Jamaican Dogwood (Piscidia piscipula) 2014

March 30th, 2014

Jamaican Dogwood (Piscidia piscipula) Monograph

Piscidia piscipula. A large tree growing in full sun

Introduction

In late January 2014 I went down to South Florida to identify and gather some Jamaican Dogwood (Piscidia piscipula, Fabaceae). This is my second time making this trip. I had also gone down in 2007 and wrote a blog about it here.  Back then I gathered enough to make 4 full gallons, and have used nearly all of it over the past 7 years, so it was time to gather some more.

While I like to gather my own plants for medicine anyway, I had extra incentive with Piscidia. Time for a quick story. As its common name indicates, it grows in Jamaica and I have a number of friends who go to Jamaica regularly. I asked a few of them if they could bring me back a specimen of the bark so I could see what it looks like. Two friends, who know local Jamaican bush doctors, did so. The bark samples they brought back were different from each other, clearly coming from different plants. This made me cautious about what might end up in the marketplace as Jamaican dogwood medicine. Along with that, I have my own inclination to see the plants I use for medicine growing in their ecosystems.  So the next time I was invited to teach in south Florida, I left some time in my plans to try and find it. You can see this earlier story on my previous blog post.

This monograph will discuss more about Piscidia’s medicinal properties and clinical uses. I also cover some relevant botany for any intrepid wildcrafters who may want to gather (but not over-harvest) it themselves.

Piscidia piscipula showing tree holding branches in sunlight

Botany

Jamaican dogwood grows in Jamaica, Haiti, S. Florida and south into Central America (map; http://eol.org/pages/415760/maps). It is in the Pea family (Fabaceae or Leguminosae) and not in the Dogwood family (Cornaceae). It is not the most distinctive tree at first glance but there are a few characteristic features that make it reasonably easy to identify. I have not seen it in flower or fruit, so all of my identification is from other plant parts.  The following botanical descriptions are from personal observation, which may differ from some field guides.
On a slightly different note, I find it interesting that Piscidia is the only plant I know in the Fabaceae that is used for pain. It is a very large family with some well-known medicinal members such as Astragalus, Licorice (Glycyrrhiza spp.), and Senna (Cassia spp.) and the constituents in Jamaican dogwood are unique in the family.

Size-while those grown in the open can get fairly big, they are generally mid-sized and tucked into the understory with trees of similar size. The larger trees can reach the same height as a mid-size Oak, but generally they are about the size of Apple trees (though not the same form).

Flowers and Fruit-I have not yet seen the flowers or fruits except in photos. The flowers are the typical butterfly-shaped pea flowers. The fruits are a bit more unusual looking. You can easily find photos of both online.

Leaf-the leaves are pinnately compound and composed of approximately 7-9 leaflets. The leaf itself is fairly long, about a foot when fully grown. One of the most obvious features of the plant is the distinctive leaflet color. The topside is a darkish green while underneath it is grayish-green due to its hairiness. This contrast is one of the first things to look for when trying to identify Piscidia.

Piscidia piscipula leaflets showing darker green above and hairy lighter green below

Piscidia piscipula leaves

Bark-depending on its age, the color of the bark varies considerably. Young twigs are a grayish green while medium-size branches are a darker green. A distinctive feature is the white lenticels in both of these branches (you cannot see them in older branches). Lenticels are pores where gas exchange takes place in the woody parts of trees and shrubs and are visually apparent and a helpful feature for identifying Piscidia. While other plants have obvious lenticels, the elongated shape and white against green bark is characteristic.As the branches age they often have patches of lichens growing on them. And the main trunk is sort of gray with green undertones.

Piscidia piscipula young green stems showing white lenticels

Piscidia piscipula young stems showing green coloration and white lenticels

Piscidia piscipula with green stems showing white lenticels

Piscidia piscipula trunk showing lichen patches

Piscidia piscipula trunk showing gray-green coloration

Young growth-the most notable identifying feature for Piscidia in winter is the young growth on the ends of some branches. Personally, I admire this growth. Part of my fascination is that it was how I first made positive identification when I initially sought out Piscidia. And as a photographer I find it lovely in its own right (which will be obvious from all my photos).

Piscidia piscipula details of young growth

Piscidia piscipula with young growth on a leaflet

Piscidia piscipula with young growth on a Piscidia leaf

Piscidia piscipula with young growth

Piscidia piscipula with young growth

The young growth is made up of small, unfurled hairy leaves surrounded by stipules, which are the parts that protect the young leaves until they emerge. The ends of the twigs are usually forked, with an axillary bud in the middle and leaves (initially wrapped in stipules) on either side. Look at these photos for a visual cue. As I said, I find this group of structures the most important trait to identifying a Piscidia when there are no flowers or fruits.

Equipment for Wildcrafting and Medicine Making

  1. Saw-a pruning or other type to cut branches
  2. Debarking knife or other tool to peel bark
  3. Cloth-or something to peel the bark onto
  4. Vitamix or powerful blender (optional)
  5. Ethanol-for tincture making
  6. Jars
  7. Scale and measuring cup
  8. Label making supplies

The Wildcrafting Tools I had with me

The Wildcrafting tools I would have liked to have had with me

Wildcrafting

This section is a bit difficult to write since I worry about this plant being over-harvested. But since I am writing about my Piscidia wildcrafting adventure, it seems obvious and prudent to let folks know best practices for gathering this useful medicinal plant.

The first and most important part about gathering Piscidia is to make sure it is plentiful and growing well where you are gathering it. It is not on any endangered plant lists, but it grows in only a small region in the continental US. And as I am talking about how useful it is I feel an obligation to say that I spent a lot of time looking for places where this plant was ethically harvestable. Please do the same.
One of the observable characteristics about Piscidia is that it likes to grow in full sun. Most often it is found growing in mixed woodlands on the border between the woods and an open space such as a roadway or power line clearing. You can see its branches reaching through the other trees and gathering sunlight at the edge of the woods. This makes it easier to spot while driving along back roads, especially once you learn the distinctive green leaf color.

It is the bark that is used as medicine, so the branches are gathered. On some of the plants you can see where the branches are continually cut back to keep the right-of-way clear. I think this is a good place to gather them as they will likely get cut off anyway. As with any time you are cutting off tree branches, employ good pruning techniques. Cut smaller branches where they meet a larger branch or the trunk. Do not cut in the middle of a branch as this makes it easier for disease to enter the tree. So cut the branch as close to the next branch as you can, a good pruning saw works well here. You may also have to cut the branches into smaller pieces for you car.

Glove on for peeling bark and not irritating blisters

Preparing the Bark

There are a few supplies that are handy to have on hand to process the branches and stems. These include a tarp to peel the bark onto, a saw to cut the pieces into manageable sizes and a good debarking knife. My favorite is a lightweight cleaver. If you are peeling a lot of bark, it is important to have a comfortable knife to do this, as this motion can be hard on the wrist and often creates blisters. Using a small pocketknife makes for difficult debarking. Even with a good knife, I started wearing a glove to protect my hand, though I did have a lot of bark to peel. Once you have peeled all of the bark, make sure that there is a lot of space between the peeled bark so that air can circulate between them they don’t mold (which would be quite annoying after all that hard work, yes?). Also, move them around daily to help facilitate their drying.
After the bark was reasonably dried I had to send it to myself as I was traveling by plane (and thank you again for sending it Susan Marynowski). This was expensive ($110), and a bit anxious-making, as I hoped the drying bark wouldn’t mold on its way to NY. And shew, it didn’t.

Piscidia piscipula-after it arrived by post back home in Ithaca

Medicine Preparation

I finished drying the bark by keeping it on a tarp near a window. When it was time to tincture it, I went to look on former labels to see the ratios and percentages I used last time I prepared it. It was 1:4 50% ethanol. I wanted to use the same numbers again as that medicine worked well and I am a bit conservative that way (if it worked last time…).
It is not easy to tincture strips of bark. They bend when you try to cut them with pruners and are very difficult to slice with a cleaver. So, I stomped on them. Yup, I had them in a large tarp which I folded over, and I walked all over them for days scrunching them down ever more. When it was time to tincture them, I wanted to use the blender to reduce it further because another problem with bark is that they take up a lot of room in a jar. We could only stuff 13 oz of the bark into a gallon jar. This means if we were going to go with 1:4 ratio, there would only be 52 oz of ethanol. And it being a gallon jar (128 oz) it would only cover about 2/3’s of the bark, leaving a lot of plant above the alcohol line. So reducing it with the blender was a better way to have all of the bark covered and saturated with ethanol. However, even with a Vitamix blender, strips of bark are problematic, as they still don’t break down easily. So we experimented for a while and finally figured out that adding more alcohol while feeding small amounts of bark into the blender while it was churning worked best. Also, the reverse switch on the Vitamix blender is helpful. This was time consuming, but after many hours all of the bark was processed. When we finally press it out, I think there be about 5 gallons of tincture, which should last me a few years. And then, back to Florida I go.

I have not used Piscidia in any other way besides as a tincture, so I do not personally know it effects in different medicinal preparations.

Piscidia piscipula drying back home in Ithaca, NY

Piscidia piscipula bark and peeled stems

Piscidia as Medicine

Introduction

As I write about Piscidia as a medicine, it is important to know that much of my description is based on using it over the past 7 years.  The reason I say this is that while there is validity to clinical observations it also increases the risk of bias. Hopefully this monograph encourages others to experiment with this plant and figure out best medicinal uses.
As I mentioned above, I did not use this plant for a long time, due to being unsure of medicines labeled Jamaican dogwood. Initially I wasn’t sure how to best prepare it or how best to use it. I had read enough to know that its basic medicinal action was for pain, but that is a broad description. So, I experimented with preparation methods and figuring out the specifics of its medicinal activity. After about 7 years and a number of gallons later, I feel I have a reasonable idea on how to use this plant as medicine. Though this should not inhibit anyone from continuing to pursue other uses and preparations.

Arielle blending the Piscidia piscipula tincture

Medicinal Uses

I have become an admirer of Piscidia as a medicinal plant, one I am glad to get to know and apply clinically. I have only used it in tincture form, so all discussion of it here is about it in tincture form. Piscidia is a very serviceable pain medicine, especially for general body pains (such as after an accident or a jousting tournament) and as an adjunct for skeletal muscle pain. Its sedative effects are minimal which makes it useful for daily use as it does not impair the cognitive process. It is an excellent first aid remedy because when it works (no one plant works all the time) it works reasonably swiftly and can take the edge off of acute pain. In other words it is useful plant for a wide variety of pain. It combines well with other plants (see Combinations below). Some plants are stronger pain relievers such as Valerian (Valeriana officinalis), or Hops (Humulus lupulus), but they may leave the patient feeling lethargic and not thinking clearly, while Piscidia does not have this effect commonly. That can also be a disadvantage as some times, such as after a traumatic accident, it is helpful to the mental edge off, but then it can be combined with them.

