Thursday, October 1, 2009

Balsamorhiza sagittata: a local emblem and ally for clearing dampness

Cold and flu season is upon us once again. Tonight I’ll be teaching a 3 hour class on prevention and staying healthy during these cold months. Taking pro-active steps for health by eating whole fresh foods, getting appropriate rest, maintaining optimal vitamin D levels and supporting our bodies with nourishing herbs are some of the most important steps we can take in our daily lives.

But what happens when we do get sick? Sometimes it’s appropriate to visit your family doctor. Sometimes it’s appropriate to visit your local health food store, but many times the support we are searching for can be found right outside our front door.

I live in the epic Methow Valley in the Northeastern Cascades of Washington State. While I live in the heart of a Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir forest, a short distance from my house exist many other ecosystems including the dry shrub step rich in sage brush, alpine meadows covered in edible and medicinal wildflowers, and even agricultural land full of beneficial weeds.

This varied landscape offers a myriad of plants both historically and scientifically proven to help with a variety of cold and flu symptoms. The “Big Medicine” of Lomatium dissectum is the strongest medicinal plant of the Northwest according to Michael “Skeeter” Pilarski. It has a strong history of being use specifically for influenza and is even being studied for effectiveness against the HIV virus.

Osha (Ligusticum canbyi) can be found in our alpine meadows. With a strong affinity for the respiratory tract this warming and drying root can open airways and clear dampness from the lungs.

This list of plants could continue on and on, (Sagebrush, yarrow, chokecherry, mullein...) but instead I chose to focus on the emblem of my home, Arrow leaf balsam root, (Balsamorrhiza saggitatta).

In Late April through May the large sunflowers blaze across the valley transforming dull hillsides into radiant yellow meadows. Besides being an important medicine, this plant offers us nourishment as food. I’ve written more about that here.

It’s during this time of year however, that I am searching out the roots for medicine. The vibrant foliage of the balsam root has long since died away, but the plethora of crispy brown leaves and flowers stalks radiate from the center root leading to the resinous root beneath the surface.

The amount of foliage indicates how big the root will be. I search for one that is big enough to fill my jars with their strong roots, but small enough that I can easily work with it.

Digging balsam root is an arduous activity that can take a long time.

We use a traditional style digging stick called a cupins. Instead of fire hardened wood, the curved stick portion is iron. Specially designed for harvesting roots, it works by loosening the soil around the root without risking cutting into the root itself. For dry, rocky soil this tool is indispensable.

The root consists of a fibery center and a hard outer bark. Depending on the age of the balsamroot it can be a small as a pencil to even as large as seven feet. My preferred sized to harvest is about the size of a large carrot. Much bigger than that and I don’t have the appropriate tools to cut it down in size.

Cutting into the root you will find it oozing with resins. The scent is reminiscent of the sap that oozes from pine trees. Aromatic and sticky this makes for potent plant medicine. I like to tincture it fresh in 95% alcohol.

Balsamroot is warming and drying making it suitable for damp coughs. As an anti-microbial it works fabulously as a sore throat spray that combines well with cottonwood buds.

Michael Moore in his book Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West says it makes really good cough syrup. Simply warm a cup of the root with 3 cups of honey in a saucepan, allow to cool, gently reheat again, allow to cool, and then reheat gently again, strain while still warm and runny.

Many herbalists describe balsamroot as being an analogue to echinacea’s immunomodulating effects. I like to include it in an alcohol extract of elderberries and osha to be taken at the first sign of illness.

Balsam root seems to be very effective for people with lingering productive coughs that last beyond the illness itself.

Without fail these types of coughs have cleared within a day or two of regular dosings.