June 18, 2024

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Dan McCaslin: Helpful Herbs and Ancient California Plant-Based Medicine | Outdoors

6 min read

While growing up, I often read uplifting tales about great heroes and heroines, and Plutarch’s captivating stories about Alexander the Great still rank high in interest and information. Among his many conquests, Alexander constantly experimented with new healing treatments, both for his wounded soldiers and for himself.

We learn best, and remember most, when we perform the thing-in-itself and don’t merely read or hear about the process. Therefore, I’ve been experimenting with an ancient Chumash herbal remedy for itchy poison oak patches on my arms, since this happens when one hikes a lot. I’ve been following the “recipe” using common mugwort described in Lanny Kaufer’s impressive new book, “Medicinal Herbs in California” (4.1.1. Books).

While attending Kaufer’s outdoor talk at the Ojai Valley Museum on Feb. 5, I learned the most when he walked from plant to actual healing plant and demonstrated some of the uses. My own “old” knowledge is not always the best — I’ve been leading student hiking and backpacking groups for a long time and have often given fellow hikers the wrong advice about how to utilize the common plant, mugwort (Artemisia douglasiana).

Mugwort is plentiful along local frontcountry canyons and often grows near poison oak. Kaufer’s indigenous plant expert, Juanita Centeno, told him to roll up fresh mugwort leaves, squeeze them and allow the drops to fall right on the inflamed and itchy patches of skin. This potion has effectively reduced the itchiness on my own forearms. (Kaufer warns that after poison oak pustules break open and it gets bad, do not continue with the mugwort treatment; p. 72.)

Like many Americans, I’ve unconsciously resisted plant-based (and herbal) medicine treatments for decades because of the significant “Flexner Report” of 1910, funded by Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. While there were undoubtedly quack healers and fake medical practitioners in 1910, the result of this highly influential report damning plant-based medicine led to the elimination of half the medical schools in the United States, especially those that taught herbal or naturopathic medicine (as well as graduating Black and female doctors). In the crucial U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP) publications, Kaufer notes: “Between 1870 and 1970 the total number of plant-derived drugs in the USP fell from 636 to 68” (p. 7).

Several German medical friends attest that in Germany and Europe there was no equivalent “Flexner Report,” and there they learn from an ongoing European tradition of plant-derived medicines. In the USA today, herbs fall under the ridiculous “dietary supplements” category and cannot be prescribed by medical physicians, who thus exclusively prescribe synthetic chemical drugs.

About 10 years ago when I consulted Santa Barbara’s late and much-lamented Dr. Henry Han for debilitating migraines, he educated me about the more than 2,500 herbal “recipes” available to practitioners of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine). Dr. Han, a true healer, could prescribe medicinal whole herbs as a licensed acupuncturist and had an entire warehouse of various wonderful plants. We learn that the ancient Chinese herbal pharmacopeia was written down by the second century AD (the Pen Tsao Ching), and the ancient Indian ayurvedic system was written down around 3,500 years ago. Yet, herbal medical traditions extend many thousands of years in orally transmitted form, and surviving indigenous peoples retain much of the health-giving information older than the Pen Tsao Ching.

Kaufer discussed five other specific plants found outside at the Ojai Valley Museum: blue elderberry, California wild rose, catalina cherry (holly leaf cherry), toyon (“Christmas berry”) and the widespread oaks. Oak bark has long been used as an astringent all over the planet, and (after soaking) the red toyon berries are edible, which I did not realize.

Hippocrates, the Greek “Father of Medicine,” called elderberry (Sambuca nigra subsp. caerulea) “nature’s medicine chest” since this glorious plant has a profusion of medical applications. Elderberry is a native, deciduous, multistemmed shrub that can grow into a small tree. The blue berries are indeed edible, and several California indigenous tribes, including the Chumash, also made a hot elderflower tea for flus and colds. In Mrs. Grieve’s famous “A Modern Herbal” (1931), she mentions 12 usages for elderberry, including as lotion, salad, vinegar, ointment, syrup and more. I once imbibed an elderberry wine, which was surprisingly delicious.

Elderberry also has been called “the music tree” (sambuca) since several California indigenous tribes used this wood for clapper sticks, flutes and whistles.

Jimson weed, or datura, is a dangerous plant used for all sorts of spiritual as well as mundane practices. For any of you who hike often, or even too much like I do, Kaufer has collected this splendid herbal recipe for sore-footed folks: the “sacred datura soak” — soak seven datura (datura wrightii) leaves in two quarts of saltwater and leave this “tea” in the sun for three days; drain off and toss the leaves; soak feet in the cooled brew, and also immerse hands to relieve arthritic pain. Kaufer wryly notes, “Do not drink the sun tea” since it can paralyze you or kill you — Mother Momoy is a fierce spirit.

Kaufer is quite responsible in his advice — but do look at the 30 very specific herbal medicine recipes at the back of the book. Some of my favorite titles are California Dream Tea, Elderberry Immune Syrup, Oatstraw and Nettle Leaf Mineral Tea, Sagebrush Liniment and Wild Cherry Cough Syrup. The author notes which plants are endangered and should not be collected.

As a septuagenarian, I have had many positive experiences in modern medicine — surgeries for knee and shoulder, melanoma cancer and cloudy cataracts. Traditional herbal medicine cannot pertain in these surgical areas, but plant-centered medicines and certain vaccines do shine for chronic conditions one is simply trying to mitigate, like poison oak itching.

Blue ceanothus blossoms (dust) on a boulder.
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Blue ceanothus blossoms (dust) on a boulder. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

Since post-Renaissance Western science and medicine have been largely male-dominated, the Flexner Report’s attack on the reliability and efficacy of plant-centered medicine inevitably led women more and more into leadership of the herbal medicine movement, given the patriarchal nature of “orthodox” western medicine. Dr. Han helped cure my migraines using raw herbs and various brews, which I spent hours preparing every week for two years. The patient’s involvement with her or his cure is very important, and in standard Western medicine we have moved to synthetic pills, dramatic surgeries and joint replacements, and in psychiatry, an over-reliance on pills like Xanax (benzodiazepine) and other chemicals.

When sipping a few cups of mugwort tea, I remembered that it has also been called “dream sagebrush” because of its reputed ability to foster dreaming when placed under your pillow or hung over your sleeping head. My dream would be a revitalized American medical establishment that continues to advance in surgery and other treatments such as vaccinations, but also honors available whole plants and takes advantage of native medicinal herbs growing in local areas.

Perhaps some of us forget, medical doctors forget that all modern medicines and pills ultimately derive from whole plants (and naturally-occurring minerals).

(Mugwort is free and easy for picking in early spring. I noticed some on Thursday in Rattlesnake Canyon.)


» Books: Lanny Kaufer, “Medicinal Herbs in California — A Field Guide to Common Healing Plants” (Falcon 2021) [p.244 in Kaufer for datura soak recipe]; Jan Timbrook, “Chumash Ethnobotany” (2007); the “Flexner Report” discussed in Thomas Duffy, “The Flexner Report” in The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine 84(3) pp. 269-276 (2010).

— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity and has written extensively about the local backcountry. His latest book, Autobiography in the Anthropocene, is available at Lulu.com. He serves as an archaeological site steward for the U.S. Forest Service in Los Padres National Forest. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.


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