I am a Native American (Mi'kmaq) artist and writer living in Nova Scotia. Feel free to see more of my work at croweddy.weebly.com.
Published April 23rd 2013
Harbingers of Spring
Spring seems to be taking its time getting to this part of Nova Scotia. But as we all know, good things take time. No sooner has the snow melted away than there is a plethora of plant simples to aid us with some of life's everyday problems.
Just as Mother Nature provides us with many medicines throughout the winter such as, white pine, cedar, or wintergreen, she is ready in the spring to continue looking after us. With the cold damp of spring, at a time when our bodies have been somewhat depleted by winter, we are vulnerable to colds and sore throats. Nature knows this and provides us with everything we need to combat what ails us after a long winter.
One of the first medicines to arrive that is ready to pick is Coltsfoot. This dandelion lookalike is one of the first flowers to appear in our gardens and along roadsides. The bright yellow flower is easy to spot against the barren muddy background of early spring. Although these showy blossoms look very much like those of dandelion, the flower stalks are quite different and the leaves are nonexistent at this time of the year. The flower stems look as if they are a relative of asparagus.
Coltsfoot's timely appearance coincides with those early spring colds and fittingly it eases cold symptoms. Coltsfoot brewed in a tea is good for coughs, bronchitis, asthma and similar afflictions. The flowers and stems are used dried in teas as well as the aromatic leaves, it is also said that the roots can be used. Since all parts of coltsfoot are bitter, it is best to have your tea with a bit of honey or maple sugar. When you are doing your weeding this spring, don't throw away your coltsfoot, simply dry and save it for when it is needed.
I was walking in the forest recently and found another early spring beauty, Golden Thread. It can be recognized by its leaves, they have the same characteristics as the butter cup of which it is related. This tiny wonder grows in damp forests or bog like areas; preferring the shade. If you can find it in a bog it is much easier to pick since the roots are what you want to harvest. There is no mistaking these roots because they are indeed golden and threadlike, thus the name.
Picking golden thread requires a gentle hand. Once you have identified the plant you have to loosen the soil around it. The root will break off easily which makes this task much more difficult. Gently locate the root at the base of the plant, and then even more carefully try to loosen the moist humus in order to follow the roots along. They have incredibly long rhizomes and I have been able to extract roots as long as thirty centimeters. You can see why it is easier working in the humus of a bog rather than the more dense soils of the forest floor. The whole process does not take very long and you only require a small amount of this medicine because of its strength.
Golden thread is very good for sore throats, sores in the mouth, and toothaches. I prefer to take a piece of the cleaned root and chew on it. It is very bitter, unfortunately most astringent plants are. You can brew it in a tea, strain, and let it cool if you wish to use it as a gargle for a sore throat. Use one to two teaspoons per cup of water, simmer gently on the stove for about 10 minutes and then let cool. Honey can be added during boiling to make it more palatable and soothing. Then just store it in your refrigerator for later use. I would recommend gargling three times a day until the affliction abates. For a tooth ache I simply chew the root into a tiny wad and then pack it in the aching cavity. You will probably want to see a dentist but this will stave off the pain until you can get an appointment.
Another gift from nature in the spring is the omnipresent horsetail. If you have dealt with this in your garden you will know how hard it is to eradicate. Its thin roots spread out over a large area sprouting many new plants. This year don't go to war with the horsetail in your garden befriend it and make your life easier.
These plants contain silicate, which makes them very useful for scrubbing and scouring pots and pans. Why pollute mother earth throwing away your scrub pads when you can just grab a handful of nature's scrubbies from your garden. I prefer to cook with cast iron pans and horsetail is perfect since it will remove all the food particles and still leave the pan seasoned and ready to use again. It is also especially good for woks and other pans that you don't want to damage by removing the seasoning with soap.
It is wonderful for treating calluses and removing the dry skin on your feet. Just scrub the calloused area with fresh green horsetail and the dead skin will be quickly removed. Due to its high silica content it was used by our native ancestors to polish stone pipes and clam shells for jewelry, it will even polish your fingernails. It has a gentle polishing quality that buffs rather than scratches. Used as a decoction it is a good hair rinse to make hair shiny and rid one of dandruff. However, do not scrub your hair with the plant since it is much like sandpaper. Boil the horsetail in water for about twenty minutes, strain, cool and store in plastic containers for the bathroom. Then use the horsetail decoction as a rinse on your hair.
Remember to respect Mother Nature when you are picking your plant medicines. Never take more than you need and move around as not to clear out a spot. I like to put down a little tobacco and say a prayer of thanks to the plant for its gift of medicine the way my Mi'kmaq ancestors did. Plants have spirits too, just like us, and are one of your many relations. Treat the plants as you would treat any member of your family with respect and understanding. This way there will still be plants to heal your grandchildren and your grandchildren's grandchildren.