Article first published in Yukon North of Ordinary
Wildflowers are good medicine for the soul. When summer solstice arrives in the Yukon, the vast boreal landscape is bursting with a variety of blossoms. Some are bold, bright, and showy, while others are tiny, low to the ground, and almost go unnoticed. Read on to find out about some of the flowers in our northern environment. And don’t forget that paying attention to the phenomenal beauty the earth possesses is when one truly receives the gift of nature.
RIVER BEAUTY is a close relative of fireweed. The flowers are the same bright pink colour as fireweed, but larger in size. Its stems lay on the ground and petals reach toward the sun. This plant generally grows on gravel bars and stream banks and reaches alpine elevations on scree slopes. The antioxidant flowers and leaves can be eaten fresh on a salad or made into a tea. Both contain steroid compounds that act as gastrointestinal astringents to soothe the digestive tract. The flowers and leaves also contain various flavonoids, including quercetin, a natural antihistamine and anti-inflammatory.
BLUEBELL FLOWERS are commonly known as lungwort because the leaf and flower tea is stimulating to the respiratory system, so it is beneficial for treating a cough. The flowers grow in drooping clusters. Its petals, which are fused into funnel-shaped tubes, bud pink and turn a rich blue when in bloom. The plant’s dark-green leaves are broad at the base, taper to a long point, and are covered with rough hairs.
TWINFLOWER is a pink, funnel-shaped flower that nods in pairs from a stalk. The blooms are small and very sweetly scented. It is considered a dwarf shrub because the stems are trailing, rooting at nodes with little oval leaves. Twinflower grows throughout the circumpolar north in open woods or on mossy and turfy openings in thickets. Twinflower must be carefully gathered. I use scissors to cut them from the base of the stem in order to avoid pulling up the root system, which allows it to continue flourishing. Use the leaves and flowers together to make a delicately flavoured sweet tea that is good for coughs and helps increase breast milk for lactating women.
BEARBERRY FLOWERS are bellshaped, pink, fairy-like blooms that can be gathered in early summer and made into a tea. The flowers and leaves can also be made into a tincture that is an antimicrobial astringent, which is well-known as a urinary antiseptic and an effective treatment for bronchitis, helping thin out excessive, sticky mucus.
ARNICA FLOWER is bright yellow and used topically to stimulate and dilate the blood vessels near the surface of the skin to improve circulation to an injured area. It also promotes the healing of bruises, sprains, strains, muscular inflammation, aches, pains, rheumatic joint pain, and swelling due to fractures. It can be used topically as a poultice, oil, cream, or salve.
Arnica flowers do not dry well and essentially turn to seed fluff. The flowers are best used for infused oil. Let the blossoms wilt for a few hours so the water from the petals can start to evaporate. Use one part flowers to two parts sunflower oil. (I like to use sunflower oil because you can buy Canadian-grown options. Plus, this oil is in the same plant family as arnica.) Put the flowers and oil in a jar and cover with cheesecloth so excess moisture escapes. Steep in oil for a few weeks, stirring daily, then strain the mixture into a bottle, label it, and use.
LABRADOR TEA has white, aromatic flowers. The underside of its dark-green leaves is covered with woolly, white hairs that turn rust-coloured with age. This plant grows in peaty soils, bogs, muskegs, moist conifer forests, and meadows in early summer. The flowers are easy to spot on the forest floor. Labrador tea has analgesic properties that reduce pain when applied externally as a poultice, infused in an oil or ointment, or ingested as a tea. It is said to be mildly cleansing to the blood and considered a tonic herb that strengthens and tones the whole body. To create Labrador-tea oil, combine a cup of flowers with one-and-a-half cups of jojoba oil (or another oil you have available) in a jar and allow it to infuse for up to four weeks, shaking it daily.
WILD ROSE is a fragrant flower that is usually solitary on the stem with pink petals, many with yellow stamens. They are easily found all over the circumpolar north, frequently along riverbanks, woodland clearings, or burns. The petals are emollient and can moisture the skin when infused in oil. It is important to keep rose petals out of direct sunlight when you’re drying them, otherwise they will fade and lose much of their valuable essential oils. Rose petals are perfect for making a floral water or hydrosol.