As long as humans have been sickened by disease, we have searched for cures. Since ancient times, people and animals alike have looked to plants for their medicine, and this knowledge has been passed down generation to generation. So many generations, in fact, you may be surprised.
Earliest Known Medicines
The earliest known evidence of the use of medicinal plants by humans was found on a Sumerian cuneiform clay slab from Nagpur, dating back to around 5000 BCE. A condensed report of ancient plant-based medicine from the first known discovery to present day exploration, Historical Review of Medicinal Plant’s Usage by Biljana Petrovska, states that the tablet from Nagpur “comprised 12 recipes for drug preparation referring to over 250 various plants.”
Naming China as the second oldest point of origin, Petrovska informs us that “The Chinese book on roots and grasses “Pen T’Sao,” written by Emperor Shen Nung circa 2500 BCE, [provides] 365 drugs, many of which are used presently, [utilizing plants] such as: ginseng, jimson weed, cinnamon bark, and ephedra.”
Moving towards the common era along the anthropological timeline, another discovery was made in Mesopotamia.
An article titled The Largest Surviving Medical Treatise from Ancient Mesopotamia, by Jeremy Norman, references Mesopotamian medical records from 1600 BCE, consisting of roughly 1000 cuneiform tablets. Some of these tablets made their way into The British Museum in London, and in 1953, JoAnn Scurlock and Burton R. Anderson published the Diagnoses in Assyrian and Babylonian Medicine, Ancient Sources, Translations, and Modern Medical Analysis. In this work, you can find sophisticated medicines comprised of plants to cure disorders from sexually transmitted diseases to trauma and shock.
Plants were not only recognized as a source of medicine, but as a source of food, protection, and power, which the study of Ethnobotany well demonstrates.
Ethnobotany is the scientific study of the traditional knowledge and practices of people and their relationship to plants for shelter, medicine, clothing, food, and all things concerning human survival and well-being.
This ancient knowledge is not some antique relic gathering dust on a shelf. The compounds discovered in ginger centuries ago and used to treat indigestion are the same compounds in ginger today. This is why the study of Ethnobotany is so timeless. Medicinal plants can be used today in the same way they were used long ago and still be just as effective, and just as impactful.
You would think because humans have been studying the medicinal applications of plants since 5000 BCE, that we would have identified them all. But while it is true that many species are now known to us, 390,900 species to be exact, scientists say that the number left to be discovered is actually around 8.7 million.
With millions of unknown, undiscovered species of plants whose healing properties we know nothing about, could this lead to a cure for some of today’s most elusive diseases, like cancer?
New Anti-Cancer Species Identified
Consider Kindia gangan, a new species identified in the Republic of Guinea in 2016. A peer reviewed research article published in 2018, titled Kindia…a new cliff-dwelling genus…from Mt Ganan, found that the plant contains 40 triterpenoid compounds. This is important because recent studies show that Triterpenoids possess an anti-tumor effect.
A study published in Science Direct titled, Research Progress on Natural Triterpenoid Saponins in the Chemoprevention and Chemotherapy of Cancer, states that “They [Triterpenoids] are becoming increasingly significant in the treatment of cancer due to their efficacy and safety. The anti-cancer triterpenoid saponins (chemical compounds found in various plant species) enable the inhibition of cancer formation and progression.”
Local Medicinal Plants and Paths Less Trodden
You might not identify a new genus while out ambling down one of our local trails, but there are some important medicinal plants that can easily be found in Corvallis. Here is a list of some less trodden trails both in, and just outside, of town where you can discover and ethically harvest some of them.
Brandis Natural Area and Broadleaf Plantain
You can find Brandis off Walnut Blvd. Head up Rolling Green towards the hills. At the top of the hill where Rolling Green meets Garryanna, you will see the trailhead. It begins in a stand of second growth Douglas Fir with a blanket of blackberry bushes and wild grasses rolling underneath like a great green carpet.
Brandis has some real gems. If you take the first fork in the trail to the right, you will find a lush, sloping hillside trail with big moss-covered maples and ferns that is reminiscent of the Olympic Rainforest.
Look along the trail for Broadleaf Plantain, Plantago major, an important plant with many medicinal uses which was carried with the Puritans and brought here. Wikipedia states that “Native American peoples [knew the plant] by the common name ‘white man’s footprint,’ because it thrived in the disturbed and damaged ecosystems surrounding European settlements.”
As a source of food, Plantain’s young tender leaves can be eaten raw in salads and contain calcium, minerals, and vitamin A. Additionally, its seeds can be ground into flour.
Plantain’s medicinal properties range from a tea made from leaves used to treat bronchitis, diarrhea, and fever, to a medicine made with seeds used to lower cholesterol, and a treatment for malaria and epilepsy.