Another important attribute about Piscidia is that it is well tolerated with unwanted side effects being uncommon. This gives more room to play around with dosages when using it for treating pain.

For me, it is a classic first aid plant. It can be offered to someone soon after they arrive to a first aid station, even while still evaluating the extent of an injury and the dosage can be incrementally increased.

Piscidia piscipula branch showing young growth at tip

Dosages

When administering Piscidia and other pain medicines, it is helpful to evaluate an individual’s reaction to the specific plant before giving larger amounts. Herbal medicines that influence the nervous system often affect people with a variable range of individual reactions to the specific plants. This spans from having very little reaction to feeling disoriented or tired. While evaluating dosage by body size is helpful, this individual responses seem even more important to take into consideration. Initially try smaller amounts before giving large doses, especially in sensitive individuals (and they often know who they are).

I rarely see unwanted side effects from Piscidia, which makes it reasonably safe to use and larger doses can often be given. I have mainly used it with teens to older adults, but it seems like it would be safe for children. It is one of those medicines that you can start with a small to medium-sized dosage and just continually increase until the effect you are looking for is achieved or nothing is further gained from giving more.

For most uses, start with approximately ½ dropper (.6 ml) to two droppers (2.5 ml.), and then continue giving more in these increments. If there are other herbs in the formula, you may have to adjust your dosage depending on their strength.

Piscidia piscipula branches showing various colors and lichen growth

Formulation and Combinations

Depending on what you are using it for, Piscidia combines well with other medicinal plants. It has an ‘adjunct’ quality, meaning it seems to increase the medicinal effects of other plants as well as having its own amplified when they are used together. Two specific plants I think it works particularly well with for pain are Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) and Hops (Humulus lupulus). The following are some helpful combinations.

  • For skeletal muscle pain; Skullcap, Pedicularis (Pedicularis spp.), Black cohosh (Actaea racemosa) and Willow (Salix spp.)
  • For insomnia due to body aches; Skullcap, Valerian (Valeriana officinalis), Wild lettuce (Lactuca spp.) and Hops.
  • For a recent injury; Valerian, Kava kava (Piper methysticum) and Wild lettuce.

Piscidia does not have obvious antiinflammatory effects, but since inflammation is a common factor in pain, it can be combined with antiinflammatories such as Willow, Licorice (Glycyrrhiza spp), Arnica (Arnica spp.), Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) and Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) to help reduce the sensation of pain while the above herbs decrease inflammation.

Conclusion

I guess it will be obvious from this monograph that I have a fondness for Jamaican dogwood. It started with my finding, gathering, processing and making medicine from this plant, to incorporating it into clinical herbal practice. It is one of the plants that has obvious medicinal benefits, which I find very satisfying. So even if you don’t gather your own Piscidia, I hope you can find a good source and begin to use this helpful medicinal plant.

The nearly finished Piscidia piscipula tincture

A Jamaican Dogwood Story

February 15th, 2014

Jamaican Dogwood tree (Piscidia piscipula)

A pre-story note; I wrote this as an article after I first gathered Jamaican dogwood in January 2007. I recently wildcrafted this plant again in January 2014, and decided to present this earlier edition as a blog with photos. I have avoided giving the exact whereabouts where I gather the Piscidia as I get nervous about people over-harvesting and/or gathering the wrong plant. So the location has been withheld, sorry.

This is the tale of my first encounter with identifying, gathering and preparing Jamaican dogwood in January 2007.

This is the story of me and Jamaican Dogwood, a plant I have longed to meet. The botanical name is Piscidia piscipula and it is in the Fabaceae family (the Leguminosae or the Pea family).  I have heard a lot about this plant over the years, most famously for its pain-relieving properties and wanted to give it a try. My problem was finding a reliable source for the raw herb (the bark being the part used most commonly). At least twice, I asked friends who were going to Jamaica with connections there, to bring back a sample. And each sample was different despite each of my buddies telling me the ‘bush doctor’ that had gathered the bark was knowledgeable and reliable. So I felt apprehensive about what was on the current market without having anyone I know having gathered this plant themselves. So as is my nature, I began to formulate a plan to someday find and gather this plant myself.

The trunk and bark of a mature Jamaican dogwood tree

First question, does it grow anywhere in the continental U.S?  This point is important for a number of reasons. One is that I am not likely to visit Jamaica any time soon. And just as importantly, if you have ever wildcrafted overseas, you learn how difficult it can be to transport plant material to the US (often for sound environmental reasons). Also, it can be prohibitively expensive to send from another country. And lastly, the plant can rot en route.

So I was excited to see that Piscidia grew in southern Florida, thereby circumventing all my above concerns. Now I have to say that South Florida was not high on my list of places to visit (and perhaps even avoid, as a New York Jew, it seems we are destined to spend our days in the ‘second homeland’). South Florida, as I have learned has many similarities (at least floristically) with nearby and similar climated places such as Jamaica hence Piscidia is a native down there.

A fortunate circumstance opened an opportunity to me. A friend of mine invited me to teach at the Academy of Five Element Acupuncture near Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.  And so after teaching there, I inquired amongst knowledgeable botanical persons if anyone knew where it grew in any abundance, and learned where it was most common.

So a plan was struck. I taught my 6 days and then got me a little rental car and cruised on down to begin my search.

Actually, before I left I belatedly began to call state parks in the neighborhood to find a place to camp.  First I should say they all ran about $35 a night, which is a friggin’ hefty sum to pay for setting up a tent, little did I realize it was about to become worse.

A typical Jamaican dogwood tree alongside a road

I spoke to a guy on the telephone about making reservations for staying in one of the state parks. It went something like this;

Me: Do you have any opening in the local state park for tonight?
Him: Hmmm (a few minutes of him searching somewhere), sorry all filled up for that night.
Me: How about tomorrow night?
Him: Let me see, no nothing for tomorrow night either.
Me: How about a campsite at one of the other parks?
Him: I’ll check (a few minutes pass) no nothing for tonight or tomorrow night.

This went on for a while and I finally asked, “When is the next opening for any state park campsite in this region?
Him: Oh, about mid-March.

Well that would have been much handier to know from the outset, as I was calling in mid-January. Granted I had waited way too long to call, but still, talk about being strung along. I imagined a bunch of reservation people giggling in the background as this conversation continued.

Then desperation set in as I was leaving that day to head down to (hopefully) Piscidia-land. So I hopped onto the internet, looked at a couple of somewhat scary-looking campgrounds, and chose the one closest to the park in the hope of a bit of nature.
Well they did have a spot or two, and you know how it is when your feeling desperate about something all the sudden the thing you would have not even considered a choice all the sudden looks tantalizing.  And so it was, even after looking at the map and noticing privacy would not be mine, I was still ecstatic to get a place to sleep that night on arriving.

My $40 a night campsite

And just as I suspected, it was basically a trailer park with many permanent RV’s and some camping spaces. But after a few tries, I found my own tiny little space on some white gravel surrounded by fence and patrons. And for $40 a night, oh well,  I am still indignant, but so it goes.

Now the Piscidia searching begins in earnest. I asked around if there were any trails which had plants labeled and identified. There were two, in a state park where I currently sat and a botanical walk a few miles up the road. I soon drove to the later and was walking, wondering, could any of these plants be my to-be Piscidia first-acquaintance? I looked at most of the obvious placards which showed interesting plants, but none yet the Jamaican dogwood (which is not actually a ‘dogwood’, i.e. a Cornaceae,  it is instead as noted previously a Fabaceae). I noticed that some of non-placarded trees had a small metal tag hung about them, and one, yes you can guess it, one had the Piscidia tag. Oh joy, oh good fortune! I stood there studying it, trying to memorize the features that would help me to sort it out later. The lowest branches were up too high for me to get a good look at the leaves and other conspicuous features.

I should add here that back in my car I had no fewer than 16 books on the plants of the region (or 48 pounds as the plane flies). This may seem excessive, but again I give sway to my tendency to pack heavy and be prepared for any number of alternate scenarios (just ask about my first aid kit). And sometimes one of these numerous books will be the one to provide that crucial detail that allows for positive botanical identification.

Young growth, very useful for identification

Young Piscidia growth. The roundish 'hood' shape (top of photo) is a bud with stipules. On the bottom is a very young leaf, covered in hairs. It will turn green and begin to photosynthesize later. There is a small round axillary bud in the middle.

Young growth, very useful for identification

I should also add here that while the focus of this story is about Piscidia, I am generally interested in keying-out (that is, making a positive botanical identification) any plant whose path I cross. So though I am writing about Piscidia, I was also enjoying other plants and looking forward to identifying and photographing these later. Hence a caravans’ worth of books. The book that was most helpful was The Biology of Trees Native to Tropical Florida by Tomlinson, as it has some beautiful black and white line illustrations (how I adore these), and showed some characteristics that were not included in any of the other books. You see, botany is primarily based on the reproductive characteristics of plants, that is, flowers and their sequel; their fruits (such as seedpods). As this was January, there were none of these to look at.  I felt fortunate just in the fact that Piscidia at least still had leaves on it.  And so with the aforementioned book, while it did describe the flowering and fruiting parts, it also illustrated what turned into one of the best field marks for the season, the youngest growth; the buds and very young leaves. These are quite distinctive.

Compound pinnate leaf of Piscidia (typical of many Fabaceae, plants in the Pea family)

Piscidia leaflets, showing the difference of color, dark green above, white hairy below

Back to the initial tree I saw in the botanical walk. I still had questions of knowing how to recognize other Piscidia since I could not clearly see the lowest leaves which were about 8 feet above my head.  I just stood looking for any obvious clues such as the tree trunk width, color of bark, or distinctive features such as stipule scars. I might add that due to my questioning ways, I also didn’t out rightly assume that this was Piscidia. I have traveled to many botanical gardens and the tags are often not scrutinized and are sometimes wrong. This is not as unusual or as uncommon as it may seem, and so especially on a trail like this without any clear association with a botanical garden I had my reservations. Also that it was just an unadvertised metal tag inconspicuously placed on it, I did not assume that it was an off-the-rack Piscidia. Still, I had done my homework and I could see that they were compound leaves, darker green on the topside, hairier on the bottom and arranged alternately on the stems. And I knew it grew around here from all accounts. So I kept walking looking to see if there were any more conspicuously labeled Piscidia’s. There were none, but it was a nice walk and I stumbled upon an abandoned condominium complex, and growing amidst the broken concrete slabs was a plant that looked suspiciously like a young Piscidia tree. So, I cut a couple of branches to bring back to the campground to further identify. At this point I was hoping that this was Piscidia as it was growing in a highly disturbed habitat which is good news to the wildcrafter. This means that it might be found it in other like-minded disturbed areas, thus not negatively affecting the local flora if gathered. Plants that grow weedy-like are some of my favorite to gather, as I feel I do less damage when gathering. And I knew Piscidia was native, which means it might not have these characteristics making a more difficult wildcrafting proposition, or not to be gathered at all (for more wildcrafting ethics and quandaries, see the Wildcrafting handout on website).

