Forests and meadows surrounding Steamboat Springs a virtual pharmacy
A word about medicinal plant hikes and harvesting
“We don’t harvest on trails,” wild plant expert Mary Obrien said in the midst of a medicinal plant hike. “Animals use the trails,” to forage for plants. Instead, get off trail and look for a good-sized patch the the plant you seek. “We say that there should be at least 10 plants (of the same variety) before you harvest, and you should take no more than three.”
A handful of the native plants to be found in the woods and meadows around Steamboat Springs
• False Solomon Seal roots are a good cough medicine
• Porter’s lovitch, sometimes referred to as the “Keeper of the West,” is an important herb for supporting healthy lungs and fighting microbes, according to plant expert Mary O’Brien.
• Giant hyssop, with its cone-shaped fuzzy flowers and minty flavor, combats nausea
• Northern bed straw, a member of the mustard family (all mustards are edible), is an effective insect repellant, and, due to its sweet smell, native peoples lined their pillows with it.
• Yarrow combats fever, and due to its anti-microbial properties, early peoples carried a supply everywhere they went to treat wounds.
• The hollow stems of cow parsnip are tasty, but it’s also an analgesic, able to dull the pain of a toothache in much the way cloves do.
• Pineapple weed, with its spiky leaves and tiny yellow blossoms, is common along roadsides in Northwest Colorado. O'Brien advises that, as long as you identify plants away from the roadside (where it can be tainted by chemicals), the flowers, when crushed make a nice tea.
• Cow parsnip was both a food source and medicine for native peoples, who roasted and ate the stalks soon after they came out of the ground. But the seeds are an analgesic, with the capacity to dull the pain of toothache.
The gentle Soda Creek Trail, only a few minutes outside Steamboat, is popular among hikers, wildflower lovers and cyclists. But it’s safe to say only a handful of people appreciate it in quite the way Mary O’Brien does.
When O’Brien parks her vehicle in the large parking lot across from the Dry Lake Campground, shrugs her shoulders into the straps of her daypack and heads for the trailhead, it’s like a trip to a local pharmacy.
O’Brien, both an author and professional masseuse, can identify dozens of native plants with medicinal properties, or sometimes, simply nutritious plants, during the course of a 5-mile, mid-July hike along the trail, hosted by the local nature education nonprofit Yampatika.
“There are a lot of wild plants that could be very helpful, if we’d just open our minds,” O’Brien said.
Consider common red clover. Almost anyone would recognize its reddish purple pom-pom blossoms and its arrangement of triple leaves. But few have stopped to munch on its flowers (they’re mildly sweet and tasty).
Even better, humans can’t harm patches of red clover by over-harvesting.
Even fewer people realize that, for eons, indigenous people have used red clover to treat fevers, a variety of coughs and bronchitis — even to combat cancerous tumors. Yellow clover, on the other hand, is a blood thinner — a potential natural option to coumadin, O’Brien said.
On July 15, she led a group of nine people on a medicinal and edible plant hike, along the Soda Creek Trail. Members of the group came from distant states —West Virginia, Maryland, Florida and Texas.
Terri Tripp, a retired pediatrician from Winchester, Virginia, confessed she signed up for the trip primarily to be introduced to pretty flowers.
But she’s also transitioned her career into becoming a health coach and has become more and more open to the homeopathic approach to medicine.
“The hike was very insightful and validating, in a believable way,” Tripp said.
One of the plants O’Brien showed the group was the 10-inch tall lesser wintergreen (pyrola minor).
An infusion (tea) made from the leaves and tiny pearl-shaped pink blossoms have antisepetic properties and promote kidney health.
In fact, before she even stepped onto the trail July 15, she pointed out the unassuming little plant with tiny white blossoms which, more than any other, is wrapped up in the identity of the Yampa Valley and the river that defines it.
Yampa is not a showy plant, like flowering columbines, arnica and Indian paintbrush (all of which are poisonous to ingest).
“Mary’s hike was very inspirational,” Tripp said. “I learned a lot more about medical uses for plants.”
Tripp herself was prescribed arnica, a yellow-flowered plant that grows in profusion around Steamboat (though not an edible plant) to enhance her skin health following plastic surgery.
“In some years, it used to cover the hillsides. It was all over Emerald Mountain,” O’Brien said.
In addition to being a source of high-sugar starch, Yampa (sometimes spelled Yampah) is a mild laxative and a calming digestive aid. It’s soothing for sore throats, and a poultice made from the roots can help to draw out inflammation in wounds. But more about the Yampa plant and its significance later in the story.
A rose, by any other name, is a good source of vitamins
The pink-blossomed wood rose, which flourishes on south-facing slopes along Fish Creek behind Rollingstone Golf Course and throughout the local forests, reaches its peak as a source of nutrition when the first frost of autumn arrive.
“The frost stimulates the plant to consolidate sugar in the “rose hips,” the leaves immediately below the blossom,” O’Brien said. “Dry them, and throw them into tea throughout the winter.”
The native serviceberry, which flourishes alongside county roads throughout the region, isn’t the sweetest berry that grows locally, but it’s high in vitamin C,” O’Brien said, and the Utes mashed it into their pemmican recipe to ensure they had a supply for winter.
Perhaps the sweetest berries to be foraged in the Yampa Valley are the thimbleberries, which resemble broad, flattened raspberries. Then, there’s the diminutive huckleberry, tiny and bright red, unlike the huckleberries of the Pacific Northwest, which resemble small blueberries.
They can be spotted on low-growing bushes that spread across the ground. O’Brien recommends lifting the branches to reveal the berries in hiding. It takes work to harvest Colorado huckleberries, but she says one tiny berry will fill you mouth with flavor.
A tea made from the huckleberry leaves is “useful” in lowering and stabilizing blood sugar levels, she said, and the berries can be used as an alternative to cranberries to cure urinary tract infections.
Ute Indians’ harvesting practices helped to spread Yampa plants
O’Brien said the roots of the Yampa plant are high in starch, and Ute women would dig them out of the ground using sticks, then dry them in a mud-oven and stone grind them to store them for winter.
“I eat them raw in the field or put them in soups, stir fries and stews. … The sugars and starches in Yampa are rapidly assimilated, providing for an energy and endurance boost,” O’Brien wrote in the 2016 book, “Edible & Medicinal Plants of the Southern Rockies,” which she co-authored with Karen Vail.
There is also evidence that the combination of the Utes’ harvesting techniques helped propagate the wild plants, almost in a form of agriculture.
The Ute women inevitably left a piece of the deep root in the ground, allowing the plants they harvested to reach the next year.
“Research now has shown us that this plant responds well to digging and has been genetically influenced by human harvesting,” O’Brien and Vail reported in their book. “Yampa was also routinely cultivated by burning patches.” Scientists report, “burning may increase plant density by 10 times or more.”
You can’t purchase Yampa seeds at the garden center every spring, but O’Brien and Vail urge 21st century locals to gather the dry seeds of the plant in the fall and spread them over their gardens “to re-energize our valleys with this beloved plant.”
The native peoples looked to wild plants for more than mere sustenance. They relied upon them to dull pain and support general health, from mediating kidney problems to combating microbial infections.
The forests and meadows in the public lands surrounding Steamboat Springs are a virtual pharamacy … if you know what you are looking for.
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