A Forgotten Piece: A documentary about my life as an herbalist

Life with a baby has certainly hindered my blog posts, so I apologize for the lack of content these past few months. I have been busy however, and wanted to share with you a beautiful video a University of Oregon graduate student made about my life as a forager, herbalist, and mentor. Andrea did a beautiful job piecing together my story along with clips of me foraging, making medicine, and Jasper of course. I want to share this with you all and give you a little inside scoop of my life and vision for living with the Earth.

Harvesting Cottonwood Buds for Medicine

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Have you ever noticed that rivers just have that particular ‘river’ smell? Full of heavy, wet odors the smell seems to bring a sense of nostalgia and happiness for people. Whenever I pull out any medicines containing cottonwood buds I get the same reaction from people – the eyes close, a smile appears, and say “Wow that is amazing! It reminds me of something – like the river.”

Cottonwood or Populus spp., is a deciduous tree that grows natively in North America, Europe, and Asia. One of the reasons the smell reminds people of rivers is because it likes to grow in riparian areas. I often use this tree as an indicator species in drier climates to tell me where water might be in the distance. In the Willamette Valley we are bursting with trees since we are so wet, however in drier climates like in the Southwest it can be very useful; as they grow where even small seeps of water occur in a landscape otherwise barren of taller trees or shrubs.

Cottonwoods are in the Salicaceae family which includes many species of aspen, willow, and poplars. This plant family is special due to the salicylates they contain which is the chemical we seek for the medicine it provides for pain relief, anti-inflammatory, and fever reducing qualities. To learn more about using willow as medicine feel free to check out my guest blog on the First Ways website.

In my region of the Pacific Northwest one of the most common cottonwoods is the black cottonwood or Populus trichocarpa which is what I normally harvest. Winter is the time to harvest the leaf buds of the tree as they are not yet unfurled and contain the highest amount of medicine during this time. Once the leaves start to unfurl it is too late. My favorite time is right about now, mid February, because the buds are starting to swell and get exceptionally sticky and gooey.

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In order to harvest the buds sustainably it is best to wait for a wind storm that knocks off branches to the ground. It is always best to keep in mind that when one is harvesting leaf buds you are actually taking away the tree’s ability to get food from the sun. Removing buds from downed branches eliminates any harm to the tree by the wild crafter. Yesterday I went out along one of the forks of one of our major river systems to see what branches I could find. We had a wind storm about a week before and so assumed I would find some branches. The cottonwoods were intermingled with Oregon white oak, oso berry shrubs, blackberry, roses, and new spring greens. After searching for 15 minutes and only finding small branches here and there I found the jackpot. A cottonwood had completely lost its entire upper half and left a huge pile of its branches on the ground. Within two minutes I was able to fill my quart jar to the rim.

Cottonwood buds are maddeningly sticky and resinous as you will find if you go and start picking them. The resin is soluble in alcohol and oil which is why I only make tinctures and oils out of the buds. I use olive oil when making an herbal oil. Using the fresh buds (picked on a dry day) fill the jar about half to 3/4 full of the buds and cover all the way to the top with the oil. This can sit for 6 weeks or longer. I find straining it to be a real pain because not only are the buds sticky but they also stain equipment and hands so I end up just leaving the buds in the jar and draining off when I want to use it. The oil is extremely anti-microbial and so I never add any additional preservatives like Vitamin E oil like I otherwise do with herbal oils.

The oil can be used on its own, mixed with other oils, or turned into a salve. Due to its analgesic (pain relieving) and anti-inflammatory properties cottonwood bud oil is wonderful to use externally for arthritis and other inflammatory and painful conditions. I often use it for my muscle oil rub in combination with St. John’s wort and arnica oils. These are just mixed in equal parts. A popular salve can be made using this oil called Balm of Gilead. This salve makes a great addition to any first aid kit as it can be used to help heal wounds and burns as well. The salve can actually help skin regeneration from burns.

This year I have plenty of oil and so decided to harvest to make more tincture. Once again I fill my jar of buds 1/2 to 3/4 full then cover with alcohol. Because the buds are resinous I like to use a higher percentage of alcohol than 40%. Using pure grain alcohol I decided to do a 60% dilution using the ratio of 1:0.6. So for every ounce of pure grain alcohol I will use .6 ounces of water.