Jamaican dogwood stems in trunk of rental car

Excited by the day’s findings, I drove back to my acorn-sized crappy $40 a night campsite (such a complainer am I), ate a quick din-din, and busted out the botany books to compare. Unfortunately there was not enough there to convince me that I indeed had the right plant. Fortunately I met someone who had an excellent wireless card (this was 2007) and went on-line and perused as many Piscidia photos and descriptions as I could find in the internet universe.  Unfortunately nothing I came upon was good enough to convince me. Fortunately it was time to go to sleep and let go of my brain for the night.

Also, after being frustrated with not finding a photo on the internet to help me discerns Piscidia’s identity, I determined myself that if I was to find this plant, that I would post a butt-load of useful photos (hence this article).

Piscidia bark being peeled off stem

Piscida bark soon after being peeled

Next day, field guides in hand, I went off onto the less inhabited side roads. I found a likely place to pull over and began my explorations of the day.  And sure enough, trees of various sizes similar to the Piscidia I had seen the day before were in evidence. This time I did a more in-depth survey of all the available plant parts. And once again, disappointingly, there were still no flowers or fruits to work with. But I was able to look more carefully at the leaves, barks of various aged trees, and other distinctive characteristics such as buds, new growth and stipule scars. These matched up with the Tomlinson book and I felt I had a match. This was okay for photographs as they can be changed later, but not good enough for gathering. As I was driving around, I stopped at a nature center and asked the person working there some questions to see the breadth of his floristic knowledge. Fortunately he knew many plants, especially trees. As there was what I thought was a Piscidia in the lot there.  I asked and he unequivocally said it was Piscidia and showed me the positive identification characteristics. Excited and losing my last shreds of doubt, I asked his references (same as mine, Tomlinson, good) and if it could be confused with any other plant, which he answered with a firm “no”.

I felt pretty well satisfied from this experience, and now fired-up, I went back to my expensively-rented tiny piece of gravel-strewn earth.

Later that day, small foldable saw and pruners on hand, I headed out to find some inconspicuous roads to gather a bit of Piscidia. Not easily done in this densely inhabited area. But I came upon some lesser used roads and set up shop, meaning I parked my trusty rental, and sussed out where it would be best to do the least damage to the local plant population.

Typical size Jamaican dogwood growing alongside roads

In wildcrafting there are a lot of questions raised about how to gather and do the least harm. So that this paper does not become overly extended by covering a wildcrafting review, I will say that I chose to cut down small trees that were close to the road and mostly had limbs already chopped off for right-of-ways for cars and power lines.
So I cut and gathered a few smallish trees and then further cut their stems to fit into the boot of my rental car. And the whole time I was furtively glancing about for those who may not appreciate my wildcrafting work (for instance, Johnny Law). Eventually I had a few armloads and headed back to my ignominious budget-swallowing (yet cute in its own way) campsite. And then as those who wildcraft know, the longer and more tedious work begins. And so, post-sunset I put on my new iPod and began the long night of listening to mopey indie rock that I so cherish and peeling Piscidia bark. And indeed I did, well beyond the blisters and the general I-want-to-do-something-else crankiness. With kava as my spacing-out late-night buddy, I peeled until most of the local retirees and snowbirds had gone to sleep and then I peeled some more. Wildcrafting tip #501; most barks peel off much easier from freshly cut stems. There is more moisture between the cambium layer (the medicinal part) and the heartwood. Eventually tiredness (and kava) got the best of me and asleep I fell.
I awoke around sunrise and finished the job. This was made more painful by the big aching blister I had accrued the night before which lay between my thumb and forefinger. Eventually I used some vet wrap (a type of sports wrap, which is not a style of sandwich) during the night to cushion off this blistered area.

Young growth and leaflets of a Piscidia piscipula tree

And then the next part of the day’s events began. I got back into my vehicle and went off to gather more Piscidia before it got too hot (it reached into the 80’s by midday). And again I scuttled about, scouting for new areas, and gathering another armload.
Same routine, a bit of dinner and back to peeling bark into the wee hours. And again, rising early to finish the job.
What a relief to finally finish with all the stems (now just heartwood) looking pretty in their de-peeled state. It was now time to find a place to inconspicuously drop these stems off in an environmentally friendly manner.
It felt good to finishing peeling all that I gathered. It is one of the ethical risks wildcrafting entails, biting off more than you can chew. Sometimes it is so easy to gather a whole lot of a plant only to have some hampering factor slow you down for processing it all, and then you are left with ‘wasted’ material. So, it was with relief that this had not happened, though the risk was not over yet. Now that I had all this freshly peeled bark I had yet to dry it and somehow get it back to Ithaca in an un-moldy state to process.

But this decision needed to wait, as I now wanted to get the heck out this most immodestly-priced and privacy lacking campsite and into the Everglades. So away I drove.

I will not go into the details of this second part of the story except to say that how much I enjoy the sweeping beauty of the Everglades, the vast landscape of Sawgrass (Cladium jamaicense) and the wildflowers poking out here and there. And while I was in Everglades (and spending a more reasonable $16 a night for a handsome campsite) it was hard to not kick myself for not having spent more time of my short time down here in Flamingo, Everglades rather than the human-fill area of where I was.

A mature Jamaican dogwood tree

But then there was the Piscidia drying in my tent. The pungent smell now becoming ever more familiar. (I’m not sure I will want to sleep in a small tent with a lot of drying Piscidia for a long time to come.) If you have not visited the Everglades or the nearby Big Cypress, may I suggest it if you are ever in this part of the world. It is an uncommon and lovely ecosystem.

Just a little bit more to this torrid undulating tale. Two days later it was time to head back to civilization, and before I left The Land of Piscidia I thought about how I was to get all this peeled bark back to myself in Ithaca. So I obtained a cardboard box of the right size and materials from a box store going out of business, along with a big roll of packing tape. And as I was to leave soon, I packed the bark in the box and taped it up, brandishing a cloth sack-full that I would carry with me on the plane as a back up. Why a back up? Well, actually I was kind of nervous about what state the mailed bark would arrive back to me. I had dried it some, but it is humid in South Florida, so I was packing some perishable material. But the time had come, and so the first town I passed thru I stopped at the post office and after a 45 minute wait and $29 later, I sent this bad boy box of Piscidia to Ithaca, realizing there was nothing more I can do but wish it well on its journey.
The next day, I was home quiet home. Yes. And the day after that, I was thankful as my package arrived safely to my home. Anxiously I opened the box, nervous for the rank whiff of bacteria or mold. But, instead, a box full of beautiful Piscidia that I very soon put in my large dehydrator, and that’s how the story stands to this day.
Thank you for reading My Piscidian Adventure~7Song

Drying (and sleeping with) Piscida bark in my tent

First Aid for the Practicing Herbalist-Finger Wound

February 12th, 2014

Before I go into some of the details here, I want to say that herbal first aid is much the same as all other first aid, the main difference is in some of the medicines dispensed. But the basics of sanitation, wound dressing and making the patient comfortable are similar. In this article the emphasis is on the pertinent parts of this first aid situation, there is a lot of background not covered.
(Please note; you can click on the photos to enlarge them)

Florida Earthskills Gathering

This first aid problem happened at the Florida Earthskills Gathering. X had cut her finger with a small foldable saw. These types of wounds often create deep gashes and heal slowly due to the serrations of the saw. And due to the slow mending process from the laceration, it is important to look for, prevent and kill any possible infection.

First day treating saw injury (4th day after it happened)

The cut happened before the first aid station was set up.  I first saw her 4 days after the wound was inflicted. This was a deep and jagged gash on her pointer finger. At the time of the initial wound there were no first aid personnel and the patient was given numerous suggestions by the people around her. Not knowing which was the best choice, she tried a number of them. One of the treatments was putting bee’s wax directly on the laceration to prevent infection. The patient did not have an infection when I saw her, but the bee’s wax seemed like a bad idea as it trapped in water and created a waterlogged swollen finger impeding healing of the local tissue.

The first thing we did was to remove the wax and clean up and inspect the finger. While the tissue looked pretty torn up, it did not look infected and so the goal was to help prevent infection and mend the tissue.

The first day we cleaned it up well, scrubbing the beeswax and other plant residue to get a good view of the wound. We then put propolis on it as a disinfectant and wrapped it in a non-adhesive gauze pad. Then we put on a finger splint as it was near a joint and moving it would continually open it. Each time she came for treatment, she was given a few different internal medicines in tincture form. We would put each of these in a cup with water so it would be easier to take. To prevent infection we gave Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea) and Oregon graperoot (Berberis sp). For pain and relaxing she took a few nervines such as Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), Valerian (Valeriana officinalis), Jamaican dogwood (Piscidia piscipula) and Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata). And after each time she was wrapped up, we gave her a to-go bottle of the above tinctures.

Second day of saw injury (5th day after accident)

Day 2 we cleaned it up better (we had to stop the day before as the area was getting too sensitive to work on) and removed some dead tissue that was in the wound. Again we gave her dilute tincture of infection fighting and pain relieving herbs.  She had to shoot down of couple of these as debriding the tissue and cleaning it well is a painful process.

Third day treating saw injury (6th day after accident)

Third day of treating saw injury (day 6 after accident)

After removing the tissue the wound initially looked more intimidating but better to me, as the tissue was now red and suffuse with blood rather than the waterlogged tissue previously. Again propolis was put on as a disinfectant. And a cotton gauze pad was put on instead of a non-adhesive to help wick water from the local tissue.

Day 3 the wound looked better as the gauze had wicked away some of the water and the blood now coming into the area was helping the healing process. There were also less cracks around the wound. Less cleaning was necessary and we gave her the above medicines, wrapped it in gauze and splinted it up again.

Third day of treating saw injury

Day 4 the wound continued to heal and fill in. The main difference was to remove the splint as the wound was healed enough where it wouldn’t easily open and her finger was getting stiff. While it hurt to bend, I helped curl it (ouch) as she held it in bent position for a few seconds. Again, propolis was placed on and the same internal medicines given.

