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Medicine from Disaster: Herbs of the Mountain Meadows

Posted Jul 20 2011 12:30pm

Burned out mountain forests between Alpine, AZ and Hannagan's Meadow

Today I saw many miles of what’s pictured above. Black, dead trees and ground covered in a thick layer of ash. Exploded Pine limbs littering the periphery of the fire’s path and shattered trunks that collapsed into dust with a gentle exploratory touch on my part. While many sections of the burned forest were old growth Pine and burned so hot that they will be a long time indeed in regrowing, there are also many areas where lighter fires swept through and green patches that escaped entirely unscathed.

Fire itself is of course an age old occurrence that has a natural and beneficial place in the ecology of these mountains. What’s more recent is the decades of fire suppression combined with humans lighting accidental fires much earlier in the year than the more standard lightning triggered fires that usually occur just on the cusp of monsoon season and are often self-controlled by seasonal rains. These earlier fires burn longer and hotter with extremely low humidity and little can be done besides protecting human habitations until the rains come .

Unlike desert or scrublands, the resinous heart of these coniferous forests high in the Arizona and New Mexico mountains can burn incredibly hot and long.

Burned peaks in the White Mountains of the Apache National Forest

But the grieving is not what I want to address here. What I’m focusing on in this post is what’s survived and the new life that is already so insistently creeping back to the edge of where flames so recently resided.In spite of the severity of the fire, life persists. Where it burned quicker and lighter, the land will actually benefit from the removal of brush and the introduction of more fertile soil through the ash created by the bodies of burned trees and other plants. Where the fire burned slow and hot, the soil may be sterilized for years to come but all around it the green of life’s vitality.

Patches of hopeful green on the more lightly burned mountains

Much of the more lightly burned area that can be seen in the above picture is from the backfires created to combat the the main fire. The burned peaks above are from the actual Wallow Fire. The backfire burned areas should recover in fairly short order and with the monsoon rains, new green growth can already be seen. Not so with the primary fire damage, but even there life will eventually return even if in a different form and ecology than was originally found here.

And on the roadsides and riverbanks, green things still grow despite the drought.

Yerba del Lobo (Hymenoxys hoopesii)

Yerba del Lobo (Hymenoxys hoopesii)

One of the plants I was most relieved to see, albeit in much smaller numbers than usual, was the gorgeous Yerba del Lobo (Hymenoxys hoopesii), a medicine I first learned from Michael Moore. In our area, Hymenoxys is locally abundant in higher elevation mountain meadows, creek banks and similar wetland habitats. In good years, Yerba del Lobo can create a golden wash for miles across the sub-alpine meadows that make up some of my favorite places on earth.

This plant is a strong counter-irritant that Michael compared to Arnica and noted that in his experience it was feebler. I’m not sure if it’s our particular population or some other variable but I’ve actually found Yeba del Lobo to be stronger acting in many cases than Arnica, and the counter irritant effect is often strong enough to visibly redden and also cause feelings of heat where applied. Like Arnica, the liniment is frequently utilized in the treatment of musco-skeletal injuries, especially those aggravated by cold or dampness. Some people find that Yerba del Lobo is too heating on its own and I often formulate it in pain relieving salves/liniments with Artemisia spp., Alnus oblongifolia and Populus angustifolia.

I was delighted to find a good sized meadow with an abundance of not only Hymenoxys, but also Cutleaf Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata), Verbena macdougalii, my favorite local species of Geranium, G. richardsonii and a number of other remedios of the mountain Southwest. I even harvested a good amount of our higher elevation Mountain Alder, A. incana ssp. tenuifolia in order to compare it to the Canyon Alder I more commonly work with, A. oblongifolia.

Picnic lunch in the meadow

Loba set up a picnic lunch while Rhiannon and her best friend, Cassandra, danced in a patch of tall grass while a misting rain fell. We were at about 8500 feet and the forest surrounding the meadow is populated with Aspen, Douglas Fir, Spruce, White Fir and the occasional Southwestern White Pine. We ate goat cheese and freshly picked watercress on buckwheat sourdough while gazing up at the enormous trees behind us and then back at the blackened patches on the other side of the meadow.

