Archive for November, 2010

Oregon Grape

Oregon grape is one of my favorite plants. It is known by many healers as the goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) of the West Coast. I have used it to heal many ailments, including those of my cat and other animals. I’ve also used it to make dye for wool and basketry and to eat the berries for nutrition. All parts of the plant are valuable and powerful healers.  It is a plant to be respected!

Oregon grape lives in a tight, healthy tribal community, a perfect mirror of how a healthy human community once lived. It is very important to honor that community when harvesting this plant. 

Go to the Oregon grape community with right intent.  If you are a commercial “wild crafter” trying to make your quota, stay away!  Oregon grape is a powerful plant.

Harvesting the Oregon grape

Habitat: The Oregon grape lives throughout the western part of North America, in mountainous areas on wooded slopes that are below 7000 feet. Oregon grape plants exist in a specialized ecological community. Oregon grape roots and thrives under especially powerful healing trees like red cedar, sequoia, and Sitka spruce. 

Intention: Your intention should be first to learn the lesson the plant wants to teach you. Second, you should intend to use this medicinal plant wisely. Third, you should be respectful in harvesting, and fourth, you should always leave thankful for the medicine.

I guess I could also say that what I just shared with you should be the way to harvest all plants.

Selection: Never harvest the largest central plant.  This is the mother plant, a vigorous plant whose roots reach out to the whole community. Sometimes if the community is quite large, there will be more than one mother plant.  Think of these plants as tribal leaders. The largest plants in the community attract certain bacteria to the community soil, and they draw insects, other plant chemicals, and earth worms and other tunneling creatures that feed the community.

The largest plants are not always the ones that have the most color or the strongest medicine.  Be respectful–the plants to harvest are the smaller ones. Oregon grape is best harvested in August or September when it is full of berries.  It is OK if there are a few flowers on the plant.

Find the Oregon grape community. Look out in front of you, and you will see a plant whose leaves are especially green. The berries on the plant will be full and deep blue; the flowers, if still blooming, will be brighter than the others in the community. This plant will be in the outer circle of the community, not too near an animal or human path.

Root Harvest: When harvesting the root, slightly uncover the soil around the plant root. Do not pull up the plant!  Find a side root, not the tap root.  (The tap root is central to keeping the plant alive.  It is the largest central root that provides nourishment for the plant.) Use a sharp knife that has been cleaned with an organic seed oil like olive oil or sunflower seed oil.  Keep this knife clean between harvests.   Always place an offering to the Oregon grape next to the plant.  I carry tobacco, Mayan corn, or sunflower seeds that I grow especially for offerings.  Be thankful.  A root harvest is a wonderful gift from the Earth. I talk to the plant when I am harvesting.  I tell the plant that I will use its root wisely.  I talk about the healing that I need to do and ask for wisdom about the best way to proceed.  I sit with my journal and write down what comes to me about the plant.

Using the Roots

The root of the Oregon grape contains strong medicine. The bright yellow root, a color caused by an alkaloid called berberine, can also be used for dye. Berberine, the most studied of the alkaloids, has been shown to possess fungicidal and antibacterial activities as well as resistance against protozoa such as Giardia lamblia, Trichomonas vaginalis, and Entamoeba histolytica. This is a very powerful healing plant and practitioners should consult a plant healer to learn to make the tinctures and infusions.

The Oregon grape root is the most commonly used part of the plant. Recent studies indicate that M. aquifolium contains a specific multidrug resistance pump inhibitor (MDR Inhibitor) named 5’methoxyhydnocarpin (5’MHC) which works to decrease bacterial resistance to antibiotics and antibacterial agents.1

Oregon grape root is used almost exactly like other Berberis and goldenseal species, as an alterative (an agent that gradually changes a condition), antibiotic, diuretic, laxative, and tonic. It is commonly used internally to detoxify the blood in an effort to cure skin problems, and occasionally it is used as a treatment for rheumatism. In homeopathy, Oregon grape is used as a tincture for skin diseases, like acne, eczema, herpes, and psoriasis.

