We have been collecting plants for replanting to extend populations, like goldenseal, and during the last week sustainably harvesting other plants for making herbal medicines, gathering bark, roots and seeds. In some cases we can benefit from plants before they die from other causes. Here in the United States, the Dutch Elm disease has been attacking elm trees including Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra). Paul Strauss showed us, on the trail through the forest, how to spot trees that may be in trouble – if the tree is going to die within a few years then it may be considered for medicinal use. The inner bark of this tree is an important soothing and nutritious medicine useful for gastro-intestinal and skin conditions. We marked one such tree on a walk last week and went back to harvest it this week with Paul. Felling trees within the forest is no easy task because they will often ‘hang’ on trees close by, but Paul deftly worked with his chainsaw to bring this Slippery Elm down. Once on the ground, the tree was chopped into sections about 5 foot long and we carried them out of the woods to a waiting pickup truck. Back at the Plant Sanctuary barn we learned how to use draw knives to shred off the rough outer scales and to reach the whitish inner bark above the yellow heartwood. The shreds of bark can be further pulled into thinnish strings and these dry readily in the sun. Our Slippery Elm will be shared out with the land owner and much appreciated. At the moment there is no obvious substitute for this useful remedy.
Another plant which is on the United Plant Savers ‘At Risk’ list is the Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) . In the Sanctuary there is a large field area which was seeded some 16 years ago with a variety of prairie plants. At this time of year, in September, the prairie area is a sea of yellow, white and purple including native grasses which contribute to the soil fertility. Here there is a large stand of Purple Coneflower, its roots are widely in demand for its immune system stimulating properties. We were able to dig up a small number of roots around the edges to make Echinacea tincture. The seeds were scattered back on the ground although they too can be used medicinally. The roots are quite small with purplish buds but when cut they produce a characteristic tingling and numbing taste on the tongue, indicating active constituents. Our prized roots were washed and chopped up with added alcohol (50%) without any delay. We have a growing number of jars and containers of all sizes which sit on top of the refrigerator in the Yurt, our roundhouse cooking and meeting place. We have been back to the Prairie a few times now, usually collecting seed for replanting in other schemes. This area is rich in beautiful and useful plants from Indian Hemp (for rope making) to False Wild Indigo (makes a good babies rattle from seed pod) to Boneset (gathered by every family and dried for winter complaints) to Maximilian and Downy Sunflowers (roots of all sunflowers edible) and more. These wonderful plants are tall and a path needs to be cut through the prairie to appreciate them with ease. Establishing a prairie like this apparently takes a few years of cutting at specific times of year and then it is almost self-maintaining so long as occasional invasives are spotted and removed. Almost everywhere I have been in the area I see freshly mown grass areas from roadside to well beyond every house – it would be wonderful if everyone could set aside part of their huge lawns to have a Prairie Patch (or even a Prairie Maze!) and appreciate the wild plants.