Notable Native Medicinal Herbs – An Overview of Natives & Common Naturalized Medicinal Plants
I have been fortunate to reside in a Pomo Indian area. Although I am far from the Oklahoma Cherokee lands of my grandfather, and north of the Ohlone and Salinan lands of my childhood, I have been blessed to meet outstanding natives of the two legged, four legged and plant varieties. This class will focus on native medicinal plants used by the native Pomo of my area of Southwestern Mendocino County, as well as commonly known Native and Naturalized plants. Naturalized plants are basically those that may have originated elsewhere but now are common enough to be regarded as weeds, and used long enough for us to know their properties.
Angelica: Lomatium californica. Pomo.
A tall umbrifil whose root is used for the respiratory system and as an antiviral. It is sweeter than the other native Angelica, tomentosa. Pomos chewed the root for colds, bronchitis, sore throat and fever. They made tea for sore throat and menses regularity. This is a Pomo name for Lomatium, not to be confused with Angelica arguta which Michael Moore writes about.
Betony: Pedicularis densiflora (Indian Warrior) POMO
My first March in Anderson Valley, we were driving north on 128 from Boonville to Philo. I was watching the greenery as we passed. Across from the Grange was a patch of deep maroon flowers. I had Bill stop right away. Love at first sight. Maroon velvet spikes sit on top of ferny leaves, and the plant stands at attention and calls for attention. The leaves are similar to yarrow. It grows as an understory to oak and madrone here in the valley but on the coast it grows in ditches along the roads. This is a favorite of mine, catching my eye with its beautiful burgundy flowers in the early Spring. The Pomo decocted it and used it externally only for backaches, particularly between the shoulder blades. The external use may be because it is often parasitic and could uptake toxins. I collect it for tinctures only around oak or madrone. It is, according to Moore, an expectorating cough remedy and for diarrhea (tannins). A student, wiry and tense, used it during a particularly difficult divorce and found it very helpful. Think of it for clenched jaws and tension in general. Another, an arborist, used it for numbness in his arms caused by overwork. It is extremely hard to transplant although I’m told that if you take a large tin can and sink it around the plant, leave it for months and then move it, you can do it. Make sure it is parasitic on something safe!
Blackberry: Rubus ursinus. Pomo
Legend has it that natives learned the safety of herbs by watching the bear. Obviously an important and delicious food. In addition, the Pomo used the leaves for diarrhea as tea. The blossoms they used for the lower intestinal tract and for female problems.
Blueberry: Vaccinium spp Huckleberry, etc. Pomo.
I could have blueberries or huckleberries every day. There is a woman here in Anderson Valley whose huckleberry pie is a high point of the Mendocino County Fair and Apple Show. You can use the leaves as well as the berries. It is famous as an eye tonic as well as being a great anti-oxidant. It likes to be an understory in acidic soil and grows wild on the coast in abundance.
Blue Blossom: Ceanothus thrysiflorus. Pomo.
This beautiful wild lilac covers the dry slopes of our area. It is closely related to the white blooming ceanothus known as Red Root further inland. In our area it was the blue that was used medicinally. Blue Blossom impacts the spleen and emulsifies the fats in the bloodstream. It enables the lymph system to increase immune functioning and, in addition, functions as an antidepressant for some disorders. It is an astringent to membranes so a good gargle and mouthwash for a sore throat or sores in the mouth.. It is great for tonsillitis and other lymph enlarged illnesses. It assists with breast, ovarian and other cysts. It is used in mononucleosis and hepatitis. This is an important medicine to know, especially for those who are “lymphy and growthy”.
Brook Mint: Mentha arvensis Field Mint
This is that fuzzy field mint that we find and say “Is this a mint?” Moore says that in the shade it isn’t fuzzy. It is also our only native mint. It likes fast moving water (well, we do have that in the winter!). Use for stomach distress and as a diaphoretic.
Buttercup: Ranunculus occidentalis; Ranunculus californicus. Pomo.
It is interesting that this plant, commonly regarded as poison and not used in European traditions, is used by the Pomo. The flowers and stems are eaten fresh. The seeds are gathered for pinole, which means seed flour.
