Your Backwoods Pharmacy

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

Pop Quiz:

Your head is throbbing, and the nearest aspirin is 25 trail miles and a 2-hour drive away. Do you:

A: continue hiking, cursing every pounding step?

B: retire to your tent for the rest of the day?

C: visit the pharmacy growing at your feet?

After trying both A and B with unsatisfying results, I learned a thing or two about the healing powers of backcountry plants. Now, I prefer option C.

I'm not alone. Native cultures have used herbs for thousands of years to treat everything from diarrhea to sore muscles. Once you learn to identify backcountry plants and their medicinal uses, the wilderness becomes your first-aid kit.

We consulted wilderness medical experts and herbal specialists and developed a list of nature's medicines to treat the most common backpacking ailments. According to John Page, an herbal specialist currently at work on a book about herbs' healing properties, you should start with one dose or application of any medicinal plant, but only after making an absolutely positive identification of the herb (see "Plant Smarts"). Then wait a few hours to test for adverse reactions such as nausea or hives before using it again.

If you're already taking a modern prescription or over-the-counter drug, talk with your doctor about what herbs are safe to mix with modern medicine. As well, Page discourages combining herbs because doing so can sometimes dilute their healing qualities, or cause negative side effects. See "Sip Or Smear" for directions on preparing teas, poultices, and other vehicles of administration.

Plant Smarts:

Practice identifying herbs at home using field guides or one of the online resources listed at the end of this article. Local universities or nature centers often lead hikes on plant identification. In the wilds, use only herbs you can positively identify.

WILD COMFREY (Symphytum officinale)

Region: Northeast

Habitat: Moist areas such as along streams or near lakes

Description: Coarse, hairy perennial with spear-shaped leaves (reminiscent of donkey ears) and white to purple, curling bell-like flowers; 1 to 3 feet tall

Uses: Make a tea (see "Sip Or Smear") from the leaves and apply it as needed to wounds, burns, insect bites and stings to ease discomfort, fight inflammation, and speed healing. Don't drink the tea; experts say it may be carcinogenic when ingested.

DANDELION (Taraxacum officinale)

Region: North America

Habitat: Throughout the backcountry

Description: Yellow flowers, white seedballs and sharply lobed leaves; 2 to 18 inches tall

Uses: An infusion (see "Sip Or Smear") helps with tummy problems and mild dysfunction in the urinary system. Drink 3-4 cups of tea per day as long as the problem persists. Cooled tea may be used as a wash for vaginal infections. Fresh juice from a broken stem, applied topically, should ease the pain of a blister.

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.

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: www.herbs.org; www.dominionherbal.com; www.sagemountain.com; www.wholeherb.com and www.holisticonline.com.

For information on identifying herbs, try the USDA's Plant Database, http://plants.usda.gov/