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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.

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.

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