A few weeks ago I moved to Steamboat Springs, CO, and overnight my world changed. I went from temperate, shady Washington, where everything is damp, green, and lush… to the Rocky Mountains, where nearly every day in this alpine environment is dry and sunny. I have been finding that the plant community is like a fusion between what is found in the high, eastern side of the Cascades (of Washington), and what I found in central Alaska– Not quite everything from each, but a good mix of the two.
Now that I am getting used to what food I can forage for, and what medicine is readily available, I thought I would start to share it with you all… First below I have some pictures of plants, and then below that I have a list of ways to use the plants. There are some plants that I have descriptions for below that I don’t have pictures for yet, sorry!
1. Salsify, Tragopogon dubious– This wonderful weed grows in just about every stretch of disturbed soil that there is around here. I have found it all over my yard, as well as on every bike trail and foot path that I’ve been on so far. You can see from the picture that the flower and the flower pod (which is to the left of the flower) have quite a unique look to them. The only thing I can think of that you may confuse the flower with from afar is dandelion, but once you get up close it is easy to see the flower with those special bracts, and stem with very non-dandelion leave, is nothing else but Salsify! The flowers, flower buds, young stalks, and leaves are all edible raw or cooked, and are very tasty. Be sure you get the young stalks because after the flower goes to seed they stalks seem to be a bit more woody.
2. Rose, Rosa spp.– Rose grows just about everywhere, so everyone should be taking advantage of its tasty rose hips and fragrant flowers. The flowers can be used to flavor honey or water, as well as made into a flower essence or potpourri. Although I don’t think there are official studies to support this, rose is commonly used for emotional support and to be uplifting. As for food, the rose hips are delicious and filled with vitamin C… just be sure to not eat the irritating hairs that surround the seeds in the center of the fruit. Often times I will dehydrate the rose hips and add to flavor tea, as well as keep a bag stored in my freezer so I can add them to various baked goods. Even the seeds have a purpose! Oil made from rose hip seeds is great for the skin. I put the oil over scars to help them disappear, and even add the oil to my face cream blend to help keep the wrinkles away and to rejuvenate my skin cells.
3. Alfalfa, Medicago sativa- Who needs to go buy sprouts at the store when there is alfalfa growing everywhere? The seeds of alfalfa can not only be sprouted, but also roasted or made into flour. The flowers, leaves, and young shoots can also be eaten, but I have to say I am most excited about sprouting the seeds.
4. Mallow, Malva neglacta– I was very surprised to see how abundant mallow is out here. Instead of buttercup threatening to take over the garden like back in Washington, here mallow seems to pose the biggest threat (In my garden area, at least. I can’t speak for other people’s gardens). It’s pretty lucky for me that the leaves, flowers, young shoots, and little “fruits” are edible. Recipes can also be found in various books and the internet on how to make homemade marshmallows with this plant! I am very excited to give that a try. The same gooeyness from this plant that you would use for the homamade marshmallows is also what is medicinal about this plant. The gooey substance that is found in all parts of the plant is very soothing– great to put over skin.
Yarrow, Acheillea millefolium– I love the story that goes along with the Latin name of this plant. In the beginning of my plant studies it helped me remember a key medicinal use for yarrow. Here it goes: In stories from ancient Greece it is said that Acheilles used this plant in battle. When his soldiers were wounded he was said to make a poultice of the leaves and apply it to the wound to help staunch the flow of blood. Hence the first part of the Latin name Acheillea. So there you have it, Yarrow is an excellent hemostatic/styptic—it will help to clot the blood and stop a wound from bleeding excessively. Along with its styptic qualities, it is also anti-inflammatory, slightly antimicrobial and antibacterial, and can induce sweating (which can be very helpful in bringing down a fever or helping the body sweat out toxins). Use as tea, tincture, or poultice.
Dandelion, Taraxacum officianale– The wonder-weed! I absolutely love dandelions, and love that they grow everywhere. All parts of this plant are very useful. The flowers and leaves and edible and tasty, and the leaves are very nutritious. Eat them raw or cooked. The leaves are bitter, and you will find that some leaves are more bitter than others—just luck of the draw. However, I’ve found that the more bitter food you introduce into your diet, the more you will be able to tolerate, ever crave, bitter things. The root is wonderful too, and has many uses… I pickle the roots, and find them tasty that way. I also infuse vinegar with dandelion roots and other herbs for salad dressing. They can also be chopped up and roasted to make a tea with a bold, rich flavor. Yum! So, in a nutshell…Dandelions are a wonderful nutritious food, a diuretic, and a bitter, and are helpful in treating UTI’s, kidney, and liver issues.
Lamb’s Quarter, Chenopodium album– Yay for wild spinach! The leaves can be eaten raw or cooked, and are a nutritious addition to meals.
Sitka Valerian, Valerian sitchensis- For most people, this plant operates as a nervine relaxant and sleep aid. I say most people because for some it has the exact opposite effect and acts as a stimulant. In fact, one of the women who is my herbal mentor has this reaction. For me, though, does just fine in relieving nerves and helping me get a good night sleep.
Quaking Aspen, Populus tremuloides– Aspen has the good fortune to belong to the family Salicaceae, along with cottonwood and willow. Salicaceae is a special family because all of its members contain salicin—a constituent that is a pre-cursor to modern day aspirin. The members of this family act as a pain reliever, anti-inflammatory, fever treatment, and astringent. Use for whatever you might want to take an aspirin for. As a bonus, this plant is also anti-fungal and antibacterial. Hooray.
Shepards Purse, Capsella bursa-pastoris – All parts of this plant are edible, but don’t eat in large quantities. It acts as an antiseptic and diuretic, so is good for UTI’s. As an astringent, it is also useful in treating diarrhea and other “weepy” conditions. Note: do not take during pregnancy.
Common Sunflower, Helianthus annuus- flowers and seeds are edible.
Western Blue Flax, Linum lewisii- While the seeds this flax produces are smaller than the flax seeds you buy in the store, they are just as nutritious and well worth the harvest-time (in my opinion). The fibers in this plant can also be used for cordage.
Nettle-Leaf Horsemint, aka Giant Hyssop, Agastache urticifolia- Like all members of the mint family, this plant is a good source of calcium and magnesium. It also has wonderful anti-virul qualities. Feel like your coming down with a cold? Add some leaves into your meal as a spice, or add a few leaves to tea! This plant does not have a minty taste, but has a flavor all its own. This plant also has a reputation for calming various digestive complaints and cooling fevers.
Chokecherry, Prunus virginiana- Tasty fruits, but remove/don’t eat the seeds! The bark is great for coughs and chest colds.
Dock, Rumex acetosella– Another plant that I love and use often. The young leaves are quite nutritious—high in iron and other vitamins. They should, however, be eaten in moderation. The presence of oxalic acid in the leaves can give the unsuspecting wild foods glutton a stomachache. The seeds can also be eaten. Ground up they are wonderful to mix in to flour for breads, crackers, etc. For medicinal purposes, it is traditionally the root that you want to use. It is wonderful for the liver, and therefore also acts as a blood purifier. As a bitter it stimulates bile production, aids the liver in its functions, and helps promote healthy digestion.