Geranium richardsonii

This lovely light pink to white flowered Geranium is my favorite species for medicine in this area. While less colorful than its middle elevation relative, G. caespitosum, it has a much larger root system and is also considerably more astringent in nature, making it more effective in treatment of inflamed, boggy tissues both internally and externally. Since our oaks here in the SW tend be far less astringent than the average oak in the rest of the county, I tend to utilize a number of smaller plants for their astringency. Sumach (Rhus trilobata) and Geranium are two such plants commonly found in my materia medica.

While Wolf took pictures of the activity, Loba gathered Watercress and Rhiannon and Cassandra exclaimed over wildflowers I of course was, as usual, on my hands and knees in the dirt examining plants. I spent a good part of my time using my hori-hori to dig up a bit of Coneflower and Iris to help refill my now depleted stores. In the process I also gathered some Wild Onions and Mint for the pantry.

Iris missouriensis

I was surprised to find a number of Iris still flowering in the meadow. While at the end of their prime, they’re still remarkably beautiful, especially in the way their faded tissue catches the sunlight filtering through low-lying clouds. Besides being lovely to look at, the bitter rhizomes of Iris have strong alterative, lymphatic, diuretic and anti-inflammatory actions. Please note that Iris should be used only once dried, and that it can be toxic (and thus, very unpleasant) in overlarge doses. In small doses, I find that it formulates extremely well and can add a great deal to many bitters and lymphatic blends.

Our I. mirrouriensis of the West seems somewhat less strong in action than the I. versicolor of the East, but still plenty strong for most purposes. Ellingwood described the specific indications of Iris:

This agent will prove serviceable when the stools are clay-colored, the urine scanty and the skin inactive and jaundiced. In small doses it is indicated in irritable conditions of the mucous membranes of the digestive tract, with altered secretion.

And indeed, Iris is most effective where the metabolic system seems to need a kickstart via stimulation (which physiologically often means some level of irritation) in order to effectively produce the secretions needed for proper immune and metabolic function. Again, dried plant, small doses and appropriate formulation keeping the specific indications in mind.

8,000 feet up in the mountains, a flowering Elder tree in the background and Frasera speciosa in the foreground

On the way home through the mountain passes I noticed several large patches of what the locals call “Indian Root”, botanically known as Frasera speciosa of the Gentianaceae. More widely known as Green Gentian,  Elkweed or Cebadilla, this locally abundant herb is probably the single most revered plant by the folks of my village and surrounding areas.

Indian Root, Frasera speciosa


This bitter, rank-tasting plant with its yellow taproots has many of the expected properties of the Gentian family, primarily considered a digestive bitter by many. Locals have a litany of much more specific uses that I’ll discuss more fully in a later monograph on this plant. It certainly works great for that classic Gentian indication of epigastric fullness even after a very small amount of food is consumed, especially where the bloating is accompanied by copious loss of fluids via excess urination or diarrhea.


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More surprising was an Elder tree in full bloom standing atop the dry hillside above the Indian Root. While Wolf took the little girls to a local cafe, Loba and I set to work gathering up some of the creamy white blossoms.

This was such an incredibly wonderful surprise since I didn’t expect to be able to harvest any Elder at all this year! The odd yet sweet scent of the leaves and flowers made Loba and I somewhat giddy as we happily scrambled about reaching for the most accessible branches while being sure to leave plenty to become berries for the wildlife.

Mountain Vervain, Verbena macdougalii

Another delightful find was that nearly every unburned roadside and meadow contained an abundance of Mountain Vervain (Verbena macdougalii) in spite of the ongoing drought. One of my most turned to allies for treating tension and anxiety, I always gather a LOT of this plant every year. A specific and repeatedly successful used of this pretty wildflower is for tension and nerve pain in the shoulder and neck area in people who could generally be deemed “uptight” and who get irritable and short-tempered under stress. Overall, Verbena seems to have a remarkable ability to release the muscles around the base of the neck where it meets the shoulders. I’ve often seen this result in people getting the “shivers” not long after taking the tincture as the muscles relax. I’ve also seen it address tension headaches that even prescription painkillers hadn’t been able to touch.

Blue Flax, Linum lewisii

Despite the horror of the fire for humans and wildlife alike, it was a profound relief to see the green patches and roadsides. With so many of the forest service roads still closed, I haven’t made it back into the areas most seriously burned but I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to spend some time up in these beloved mountains, orienting myself to both the newly blackened landmarks as well as the vibrancy and vitality of life in flower.

All photos ©2011 Kiva Rose unless otherwise noted.

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