leaves from first year rosettes and am drying to make into tea and smoking blends. FYI Mullein leaves take forever to dry…
Pitch Pinus and Abies I am collecting pitch off of Pine and Fir trees so I can make a pitch based incense.
Rose Hips Rosa spp. So many Rose bushes and they are loaded with beautiful red hips. I found them growing along roadsides, creek sides, and southern slopes. The best time to gather hips is after a frost which there luckily were a few nights that got down to freezing level while we were there. I gathered the reddest hips possible and am in the process of cutting them in half, taking out the seeds and drying them to use in teas and to possibly add to honey for a Rose Hip honey mixture.
Sagebrush Artemisia spp. Sagebrush grows all over Eastern Oregon but is tending to take over habitats it normally would have stayed away from because of over-grazing etc. in the past. I gathered enough leaves to fill at least a quart bag. Made part of it into an alcohol tincture, oil, and am drying the rest for incense and teas. Sagebrush is strongly anti-fungal and so is great for foot fungus.
If you ever get a chance and live in or near Oregon take a trip to Eastern Oregon! The high desert is breathtaking, diverse, and full of wildlife. We saw Pronghorn, heard Elk bugling, Coyotes, Mountain Goats, Jackrabbits, Golden Eagles, many species of Hawks, Deer, and so much more.
* Here is an exciting recipe taken from Darcy Williamson’s book about how to make Elderberry Syrup.
Gather berry clusters after the first hard frost. Remove the stems from berries.
Place berries in a large kettle and heat slowly, mashing berries to extract juice (or put berries through a juicer). Pour juice and berries into a clean old (hole-free) pillow case and hang above a large clean kettle to allow the juice to drip overnight (if using a juicer, this process is eliminated). The next morning, measure out juice. Add an equal amount of honey. Simmer honey and juice over medium-high heat until mixture thickens to syrup consistency. Pour into sterilized bottles and seal in a boiling water bath for twenty minutes.
Use as a cold preventative.