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"Natural Medicines of the Northern Forest" By Lauren Buyofsky, as published in the North Country News June 15, 2007

The maladies afflicting society in the developed world run the gamut from minor cuts and scrapes to heart failure. Nestled in between are muscle injuries, menstrual irregularities, and the common cold. While Western medicine has made huge advances over the years, humans have been healing their sick and wounded for centuries through the use of natural plant therapies. In a society where the stress levels in our daily lives continue to skyrocket, antibiotic resistance is rampant, and healthcare is becoming less and less affordable, the traditional healing brought about by herbal medicine becomes increasingly relevant to contemporary Americans.

Unbeknownst to many, herbs find their way into modern society quite often. The inspiration for "wintergreen" flavored chewing gum and toothpaste is, in fact, wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens)! This low-growing forest perennial is readily identified by the sweet and minty "wintergreen" scent released by crushing the leaves. Historically used as a tea to calm digestive upsets, today a wintergreen liniment is used as a soothing topical application that aids in the relief of injured or sore muscles.

Many of the plants commonly disregarded, or despised, as lawn weeds are actually some of nature's greatest medicinal gifts. Plantain (Platago sp.) is most useful as a natural first aid, offering relief when the crushed leaves are applied to minor cuts, scratches, insect bites, splinters, and skin rashes. Plantain is gentle enough to be used readily on children, who are often pleased to take part in their own healing by wrapping fresh plantain leaves around scraped or splintered fingers. The white flowers and feathery leaves of yarrow (Achillea millefolium) can be applied fresh to broken skin as a styptic (to aid in stopping bleeding). In the form of a tea, yarrow has also been used to combat colds and the flu, and to break fevers, as it induces sweating. Elderberries (Sambucus sp.), in addition to making a wonderful jam, can be harvested when ripe and also used as a remedy for colds and the flu, combining quite well with yarrow for this purpose. Red clover (Trifolium pratens), historically used as a "blood purifier," or cleansing herb, is believed by some to have the potential to decrease the body's susceptibility to cancer.

An herbal "powerhouse," goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) is one of nature's strongest antibiotics. Due to its effectiveness, goldenseal has been detrimentally over-harvested in the northeast, and is now endangered; as such, it should not be harvested from the wild but can be cultivated in shade gardens with rich soil. Goldthread (Coptis trifolia), a forest groundcover named for its thin, bright yellow-orange roots, also has antibacterial potential and has historically been used as a gargle for mouth sores and toothaches. Goldthread is on the United Plant Saver's "At Risk" list, and thus must be harvested only using the utmost care and responsibility to avoid depleting native populations. Perhaps the "heart" of eastern forests, hawthorne (Crateagus sp.) leaves, flowers, and berries are one of the most potent cardiac tonics identified in the herbal world. Hawthorne is useful for such conditions as hypertension and arteriosclerosis, but should only be used in conjunction with other cardiac therapies under the direction of a medical and herbal professional.

Women who identify a kinship with the natural world may not be surprised to learn that the northern forest offers them a number of powerful medicines. Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens), a creeping vine, is a common forest groundcover. Also called "squaw vine" in reference to its use by Native American women, partridgeberry has historically been used to alleviate menstrual discomforts. Both Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) and Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) are at-risk native medicinal plants that offer natural relief of imbalances specific to women. Black Cohosh is becoming one of the leading remedies used to alleviate menopausal symptoms, while Blue Cohosh is a wonderful tonic for the female reproductive organs. Partridge berry, Blue Cohosh, and Black Cohosh should be avoided during pregnancy, as all can cause uterine stimulation and contractions. A wonderful tea to promote reproductive health during pregnancy can be made using fresh or dried red raspberry leaves (Rubrus sp.), which are gently nurturing for women in all stages of life.

Herbs are used increasingly in society, and have been used for centuries, because they do have healing capabilities. This being the case, it is imperative that they are used with care and respect, and with an understanding that herbs do affect the body and as such they can have interactions with other drugs (other herbals as well as over-the-counter and prescription drugs). As with the harvesting, use, and consumption of any wild plants, it is of the utmost importance that herbs are identified appropriately and used safely. There are poisonous plants in the northeast that closely resemble medicinal counterparts. Fortunately, there are a number of reputable herbalists who work with clients across the county. Herbs are increasingly available through health food stores and wholesale herb companies, and herbal medicine continues to find a place alongside conventional Western medicine in the office of many physicians. With the increases in use of herbal medicine, it is vital that we all aspire to become good stewards of the land by promoting only safe and ecologically sustainable harvesting and use of medicinal plants of the northern forest.

To learn more about the identification and uses of medicinal plants of the northern forest, please attend the Native Medicinal Plant Walk with Lauren Buyofsky at D Acres of New Hampshire, 218 Streeter Woods Road, Dorchester, NH, on June 17th, 2007 from 11:00am-1:00pm…the plant walk is FREE!

Lauren Buyofsky holds a M.S. degree in Natural Resources from the University of New Hampshire, is a certified herbalist, and is the founding owner of Wise River Herbals. She is a Farm Manager at D Acres of New Hampshire.

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