Medicinal plants of the Rocky Mountains
Learn to use nature's bounty...
If we someday find ourselves in an extended wilderness situation where the only medical care/medicines available are what we can harvest and provide from the natural resources around us, it may prove critically important and even life-saving to know which plants may be used to, for instance, stop a bad case of diarrhea before we become badly dehydrated, disinfect scratches and wounds to help prevent infection, or halt serious bleeding.
The following is by no means a complete listing, simply a bit of information about some of the plants that I find most useful here in the Central Rockies, with the focus being on medicinal plants.
Perhaps folks from other areas would like to post some of their favorite local remedies, as well...
Berries, ripe and ready to harvest:
Digging roots--note bright yellow color:
Berberine solution made by soaking roots in warm water:
Oregon grape uses...
(root antibiotic, antiseptic, berries edible)
Roots will effectively eliminate the cause of most cases of bacterial diarrhea (E. coli, Shigella, Salmonella and cholera, to name a few...) Kills strep and staph bacteria, and is effective against most intestinal parasites. Several controlled studies have shown berberine, the alkaloid that gives the roots their distinctive yellow color, to be more effective than metronidazole (Flagyl) in eliminating Giardia, without the bad side effects. You'll need to drink a strong tea of it several times a day for three or four days for this to be effective. If your hands or feet start tingling or going numb, you are getting too much. It also makes a very effective wash for eye infections and irritations.
Berberine is water soluble, so a useful solution can be prepared as a tea. It does taste awful, but is effective. What you want are the brightest yellow parts of the root, which usually means the inner bark, but you can just break up the entire root and toss it in the pot.
The berries--appearing in fall--are often rather tart, but very good to eat as a trail snack, or to help quench thirst.
(leaves insect repellent, fever reducing, help stop bleeding)
Wad up a bunch of the fresh leaves and press against a wound to help halt bleeding, or make a hemostatic powder by drying and powdering the leaves. This is really pretty effective!
The fresh leaves make a good mosquito/black fly repellant, just rubbed on your skin. You have to reapply it every fifteen minutes or so, but that's not a big deal, because yarrow is usually very plentiful in areas where mosquitoes are plentiful! I have camped for several days at a time up in the Flattops during mosquito season using nothing but yarrow for repellant, and had a fine time. Do test it on a small area before rubbing it all over yourself though, because some people are allergic. I will sometimes stick leaves up under my hat so they hang down over my neck and ears, to keep the mosquitoes away from my head.
Chew or make tea of the leaves to help relieve headaches and fevers, chew and hold against painful area for toothaches and sore gums.
(anti-diarrheal, antiseptic, acorns and buds edible)
A strong tea made from acorn hulls or oak bark (or even leaves, if it's the only option) can go a long way towards stopping a bad case of diarrhea, because of the tannic acid they contain. This tea also makes a good antiseptic wash for wounds, burns, skin irritations and fungal infections like athlete's foot.
The acorns, of course, are a major food source and contain a good bit of fat, though most of ours have to be leached to get rid of some of the tannic acid before you want to eat too many of them. Oak buds, appearing in the late winter and spring, contain a decent amount of protein, and while they do not taste great, are one of the few (only?) plant sources of protein available to us at that time of year.
Hound's tongue uses...
(leaves help heal wounds, sprains, fractures)
Leaves contain allantion--the substance that makes comfrey, to which it is closely related, such a powerful healer--a protein that is very valuable for dissolving devitalized tissue and encouraging the growth of healthy new cells, making this plant extremely useful in treating wounds and helping heal sprains and fractures. Synthetic allantoin is used in hospitals for wound healing. Make a strong tea of the leaves as a wound wash, but only use it externally. Poultices are effective in speeding healing of sprains, fractures and bruising.
This plant is all over the place, even in urban/suburban areas, as the seeds are nasty burs that are spread by animals and people who brush against it in passing. It is actually considered a "noxious weed" in Colorado, but certainly has its uses!
Making a comfrey/hound's tongue poultice - This video demonstrates one way to make a comfrey poultice for use on sprains, strains and broken bones, a method whi
(antiseptic, wound dressing, insulation, food)
This common tree lichen is useful as an antiseptic and somewhat hemostatic wound dressing, as insulation in clothing and boots, and as food, too!
