Ancient civilizations believed that for every ailment there is an herbal cure. Cultures throughout the ages have used plants as medicines for healing and maintaining physical, spiritual, and mental health. When the snow starts melting in the Yukon, I plan my seasonal harvest and determine what I need for my personal apothecary. Once I gather what I need, I create tinctures with alcohol or vinegar, make syrups or elixirs, and dry plants for tea. Here are 10 fundamental boreal-plant remedies along with basic recipes for their preparation.
1-HORSETAIL TINCTURE (Hair, Skin, Nails)
Horsetail is high in useable minerals, and the high silica content helps bodies form collagen, an important protein found in connective tissue, skin, bones, cartilage, and ligaments. Use topically in a foot soak, as a hair rinse or herbal shampoo, or as a tea or tincture. I prefer making a horsetail tincture with vinegar because there are more useable vitamins and minerals than when using alcohol.
It’s best to gather horsetail in the early summer. The plant is prime for picking for medicinal use when its branches are pointing up. Do not gather when the branches are pointing downward; this is an indication it has developed oxalate crystals that can be harmful to the kidneys when consumed.
2- WILLOW BARK TINCTURE (Pain Relief)
Inner willow bark is best known for its analgesic properties to aid with pain and inflammation. The medicine is strongest in the inner bark and milder in the leaves. I like to prepare willow bark as an alcohol tincture in the spring. It’s easy and convenient to use, whether added to a bath or as a topical compress. The tincture can be used for headaches, back pain, sciatic nerve pain, osteoarthritis, tendonitis, bursitis, gout, muscle aches, sprains, strains, and menstrual cramping.
The bark is best harvested in the early spring before the leaves come out. Cut a few small branches and then take a knife and slice through the bark from top to bottom. Peel back the bark, pull it off the branch, and then cut away the inner layer.
3- BEARBERRY TEA (Urinary Tract)
The antimicrobial actions found in bearberry leaves can kill bacteria in the urine. The leaves can be made into a tea or tincture predominantly used as a urinary antiseptic for urinary-tract infections (including cystitis, urethritis, and prostatitis) and to prevent the formation of, and assist in the removal of, stones from the urinary system. Bearberry tea also works as an excellent mouthwash to aid mouth infections.
4- BEDSTRAW TINCTURE (Lymphatic Drainage)
Gather bedstraw leaves and flowers in the summer for a tincture to use as a lymphatic tonic. Lymph nodes are small glands that filter lymph, the clear fluid that circulates through the lymphatic system. Lymph nodes in the neck, armpits, groin, or ankles can become swollen in response to infection in the body. A bedstraw tincture also acts as a diuretic, blood cleanser, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, astringent, and laxative.
5- SPRUCE RESIN TINCTURE (Healing Spray)
Spruce pitch, sap, resin, or gum can be harvested anytime. I prefer gathering it in early spring when the days are warm and the sap runs freely, but the nights are cold enough for it to freeze and snap off the bark easily. This keeps your fingers from getting sticky while harvesting and makes the sap easier to work with.
In the late 1800s, my great-greatgrandfather made a remedy called Mitchell’s Genuine Balsam. I’ve carried on the family tradition with the contemporary twist of using a spray bottle instead of a tincture medicine bottle.
Spruce remedies are great for common day-to-day ailments and can be used internally and externally for pain-relief, antifungal, antimicrobial, antiseptic, and disinfectant purposes. The alcohol dissipates as the spray dries and the resin forms a smooth, protective bandage over the wound, which helps bring down swelling, stops bleeding, and clears up or prevents infection. Use the spray internally for sore throats and gum abscesses.
6- WILD MINT TEA (Indigestion)
Drinking mint tea helps with indigestion, gas, heartburn, and pain associated with ulcers. Considered an herb with bitter qualities, mint also acts as a blood cleanser and diaphoretic that helps eliminate toxins by promoting perspiration.
Wild mint tea is a good morning brew as it’s stimulating and helps clear a tired mind, alleviate excess morning mucous and nausea, and deflect an oncoming headache. Aromatic mint leaf tea is full of naturally occurring vitamins and minerals, including calcium and magnesium. Wild mint grows in moist meadows and is easy to transplant into your own garden.
7- CHAGA TEA (Immune System)
This medicinal mushroom has risen in popularity over the years for its use in cleaning the blood, as well as shrinking and healing tumours in the body. Indigenous people throughout North America have traditionally used chaga tea to treat many types of cancer. The tea or a tincture has antifungal, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-tumour, immune-stimulating, and liver-supporting qualities.
Chaga is a parasitic birch fungus commonly found on living birch trees. It has a black, burnt-looking exterior and rust-red interior. It can be difficult to harvest, as it generally grows high in the tree. Herbalists throughout North America are aware of its rise in popularity and are trying to raise awareness about sustainable harvesting. Chaga should be used only as needed and not taken on a daily basis.
8- USNEA TINCTURE (Sore Throat)
Usnea (commonly called old man’s beard) is the greenish, hair-like lichen that grows on spruce trees. It’s a very valuable medicine containing usnic acid, which has been used as a mild antibiotic for hundreds of years. Usnic acid is reported to have antiviral, antifungal, and antibacterial actions and used to kill streptococcus and staphylococcus bacteria. It can be applied topically as infused oil for skin infections and as an alcohol tincture for colds, lung infections, and sore throats.
Take caution because some people are seriously allergic to usnic acid, so touching usnea can cause a rash and swallowing could be harmful. Lichen can also irritate the kidneys if ingested over a long period of time.
9- COLTSFOOT TEA (Cough)
Coltsfoot leaves are best harvested in the summer. Coltsfoot-leaf tea is anti-catarrhal, antispasmodic, demulcent, diaphoretic, diuretic, and emollient, as well as an expectorant. The tea contains mucilage, which coats and soothes the throat. This helps relieve pain in the intercostal muscles (between the ribs) due to coughing. It also treats symptoms of asthma, bronchitis, whooping cough, dry cough, laryngitis, hoarseness, lung cancer, wheezing, and mouth and throat irritations. Coltsfoot also stimulates the lungs to expel phlegm.
10- WILD CHAMOMILE TINCTURE (Sleeping)
The optimal time to gather wild chamomile is as soon as the tiny fragrant heads appear. Use the dried flower heads for tea or fresh flower heads for an alcohol tincture. I like to make a tincture because I find it more potent and fragrant than the dried flower heads. The tincture helps relieve gas, heartburn, mild gastrointestinal upset, and menstrual cramping. Drink wild chamomile tea or take 20 drops of chamomile tincture in water before bed to soothe the nervous system and help you get a good night’s sleep.
HERBAL TEA PREPARATION
Pour boiling water over dried plant matter. For fresh herbs, use 1 tablespoon (15 ml) fresh herb to 1 cup (250 ml) boiling water. For dried herbs, use 1 teaspoon (5 ml) dried herb to 1 cup (250 ml) boiling water. Steep herbal tea for 15–20 minutes. Cooled tea can also be used as a wash or soak.
NOTE: Wicker baskets are great for drying small amounts of botanicals. In the summer, I always have plants drying in baskets around the house. I prop the basket on top of a cup or mug to create airflow. Be sure to turn the herbs daily and keep out of direct sunlight. When the plants are dry, place them in an airtight jar, label, and store out of direct sunlight.