California Mugwort: Artemesia vulgaris var Douglasii
I find these mostly in sandy areas near streams – there’s a lot beside the Navarro River. It is a lovely soft green with white on the bottom of the leaves which identifies its mineral rich properties. It prefers a sandy soil near water. Gather in the summer, keeping the leaves intact to keep the volatile oils within. Use the aerial parts for tincture, salve or tea. Mugwort is to the moon as St. Johnswort is to the sun; mugwort moves the waters of the body. It makes a wonderful salve to move energy in the body, effective on bruises and for pain, particularly with women. Moore says to mix it with feverfew for sinus pain. It is antifungal and antimicrobial. Not for use during pregnancy.
California Poppy: Eschscholzia californica. Pomo
The satin smooth golden petals of our state flower radiate peace and relaxation. The petals are delicious in salads. The ferny leaves are characteristic of many of our native healers such as Indian Warrior and Yarrow. These leaves hold water efficiently in the dry summers, providing a medicine soothing to eye and nerves. The leaves are an almost ethereal silvery turquoise. An amazingly underused medicine. A wonderful aid for sleeping, even with hyperactive children. It is illegal to wildcraft it so don’t!! It is also foolproof to grow. The whole plant is used, harvesting the aerial parts when in flower and seed and the roots in dormancy. However, the Pomo used only to dry up a nursing mother’s mile. Otherwise it was not to be used by women or children! It is, after all a poppy, so perhaps this is how that came about. Chances are it is constipating….
California Snakeroot: Aristolochia californica Calif. Pipe Vine
I originally got this from the Anderson Valley Native Nursery because Ken spoke about it as somewhat endangered in our area. When I talked to some folks from the Sacramento Valley they looked at me in disbelief. There it grows to 40 feet, vining over fences and open areas. It is found ONLY in Northern California. That, of course, is as good a reason to grow it as any. The roots are used medicinally as a simple bitter tonic – one of the best, a rival to gentian. It will improve appetite and restores nitrogen metabolism. It is tumor inhibiting and appears to stimulate white blood cells. It is used in small doses, not with medications, and not while pregnant.
California Spikenard: Aralia californica California Ginseng
This large plant loves creeks and springs, shade and moisture. The root, which likes to grow near streams, is used especially for chronic moist-lung problems, like the winter wet that hangs on in the lungs. It is anti-inflammatory topically and can be used on shingles, herpes, rashes, eczema and other dermatitis symptoms. It is often characterized as the California Ginseng. Like ginseng, it is used to rejuvenate and recharge as well as benefiting the immune system. It is tonic and adaptogenic. Use it for overwhelm at any time.
Clovers: Trifolium fucatum, willdenovii, albopurpureum. Pomo.
A much enjoyed spring green worldwide. Those cows know something! We do have a native clover which is small and white. The seeds were used for pinole, or seed flour.
Elderberry, blue. Sambucus mexicana. Pomo.
This small tree is mighty. The astringent leaves are astringent, used for internal and external bleeding. The berries are eaten as well as used for ulcers, lungs and stomach problems. Crystal Rae, herbalist in Covelo, reports becoming ill from using the berries.
European Pennyroyal: Mentha pulegium
It is definitely naturalized in our area! Both tea and tincture are effective diaphoretics. It is good to induce fevers and sweating. The essential oil is exceedingly dangerous internally, despite its use as an abortifacient. It has caused deaths when used in this way. I personally think the oil should be illegal.
False Solomon’s Seal: Smilacina racemosa
This is common around here – in the Spring I see a lot on Gschwend Road near the creek. Usually fall roots are used. With this you can make a cough syrup that works well. It soothes the throat and can be used with mullein, Calif. Spikenard or many other lung remedies. It is also used, with Grindelia, for poison oak. The root appears to be like that of Soloman’s Seal so may have the same amazing muscular/skeletal effects…..
