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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

SAGE (Salvia officinalis)
Region: West
Habitat: Arid environs
Description: Soft, pale green leaves that have a distinctive aroma when crushed; 24 to 32 inches tall
Uses: Sage leaves can be applied topically to stop bleeding. Chew a few fresh leaves for sores in the mouth. Sage tea (brewed from a handful of leaves) is good for treating colds, coughs, flu and fever, an upset stomach and, for some people, a headache. After cooling, the tea also makes a good wound disinfectant.

STRAWBERRY (Fragaria sp.)
Region: Most U.S. regions, including High Rockies
Habitat: Different species (mountain strawberry and wood strawberry, for example) grow wild in shady, wooded areas or open fields.
Description: A low-growing plant with three saw-toothed leaflets and a small recognizable berry in season; 3 to 6 inches tall
Uses: Steep a handful of leaves and roots and drink the pleasant-tasting tea to relieve an upset stomach or diarrhea.

YARROW (Achillea millefolium)
Region: North America (look for regional names like milfoil and thousand-leaf)
Habitat: Fields, along trails, and in grass meadows
Description: An herb with white flowers in flat umbrella-like clusters at the top of the stalks, and narrow, wooly, and fragrant leaves; 1 to 3 feet tall
Uses: The many leaves of the yarrow can be applied topically to bleeding cuts and scrapes to stimulate clotting. A tea from the flowers helps you fight diarrhea, colds, flu, and fever, and generally gives you a boost in staying well. Or sip a cup when you have a headache. Try the tea with a dab of honey.

COMMON PLANTAIN (Plantago major)
Region: North America
Habitat: Most moist environments, especially where the soil has been disturbed, such as alongside trails
Description: A low-growing plant having multiple broad, laterally grooved leaves growing from the roots and a few grooved stalks
Uses: Bruised or cooked leaves are applied topically to wounds to speed healing and reduce swelling. The common and narrowleaf plaintain (Plantago lanceolata) have antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties.

MINT (Mentha piperita--peppermint; Mentha spicata--spearmint)
Region: Widespread across the United States
Habitat: Prevalent especially in moist areas
Description: A small plant with alternate leaves; has a strong, distinctive aroma
Uses: A tea made with wild peppermint or spearmint is tasty, and quite helpful when you have a cold, upset stomach, or gas, or a headache. The tea also helps you sleep. Inhaling the steam can aid in clearing sinus, nasal, and chest congestion.

WILLOW (Salix sp.)
Region: Widespread across the United States
Habitat: Moist, riparian environments
Description: Trees or shrubs with thin, pointed leaves; the white willow may reach 75 feet in height, but the common black willow seldom grows to more than 20 feet
Uses: The black and white willow species have the same medicinal benefits. Tea brewed from willow bark was the original aspirin, and can work wonders on aches and pains. Steep 1 ounce of bark in a pint of water. Be sure to use the inner bark, which is moist on both sides. Unlike aspirin, willow tea is easy on the stomach, but like aspirin, it reduces clotting (so avoid it if you're bleeding) and may be harmful to children.

ROSE HIPS (Rosa sp.)
Region: Throughout the United States
Habitat: Various species of wild roses can be found growing year-round.
Description: A bristly or thorny shrub with a pink or deep rose flower and bright red hips (the fruit that appears after the flowers drop), which cling to the plant all winter
Uses: Potent with vitamins C, A, and E, wild rose hips can be eaten or steeped into a tea to aid in recovery from colds, flu, or a sore throat. The tea is also useful as a mild laxative or a pick-me-up after a hard day on the trail.

Resources: For more information on herbal remedies, try these Web sites:;;; and

For information on identifying herbs, try the USDA's Plant Database,

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