In true Miss Oddie fashion, while in America I thought it apt to seek out the local medicinal plants, I have however arrived slap bang in the middle of the home of one of the world’s most lucrative and valued medicinal crops. It goes by many names, some of my personal favorites; bo bo bush, bhanga, boom, giggle smoke, jolly green and of course Mary Jane, yeah that’s right folks it’s the big M or the big mmmm: Marijuana.
Maybe I’m a bit of a hipster, trying to not swim in the mainstream and instead, taking a huge hop and skip over the obvious and completely avoid the huge elephant in the room with marijuana leaves floating softly out of its trunk. So, I’ve actually decided go slightly off kilter and have a Native American issue to begin with.
It feels wrong to not include the adventures of Miss Oddie and how she came to be centered in the notorious Golden Triangle talking to Dennis, a Northern Californian farmer, sitting out back one of the coolest bars I’ve ever found myself, which just happens to be in this one-horse mountain town. I’ve been here two days and have never seen so many different exchanges and collaborations of music, harmonicas, flutes, bluegrass, guitar, banjo, Spanish guitar and one of the most beautiful songs I ever did hear, about a dying goat.
Just being totally blown away by a song of holding a dying goat in one’s arms
Well anyway, how I came to be talking to Dennis out behind a bar in the middle of nowhere about native American Flora and their medicinal properties goes a little like this: Catch a night bus from Oakland to Sacramento, try to sleep on a metal bench for 6 hours listening to the Pixies, catch another greyhound to a little town called Redding. Now, don’t be fooled by the cute size of this little town, as I have never seen a town that could described as anything but cute. I literally felt like I had been dropped into the middle of ‘One flew over the Cuckoos nest’ on acid, sorry did I say acid? I mean Crack. Lots and lots of home cooked crack or Meth or both mixed up in a heinous and destructive broth of some seriously mental shit.
Within 5 hours of being there I encountered ‘Dave’ and his snake stick, who seriously misses his dead granny, she was a ‘pimp’ and a ‘hardcore bitch.’ Which is about the height of what I could make out from his toothless ramblings. He recommended me some good campsites in the area which he seemed to have either broken various bones in or in his favorite one split his back open which then had to be cleaned out with a metal brush because it crusted over. Then another zombie like creature, talking nonsense who went to wack into a tree then got scared off by another screaming looney and deciding their crazy was no match of the others crazy, sheepishly retreated to the other side of the road. Then there was ‘Lydia’ who looked me square in the eyes and told me ‘The devil is coming, I’d more than likely die, like ASAP.’ You know do not pass go, no collecting your get out of jail free card, just imminent death via the hands of the devil. However, the shining glory of the whole situation came through in the form of a big massive American in a wife beater who talked lliiiiiikkkkeeeeee thiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiisssss…… deciding to counteract the situation all together and tell me how he just fell in love and how that’s so great and how it’s Monday and isn’t that juuuusssstttttt greeaaaaat?
Well anyways, I digress as usual, I made it and I’m alive and well in this little town in the middle of the mountains, which seems to be a hidden utopia of musicians and passionate organic farmers, one of which is sitting opposite me and has taken it upon himself to enlighten me on the native American medicinal plants he knows of in the area. However not before illustrating the Native history of the area first.
This little mountain town lies historically on Winneman Wintu territory, where a huge massacre occurred known as the Bridge Gulch Massacre….so it goes. Winneman Wintu roughly translates in their own dialect as ‘middle water people’ as the McCloud River is bounded by the Upper Sacramento to the West and the Pit River to the East. They were born from water, and are of the water, so they vehemently fight to protect it to this day. The Winnemem Wintu tribe is indigenous to northern California and has been formally recognized by the California Native American Heritage Commission, an agency of the State of California with responsibility for preserving and protecting Native American sites and cultural resources in California. They once numbered approximately 14,000; by 1910, after several decades of conflict with white settlers, that number had plummeted to 400. Today the tribe’s population is approximately 150.
The massacre that occurred was a revenge killing for Colonel John Adams and was led by the Sheriff of Trinity county. Many Wintu were killed, however in true American fashion, they got the wrong band of Wintu, none of which were responsible for the killing of the Colonel. Furthermore, natives of this area would be subject to several more years of genocide and if it wasn’t directly from the hands of the white settlers it would come in the form of exotic diseases which they had no immunity or cures for, such as; measles and smallpox….so it goes, so it goes, so it goes.