Figwort: Scrophularia californica
Thinking this was a Monardella, I had it growing in an inappropriate place. Fortunately, Karin Uphoff, author of Botanical Body Care and a friend enlightened me. It has been moved but continues to grow in a dry sunny location. The aerial parts are an important skin remedy and anti-inflammatory, used also for mucosal sores and irritations, according to Moore. It is also for arthritis. It is used as a salve for bruises, stings and joint injuries that are recent. It is for slow viruses with enlarged lymph nodes.
Goldthread: Coptis laciniata
I have wondered what this plant was for years as I’ve walked at Hendy Woods or in other redwood areas. The roots are bright yellow/orange and very bitter. It is a great bitter tonic, chronic intestinal congestion, IBS, constipation, etc. It is also called Canker Root and Mouth Root and used for cold sores and herpes. High in berberine. I once wrote in an herbal chat room that most yellow rooted plants were high in berberine. The wrath of the chat room hostess fell upon me for such a generalization. Nonetheless, it’s true!
Hawthorn: Crataegus douglasii or Columbiana
Best known for the berries that are best known as a heart remedy, this is a superb tree. Yes, it is a heart tonic, useful for arrhythmias or any other irregularity and imbalance. It strengthens the heart muscle. It is also used for connective tissue due to the high level of flavonoids. And did I mention that it is delicious?
Horehound: Marrubium vulgare
As a child I had horehound candy which I loved. I was quite surprised to find just how ubiquitous it is, growing wild at the base of south sloping hills on my land. Gather in late summer. The syrup is used for colds and asthma. According to Moore, it is mildly stimulating to cardiopulmonary function, mucus membrane secretions in the lungs and intestinal tract and bile secretions from the gallbladder. Thus it is good for shortness of breath, belly fat, binging, palpitations…….. although one of the bitterest of bitters, it is wonderful as a syrup or candy.
Horsetail: Equisetum spp.
This is a very interesting plant. It is ancient, first of all. Matthew Wood has written extensively about it in The Book of Herbal Wisdom and I highly recommend his insights. It is very high in Silica and Matt points out that it follows the homeopathic remedy profile for Silicea. Nerves, inflammations, joint pain – there are very few kidney or structural issues that don’t respond to horsetail. It should not be eaten fresh or cooked due to the high level of silica. Decoct from plants growing in clean water.
Hypericum: Hypericum perferatum St. Johnswort
I built quite a career in Boston with this herb, treating mild and moderate depression as an alternative to prozac and other psychotropes. Simply put, it works. It is also an herb for all of us alchemists, turning oils and alcohols a deep ruby red. No wonder it is transformative. It is the herb of the sun, and therefore warming. It grows in very inhospitable places so is especially useful for those who find their environment to inhospitable – the more psychologically tender of the species homo sapiens need this herb. It lifts the skin of white skin cows and I once saw this on my own beagle after giving him a very small amount of St. J to calm him. The white fur on his muzzle began to lift – very scarey! So very pale people can also be effected. However, it is also antiviral and useful for shingles and herpes. It likes to choose its own place to grow and often moves.
Lemon Balm: Melissa officianalis
Moore says this is not a potent medicine, by which he really means safe, I think. It is beneficial for those who are mildly depressed, it has been shown to be effective as an antiviral, it works on head colds, aches and pains, herpes and kind of whatever comes down the pike. It grows anywhere……
Maidenhair Fern: Adiantum pedatum Five-Finger Fern
Yet another lung remedy, a gentle one. It is used for smog and air pollution, not too common up here except for fires. It is also used to get menses back on track after childbirth and, of course, as a hair rinse. Fronds and stems are used, which is nice since you don’t have to bother the roots.
Manzanita: Arctostaphylos spp. Pomo.
I have several that I love in my garden. In the spring they are covered with exquisite pink flowers and then with berries. It is exceedingly high in tannins and can be dangerous to use for more than 3 days or so. The Pomo used the boiled bark for laxative and detoxification. The flowers and berries are used medicinally for kidneys, stomach and intestinal tract as well. Otherwise It is used for cystitis and to help with inflammation in bacterial vaginosis and yeast infections and the acute pain of genital herpes and venereal warts. The boiled tea is a good wash for poison oak and infections. We use a product called Manzanita Magic for poison oak, bites and such.