Using the Berries

Many of the First Peoples of Western Cascadia used the berries for food.  There was no difference between food and medicine for these indigenous peoples.  They recognized that whatever you put into your body caused healing or disease. There was no such thing as recreational food.  Native peoples used a few berries mixed with Salal or some other sweet berries as a staple dried food in the winter months.  Today the berries are made into jelly (mixed with other sweet berries or fruit). The berries are also used medicinally to cleanse the liver and gall bladder and to treat eye problems.  Don’t take all the berries on a plant; leave some for the birds and wildlife.

Using the Stems

The stems of Oregon grape were used by native peoples as a dye.  Stems were shredded with Oregon grape root and soaked, and a bright yellow dye could be extracted from the mixture.  I use sharp clippers to cut branches from a plant. When harvesting the berries and the stems, take a small amount from each plant.

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Opinel hooked-bill knife

When I go out into the forest and wilderness areas I go prepared to meet up with extrordinary wild life, unknown weather and terrain and beautiful environments. I am prepared for my own safety too.  Here is what I carry.  My day pack includes the following:

1. A good pair of locking hand pruners and a pair of long handled pruners as well
2. Opinel hooked bill knife – I have some special tools I use when harvesting plants. I carry an Opinel hooked bill knife that closes into the handle. It has a brush on the other end of it that I use to brush off dirt and other debris. This knife is really good for harvesting mushrooms and roots.
3. A triple hand lens magnifier – this hand lens magnifies to 5x, 10x and 15x and will close to become 30x. This lens helps me to identify plants by their tissue and small parts.
4. Swiss army knife – provides lots of gadgets.
5. My camera – I love to take pictures of plants. I use these pictures to create my illustrations and to share on my website.
6. Drinking water
7. Rubber boots and a rain slicker for the winter, and washable shoes for the summer and an extra pair of warm socks.
8. A good hat to keep the sun off my head
9. Collection bags.
10. First aid kit that includes matches wrapped in plastic
11. A good compass
12. Binoculars
13. A high energy snack
14. Good maps – forest service maps are the best
15. A whistle – to blow if I get lost or run into a animal I do not want to be near.
16. I sometimes also have a bell to attach to my pack if I think there might be bears around.

17. I wear layered clothes in case I come upon a change in weather

18. My cell phone with the 911 GPS turned on. If I ever get lost, people will be able to find me hopefully.

Here is a link to a great website that has most of these tools available


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Glacial Lake Missoula

Before you search Cascadia for the great healing plants, you should understand the lay of the land. What formed this amazing place?  What kind of soils and geology will you encounter as you hike through its forests, valleys, and high deserts? 



Why should you learn the geology of a place?  Why understand the lay of the land? The benefits are manifold:

          You will know where to find the plant communities

          You will not get lost in the woods or the mountains or the desert; you will be able to find your way from any point on the land

          You will know how to find food, water, and shelter when you need it

          You will see wonderful things and will not be afraid to wander in paradise. You will remain open to adventure, and you will encounter unusual plants within their communities

Where else on Earth could you live near an ocean, active volcanoes, coniferous rain forests, high deserts, marsh lands, sea estuaries, fertile valleys, high mountain glaciers, and so much more?  The Cascadian bioregion is a place of earth, water, and fire.  It is a place whose geology is new, old, and ever forming.

Plant life here is diverse and often unique. Many plants have adapted to wide swaths of this land; others are to be found in areas so small that they are in danger of disappearing off of the Earth.

What Geological Forces Shaped the Cascadian Bioregion?

Cascadia stretches from British Columbia to northern California to the north and south and includes Idaho and Western Montana to the East. On the big scale, it is being formed by the constant tension between two geological plates that are part of the Earth’s crust.  One plate stretches out into the Pacific Ocean moving eastward and is being pushed up into the land mass (Coast Range Mountains) toward the Cascade Mountains.  The other plate is moving westward and reaches deep into the hot, molten earth which is constantly forming the Cascade Mountains.  Between the two mountain ranges are valleys shaped by yet more geological forces.  This process is so dynamic that it is being created right in front of our eyes. This mountain range–valley–mountain range scene only covers one-third of the states of Oregon, Washington and Northern California.  The other two-thirds–now this is going east as the crow flies–is mostly high desert. There are some other mountain ranges to the east of the Cascades like the Wallowa and the Steens, but the plant life there is very different than the western third of Cascadia.  The eastern part of these states is a place of pine, hemlock, and juniper forests. People in other parts of the world seem to have the idea that Cascadia is all about Douglas firs, the Pacific Ocean, and the fertile farm valleys.  However, the area is diverse in plants and animal life, geology and hydrology.

