Woody lower branches with shredding bark stand erect. Sticky, yellow-green new-growth stems produce lance-shaped, 2- to 6-inch-long, usually hairless leaves. These toothed or smooth-edged leaves are dark green, sticky, and glossy above with hairs between the veins that form a net-like pattern on their lighter-colored undersides. Flowering stalks, lined with 1/3- to 2/3-inch-long tubular flowers that vary in color from white to pink to purple, unfurl like a scorpion’s tail from late spring to early summer.
Imagine you are out in the field sitting in a stand of wild plants. You have positively identified the plant and are sure that it is not endangered or toxic. To determine whether it is sustainable and ethical to harvest this plant, clear your mind and ground yourself. Tune in to your surroundings. Open your heart and use all of your senses. Very carefully observe the area around you with an unattached mind and ask yourself these questions.
Once while on a search for cascara sagrada, I found a tree with many inward growing branches that was perfect for harvesting. I asked permission and the tree said “no.” I was baffled, but as I continued up the trail just a bit, I found a tree with a large broken branch that was still full of life and ripe for harvest.
The history of the expansion of human communities across the globe is filled with stories of plants that we can no longer harvest from the wild in good conscience. As the final frontier of American migration, the western part of North America has fewer chapters to contribute to this sad tale, but we still need to be acutely aware of plants that grow very slowly, plants whose habitat is diminished by human development, or plants whose popularity is leading to more being harvested than the land can support.
Learning to correctly identify toxic plants can save you and others from serious harm. I don’t want to instill fear of the wild in you, but there are some toxic plants in this region that can be confused with commonly used medicinal plants. Here is an overview of the toxic plants you may encounter in the Pacific Northwest.
If we are to work with wild plants for medicine, we must first study their external forms so we can learn to correctly identify them. Once a plant has been positively identified, it can be harvested and made into medicine. After we’ve made the medicine, we need to understand the medicinal activity of the plant so we can correctly administer it for the ailments we wish to heal.
I thought it might be useful for herbalists to have a list of name changes to medicinal plants that I learned as I was writing Pacific Northwest Medicinal Plants: Identify, Harvest, and Use 120 Wild Herbs for Health and Wellness. Below you will find a short writeup on Plant Names excerpted from my book followed by a list of name changes and family reordering as well as some tips to pronouncing latin names.
Yarrow, the thousand-leaved herb of Achilles, you are an arrow of love that flies straight to my heart, a knife that cuts to the bone, and a sword of light that dispels illusion from my consciousness. Yarrow, pare away all excess and unnecessary cruft, bring me to a place of centering where the lies of my lower self will have no hold or sway. Help me rise above darkness to center and align with the clear light of universal consciousness.
Imagine you are walking through the forest as various aromas ride upon the damp air. The heavy smell of the wet, fecund earth rises to your nostrils, and cutting through all of this, you perceive the sweet, resinous smell of black cottonwood buds. Their pleasant odor brings a smile to your face. The buds are swelling—spring is on its way!