This article appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of Plant Healer Magazine, one of this era’s finest publications for plant aficionados.
Medicinal mushrooms have a lot to contribute to an herbalist’s practice. Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor) is begging to be used, like the little kid persistently raising its hand in the classroom, “Pick me! Pick me! Pick me ppllleeaassee!” This little mushroom–so tenacious, resilient & adaptable–has so much to offer in terms of medicine. Their earthen-colored fan shapes herald the arrival of the rains as they move in and digest dead trees, turning them into soil so new life can sprout. These decomposing fungal organisms (known as primary decomposers) are vital in the cycle of life & the seasons, each one an agent in an autumnal pull back to the earth, doing the good dirty work so new life can leap forward in the next season.
Turkey Tail mushrooms are busy little beavers in our ecosystems, aiding decomposition & soil generation. In human & animal bodies, the story changes. They means by which they support immune function are enchanting–providing clever little nudges here & there that invigorate our immune response. They’re ubiquitous in the wild and versatile in combination with other plant medicines. To me, this makes them a key member of the apothecary. Read more
This was one of 3 trees covered in my Trees, Humans & Healing talk at the 2nd Dandelion Seed Conference in Olympia last weekend. I wrote an expanded piece on Douglas-fir, which may behoove the reader to peruse before or after grazing this post.
Origins & Ecology
Douglas-fir is the dominant tree west of the Cascade Mountains and is this continent’s second tallest tree (exceeded only by the Redwoods in the South). It’s found in coastal regions stretching South into the Santa Cruz Mountains up to West Central British Columbia, and East into Northern Idaho and Western Montana.
Douglas-fir is, as a name, a misnomer. It’s not a true fir (which belong to the Abies genus). Its genus, Pseudotsuga, translates to False Hemlock. Other common names it’s had over the years include Oregon Pine, Oregon Spruce, Red Fir. Due to confusion around the name ‘Douglas-fir,’ some botanists have proposed the name ‘Douglasstree’ as comfortably distinct from other conifer common names. It got its name from a Scottish botanist, David Douglas, who conducted a botanical expedition to the Pacific Northwest in 1825. During his tour, he also named a number of other plants: Doug-fir mistletoe, Douglas aster, Douglas gentian, Douglas buckwheat, Douglas onions, and more. Its species name, menziesii, is named after Archibald Menzies, another Scottish naturalist.
Doug-firs migrated to the area at the end of the Wisconsin Ice Age 11,000 years ago when the climate transitioned from subarctic to temperate. This brought mild/wet winters & dry summers to the West—conditions which favor conifers. The first species to migrate North was Lodgepole pine. And as the area warmed, Douglas-fir began to enter the landscape.
This tree has a special relationship with fire. The seedlings are shade intolerant and require sunlight penetration through the canopy to grow. Forest fires that clear out the understory/deadwood are necessary for them to proliferate. (This also happens when an area is logged. In fact, the logging practices of the last 200 years created artificial disturbances that enabled Douglas-firs to thrive.) Doug-firs possess thicker bark and a faster growth rate than most climax trees of the area (such as Western Hemlock and Western Red Cedar). This quality gives Douglas-firs a competitive advantage when the forest experiences a major disturbance such as fire. Read more
Origin & Ecology
Hawthorn is of the most well known herb for heart health. The genus, Crataegus, contains over 1000 species. While Crataegus species are found throughout Northern hemisphere, the best studied is C. monogyna. Our local trees are often hybridized species, and there’s great similarity between the leaves, flowers, and berries among them. They’re planted ornamentally, and readily naturalize. They readily cross-pollinate & hybridize, continually obscuring attempts at classification.
Hawthorn has been long used as a boundary marker, forming dense hedgerows. (In fact, the word haw applies to the fruit, and was originally it was an Old English term for hedge.) The trees are hardy & adaptable, tolerating both drought and high moisture conditions. The wood is dense, and the branches possess sharp thorns. Being rather short trees, they typically remain under 50’ tall.
Lore & Mythos
Hawthorn is rich with lore & recorded historical use, mostly in Europe. An alternate name for Hawthorn is Mayblossom, as the blooming of the tree heralded Mayday or Beltane in European folk traditions. The crown of Jesus Christ was reportedly constructed with Hawthorn branches. In Southern Europe, Hawthorn was considered an emblem of hope. Brides in Ancient Greece carried boughs of it to the altar, as it was sacred to the Greek god of marriage. In Ancient Rome it was used to protect babies as a tree of Cardea, the Roman goddess of childbirth. In Welsh lore, the Goddess Olwen “She of the White Track” once walked an empty universe and her white track of hawthorn petals became the Milky Way galaxy. Read more
Origins & Ecology
There are 35 species in the Alnus genus. The name is derived from the Old English Alor, Germanic Elo which means reddish-yellow.
Alder trees have an affinity to water, and can be found in meadows, marshes, stream beds, etc. They have a smooth grey bark, and the cambium (living sapwood) stains red underneath. Alder bares both cones & catkins. Male catkins are long & drooping; Female cones are short, developing into woody cones that remain on tree throughout the Winter. (It’s also the only broadleaved tree to have cones.) They arrive often before leaves appear and are mainly wind-pollinated. Read more
“Trees were our first teachers,” Bruce Miller used to say. Bruce (Subiyay) was a Skokomish elder, teacher & leader behind the Salish cultural renaissance of the last few decades. Bruce continues to be a powerful inspiration. and many continue his work of revitalizing Salish culture and rekindling the connection between plants and people. (For more information, see links at the bottom of this post.)
A resonant aspect of his teachings is the consideration of tree as teacher. There’s something about trees that stirs something inside us. Humans have long felt a unique kinship with the trees, and their medicinal qualities represent a vast & untapped potential in the health & ecological field.. Read more
As plants die back and the rains return in Autumn, fungi take the stage. The return of the Autumn rains awaken the slumbering mycelium, who stretch their hyphal networks through their respective substrates. In eager anticipation of the wild delicacies (and especially the mycorrhizal species like chantrelles, porcini, matsutakes, and Candy caps, which resist human cultivation as they grow only in association with certain tree roots), mycophiles and foragers hit the forests…raincoats, wool hats, cute little baskets and all.
Mushrooms have mystique. They are their own universe. Being a plant person, I was intimidated when I began learning about mushrooms. Structurally, they can resemble plants. But metabolically, they are more like animals—oxygen breathing, external-stomach-having, animalistic occupants of their own dikariotic kingdom. And throughout the centuries, certain cultures have been more mycophillic and mycophobic than others. Western Europe, for the most part, eschewed our fungal friends, whereas Asian societies embraced them for food and medicine for over 2 millenia (some sources say 4 or even 7 millenia). In the Western world, we’re beginning to befriend our fungal allies and, in the process, opening previously sealed doors of perception. Read more
The rains returned this weekend. We’ve had a clear, crisp, exlated & majestic late summer and autumn–maple leaves waning in chlorophyll, leaving the anthocynanins to dazzle our retinas will their brilliant hues of red, orange, and gold. But the cool rains have tapped us on the shoulder every now and then, as if sending a text that it’ll be here in a few days or so. (Is that too far a stretch? Living in the smartphone era…) It’s as if we were being tempered to the onset of the season of Water, given that we’d all dried out like little lizards over the past 3 months. But the grey, misty curtain is redrawn over the Pacific Northwest, as the Earth begins its rest for another season of growth ahead. Me, I’m a sun creature, but I can pony up. It’s time for the rains. Read more