Miner’s Lettuce: Montia perfoliata. Pomo.
Eaten fresh as a salad green High in vitamins and minerals; helps asthma. It will absorb what is in its environment so pick carefully, according to the Pomo.
Nettle: Urtica doica Stinging Nettle. Pomo
Gather aerial parts in the Spring, with gloves! This is such a bedrock of healing that it can’t be touted enough. Traveling through South America, we carried dried and powdered nettle with us to be sure to stay healthy. It is very high in minerals and chlorophyll and I prefer it to blue green algae or any of the other green supplements. Cheaper too. You can’t be kinder to yourself than to drink nettle tea. You’ll miss many of the minerals in a tincture. Yum. Pomo say to cleanse the blood and a poultice for pain or congestion. They used the poultice of the whole plant for arthritis. I’ve also found that stinging myself (urtification) is very effective for reversing arthritis. It is also used for anemia, hemorrhage (esp uterine), sciatica, neuralgia, burns, insect bites and is a food. Fresh or freeze dried it is used for allergies and hay fever. David Hoffman is said to give long formulae for various things, followed by “or you could just use nettle”.
Oregon Grape: Mahonia aquifolia
Another yellow rooted berberine – possibly the best, actually. Moore writes, …”three main functions: as a bitter tonic for impaired salivary and gastric secretions, as a stimulant to liver and skin protein metabolism, and as an antimicrobial for the skin and intestinal tract.” Can’t do better than that! It is in several understory places on my land and all over the Coast Botanical Gardens. It is beautiful and our very own answer to Golden Seal.
Oxeye Daisy: Chrysanthemum leucanthemum Field Daisy
In Anderson Valley and elsewhere along the side of the road. Decreases secretions when taken internally and dries up and disinfects when applied externally. Bronchitis or asthma with lots of discharge and red, inflamed membranes. Also hemostatic and good for gastritis. Also as a hair rinse for scalp and skin fungal infections.
Pearly Everlasting: Anaphalis margaritacea Everlasting, Gnaphalium margaritacea
I have found a lot of this along Hwy 1 near the Heritage House in the Fall (it’s there now) and along Albion Ridge Road past the store. I haven’t seen it right around here in AV though. It is soothing, anti-inflammatory and astringent. Safe for diarrhea, gastroenteritis. It is a good poultice for bruises.
Peppermint: Mentha piperita
You know it! Not native but loves to grow wherever it can. Nothing better for dyspepsia, stomach cramps and nausea. It doesn’t stimulate the uterus so is safe for morning sickness. Oil of peppermint is especially good and effective with IBS. I have heard that it is not good for you if you have reflux because it opens the esophageal sphincter.
Raspberry, wild. Rubus leucodermis. Pomo.
Used widely by everyone. The medicinal leaves are astringent, prepared as tea. It is widely used in European tradition for pregnancy and is very high in minerals. It is used by all as a mild treatment for diarrhea, although blackberry is more common.
Sage: Lepechinia calycina. Pomo.
Did you catch that this is NOT a salvia?? It is used for colds and many other illnesses by the Pomo. It is for diabetes and can be drunk over a long period of time. It is also a poultice used as with angelica. Used as a smudge for blessings and praying. Moore says it is also a powerful antioxident and he uses it for low level pelvic irritations, as with post-menses.
Salal: Gaultheria shallon Oregon Wintergreen
Another one that I see frequently on the coast, especially up Albion Ridge Rd. It is astringent and anti-inflammatory for the throat and upper intestinal mucosa, and through the bloodstream, to the urinary tract, sinuses and lungs. It also helps coughs from dusty dry air.
Soaproot: Chloragalum pomeridianum. Amole Lily. Pomo.
Not just for washing hair and bathing, the bulb is antibacterial and can be used fresh on scrapes and poison oak. The mashed bulb put in the water stuns fish, so we probably don’t want to eat it. Moore writes about it as Amole Lily and says that the use of it as a shampoo is effective for seborrhea, dandruff and scalp issues like cradle cap. It is also effective for mange and other skin infections and is better tolerated by dogs than cats…..