Fourth day of treating saw injury

Fourth day of saw injury (1 week after it happened)

Day 5 (the eighth after the incident happened) was the last day I saw the patient. It was looking much better though still painful. We got her to flex her finger a little more so it wouldn’t stiffen up to much, gave her some medicines and a wound kit to take with her. She had a good idea how to put the gauze and tape on as we showed her the process each day.

Fifth (and last) day of treating saw injury

Summary
Our basic goal was to prevent infection and help the wound to mend. To do this we observed and cleaned it about twice a day. Externally we put propolis on to prevent infection. Internally we gave medicines for pain, relaxation and to prevent infection. We used a splint the first few days to help the tissue mend.
I would like to thank Susan Marynowski for all the hard work of setting up, supplying and working at the first aid station at the Florida Earthskills Gathering. I would also like to thank Lorna Mauney-Brodek for her excellent clinical and people skills and for bringing her herb bus and equipment to the Gathering. For more information-Florida Earthskills Gathering (www.floridaearthskills.org) and Lorna’s Herb Bus (www.herbalista.org). I would also like to thank X the Patient for putting up with me taking photos.

Thank you for reading this and I hope it was helpful. ~7Song

Plant Medicine Notes-Chaparral (Larrea Tridentata)

December 28th, 2013

Plant Medicine Notes-Chaparral (Larrea tridentata)

Glass flower replica of Larrea (Harvard, Boston, MA)

One of my favorite first aid plants for infections is Chaparral (Larrea tridentata, Zygophyllaceae). It has a number of other common names, but in the world of herbal medicine, Chaparral seems to be the most common, common name. This is distinct from the southern California plant community which is also called ‘chaparral’. It is also called Creosote bush due to the similarity of its smell with creosote (a tar derivative). It is in the Zygophyllaceae, a small but showy family, also called the Caltrops family. This makes it related to Guaiacum and Tribulus terrestris (Puncturevine).
Please note, I will be using the name Chaparral and Larrea synonymously throughout this article.
There are a number of reasons I like this plant alongside its medicinal virtues. First, it is very common where it grows, which is throughout a number of desert ecosystems in the southwestern US.  So while that is quite a ways from here (Ithaca, NY), when I am out that way I can gather oodles of this fragrant (some would say stinky) plant without impinging on it or its environment’s health.

Botanical Description

Larrea tridentata is a medium-sized branchy shrub with evergreen dark green leaves. The resinous leaves are compound and opposite, with two leaflets attached to each other at the base. The flowers are shiny yellow with five petals. The fruit is a capsule densely covered in white hairs.

Two leaves-Larrea tridentata

Fruit-Larrea tridentata

Wildcrafting Tips

Chaparral is often the dominant plant where it grows. Frequently, there are huge colonies of it in its range. To wildcraft, drive into one of these areas and look for plants that have more young growth which is a brighter green color (and often a stronger resinous smell). You will see this distinction more often near the roadside as the scant water in the desert runs off the road and is taken up by the plants. I tend to avoid plants right along roads, especially given the profusion of them nearby. It is fairly easy to gather by either cutting the stems with pruners, or just breaking off the younger stems as the plant stems are brittle. I tend to go between the two methods when gathering. I put them in burlap bags which I find versatile for collecting many plants.

Two ‘Warning’ Stories

Story one; there were a few times when I have gathered Chaparral while on a Southwest road trip with family and friends. With the desert sun beating down through the car windows, the recently gathered wildcrafted plants reeked its strong odor. Sort of like 10,000 of those little pine fresheners, but each one coated with Larrea resin.
So, why the warning? Some of the people who have been with me on these trips needed a few years recovery time to able to be around this plant again without being overwhelmed by the smell. (This may be a bit of an exaggeration, but only by a bit.)
Story number two involves how I process (break down) the plant. In the mid 1990’s I was studying and teaching at Michael Moore’s school in Albuquerque NM. While there, I lived in a basement apartment. I was garbling (a quaint but useful herbal term for refining the plant for use) the recently gathered Chaparral by letting the plant dry on a tarp on the floor. After it dried I would then step on it to separate the leaves off the stems. This is pretty efficient, but as you can imagine, this Larrea Dance releases quite the odor tribute. And the landlords upstairs did not appreciate it. So I put a fan nearby pointing towards the only little window I had down there. After a while they stopped complaining, though I am not sure if it was that they didn’t want the hassle of kicking me out, or they just got used to it.

Flowers-Larrea tridentata

An Interesting Chaparral Fact

Another aspect that makes this such an intriguing plant is its longevity. There is a Larrea stand in the Mojave Desert called the “King Clone” that is a whopping 11,700 years old. Yup, you read that right. This makes it one of the oldest living organisms on earth (as far as measuring this type of thing goes). The original aboveground part of the plant died way long ago, but the plant continues to expand underground sending up new shrubs (clones) which now form a ring. All the plants in this clonal ring are genetically identical, and it has continued to grow and expand since, hmm, lets see, about 9700 BC.
Here is some perspective on what was happening on earth around then; in people-land, we are mainly hunting and gathering, though the nascent skill of agriculture is emerging. And the last big glacial period was ending around then too. At that time in what is now California, a seedling sprouted, grew and continues to this day through the many ages of we call modern human history.

So, counting up the ways I like this plant so far (its medicinal value forthcoming), is for the commonness in where it grows, the ease in gathering and garbling (sans neighbors), and a fascination on how long this plant can live. Plus, after a desert rain the air is pungent with the odor of Larrea, which I find revivifying.

Processing and Medicine Making

After taking the leaves off the stems, there are a couple of ways you can process this plant for medicine. First, you can just dry it for future use. The plant dries pretty easy, just lay it out on some kind of sheet (such as a tarp) in a non-moist environment. It is helpful if the room gets some sunlight to speed the drying process.  If you are going to use a dehydrator remember the smell will waft throughout your home, and your dehydrator will smell like Chaparral for a long time to come. This might be problematic if you are going to dry more delicate smelling plants or foods in it later.

We Interrupt this Blog to bring you Another Odd Anecdote

Years ago, I lived in a very drafty moist cabin. To keep most of my dried plants dry, I kept them in jars, buckets and tubs. But I kept my Chaparral in an open box figuring it would resist any molds, etc. A couple of weeks after I had stored it in the aforementioned box, I looked in and all of the Larrea had gone moldy. I didn’t even know that can happen, but it sure did and I had to compost all that hard work and plants gathered from far away. I guess Chaparral is not used to living in a constant moist environment and had no defenses against the pathogen.

Medicinal Preparations

The part of this plant used medicinally is the leaves, though if you have some branches, flowers or seed capsules in with them it will not hurt the medicine. The leaf can be used either fresh or dried, as there is not that much water in them to begin with.

There are a number of preparations that can be made from Larrea. Here is a list of some of the ones I make and use the most (medicinal uses for them are below). Due to the antioxidant properties of this plant, most of these preparations will have a longer shelf life than medicines made from other plants.

  1. Tincture-tincture with 95% ethanol at about 1:2, or as close to this as you can get while having the leaves covered by the menstruum and a few inches above it.
  2. Infused oil-soak (infuse) the leaves in extra virgin olive oil, and let them sit for at least 2 weeks in the oil. Cover the leaves with the oil and have a few inches of it above them. Since they resist mold, you can let the leaves stay in the oil for a longer period of time than most plants.
    There are two very good reasons to make this preparation. The first is Chaparral’s use as an external antiseptic. The oil alone, or combined with other plants, can be applied directly to wounds. The second reason is Larrea’s strong antioxidant effects. The constituents (chemicals) helps stabilize the infused oil, and by adding the Chaparral oil into other oils or salves, it will slow down their rate of rancidity and give them a longer shelf life. The only drawback to this is its strong taste and smell so you may not want to employ it in preparations like lip balms.
  3. Salve-salves are basically infused oils solidified with beeswax with essential oils sometimes added in. Using Larrea in a salve is similar to using it as an infused oil.
  4. Tea-tea is a water-based preparation generally prepared with hot water. Chaparral is usually infused (hot water poured on) rather than decocted (cooked) in the water. Remember that if this is for drinking, you may want to use a light touch with the plant, it is strong tasting.
  5. Honey-an infused honey is when the plant is covered with honey which will eventually extract the plant constituents. There are a few ways of increasing the ability of the honey to absorb these. One is heating it in a double boiler or just keeping the jar near a warm place so that the honey is liquid enough to allow movement of the materials between the plant and the honey.
    I have not used Chaparral honey yet, but I am considering it as a burn medicine to have the Larrea augment the honey for this type of treatment.
  6. Capsule-these are plants powdered and put into various types of capsules. There are good reasons to use capsules with Chaparral. First, the plant’s constituents are stable, so the medicinal action will still be potent even after the powdering process. The second is that this plant has a very strong taste so many people will not take it. But capsules can bypass the taste buds. Remember that if there is a lot of ‘Chaparral dust’ on the capsule, it might decrease patient compliance (meaning it will taste bad).
  7. Compress-a compress (compare to poultice) is prepared from a tea of the plant and then a cloth dipped into the tea is applied to the distressed body area. Chaparral compresses are especially helpful when you cannot directly soak the affected area. You can also soak a bandage with the tea (or tincture) though it is sometimes problematic to keep an area too moist for too long.
  8. Poultice-a poultice is when the plant is applied directly to the body (as opposed to a tea of the plant, see compress). I tend to use compresses more often as they are less sloppy. One of the most common types of poultice is called a ‘spit poultice’. This is when you chew a plant up and spit it on the hurt area. Good luck with this and Larrea.
  9. Powder-as mentioned in capsules, the powder of Chaparral is pretty stable and will last a while. A reason to powder it is to combine it with other plants and substances such as clay. It can also be stirred and drank, or put into capsules.

10. Wash/Soak/Sitz/Bath-these are all ways of soaking a body part in Chaparral tea (or tincture if need be). This is one of my favorite ways of using Larrea, making a very strong tea and then soaking an infected body part such as a foot or forearm. I think it is one of the most effective ways of using this plant. To prepare this, just make a very strong tea of the plant and soak the body part in hot, but not painfully hot water. The heat helps by keeping the local pores open allowing better infiltration of the plant constituents. Keep in mind that the water may have infectious material in it so make sure the vessel is washed well and the water disposed of properly.