This area however, is still home to a rich variety of medicinal plants and native knowledge. A tree known to be respected for its medicinal properties by the Wintu and other such neighboring tribes is known as the Chokecherry, and we happen to be sitting right beside one.
Prunus virginiana, also known as the Chokecherry or bitter berry is native to Northern California and may get its name from the astringents found in the fruit which give it’s bitter unappetizing taste. However, as an avid collector of medicinal plant properties, astringent properties suggest alkaloids and what do alkaloids do? Yes, that’s right they do all sorts of funny, wonderful and terrible things to the human body, not to be trifled with, I tell you! However, it is the bark that is mainly used in the form of a tincture or syrup, the leaves can also be boiled to make a tea.
Ripe fruits of the Chokecherry, Prunus virginiana
The chokecherry can be a large deciduous shrub usually found growing in clusters or a small tree with beautiful and juicy looking fruits ripening from red to dark purple in August to September in Northern California. The use of chokecherry medicinally stems back from its use by Native Americans. Famously used to treat Merriwether Lewis on an expedition by the Native Americans he encountered for a serious Gastrointestinal illness, in the form of a tea brewed from the twigs of this magical tree. The teas, tonics and tinctures are mainly used as a treatment for diarrhea and sore throat, as a purgative, for coughs and colds, and applied topically to stop bleeding.
Now to take a sneak peek at the science behind it all, time for Femmy to investigate…Prunasin is found in the bark and seeds of this plant which is a cyanogenic glycoside. You gotta learn something new every day, right? Well Hi, I’m here to help! Cyanogenic glycosides are present in plants and seeds and when macerated (chewed) the enzymes and cyanogenic glycosides come together to release cyanide. That’s where the warning of chewing apple pips come from you see!
It is therefore extremely important to prepare and dose this plant carefully to avoid toxicity and release the right properties. Ever heard of ye olde saying, ‘the poison is in the dose.’
Prunasin has a unique property which inhibits the cough reflex and is therefore extremely useful in the treatment of dry coughs. This property is probably what led wild chokecherry bark to be listed in the official US pharmacopeia from 1820 to 1970, before big pharma companies began to replace herbal remedies with those of synthetics, for monetary gain and control, merely my opinion of course.
Another plant of note is that of Mullein or Verbascum thapsis, of which is actually native to Europe, North Africa and Asia and has actually been introduced to the Americas, due to the power of adaption and the understanding of medicinal plants, Mullein was quickly introduced to the wealth of Native American medicinal plants.
Mullein is said to be of much use to combat diarrhea due to the combination of demulcant and astringent properties, from such combination which leads to strengthening of the bowels and in cases where bleeding of the bowels exists, the decoction is prepared with milk. Due to its demulcant, emollient and astringent properties Mullein is also useful for coughs and lung disorders as well as bleeding of the lungs.
Demulcant, emolient and astringent properties you say? Well my friends and giggle smokes, today is your lucky day. These are all very important properties to look for in medicinal plants, a demulcant is an agent which forms a soothing mucous membrane, relieving inflammation and minor pain of a membrane, however effects only usually last for around 30 minutes, derived from the Latin ‘demulcere‘ translating roughly as caress. Just like what honey gives you when suffering from a nasty cough, a nice little caress of your membranes, you can thank me later. An emollient has properties known to have the power of softening or relaxing, especially when related to the skin, deriving from the Latin ‘emollio‘ to soften. An astringent is a chemical compound which is known to shrink or constrict body tissues, deriving from the Latin ‘adstringere‘ to bind fast. Astringents are also present in unripe fruit to ward of predators to lead seed to maturity, these are what gives fruits their bitter taste leading to a dry puckering of the mouth, or for instance in that of our favored friend, the chokecherry. Astringents in medicines are used to cause constriction or contraction of mucous membrane or exposed tissue to check secretion of blood or mucous secretions, which is what holds them so useful in the treatment of coughs, diarrhea, sore throats and peptic ulcers.
Mullein, Verbascum thapsis
That of the native Taxas bacata or yew in the area has also been used for bow production by the natives due to its ability to bend and remain malleable, a tree of which has been widely used all over the world for such use. There is an absolute wealth of plants in area used for their medicinal properties, however I have just focused on a couple to entice your taste buds and excite your mind cells. I would like to leave you with a Wintu saying to enable you to be a more well-rounded and respectful individual and a saying which we must not forget:
“This mountain has my heart (referring to Mt. Shasta), this land is our church”
Lest we forget the relationship we should have for our natural world and worship it for the bounty it bequeaths us each and every day.