Valley Floods

In Cascadia the western valleys were formed by old and new geological forces.  The valleys were formed somewhat by old rivers meandering through the soil levels.  Another amazing force was the periodic catastrophic floods.  These were floods in which 300 foot walls of water careened down valleys and river gorges, carving out new geologic formations and leaving behind vast layers of huge boulders, rock, minerals, and sand and gravel pits.  The First Peoples of Cascadia had many myths about the floods.  One interesting book that provides examples of these myths was written by Ella Clark called “Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest”.  Clark reports that many of the creation myths of people of the region included stories about wildlife escaping the floods that renewed the area and then the animals and trees and plants helping the humans to survive and thrive. In these myths the animals help the Creator plan the world by using floods to shape the region. Here is link to a website that stores many indigenous people’s creation myths.  http://www.indigenouspeople.net/legend.htm

The Missoula Wash – the great floods of the region

If you go up on Mary’s Peak, located in the central part of western Oregon, you can look out over vast parts of the Willamette Valley.  You will see a place shaped mostly by the meandering Willamette River.  However, every once in a while you will see mounds–big, round mounds.  For a long time it was thought that these mounds were formed by Native Americans depositing shells or dirt for burial grounds.   In the 1920s scientists started to investigate the possibility that a great flood had occurred in Cascadia.  The flood, called the Missoula Wash or Missoula Flood, occurred thousands of years ago when a great glacial lake near Missoula, Montana, burst its seams.   Imagine a wall of water 300 hundred feet tall surging down the Columbia Gorge and then into the Willamette Valley.  What a sight that must have been! This was not one event: the glacial lake burst about every 50 years and made for some really exciting times in the valleys of Oregon and Washington. These floods deposited sand, gravel, and other mineral deposits throughout the area, and left large boulders throughout the Willamette Valley. 

After each ice dam rupture, the waters of the lake would rush down through the Columbia River gorge of eastern Washington and the Willamette Valley of Western Oregon. It took 40 to 50 years for restoration of these areas. Geologists estimate that floods occurred approximately 40 times over a 2,000 year period roughly 15,000 to 13,000 years ago.

Up until about 100 years ago, many of the valley areas of western Washington and Oregon were a series of lakes and marshes.  Anglo pioneers drained and filled in many of the lakes and marshes to create the farmland that is in the valleys today.  Many valuable plant communities were driven to the edges of the valley, and some plants can no longer be found in the area.  Camas, a staple food for native peoples, once graced the old marshlands.  There are few of these plants to be found in the marshes and sloughs of Willamette Valley (including Portland) today. Now many of the area’s camas plants live in very polluted waters. Native peoples did not live year-round in these valleys, because they could have caught malaria or tuberculosis.  They did, however, build seasonal shelters from plants, so they could fish and collect valuable foods and healing plants.

The Coast Range Mountains

The Coast Range Mountains extend from British Columbia to northern California.  The mountains are old and worn away by erosion and time.  They were formed by forces that pushed land up off the ocean floor, and it is not uncommon to find sea fossils and other sea sediments in this mountain range.  Up until about 75 years ago, the area was a vast and beautiful rain forest.  Much of the Coast Range has been clear-cut in the Cascadian bioregion. Many wonderful plants have been lost, because the fragile soils have been washed away by erosion and lack of a supportive ecosystem. Because the soils are old, they lack certain essential minerals needed by plant communities. Many humans who live in these mountains often have bad teeth because of lack of minerals.  Farmers and gardeners must add minerals (glacial rock is a wonderful source of these minerals) to help plants grow.  In the past the forests were kept healthy because of migrating salmon, steelhead, and other sea-run fish.  The spawning fish would swim up the streams, die in the river bed, and provide excellent fertilizer for the forest floor.  The sea -run fish helped plants to thrive.  It is getting harder and harder to find certain very valuable plants that once flourished in the Coast Range, because the fish are disappearing from the streams.

