I frequently go for hikes in the mountains and canyons that surround Los Angeles, or in the desert a couple of hours from the city. I marvel at the views, at the wildlife large and small and at the flora but, especially with the flora, I have no idea what I am looking at. I could no sooner identify a brush or a plant than I could a mathematical equation. And it’s my loss, stemming from living in a culture that doesn’t place much value in such knowledge.
Among the brutalities and indignities that Native Americans had to suffer at the hand of the conquering white man, was the attempt to wipe their culture and scientific knowledge. If it wasn’t done in Europe, if it looked suspicious because unknown, it had to be wrong or dangerous. In fact, it was only decades or centuries later that the wisdom of indigenous people began to be recognized.
Every population had their healers, whose knowledge was passed on orally and perpetuated through the generations. In Europe, botanical expertise was generally left in the hands of monks and in the Americas tribal healers performed both spiritual ceremonies and took care of the sick. Their remarkable knowledge was acquired by living in close contact with nature and its bounty.
Such bounty is still under our nose today but we mostly trample on it, myself included.
I took an illuminating walk and lecture with Jim Adams, a professor of pharmacology at the University of Southern California, who was also trained by a Chumash healer – Cecilia Garcia – a woman who, over the course of 14 years, taught him everything she knew about healing using plants growing wild in the west.
The results were a book, Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West, and Professor Adams’ mission to spread the word (after the death of Ms. Garcia, he was asked to become the official leader to the Chumash Indians).
That plants possess medical properties is not a mystery. The pharmaceutical industry has replicated in laboratories and synthesized the medicinal compounds of many plants. More pills than we think owe a debt to Mother Nature. But it wouldn’t be a stretch to say the pharmaceutical industry abused its knowledge in the name of greed: the massive opioid epidemics currently gripping many parts of America is a man created addiction. Potent pain relievers are often prescribed when there is no real need.
Many of us have common remedies for common ailments that do not involve synthetic drugs. If a headache comes on, I know it’s most likely tension related, and I will work with some breathing and relaxation techniques instead of reaching for something in the medicine cabinet. For years now, I have treated minor ailments with common sense, herbs and time – the time my body needs to heal itself, the way it is supposed to.
But pain, especially severe pain, from any surgery for instance, can be debilitating. While I don’t take strong prescription drugs because I wouldn’t be able to function on them, I will still pop the odd Tylenol extra strength, like I did for a few days after breast surgery. It turns out something as simple as sagebrush, an unassuming brush that grows wild from San Francisco to Baja California, can be used to relieve pain, even as severe as from broken bones or surgery.
The liniment itself can be made by anyone, assuming you know you are picking the correct plant. A quarter pound of California sagebrush (Artemisia californica) stems and leaves are put in a dark bottle or jar with a quart of rubbing alcohol, six avocado seeds cut in half and one white sage leaf. The concoction is left in the dark for six weeks, until it becomes brown or dark green. Then it can be used to rub over painful areas anywhere on your body, relieving pain in a couple of minutes, and needing no more than a couple of applications a day.
Little skeptic that I am, I tried some on a sore shoulder. It worked like magic. Because I don’t trust myself to go foraging on my own, accompanied solely by my botanical ignorance, I bought a little bottle Prof Adams was selling. But if you are a modest botanist, or are familiar with the wild plants of California, the book is an amazing compendium of resources, packed with color photographs, detailed lists of active compounds of each plant and its uses, plus some basic recipes.
Do you have any tried and true remedies that do not involve running to a pharmacy?