A poultice can be made of chewed or crushed leaves that will heal wounds, stings, and sores. You can make an excellent band-aid using the chewed leaves placed directly on the wound and the larger leaves as the bandage wrapped with cord.
Curiously, the fibrous nature of Plantain also makes good cordage. If you were in a survival situation, this would be a useful plant to know.
Forest Dell Park and Self-Heal
To get here from Walnut Boulevard, head up NW 13 Street to the dead end. Walk between the water towers along the gravel road to the other side where you will see the trailhead to Forest Dell Park.
Forest Dell is a sweet little pocket forest of mossy-covered old growth fir and maple with a short 0.4 mile loop trail. The musty smell of wet ferns and clay floods the senses, and there is a feeling of timelessness. Look for a beautiful purple flowering plant called Self-Heal or Heal-All, along the trail here.
Heal-All, or Prunella vulgaris, is in the mint family, and was an important plant to the Nuxalk, Quinault, and Quileute peoples, who made a tea for strengthening the heart, a juice to cure boils, and a poultice for treating cuts, bruises, and inflammation.
The book, Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, by Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon, states that “The widespread traditional use of this plant for healing purposes gave rise to the common names used today.”
An article about Heal-All on Healthline.com (http://www.healthline.com/
In terms of diabetes, the author went on to say, “One 8-week study fed diabetic mice a diet high in fat and cholesterol and gave some of them Prunella vulgaris extract. The mice given Prunella vulgaris had lower total blood cholesterol and triglycerides. The extract also led to improvements in heart function.”
If these were not enough reasons to love Heal-All, here is yet one more: The entire plant is edible. The flowers make an excellent tasting tea; the leaves are mild and refreshing in a salad.
North Ridge Mary’s Peak Trail and Stinging Nettle and Siberian Miner’s Lettuce
Drive just 20 minutes out of town and head up Woods Creek Road off the 20 to a trailhead on your left with a small parking lot. There is rarely anyone here, and the surrounding forest is inviting.
The trail itself is a 12.8 mile in-and-back to the observation point on Mary’s summit. You could make a lovely day of it and spend some time wandering along the Meadow Edge Trail once you get to the top, or just head back down when you feel like it.
Along the trail you can find Stinging Nettle and Siberian Miner’s-Lettuce, each with its own attribution, quality, and story.
Stinging Nettle, or Urtica dioica, is also in the mint family, and makes an excellent steamed green with sea salt. Make sure you wear heavy leather gloves to harvest Nettles, as they have stinging hairs all over them that upon steaming become harmless.
The leaves also make a nice spring tonic tea to nourish and strengthen the blood. The reason for this is found in its profile. Nettles contain the Vitamins A, C, and B, contain potassium, iron, calcium, chromium, copper, and magnesium.
Boiled Nettle steam was considered helpful for rheumatism and sciatica by the Quileute, and the leaves were used for healing boils by the Puyallup people.
Recipes with Stinging Nettles can be found on the website Eatweeds, at http://www.eatweeds.co.uk/
Siberian Miner’s-Lettuce, or Claytonia sibirica, is in the Purslane family, and has many uses as a medicine. The leaves were mixed with Hemlock bark by the Tlingit to treat syphilis, and the Nuu-chah-nulth applied the pounded plant to the abdomen for constipation. The Nuu-chah-nulth women ate the whole plant to induce and speed labor. The plant was also used as a headache remedy by placing the soaked leaves on the head.
The Mount Pisgah Arboretum website states, “As the name indicates, these plants were generally reported to have been used by miners during the California gold rush in the mid 1800’s to prevent scurvy.” The reason for this is Vitamin C can be found in the plant.
Remedies continue from hair wash and eyewash, to sore throats and a remedy for urinary problems. But the thing I love most about Miner’s-Lettuce is that it tastes oh so good as a salad green. The leaves are juicy, mild, and tender. I eat them along the trail often, but I do so carefully, respectfully, and ethically.
Understanding the importance of how to harvest is just as important as knowing what to harvest. Now that you know what to harvest, how can you do it in such a way that is sustainable?As advised by the U.S. Forest Service, you should strive to collect “less than 5% of the population, [and] less if harvest has occurred in the same area.” This insures the future health of the collecting site, and to share the plants with other animals who also depend on them.
This rule is especially important to apply when harvesting roots. When you dig up and remove the entire plant, its ability to regenerate itself naturally is lost. Harvest conservatively, and always seek to replant when possible by spreading seeds or replanting root crowns.
Importance of Planet and Plant Health
The natural world that surrounds us is, has, and will always be of the greatest significance to human and animal survival and well-being. The relationship that we as living organisms share with the Earth is of the utmost importance. Bear in mind that it is bountiful, but also fragile and in need of repair. Without a healthy planet, we would not have healthy plants, and without plants, we would never have discovered aspirin which is derived from the Myrtle, Willow, and Aspen tree.
By Blair Girard