Usnic acid (which is not very soluble in water, so if you are trying to make a preparation to take internally, it is far more effective to soak the lichen in alcohol than it is to make a tea) is a very effective inhibitor of gram positive bacteria--including tuberculosis, staphylococcus, streptococcus, and pneumococcus, and is has also proven effective against, fungi, amoebas, and viruses, as well as having anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties. And you can eat it, though most of it requires boiling in several changes of water before it is especially palatable. If you add a pinch of baking soda or ash from your fire to the water, this process goes much more quickly, as the acid is neutralized. The Utes and other tribes used to steam great masses of the lichen between mats of grass until they turned black and gelatinous, and lost all of their bitterness.
(bandages, antiseptic, congestion relief, fire starting)
Use the large, fuzzy and mildly antiseptic leaves as improvised bandages or insoles to help with blisters/sore feet, simmer the leaves and inhale steam to relieve bad head or chest congestion, and the tea and steam can help clear up pneumonia.
Dried mullein stalks, easy to find even in the winter, make good straight spindles for hand drill firestarting.
(burn relief, insulation, hemostatic, food)
So many uses...everything on it is edible (and actually tastes good,) aside from the fuzz, once the heads turn brown. The starchy roots can be boiled and scraped, the results eaten like mashed potatoes, the bottom few inches of the stems can be peeled and eaten raw like celery, and the new shoots in the spring/early summer are very good eating when they are just a few inches long.
In the summer/fall when the green heads are developing, before they start turning brown, boil them up and eat them like corn on the cob. Not bad, and very, very filling. Once the heads send up a pollen spike, you can collect the pollen and cook it up in some hot water to eat like a hot cereal, or put it in bread, etc. It's very high in protein. This pollen also acts as a hemostatic, and is one of the few things in the wild that has some chance (if no other help is available) of slowing internal bleeding.
When you peel the lower part of the stalk for the "celery," there is a clear gel that can be used as you would aloe, for burns or skin irritations/problems. The fuzz, of course, makes a good spark catcher/tinder, and good insulation, too, stuffed between clothing layers or used to fill a "down" vest, etc, and is often available through the fall and winter. I'm sure there are many uses for this plant that I've neglected to mention (Oh! You can weave mats/sleeping pads from the leaves,) but those are some of the main ones.
(sunscreen, pain reliever, cordage)
Everyone knows what this tree looks like, of course, but I wanted to mention it because it is a great source for field-expedient sunscreen, if you find yourself up high on a sunny day without any. Just rub your hands on the trees to gather the white, slightly waxy powder that coats them--there will often be more of it on the south sides, but not always--and apply it to arms, face, etc. It works as well as zinc oxide cream, and I've climbed peaks many times on sunny days using only this powder for protection, and have never been burnt as long as I was diligent about applying enough of it in the first place. This white powder also contains a wild yeast and can act as sourdough starter if added to a mixture of flour and water..
Aspen inner bark also contains some salicylic acid, and can chewed or simmered as a mild pain-reliever, though it is not as concentrated in aspen as in willow.
The inner bark, on fallen dead trees, can be used for a weak but bulky cordage for weaving baskets, or in strips for waterproofing and insulating material on a shelter. The dried wood of both aspen and cottonwood makes good fireboards for friction fires.
(antiseptic, pain reliever)
Cottonwood buds, collected in late winter or early spring before they begin opening, contain a sticky, sweet-smelling substance that is highly anti inflammatory and antiseptic, and is known as "balm of Gliead" or "black salve." This is usually prepared by soaking the buds in olive or other oil for a month or so, or heated gently to speed up the process, then the solid particles strained out, but they are useful to know about, even if you do not have access to oil. The buds can be pounded into a sticky mess, and the results applied to help heal frostbite, trench foot, and other similar injuries. It has been used successfully to treat skin cancers, as well, so is a good one for us to know, living up high as we do.
Cottonwood bark contains salicin for fever/pain relief, and the wood is useful for carving, coal burning to make bowls and for the spindle/fireboard in bow and drill firestarting.
This article is just an introduction to a few of the many useful plants in our region. Do not, of course, eat or use medicinally any plant that you have not positively identified, as many of them contain powerful chemicals that can be harmful if not used properly. The following books are a good place to start in learning to identify and use these plants and many others:
All photos taken by and property of the author, unless otherwise noted.
Let us know about your favorite wild medicinal or edible plants, and how you use them!