The Coast Range Mountains are not particularly tall compared to the Cascades Mountains, but there are a few larger mountains spattered along the Coast Range. And their height is important, because the taller Coast Range Mountains provide habitat for plants normally found only in the western slopes of the Cascades.

Some of the more important Coast Range Mountains habitats  are found at  Mount Olympus on the Olympic Peninsula, Mary’s Peak (Tamanawis) near Corvallis, Oregon, Mount Ashland near Ashland, Oregon, the Siskiyou Mountains and the Klamath Mountains in southern Oregon,  and the Trinity Mountains of northern California.

The lost world

One of the most important and unique places in the Cascadian Coast Range is the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area.  There is no other place in Cascadia where you find more diverse, unusual, and important healing plants.  Walking through this area will make you feel like you are visiting another planet.  Even the soil is different. Much of the soil is of the Serpentine type. The hard bluish rock soil often found near perioditite rocks organizes itself in layers and is rich in heavy metals such as magnesium, iron, chromium and nickel, which in high amounts, can be toxic to most plants.  Plants and animals found in this area of Southern Oregon are often unique to the area.  And many of the trees and plants in the area need periodic fire to complete their life cycles.

The Cascade Mountains

Highly volcanic and very alive, these mountains provide much drama for both plants and humans. The Cascades are part of the Pacific Ring-of-Fire, the volcanoes and associated mountains that circle the Pacific Ocean. All of the known historic eruptions in the contiguous United States have been from Cascade volcanoesThey are large and snowcapped in the winter, and some still support glaciers.  In the summer melting glaciers and snowmelt create the beautiful lakes, rivers and marshes of the region. The snowmelt is also the main source for drinking water in the region. The wilderness around these mountains provides a safe harbor for the diverse plant communities that have offered food, clothing, healing, and shelter to humans and other creatures for thousands of years. Each mountain has its own energy but shares with other Cascade mountains similar soils, weather, and plant communities. 

This essay was originally written for Portland Indymedia as a skillshare on January 27, 2008. 

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After spending a wet morning in the Oregon Coast range mountains collecting chanterelle mushrooms I decided to sauté up some delicious “roots and shrooms”.

This week I went to a local farmers market and purchased some late season zucchini and some beautiful multicolored carrots.  I also purchased some fresh leeks.  I decided to mix them with my newly found Chanterelles and create a beautiful feast.

The trick to eating mushrooms is to never eat them raw.  Mushrooms have amazing nutritional and medicinal qualities that can only be released through cooking.  Cook all mushrooms at least 15 minutes over low heat.  Here is my recipe for cooking wild Chanterelles.

What you will need:

Two tablespoons olive oil

Two large gloves fresh garlic – sliced thinly

Sliced leeks to taste (I used about ¼ cup)

1 cup sliced fresh carrots

½ cup sliced fresh zucchini

8 to 9 medium to large Chanterelle mushrooms

¼ cup Tamari

Herbs to taste (powered basil, sage, black pepper, and coriander) ¼ teaspoon each

Use a large flat frying pan or a Wok. Slowly sauté two tablespoons of olive oil and two large gloves of fresh garlic on very low heat.  Cook 5 minutes.  Add two tablespoons of tamari, ¼ teaspoon each powered sage, basil, black pepper, and coriander. (You can substitute the herbs you like to use here).  You have now created a wonderful broth to cook your veggies and mushrooms in. Arrange the vegetables and mushrooms on the bottom of a flat surface of the pan in the sauce you have just prepared.

Sauté for at least 15 minutes until the carrots are soft enough to eat. Turn the mixture over a couple of times to make sure all sides are fully cooked. I covered the pan with a lid during this time.  ENJOY!

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