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I use cottonwood tincture as a great substitute for willow bark. In this area the native willows are not very high in salycilates compared to white willow in Europe and so cottonwood buds are the alternative. I use the tincture more for its expectorant properties for the lungs. This is a lesser known use of the plant and I find works wonders. I like to make a mixture of equal parts of cottonwood bud, elecampane, and mullein for folks who are dealing with dry persistent coughs at the end of a cold. Time and again I give the mixture to my clients and within a day or two the cough is gone – and this after sometimes months of coughing! The tincture can be used for bronchitis and other lung issues.

I add the tincture to my throat spray as it is very helpful with laryngitis and loss of voice due to the inflammation. Once again the tincture is wonderful to add to first aid kits as it is a great anti-septic and can help with skin infections or the prevention there of.

This is the perfect time of year for harvesting the buds so wait for that windstorm and have fun!

Useful tips:

– Reuse the same mason jar for oil and tincture. The resins ruin any container and are almost impossible to clean.
– Search for a large or several large downed branches instead of picking smaller ones.
– To remove the resin from hands I like to first rub olive oil until it starts to come off, then using soap and a scrub brush you can scrape the rest clean. Alcohol works great too. While harvesting be sure to carry some salve if you need to clean hands in the field. Or rub in dirt so that it takes away the stickiness until you get home.

How to Make Willow Bark Medicine

Below is a guest post I wrote for the First Ways blog in 2011.

Ever since reading one of the “Clan of the Cave Bear” books by Jean Auel I had been entranced by the idea of using willow as medicine. I remember clearly one of the characters peeling willow bark and making a decoction for his injured brother to help ease the pain and swelling. Since then I have been itching to get out there to make a tincture or decoction, but I was nervous, thinking the skill was perhaps beyond my level. I just wasn’t sure how to go about peeling bark off a plant without hurting or killing it.

Then, a few weeks ago, I learned that an easy way to collect willow is to simply clip off willow twigs and then peel the bark off of the trimmings. Duh! It solves the problem of possibly killing the plant and it is a simple way to harvest in a caretaking manner. willow-flowers

Last week I took a trip to the coast and found quite literally a sea of willow bushes just inland of some of Oregon’s great sand dunes. Turns out these willows were most likely Hooker’s Willow, Salix hookeriana, a coastal willow. Willow loves to grow with her feet wet, so look for her on stream banks, near lakes and rivers, and marshy areas. There are many species of Salix and some may be small shrubs while others can be larger trees. The leaves are alternate, generally oval and elongated with smooth margins, however there is variation between species.

peeling-barkI decided to prune twigs that appeared overcrowded and unlikely to thrive. Some sources say to gather the twigs before the catkins even begin to come out as this has the most medicine, but many of the leaves were already unfurling and the catkins were starting to flower, so I picked twigs that were in an earlier stage of growth. However, you can harvest year round since the plants contain the medicine in it at all times. Early spring is when the plant medicines are most concentrated and so is the best time of year to harvest.

I peeled the inner and outer bark from the stick using my fingers, right down to the heart wood. It was slightly time consuming but also very meditative. The bark, buds, and new leaves all found their way into my pint jar. Then I added 80 proof brandy and screwed on the top. I will be letting this sit for up to 6 weeks before I strain out the material.

My goal for this tincture is to use it primarily for pain caused by headaches. I have not yet found my perfect headache plant and am excited to see how willow will do.

Willow has been used for thousands of years around the world for its amazing pain relieving, anti-inflammatory, and fever reducing effects. The magic comes from salicylic acid, a natural plant growth hormone that can be used for rooting new cuttings. In 1900 Aspirin was patented and sold as a Bayer product. In order to make aspirin, scientists combined acetyl chloride and salicylic acid. The salicylic acid was actually not derived from any willow species but rather from a plant called Spiraea ulmaria or meadowsweet (another plant I would love to work with) which is where the “spir” in aspirin comes from.

Fall Harvesting in Eastern Oregon – Archived: Posted 2010

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.

Happy Fall!