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Backpacker Magazine – February 2002

Your Backwoods Pharmacy

When illness or injury strikes, the medicine you need is in the plants alongside the trail and at your feet.

by: Buck Tilton


HORSETAIL (Equisetum arvense)
Region: North America
Habitat: Moist soil close to rivers and streams.
Description: Look for bunches of leafless, segmented, tubular stems; up to 1 foot tall
Uses: Boil the plant in water to a decoction (see "Sip Or Smear") and apply topically to wounds to speed healing. Horsetail will also decrease bleeding from wounds. The decoction can be ingested to treat ulcers and kidney problems.

JUNIPER (Juniperus communis)
Region: From Canada south to Appalachians, west to Nebraska, and in southern Rockies
Habitat: Dry hillsides
Description: A shrub or tree with sharp needles and small, hard, pea-sized, blue-black berries covered with a whitish powder.
Uses: The little aromatic berries of the juniper make a tea high in vitamin C that can help ward off or treat colds, other infections and arthritic pain. It may also help with stomach cramps. Juniper tea has long been sipped by Native Americans to minimize the ill effects of a poison, including snakebites. Ten to 12 berries per cup of water boiled makes a strong enough brew to drink. Warning: DO NOT EAT THE BERRIES OR ANY PART OF THE JUNIPER PLANT. This can cause upset stomach, diarrhea, and possibly death when too many berries are ingested.

NETTLE (Urtica dioica)
Region: Different species grow across throughout North America and all have medicinal benefits
Habitat: Moist soil
Description: An erect, unbranched weed covered with stinging hairs, nettles also have small greenish flowers in clusters where the upper paired leaves attach; 12 to 50 inches tall
Uses: A cure-all among old world remedies, nettles are best when gathered (with care) in spring and early summer. Boil the leaves, stems and roots before adding honey or sugar for a tea (see "Sip or Smear") that clears congested lungs. Nettle tea may also be sipped for upset stomach, diarrhea, or general aches and pains. A decoction of leaves and roots makes an excellent wash for infected wounds when used liberally.

WILD ONION (Allium stellatum)
Region: North America
Habitat: Rocky soil and open fields and meadows.
Description: Look for grass-like basal leaves similar to shallots and the unmistakable odor of onion; 1 to 2 feet tall
Uses: Juice from crushing wild (or domestic) onions or leeks applied to scalds and burns can reduce damage to the flesh and reduce pain. A decoction aids in the relief of sore throats and coughs. A poultice (see "Sip Or Smear") eases the itch of bug bites.

RED CLOVER (Trifolium pratense)
Region: North America
Habitat: Fields and beside trails
Description: A stout plant with leaflets in threes and reddish flower heads at the tops of stalks; 2 to 18 inches tall
Uses: When brewed as a mild-tasting tea, red clover flowers work as a sedative. Mixed with honey, the tea helps calm a cough. A red clover flower poultice can ease the discomfort of athlete's foot.



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