Spanish Moss: Usnea spp. Old Man’s Beard. Pomo.
The Pomo gathered it when dry and used it for skin irritations and to prevent infections. It is so absorbent that they used it for diapers! It is a powerful antiviral as well.
Storksbill: Erodium cicutarium.
This is so common that it is a great astringent to use. The whole plant is used as a tea for stomachache, diarrhea, menstrual anti-hemorrhage plant and for water retention, according to Moore.
Strawberry: Fragaria vesca. Pomo.
Eaten, no surprise! Mildly astringent.
Tobacco, Indian. Nicotiana attenuate, Nicotiana quadrivalvis. Pomo.
Mostly ceremonial among the local Pomo. It is, however, a very useful plant for beneficial insects as well and often used as a pesticide.
Turkey Mullein: Eremocarpus setigerus. Pomo.
It was used by the Pomo to stun fish. They no longer recommend it since too many fish are killed at once. Moore makes a fresh vinegar tincture and uses it as a bath or liniment for pleurisy like pain and applies it to the forehead for headaches, hangovers and says it will break fevers.
Western Coltsfoot: Petasites palmatus Coltsfoot, Butterbur, Tussilago
Early in the Spring a yellow flower, dandelion like, appears atop a long stem (not Hawkweed though – this will be in a ditch or someplace with dampness). Then the stem unfurls into large leaves that resemble a colt’s foot. Two months later, you pick the leaves to make a tincture. It loves moisture. I keep mine near a faucet and where I drain the hose. By Fall it has disappeared but will be back in the Spring when the roots have spread into more little plants. Coltsfoot is an old remedy and used for coughing and chest pain. It is an antispasmodic and a sedative for the bronchial rings and pulmonary receptors. It makes you feel better. It can also lessen spasms and cramps in the stomach, gallbladder or colon.
White Sage: Salvia apiana
We usually think of white sage as the smudging sage to purify the air. It is that, but it is also much more. It likes to grow on south slopes that are well protected from too much cold. Mine has often died back in the winter but comes back with long beautiful pluming flowers in the Spring. It has been used against staph, candida, and deep colds, best used as a tincture to extract the diterpines that work for the healing qualities.
Yarrow: Achillea millefolium
Although myth has it that Achilles’ mother dipped him in the River Styx, I suspect that it was yarrow that she dipped him in to protect him from wounds. It is one of our most remarkable protective plants, both physically and psychically. Yarrow was used up through the civil war to heal bullet and bayonet wounds. I once cut off the end of my pointer finger doing the dishes. I chewed up some yarrow, stuck the flap back on and applied pressure for about 10 minutes. Although the tip was (and is) slightly askew, it closed completely. This is an amazing hemostatic. Yarrow is also about internal blood. It can decrease internal hemorrhaging, to include a period, or it can jumpstart menses without being an abortifacient. It is anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial. Poultices are used for muscle and joint pain as well as for varicose veins.
Yerba Buena: Satureja douglasii.
The smell alone of this deep green creeper will cure many ills. A sweet smell, minty but gentle. This plant is used for almost everything by many Mexican families. We know it best for fevers, headaches, digestive disorders and sore throats. It works as an amazing steam for clearing the head and sinuses. Once you see this plant, you will never confuse it with mint. The leaves are much rounder. In damper areas, such as riverbeds, it is a gorgeous green while in dry areas it is purplish. It is best used fresh. It is used for mild fevers. Moore suggests some Yerba Buena/Hibiscus sun tea.
Yerba Santa: Erodictyon californica. Mountain Balm. Pomo.
Highly valued by the Pomo as medicine for colds, arthritis, rheumatism, lung troubles, pain and as a blood purifier. Stronger medicine than wormwood. The tea is made with the leaves or the bark, taken internally for used as an external wash. Another of my favorites, I had friends send it to me when I lived on the East Coast. It is a definite herb of choice for asthma, bronchitis, sinusitis and hay fever.
Mary Pat Palmer, Registered Herbalist.
The Philo School of Herbal Energetics, March 24, 2009