Whole shrub-Larrea tridentata

Patient Compliance

An important consideration with Chaparral is how to get people to ingest it. Externally it is not so difficult, but internally this can be quite tricky as the plant is very bitter and for many the taste and smell are quite disagreeable. This is especially true if they are going to have to take it for a while. So when deciding what form (tincture, tea, etc) to give it is important to consider the patient’s ability to actually consume it. For someone used to taking herbal preparations this may not be as difficult. But for someone unaccustomed to drinking plant-based medicines you might want to figure out the easiest form for them to take. If it seems they will not use it, consider using another herb. It is not easy to disguise the flavor of Chaparral, adding honey to the tea just makes it taste sweet yucky. One form to consider are capsules. They have little flavor (unless the outside is dusted with the plant powder) and are fairly stable in powder form. The next most acceptable form is tincture, mainly because you can shoot it down quickly and you don’t need as much of it. You can add the tincture to juice or add flavoring herbs such as Cardamom to the tincture, but probably the best way to get it down is to dilute it, knock it back and follow with a chaser. I would reserve the tea for folks used to herbal medicine.

Medicinal Uses

While there is a wealth of information on the medicinal uses of Larrea, I am going to stick to the most common ways in which I use it. This is mainly in first aid and for various types of infections. If you are intrigued by this plant, I suggest researching other historical and current uses. This plant and closely related species have a long historical usage by people who have lived near it.

Infection

The main way I use Larrea tridentata is in various preparations to help prevent and kill a number of infectious organisms. These include; bacteria, fungi and protozoa. For herbal honesty’s sake, I want to be clear and say I have seen Chaparral not work many times, but it has helped often enough and sometimes where other plants (and drugs) have not. And so I continue to use and recommend it. It is valuable plant that I hope people who read this begin to use more frequently and widely.

In first aid the main common types of infections I see are skin and gut infections. Skin-wise, the most common infectious bacteria are staph (Staphylococcus aureus). Gut infections include bacterial, viral and protozoal organisms that are delivered through food and water. I also occasionally see fungal skin infections such as athlete’s foot.

With staph infections, it is one of a number of remedies that are helpful depending on the strain of staph, the extent of the infection and the individual’s immunological resistance. While this is not going to cover a full staph treatment protocol, this is how I use Larrea in these situations. If the wound is on an area you can put into wash basin (i.e., hands and feet) soak the infected area in a very strong tea of Larrea  If it cannot be soaked, use a hot compress. Afterwards alternate between remedies (see Combinations below) which will be applied topically. Apply the Larrea tincture directly on the wound and/or put it on a gauze pad which is then held in place. You may also want to employ other topical and internal plant medicines such as activated charcoal poultices and Echinacea tincture internally.  An important note about staph infections is to avoid using sticky tape to hold the gauze in place. When it is removed, the hair that is pulled out can leave a gap for an infection to take place. Use self-adhesive tape such as Coflex or Vet Wrap.. Staph infections are not always easy to treat, and when stubborn they need to be taken seriously. With these types of infections also consider community protection and letting the infected person know that they are contagious. Also, they need to be intelligent with their treatments. And you and they both need to clean up good each time you work together.

Another place to use Larrea is with infectious gut organisms. This gets trickier as it can be hard to tell if it is an infection or a non-infectious disorder such as irritable bowel syndrome. Also, it can be difficult to know which type of infectious organism. I will not go into those details here but if you know the person ate or drank contaminated food or water then consider using Larrea with other herbal medicines along with (but not at the same time as) activated charcoal.

One last place here to consider using Chaparral for is with fungal infections. I have seen it work well with the type of fungi (a Tinea) between the toes and also under toenails. The best way to treat this is with hot Chaparral tea soaks and topical application of the tincture.

To simplify, if you think it is an infection and it is not posing an immediate risk, then consider using Chaparral, either internally or externally.

Fruit-Larrea tridentata

Other Medicinal Uses

Larrea is also used for a much broader array of medicinal uses. It has been well researched due to it containing nordihydroguaiaretic acid (NDGA) which has strong antioxidant properties. The free radical scavenging abilities of NDGA recommend it being helpful in a wide range of diseases. Someday I hope to expand my use of this plant for some of these chronic disease states. If you are interested in learning more just search nordihydroguaiaretic acid

Due to its bitter flavor it can be used as digestive bitter but since it has many other properties it seems better to use a safer (less complex) bitter such as Gentian (Gentiana spp.).

Dosage

It is difficult to give concise dosage guidelines for almost any remedy or treatment but here are some general protocols. When treating an acute infection as with something brought on by ‘bad’ food or water, use a large loading (the first) dose and then use medium amounts regularly for 2 days or so afterwards. To give an example;  you and a friend drank some iffy ‘live’ water from a stream near where you were camping in the Rockies. Two nights later you both wake up around 3 am with diarrhea. You are nauseous but not vomiting. Start with about 4 ml (nearly a teaspoon or about 3 full 1 oz dropperfuls) along with some other herbs. Alternate with activated charcoal (but not at the same time). And then take about 2.5 ml (about ½ teaspoon or 2 full 1 oz dropperfuls) every four hours for about 2 days. And then reduce it to about 1.25 ml (a full 1 oz dropper) every four hours for another day or so. It is hard to say how long as it depends on whether your symptoms are getting better. So this is a very broad parameter for treatment.
For external infections, try to soak the infected part in hotish water at least 1-2 times daily. And apply Chaparral tincture throughout the day.

Bud and flower-Larrea tridentata

Combinations

While Larrea can be used alone, it also combines well with other plants. What percentage of the plant you use in a formula depends on the main health benefit you are seeking. For instance, if you are using it for an infected wound, you might use a larger percentage of Chaparral as it is a strong disinfectant. But if you are looking to treat inflammation, you might add plants that have as stronger antiinflammatory action.

For staph infections in particular, it is helpful to use a mix of plants and change them after every few wound care treatments. This seems to help keep the staph infections at bay.

  1. Antibacterials-Echinacea (Echinacea spp.), Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), Osha (Ligusticum porteri), Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) Oregon graperoot (Berberis spp), Barberry (Berberis thunbergii), Yarrow (Achillea millefolium).
  2. Antiinflammatories-Arnica (Arnica spp.), Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Willow (Salix spp.), Turmeric (Curcuma longa), Licorice (Glycyrrhiza spp.)
  3. Astringents-Anemopsis californica (Yerba mansa), Oak (Quercus spp.), Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), Geranium root (Geranium maculatum).
  4. Vulneraries-Calendula (Calendula officinalis), Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum).

Safety Profile

There are a number of concerns about the internal use of Larrea mainly involving liver damage. Again, as with the medicinal uses section, please look through the literature to learn more. As with many studies, it is hard to interpret the causality of Larrea creating damage to the liver and other organs. But here is my take on it, it is a strong herbal medicine; in taste, smell and effects. It has a decisive action on infections. My recommendation is that for external use, it seems safe enough unless it was put into a deep wound over a long period of time which would allow for systemic uptake. Internally, I would try to limit its use to about 2 weeks or so. If it has not helped by then it might be time to change the medicine. Also, the flavor tends to limit people’s ability to take it, so if you are using capsules, which have no flavor, you may want to set a regular dosage with a time limit.
Any quantity I suggest here is just conjecture. I have no way to evaluate how much a person can take or for how long. You will have to figure this out for yourself using common sense guidelines, information gleaned from outside sources and the knowledge of your own body.
Two special notes.  Internally I would suggest people with frank liver damage such as Hepatitis C avoid it. I don’t know any studies to confirm or deny this, but there are other plants that might work and frankly Larrea just seems strong.
Also, while there is no clear evidence of Chaparral interacting with any conventional drugs (such as with CP450 pathways), it seems possible that it might. So if you are taking drugs that are essential for your well being, you may want to have some lab tests performed to make sure your markers haven’t changed.
I realize that this may seem hedging but it is the best information I feel I can offer. So, to reiterate, Larrea is strong and could possibly cause some health problems taken in large doses over a long period of time. Avoid it when the liver is damaged and be cautious taking it regularly if you are on any life-sustaining medications. I think using Larrea for first aid situations, notably infections, is reasonably safe due to the duration it is used.

Chaparral is used by some people as a cancer treatment, and I frankly I feel unqualified in giving any response to this. I don’t have enough information and would just suggest that anyone with serious health disorders to make sure to be seen by knowledgeable people.

Considerations

Please remember that when helping people to keep the patient’s needs first. Their getting well is more important than your desire to experiment with herbal medicines. If there is an infection that is quickly getting out of hand, it may be time for medical intervention. It is not that antibiotics always help but sometimes they might work better or in conjunction with Larrea and other herbs.

Conclusion

Larrea tridentata is a useful plant for number of reasons. First, it has strong infection fighting potential and can be used for number of different infective organisms. This makes it a useful plant for anyone preparing to do first aid in an outdoor situation, especially at a longer event. Next, it is a common plant where it grows and a lot of it can be gathered without harming the plant population or the environment it grows in. It is soluble in a wide variety of menstruums and can be prepared into a number of helpful medicinal preparations. It has strong antioxidant properties so it maintains its medicinal strength for a lengthy period and can be added to other medicines as a preservative. For all of these reasons, plus the way it makes the desert smell after a rainfall, I hope that others learn to appreciate and use this plant.


The Kidneys-A Brief Evolutionary Story

March 7th, 2013

The Kidneys-A Brief Evolutionary Story

Once upon a time, a very very very long time ago, you and I were very small creatures floating freely in the vast oceans of the earth. How small were we? We were tiny, just one cell big. To put that into perspective, we are much bigger now, about 60 trillion (60,000,000,000,000) cells bigger.

Life was easier then. Floating in an ocean full of nutrients, we took in what we needed directly from the environment and got rid of any non-useful substances in the same way, released directly from our little bodies into the sea around us.

Well, it seemed like getting bigger might be a good idea, and so we started adding more cells to our bodies. Life was still pretty simple at first as these cells could still interact directly with the environment around them, pulling in foodstuffs, releasing wastes.

Over time we became even bigger and had to start evolving ever more complex ways of getting nutrients to every single cell (they all need to ‘eat’), no matter how far inside of the body they were. And as always, we had to have ways of getting rid of the waste products (they all need to ‘poop’).

Things got distinctly more difficult as we made our way to land. Now, we had to adapt to a wholly new environment. Extracting nutrients from the atmosphere, locomotion on solid earth, protecting ourselves from direct sunlight, new food sources, and getting our water needs met.

Our bodies became ever more complex. And larger. And we developed decidedly more complex systems. A respiratory system to help extract oxygen from the air around us, and release the gaseous byproduct. A digestive system to take in, absorb and excrete food. Strong skeletal muscles to move us around. And a pseudo-ocean inside of us, the bloodstream. Through an elaborate circulatory system, this became the highways, roads and paths inside of us to deliver what was needed to every individual cell, no matter how tightly hidden away, and the ability to get rid of all the unwanted materials.

