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By MATT TUNSETH
Chugiak-Eagle River Star
EAGLE RIVER (AP) — Mother Nature’s medicine cabinet is wide open — you just have to know where to look.
Ute Olsson knows. As a naturalist at the Eagle River Nature Center, Olsson might be the best person to describe the plants, trees, shrubs, ferns, berries and other flora growing in the Eagle River Valley.
“I just love plants and I love to find out how to use them,” Olsson said.
Olsson recently gave an hour-long talk at center describing the many plants in the area that can be used for their natural healing powers. During a slideshow, Olsson took guests to the center through a litany of plants that can be used as medicines — and ones to avoid.
“Just because they are natural doesn’t mean they are safe,” Olsson cautioned at the start of her program. “Some of them are poisonous.”
For people just starting in the world of edible and medicinal plants, Olsson suggested getting a dichotomous key in order to properly identify plants in the wild, as well as consulting the Internet as well as making sure certain types of plants agree with your stomach. Never eat anything you’re not sure about, as some plants look quite similar but have very different properties, she said.
“That’s why it’s really good to know the plants,” she said.
After her disclaimer, Olsson ran through a list of more than 20 plants that grow locally and can be used for everything from headaches to menstrual cramps to dressing wounds.
Olsson began her talk by talking about the pain-killing properties in the bark of several woody plants and trees, including cottonwood, willow, aspen and poplar. The inner bark of willow contains salicylic acid, which can be used to make aspirin. Olsson said the bark can be used to make a tea or salve. In an emergency, someone could even chew on a willow branch to take advantage of the plant’s pain-killing properties. She said moose are frequently seen eating willow after childbirth, which could be the animals’ way of using the natural remedy.
“Maybe moose always have a lot of headaches,” she joked. “They’re always eating willow.”
Other natural remedies that can be easily found in this area include things like usnea or “old man’s beard,” a type of lichen that grows on older trees. The fuzzy looking substance can be used as an antibiotic or to help with sore throats in tea.
Many of the substances that can be used naturally can be brewed into teas or preserved in alcohol or in oil extracts. Olsson said medicines that are dried or preserved will last much longer than those that still contain water.
Among the best ways to make medicines from plants is to make salves or creams that can be applied topically. In addition to protecting from infection, these can help ease pain naturally.
Other useful plants with good medicinal properties include juniper berries (good for arthritis and as an appetite suppressant), spruce (can be used to make pitch for patching wounds), highbush cranberries (good for cramps), rose petals (a good source of vitamin C) and plantains (good for bee stings).
There are many more, Olsson said. In her native Germany, Olsson said mothers would give pineapple weed (wild chamomile) tea to calm fussy infants.
“We’d give this to babies to settle them down,” she said.
Some plants require more care and caution than others. The roots of cow parsnip, for example, can be used to treat heartburn. However, the plant is also toxic when it comes into contact with the skin and can cause a painful rash when exposed to sunlight.
And some things growing in the forest should be avoided entirely, said Olsson, who concluded her slideshow with a photo of the highly toxic fly agaric mushroom.
“Stay away from these,” she said.
Despite the need for an abundance of caution, Olsson said the forest is full of useful plants — many of which can be easily found and used. The best way to start using natural remedies, she said, is to simply start researching different properties and getting out into nature to try different ways of making teas, salves and other useful medicines.
One last thing to keep in mind, she said, is that many natural plants used for natural remedies don’t always taste great. Chewing on a willow stick, for example, isn’t terribly pleasant. However, there’s a well-known trick people can use when making teas or other cures from plants found in the wild.
“A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down,” she said.