But the blood traveling through the circulatory system is a closed system, going around and around and around. No outlet unless we are bleeding. So what was needed was a filter and removal system. This filter would ‘read’ the blood, and while keeping the vast majority of necessary substances such as water within our bodies also the ability to remove toxins, excesses and waste products.

The urinary system is just such a device. After the blood is filtered, the unwanted portions are sent down to a storage unit (the urinary bladder) where they stay out of harms way, until till time to eliminate them

At the heart of this system are the two kidneys. Their goal, is to maintain homeostasis, that is, keeping things at normal levels in the body. They do this with about 1 million small tubes called nephrons. Each one of the nephrons independently filters to insure the blood is kept right and proper, the correct proportions of things.  A massive amount of blood is sent through the kidneys each day, about 45 gallons (180 liters) pass through each 24 hours. And of all of this only about 2 quarts (2 liters) are excreted as urine. 45 gallons! A day! Imagine an average size garbage can, that’s about the right size. And now imagine dipping a quart size canning jar in and removing 2 jars worth of fluid from the garbage can. Of course we don’t have that much blood in us, we have about 1.3 gallons (5 liters) so it is constantly re-circulated and re-scrutinized.

So the kidneys are the guardian filters of the blood. And the blood is the thoroughfare from which most substances move throughout our body. Their well-being is essential for overall health. They help maintain the closely guarded pH of the blood, the electrolytes (important elements such as sodium and potassium). They help regulate blood pressure, and a variety of other important functions.

But this is not a dissertation about the kidneys, no, this about one organ system that allowed us to evolve from the very simplest of organisms floating in a very large bath, to the exceedingly complex creatures whom we now are.

And the journey is not finished.

Postscript. I realize that this is way oversimplified and I left out many other important bodily systems (reproduction anyone?) and I took other poetic license as well, after all, many of our body systems were adapting and changing at the same time. But I wanted to filter it down to this bare kidney story. I hope you have found it entertaining.

Gelsemium sempervirens-Wildcrafting and Medicine Making

February 13th, 2013

Yellow jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens, Loganiaceae)

While in Gainesville, Florida recently I gathered some Gelsemium sempervirens for medicine. Honestly, I have some from when I last gathered it in 1994 or so, but I like to sometimes wildcraft plants again to remember the specifics of gathering them.

Gelsemium has many common names generally alluding to its sweet (many would say overly sweet) floral fragrance. These include Jessamine and Yellow or Carolina jasmine (or jessamine). These names can be confusing as it is not related to the Jasmine plant (Jasminum species) commonly used for its fragrance. Gelsemium (my preferred common name to avoid confusion) is generally placed in the Loganiaceae family, though it also sometimes placed into the Gelsemiaceae.

This plant has a large natural range from Southeastern US to Central America. It is a vine and while it can be a bit weedy, I find it rather lovely, and glad to see and smell it when I occasionally visit Florida in February.

Yellow jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens Loganiaceae)

Gelsemium as Medicine
I have not used Gelsemium much for medicine yet, partly due to its toxicity. However, in the proper dosage, it has been used

Gelsemium sempervirens flower

to help reduce pain and I would like to learn how to use it this way.

The underground structures (rhizomes and roots) are the parts used as medicine. I tinctured them fresh at approximately 1:2 in 85% ethanol. The reason it is approximate is that I was flying home with the medicine, and to avoid adding too much weight to my already weighty baggage, I added just enough ethanol in the jar with the cut-up herb before leaving Florida to preserve it until I got home and add the rest of the alcohol.

You may notice that a number of plants that are used to help with pain are potentially dangerous, such as Atropa belladonna (Belladonna) and Aconitum columbianum (Monkshood, Aconite, or Wolfsbane). The reason for this is that plants affect neurotransmission, that is, the ability of the body to ‘talk to itself’ through the nervous system. And since the nervous system is involved with the transmission of pain signals, interrupting this pathway can help reduce pain. But this also disrupts the body’s ability to perform very important processes such as breathing. That is why you see respiratory failure as one of the common lethal affects of some of these plants. As an interesting historical note, it has also made them infamous as poisons.

Gelsemium sempervirens flower

So why use them at all? Because in first aid pain one of the most common problems (here I am referring to physical pain) and so any agent that can help with this situation is worth a consideration. Also, the dose is often well discussed in older herbals as well as current herbalists who use these plants. So gather it I did.

Wildcrafting Gelsemium

Gelsemium sempervirens flower bud

These notes were made while gathering Gelsemium near Gainesville, Florida. This is a very common plant and not threatened in anyway, so there is little worry about hurting the population. I would just avoid taking it from an area where the soil seems contaminated, or if someone is purposefully allowing the graceful vines to grow around their home. This plant grows in a number of soil types, though I looked for it growing in sand (common there) as it would be easier to dig out. The parts used for medicine are the underground structures, especially the rhizome, along with the roots. The rhizomes (a type of underground stem) grow somewhat horizontally and not too far below the soil surface. This is one of the ways that this vine spreads itself as it sprouts up from various places along the rhizome. Because it was not growing too deeply in the soil, I was often able to extricate it from the soil with just my hands pulling the rhizome and roots loose. There is a special ‘yanking’ technique for helping remove underground structures. The roots are often holding the plant fast in the ground and so you want to loosen them while not having the plant break off and then left with just a small piece. Instead, give firm pulls to the rhizome, so that it and the roots start to separate from the soil. This is the yanking part. This way, when you eventually pull even harder, more of the root and rhizome comes out.
One of the difficulties of gathering roots and rhizomes is deciding which is the one to plant you want to gather. This can become difficult, as there are a number of different roots in any given piece of earth. And there are also other vines tangled in with the Gelsemium, notably a number of Smilax species. There are a few ways to do this. First, find an area that only has Gelsemium growing as a vine, so as not to confuse it with the Smilax or other plants. Next, the first few times you gather it,

Gelsemium sempervirens rhizome and roots

gently unwind the plant from the plant it is growing on so that you have the whole plant in your hand (as opposed to only having the root). This way it is obvious that it is attached to the right plant. And since Gelsemium has opposite leaves (as opposed to Smilax with alternate ones) it doesn’t have to be in flower. You may want to wear jeans or other heavy-duty clothing as you will likely be working around the thorny Smilax plants. I want to point out, however you gather this or any plant, you have to have properly identified it in the first place. There is no substitution for good botany skills here.
So, find a Gelsemium vine that is not entangled with other vines, and follow it down to where it meets the soil. Now with your hand, or using a hori hori, follow the rhizome under the soil, gently and firmly jerking it, so that it loosens from the dirt. And continue moving your hand along the rhizome to find and loosen more of the underground structure. In larger vines, the roots are thicker and will need to be dug out with a hori hori or other too. While I am doing this, I am using my pruners to separate the many vines that are attached to the rhizome to make removing it easier. One more notable feature of Gelsemium is that the rhizome and roots have a distinctive smell. I wouldn’t trust this alone to identify the roots, but it is helpful, and I like the smell.

And so that is my Gelsemium wildcrafting and medicine making adventure. I hope you found it helpful, and I will post later as I learn to use this plant as medicine. ~7Song

Gelsemium sempervirens wildcrafted

Gelsemium sempervirens tincture

An Herbalist’s View. Patient Study-Looking to reduce symptoms in progressive disorders.

January 19th, 2013

This patient study looks at how herbs can help improve symptoms when there is little to do to change the primary problem. This is common situation with a number of chronic disorders. A note on confidentiality, I would only ask a patient whom I felt wouldn’t mind having their case discussed on an open forum such as this.  While it is obvious that I wouldn’t say their name, this sort of write-up would be obvious to the patient who is being discussed. Not only do I ask permission, but I want to make sure they would appreciate the idea, as he did here and was glad to share his situation. This case is from the Ithaca Free Clinic so all services and medicines are free. (The clinic also knows that I post on Facebook).

This patient is 57 years old. He had polio when he was three years old, and wonders if some of his current problems are due to post-polio syndrome (this occurs in some polio survivors and can include progressive muscle weakness, fatigue and muscular atrophy).

He developed brain cancer (astrocytoma) at 17 years old. This was in 1972, and the amount of radiation he received (and survived!) is causing many of his major health issues. He has a number of neurological problems from the radiation poisoning which is causing cerebral atrophy (brain shrinking). He sees a neurologist and gets brain scans regularly. I surely don’t understand all the aspects of this situation, but we started working on some of his more problematic symptoms.

The patient eats well (lots of home grown veggies and meat that he hunts) and is in general good health. He has a pretty good attitude about life. Many of his symptoms are progressive and he is appreciative for the reasonably good health he has now. He feels that he might have contracted Lyme a few years ago and took antibiotics for it. The reason I mention this is that it is hard to tell what is causing some of his symptoms, whether they are from post-polio syndrome, Lyme, effects from the radiation, or none or all of the above.

His initial symptoms were; very painful and stiff right arm and shoulder, difficulty sleeping, headaches, and difficulty mentally focusing. He needs about 12 hours a night of sleep to function well.

Our initial treatment strategy was to help him sleep better, increase mental clarity, and reduce some of his muscle pain. We kept the medicines and dosaging simple since it can be hard for him to remember a lot of details at one time. Valeriana officinalis tincture was given for sleep. We first tested it in the office by giving him a few drops to make sure it did not have an antagonizing affect (agitation), which it did not. The Valeriana dosage was 1-2 (1 oz) dropperfuls (about 1.5 to 2.5 ml) before sleep. He was given a 2 oz. tincture for mental clarity with Centella (3 pt), Salix (1 pt) and Acorus (30 drops). Dosage is one 2oz dropperful (approx 2 ml) 3 times daily.

His next visit was a little over a month later. He felt like the herbs were helping and wanted to continue with them. The Valerian was helping with sleep, but sleeping was still difficult. The arm and shoulder pain was about the same as was his difficulty with focusing.
We continued with the Valerian and told him to increase his dosage. We changed the tincture to Centella (2 pt), and 1 pt each of Acorus, Ocimum tenuiflorum and Passiflora. Tincture dosage was 1.5 ml 3 times daily. We also added a powder of Eleuthero (1.75 pt), Crataegus (1 pt) and Passiflora (.75 pt). One teaspoon mixed into water 2 times daily.

The next visit he had lost 7 pounds, mostly muscle. His arm pain was worse, but his headaches were better and he was sleeping better.

The medicines we gave him after this visit were Harpagophytum procumbens capsules for the muscle and joint pain (2 capsules twice daily). We changed the powder to 2 parts Yucca and Glycyrrhiza (his blood pressure is around 112/85) and one part each of Urtica, Eleuthero, Curcuma and Withania (same dosage as previously). We changed the tincture to Centella (1 pt), Gingko (1 pt) and Acorus (.4 pt). (Note, I wanted to use Gingko earlier, but ran out of the tincture, so we had to make some more). Tincture dosage 2 ml twice daily.

A note on a few of the specific herbs we have given him. The Centella, Ginkgo and Acorus are for mental clarity. The Harpagophytum and Yucca are helpful for arthritic-type pain. The Glycyrrhiza, Salix and Curcuma are antiinflammatory. The Urtica, Eleuthero, Glycyrrhiza and Withania are tonics for overall strength. The Passiflora, Ocimum tenuiflorum and Crataegus are nervine tonics.

He came in recently (January 2013), and seems to be in a better state overall. One of the things that also helped was cutting out coffee. The Valerian continues to help him with sleep, and we made up the previous medicines again except for the Harpagophytum capsules.

As you can see, we are not performing any miracles here. The effects of radiation poisoning are progressive, but instead of throwing up our hands to a difficult problem (though not a difficult patient, he readily takes his herbs) our goal is to back down his symptoms. While some of his problems have not gotten better, they have also not worsened, which is a reasonable result with a situation like this. He feels good taking the herbs and coming in for regular consultations. One of his main problems was fatigue due to a lack of sleep, and that has improved, which has the downstream affect of improving overall quality of life, a major goal.

Baptisia tinctoria

December 30th, 2012

This article is about Baptisia tinctoria often called Wild indigo. This is not the plant that makes the indigo dye, though that plant (an Indigofera species) is also in the Fabaceae (Pea family). It is one of my favorite plants for respiratory viruses (cold and flus) and accompanying sore throats. The roots  are the part used for medicine. It was employed by the Eclectic physicians who used it for a variety of conditions. It is also the source of one of my favorite quotes in Ellingwood’s Eclectic Materia Medica; he suggests one should use it if one has “ stools resembling prune juice or fetid meat washings”. ‘Fetid meat washings’, how is that for a visualization.

It is not a common plant, but I occasionally find it along the borders of woods mainly in Virginia and West Virginia. And while it is not particularly showy, I can usually spot it while driving due to the distinctive green coloration of the leaves.

Baptisia tinctoria growing in its native habitat

I use the fresh root tincture. The roots are not that far down in the soil, but they tend to grow in clayey soils and are not that easy to dig and pull out. Also, when you try to pull them out, the outer root bark comes off leaving the middle part of the root in the ground. So it takes a little while to work the whole root out of the soil.

I often mix this plant with Echinacea, Berberis, Ligusticum, Hydrastis and other antimicrobial plants. I use it for colds and flus and secondary bacterial infections. And while killing or inhibiting viruses and bacteria are two entirely different things, I feel that Baptisia and perhaps these other plants do so, likely through different mechanisms and various constituents each of them have.

Baptisia tinctoria in flower

Dosage-it is a fairly strong medicine and I tend to not use it alone. In a tincture with equal parts of Baptisia, Ligusticum, Eupatorium perfoliatum and Echinacea, for an adult in the throes of a flu, I would give about 2.5 ml (a half a teaspoon, or about 2 full 1 oz droppers), every 2-3 hours the first day. As symptoms abated, I might use a bit less every 4 hours. And as the condition improves lower both quantity and frequency.  In these situations you might want to also start mixing in other medicines such as antiinflammatories, decongestants, cough and sore throat remedies, pain relievers and other medicines. For a more detailed list, please see my handout ‘An Herbalist’s View-Approaches to Colds and Flus).

It seems safe for children, just reduce your quantity (not frequency) with littler people.

If you haven’t tried it, this is a plant I would strongly recommend.

As usual, I hope this was helpful. ~7Song

Baptisia tinctoria plant freshly dug

Baptisia tinctoria roots-recently gathered

Baptisia tinctoria-mature seedpods

Baptisia australis

Quick comments on the GMP’s (Good Manufactoring Processes)

October 23rd, 2012

Contentious Herbal Issue, about the GMP’s (Good Manufacturing Processes). These are new enforceable FDA legal standards for retail supplement products, including internally taken herbal medicines.
While I was at the American Herbalist Guild (AHG) Symposium, I went to a class about the GMP’s and how smaller companies can become compliant. I appreciated the presenter’s information and real-life details trying to help people get through all the confusing mandates and details that are necessary to be up to GMP code.
Before I get into how I feel about this issue, I want to say a few things for clarification. First, I am FAR from being any kind of expert on this issue and so some of my details may be wrong. I am lightly knowledgeable at best about the subject, but my opinions are based on the gestalt of this thing not the minutiae.
Second, I am not really looking to start a flame war here, though I invite others thoughtful opinions for, against, in the middle or otherwise about GMP’s.
I left the above class frustrated (not at the informative presenters) and tried to figure out why. On the face of it, GMP’s are a ‘reasonable’ idea, that is, products are what they say they are, and so consumers know what they are getting.
The problem is all rules and contrivances necessary to get there. While it certainly seems ~possible~ to achieve being GMP compliant, there is A LOT of paper work and other details necessary to keep the FDA at bay.
But here’s where it gets more maddening for me. When I talk to some of the makers of herbal products, some of those who are GMP compliant make it sound easy for anyone to get there. It is surely not. If one is primarily a product maker, then perhaps they can devote the ongoing time and resources necessary to stay compliant. However, if you are a generalist herbalist on your own, and also see patients, gather and/or grow some of your own medicines, teach classes, etc, then it is not easy at all. So what these rules do in my mind is push this category of herbalist out of the picture (insert visual photo of a fuming Michael Moore here). So for small batch herbalists who may just sell locally, these rules will take a needed source of income away from people helping their community and making it more difficult to help keep herbal medicine local, affordable and accessible.
Okay, for those of you who are saying, yea 7Song, but what about the consumer?, I say to you “Please show me some documented or anecdotal stories that make these rules necessary for these kind of herbal producers”. How many times have herbalists sickened or poisoned their neighbors with their products? I am sure that it has happened, but as we all well know (need I say ‘steroid shots’) that no amount of rules will stop the occasional unfortunate accident. And generally the herbalist will be accountable, maybe not legally, but people will talk.
It is difficult for me to hear from those who are compliant and have the resources (money and people) but don’t see how these rules affect this category of shall we say, community herbalist?
Here is my analogy. To me, it is like licensing herbalists. At this point I personally would get licensed as I have been practicing long enough and have enough connections to make sure my name gets passed on as a Qualified Herbalist. And for others who are not, I would say ‘don’t you all see, it is for ~consumer protection~ that we need to be licensed. Otherwise how we would we parse those who have passed the tests from others who have not gone through the hoops we have?’ Well, I say F# that. There will always be people, licensed or not who are in it strictly for money or other reasons that are not about helping people or making quality products. And I don’t mind being associated with riff-raff. If there were simple ways that made distinctions between different levels of herbalists and did not exclude, I guess I might be open to it. But generally, it is about the integrity of the individual herbalist to let potential patients know their abilities
Okay, I don’t mean to really get into a licensing rant for herbalists debate here, I am just trying to make the point that our ready acceptance of GMP’s is similar as it will turn away ‘herbal people’ who might contribute to their neighborhoods and larger communities.
I don’t have any answers to this predicament; I just want to give voice to some of my feelings from this weekend. I hope we as a community of plant-loving, human-supportive people can do as best we can to help support others to be engaged in the old and new traditions of herbal medicine. ~7Song

Plant Field Guides Review-Washington and the Pacific Northwest

March 1st, 2012

Introduction

This is a list of the books I brought along on a trip to Washington State. I use these lists myself when I go back to an area, hence the personalized style. Plus, it would be boring to just write it up all school-like. Most of the books mentioned are plant field guides, though I include some maps and other books that may be helpful for the region covered.
One of the limiting considerations in describing these books is the amount of time I had in the different places I decamped. The place I spent the most time was in the Wenatchee National Forest south of Leavenworth, towards the interior of Washington. The other place I got to field-test them was in Gifford Pinchot National Forest in southwest Washington.

In the book review section below, I have divided the books up by those which I used most to those least used.

One thing that is a consideration for me is how well a book is physically made, and you will see this peppered through my reviews. The reason is that field guides (at least mine) get treated roughly, thrown in my backpack and dragged out in all kinds of weather. So a well-made volume is a consideration in its own right.

Throughout these notes instead of calling books by their title, I usually use the author’s name. This is a common convention and if you look at the book titles, they are all similar, so it makes it more distinguishable. The book list below has the authors and titles together for reference.

One of the things I found odd is the reliance of botany types on using mainly Plants of the Pacific Northwest by Pojar and Flora of the Pacific Northwest by Hitchcock and Cronquist. While Hitchcock is indispensible for this region, I was surprised more folk were not using Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest by Turner and Gustafson and Plants of Western Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia by Kozloff. I made it my business to let as many people know about the latter two books. I guess they are relatively recent (often a plus in this kind of literature) and not in wide circulation.

I find it helpful to have a few different floras that are not copied from each other. Often the difference between two species is minute, and different authors handle these details differently, and between two or more it can be much easier to settle on a species.

I purchased some books from Amazon.com using their reviews, and this worked well for me, as I purchased two useful books I would not have know about otherwise.

Definitions

I want to define two terms that get used frequently in this review which are ‘flora’ and ‘keying out’. While the word flora is often used to describe plants in general (i.e., flora and fauna), with field guides it commonly refers to a book that has all the plants of a region. An example would be the Flora of the Pacific Northwest, which indicates it includes all the plants of the area delineated in the title. When trying to identify plants to their species these books are a boon, because it is hard to know which species you have without knowing all the plants that it might be in a given region.
Keying out is a process used in identifying plants. You are given a set of statements (usually two at a time) and you choose the more correct choice. After that you are given another set until you finally get to the (hopefully) right plant. This is the way most floras are written as it is a useful format. A different style might be a book that has all the flowers of a certain color near each other in the book. While this can initially helpful, you would need more clues to get to know which species it is, as the differences can be subtle.

The Complete Book List

  1. Flora of the Pacific Northwest-Hitchcock and Cronquist
  2. Flora of the State of Washington (1906)-Piper
  3. Mountain Plants of the Pacific Northwest-Taylor and Douglas
  4. Northwest Weeds-Taylor
  5. Plants of the Pacific Northwest-Pojar and Mackinnon
  6. Plants of Western Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia-Kozloff
  7. Washington Wildflowers-Larrison et al
  8. Wayside Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest-Strickler
  9. Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest-Turner and Gustafson

Other Resources

  1. Marc Williams checklists-Part of my time on this trip was at the Rainbow Gathering and every year Marc makes a thorough list culled from various resources of the plants in the area that the Rainbow Gathering will be. This list is very helpful, and I make sure to print out a few copies before leaving.
  2. Plant lists from ranger stations-When I pass a ranger station for an area I will be in for a while, I stop in and see if they have a species list for that region. Sometimes the front desk people may not know, so ask if they have a staff botanist, and if she or he is in. Besides knowing if they have a list or not, they often know some of the best places to go see plants. I have had many good conversations about a region this way.

Books Used The Most Frequently

Flora of the Pacific Northwest, Hitchcock and Cronquist

Flora of the Pacific Northwest-Hitchcock and Cronquist

This is the standard flora for this region, and that alone makes it important to

Flora of the Pacific Northwest detail, Hitchcock and Cronquist

understand, as this is the book most folks will use for keying out plants.

The good; it is a straightforward useful tome for the working botanist. It has small but practical black and white line illustrations for most species with important botanical details helping to highlight the individual differences. It is well made and while large it is not too heavy.

My least favorite aspect of this book is the short individual plant descriptions for each species. When you arrive at the species in the key, that is where the plant description is located. This is as opposed to other technical floras where after you key to the species you then go to a through species description.  But in general the information provided is enough to decide if you have the correct species. And to be fair, this dramatically cuts down on the size and weight of the book.

There really is no major downside to this flora. It may be a bit outdated, and the illustrations and descriptions a bit small, but it works, and that is the most important detail.

The keys from this book, along with the keys in Kozloff were really helpful together in identifying many species.

Plants of Western Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia-Kozloff

This review starts with a quick story. I was preparing for my trip to Washington and looking through the Amazon book reviews for plant field guides for books I did not know about and kept seeing this book with excellent reviews, but knew no one who used it (and I have many NW botany friends). But I found a used copy for $12 (good price!) and purchased it. And I am sure glad I did, it is an excellent flora for the region it covers.

Plants of Western Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, Kozloff

I knew some of Kozloff’s work having his useful Plants and Animals of the Pacific Northwest (see below). And this flora is from 2005, much more current than Hitchcock and Cronquist. As soon as I got it, I could see that it was a thoughtful, well-done flora, but its value became evermore so apparent as I started using it in Washington.

I wondered if Kozloff was a pariah of some kind since I didn’t know anyone using this book, but it just seems that Hitchcock and Pojar are the standard.

This book is good as a stand-alone flora and better as an adjunct with Hitchcock.

Like all field guides it has its up and downsides. Beginning with the positive, it often got me to the plant species I was looking at, which is the most basic goal of any flora. It has a good sprinkling of useful black and white line illustrations, and very helpfully, over 700 color photographs. They are of a good size and quality, and often with a black background helping highlight the various botanical aspects of the plants.

The keys are well thought out and generally helpful. One can see that the author has not just copied these keys from various books, but has spent time revising and devising new keys. As can be expected this works some, but not all of the time. The nomenclature is more up to date, and while he may still use older families (i.e., Scrophulariaceae) for plants now placed in different families, there are notes pointing this out.

Okay, some of the difficulties. What Kozloff has admirably done, is re-worked many of the standard plant keys. The problem is sometimes his keys were particularly vexing, but that is why I carry more than one flora when I have the opportunity. And it was very helpful to use this book to balance out what I could not figure out in Hitchcock.

Plants of Western Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia-Kozloff

Also, like in Hitchcock, the description of a species is within the key, rather than a separate and more thorough description. So even after getting to a species, it could be hard to ascertain the species. And again setting it up this way keeps the size of the volume down, an important feature when trudging a number of field guides around

To sum up, this is a very useful flora. The author clearly has an extensive working relationship with the plants and has revised and reworked older flora’s adding updated and new information as well as his personal observations of the plants. The color photos are lovely and useful, as well as the black and white line illustrations. Some of the keys are a bit baffling and the descriptions are rather brief, but all in all, this is an excellent plant field guide for the region, and one I am very glad to have had along.

Note: A problem for me was that I took this with me into the Wenatchee National Forest in central Washington, and this book does not cover that area as well, as it is not ‘Pacific Northwest’. I then supplemented it with Washington Wildflowers.

Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest-Turner and Gustafson

Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest, Turner and Gustafson

This book is new to me, and was glad I purchased it. There are a number of reasons I like it, but above all, it helped me identify a number of species. I used it in conjunction with more technical floras (Hitchcock and Kozloff).

It has a basic key dividing the plants by obvious flower color and then the number of petals, symmetry, and a few other basic clues. This is rudimentary but helpful to get to a starting point, and that is why I used it in conjunction with other plant keys.

The book is well made and a good carriable size. It has a useful section on the ecosystems covered which was helpful for me not being familiar with the different regions of Washington State.

Onto the main reasons I found this book so useful. First, just the number of species covered (1220) means that there is a good chance the plant I am looking at it is included, which I found to be the case. Next, the photos, while small, and mainly just one per plant species are well done, meaning that the photo contains enough useful characteristics to help with plant identification.

Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest, Turner and Gustafson

While the photos are helpful, a drawback to this book is the lack of photos highlighting other details of a species or even better might be black and white illustrations. But one field guide can’t be one thing for all people, so once again the need to use other field guides along with this one.

It contains useful range maps for each species, and while the plant descriptions are concise and size-limited, I found the information useful.

In other words, while this book has its limitations the quantity of plants covered along with good quality photos and descriptions, rudimentary keys in a smallish volume, helped me identify many of the plants I did not know.

I strongly suggest purchasing this book for anyone who lives in its region.

Books Used Less Frequently

Plants of the Pacific Northwest-Pojar and Mackinnon

This is one of the mostly commonly wielded field guides for the region (along with Hitchcock and Cronquist). It is not my preferred field guide though.

It is a useful plant guide. It is a well made and a carriable size. It contains many plants, tilting the chances that you will find the one in your hand. It contains a few color photos of the plants featured often accompanied with black and white illustrations, an excellent combination. There are keys for many plant families, and some of the genera (Rubus, and Pedicularis for instance) are keyed to species. And in Hitchcock fashion, some of the keys have small black and white drawing helping to illustrate the key.

A helpful aspect of this book is that it includes trees, shrubs, ferns, grasses, mosses, liverworts and lichens. In other words, very inclusive of the whole diversity of plants, not just the more obvious flowering ones.

There is a ‘Notes’ section to each plant with a lot of interesting information. First, it discusses the different botanical information, such as other species within the same genera. It often has a wide variety of native uses, making this book the most useful if you are interested in how a plant is/was used. And it often explains what the genus and species mean, such as whom it was named after.

All of this strongly recommends this book, and yet I do not use it often. There are a number of reasons for this, some may seem picayune, but nevertheless they limit my use.

First, and most importantly, I don’t find it that useful for trying to initially identify a plant’s genus nor especially its species, which is the main reason I bring along field guides. I find other field guides more helpful in deciphering a plant’s identity The reason for this, is that while it does have keys to many genera and some species (and very helpful keys for the trees), I still find it easier to use Hitchcock or Kozloff. The descriptions in this book are good, but since they pack a number of species under one genus, it can be difficult to ascertain which species I am looking at. This book is helpful at having the most common species represented, the plants you are most likely to encounter.

And for me, I would rather not have all the information on uses but instead look up that information elsewhere and have that space devoted to differentiating species. Also, I do not find the photos so useful, a little too small, leaving out important details. Perhaps I am being unfair here, but I would like to use this book more often and these are the reasons I do not.

I can imagine that many people would like this book for many of the above reasons. Perhaps and updated version some day?

Washington Wildflowers, Larrison, Patrick, Baker and Yaich

Washington Wildflowers-Larrison, Patrick, Baker and Yaich

I didn’t start using this book until later on in my trip which was too bad as it quite useful. I do need to point out, as this is my second copy, that it is a very crappily made book. The binding breaks and pages fall out no matter how it is pampered, as it is made with a poorly glued binding. Oh well, at least it is not too expensive (less than $1 on Amazon today). There are 2 main reasons it is so useful. Primarily because it is Washington specific, and just as important, it has floral keys. All of the other books I used are for the Pacific Northwest, meaning I have to plow through many plants that I will not be seeing. Plus, it covers all of Washington State including the drier east side.

It does have some color and black and white photos, but they are the old-type and of limited use. But I repeat, it has reasonable keys, and using this book along with Hitchcock, and Kozloff, it is possible to identify many of the plants of Washington, including the more inland regions where I used it. And while the descriptions are short, they are longer than Hitchcock. If you live or botanize in Washington, I recommend it.

Books Used Infrequently

Mountain Plants of the Pacific Northwest-Taylor and Douglas

This book is useful due to the good-sized color photos and helpful descriptions, including trees, club mosses, horsetails and ferns. Some of the plants have a number of different photos for the same plant, showing variation and different aspects which is especially helpful with some of the trees covered. I would recommend this book (perhaps along with Strickler’s below) for those wanting a good color photo plant book. I would recommend Turner and Gustafson alongside this.

Flora of the State of Washington (1906)-Piper

It would seem that this flora would be very useful due to its specificity, but I did not find it so for a number of reasons. As could be imagined, a book that is 106 years old has some outdated terminology. And the main reason that I did not use it much is that the newer volumes had the information without the outdated terminology. I was still glad to have it to see if a plant I was keying out even grew in Washington, though Washington Wildflowers covered that realm well enough. If I spent more time in Washington I may use this volume more to compare with other books. Many of the keys from this book seem to be have been incorporated into newer volumes. Such is the way.

Books Not Used

Plants and Animals of the Pacific Northwest-Kozloff

I did not use this book mainly due to the lack of time I had to explore the animal life. While the photos are of an older type they are still useful, especially of the non-flowering plants and animals. It is still one of the most useful all-around field guides to the various life in the Pacific Northwest. Aside from the photos, the author clearly has spent a lot of time outside in this region and has a depth of knowledge which shows in his writing. If the photos were updated, this would be a much better volume, but it is still worth having to learn about life in the Northwest.

Wayside Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest-Strickler

This is one of those books that is quite attractive with its good-sized color photos and brief descriptions of the plants covered. It does a good job of covering the more commonly encountered wildflowers and its best use would be for either a quick check-up on a plant or to see a color photo after keying it out. And it is the large size of the photos that makes this book a little better than some others. It would work well in conjunction with Turner and Gustafson.

Northwest Weeds-Taylor

I did not use this book as I was busier in the bush than amongst the weedier places. However if I were wandering amongst gardens, old fields or roadways, this would be a handy identification guide to have. The medium-sized photos are only so-so, but what it does well is cover those plants that we see most often in disturbed habitats. It occasionally has a few photos of the same plant from different angles, a helpful detail. You may not be able to know exactly which plant you have from this book, but you will likely get close enough to the species and learn the plants that often accompany humans in our habitat altering endeavors.