Forest Medicine: North America

"I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees" - Henry David Thoreau

In the southwestern United States, Native American tribes have traditionally been reliant on the open forests for shelter, food, and ceremony. The medicine gathered in these forests remain an essential and inseparable part of their culture.

Researchers in the United States have investigated the effects of outdoor green spaces on symptoms of attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children. In a randomized controlled study, doctors at the University of Illinois studied children diagnosed with ADHD who were exposed to three different environments. After a 20-minute walk in a city park, children experienced substantially improved concentration compared to a 20-minute walk in downtown or residential settings. Researchers concluded that the positive results were comparable to the effects of Ritalin.

The Japanese practice of ‘shinrin-yoku’ has become a popular practice at spas and treatment centers in the USA and Canada. There are now programs where one can train to be a ‘Certified Forest Therapy Guide.’

The Plants

Juniperus osteosperma

  • Native to the open sparse juniper forests of the Southwest.
  • Called Sammapo to the Shoshone, Wapi to Paiute, Paal to Washoe and Bat-they-naw to Arapaho peoples - Utah juniper is widely dispersed and widely employed medicinally by a number of North American Indian tribes who use it to treat a variety of complaints.
  • Native Americans of the Southwest used Juniper berries for the treatment of bladder problems by ingesting them, eaten or placed in tea. They also used it for rheumatism and arthritis by laying fresh Juniper boughs on coals and having the patient lie down on them in the steam while drinking tea from the leaves.
  • The leaf tea was also used by Native American healers as an antiseptic blood tonic and as a laxative.

Cercocarpus ledifolius

  • Native to the open woods of the Wasatch, all of Utah, Nevada and other parts of the Southwest.
  • The Goshute, Paiute, and Shoshone peoples crushed up dried or slightly burned bark or green wood and used it as a poultice dressing for burns.
  • Paiute and Shoshone used a decoction of bark or wood as an Analgesic to treat many ailments, including coughs, colds, cuts, wounds, stomach aches, diarrhea, tuberculosis, and even an "unfailing cure for syphilis”.
  • The Navajo drank an extract of mountain mahogany when they ate too much (an early Alka-Selzer!), and the pulverized leaves were sprinkled in water and drunk for a laxative. An extract was also given to women to help them recover from childbirth.
  • The Kawaiisu of California boiled the roots and drank the decoction as cough medicine.
  • People from some of the northern pueblos once drank a mixture of ground leaves and cold water for a laxative, and the Acomas used to make tea from the boiled leaves.
  • A handful of the twigs are boiled for a half-hour and drunk as a laxative or as an aid in shrinking inflamed but not bleeding hemorrhoids or an inflamed prostate gland. In New Mexico the whole leafy branches are placed under mattresses to repel "chinches - bedbugs."

Epilobium angustifolium - Fireweed

  • This plant is circumpolar, being native throughout the temperate Northern Hemisphere.
  • Fireweed is a healer of burns – both human and soil. Whenever forest fires, volcano eruptions, or bombs have devastated an area, Fireweed is often one of the first plants to naturalize and begin the earths healing process.
  • Used for tea, food and medicine by people around the Northern Hemisphere where it is found: the young shoots as a vegetable similar to asparagus, the young leaves as a green, the roots as another vegetable and sometimes roasted and brewed as a coffee substitute (best before the plant flowers), the flowers made into jelly.
  • The plant has been used in both European and North American folk medicine traditions to soothe skin irritation and burns, and brewed into a tea to relieve stomach upset, respiratory difficulties, constipation, prostate conditions and urinary difficulties.
  • In Sweden, there are supposedly 85 different common names for this plant.

Pinus strobus

  • Native to the forests of southeastern Canada and Northeastern United States, especially on sandy drift soils or fertile well-drained soils, sometimes on river banks and rarely in swamps. Often forming dense forests.
  • The turpentine obtained from the resin of all pines is antiseptic, diuretic, rubefacient and vermifuge.

Thuja occidentalis

  • Native to the moist woods, swamps, and rocky banks of the southern conifer forests in Canada and US.
  • Native American Cree tribes have used decoction of crushed leaves of Thuja and other herbs to treat symptoms of stroke.
  • Modern herbalists use Thuja to treat warts and polyps due to its anti-viral proprieties. Thujone (the volatile oil) contains monoterpenes, sesquiterpenes, and diterpenes.
  • It has demonstrated activity against amoebas, parasites, bacteria, fungi, viruses, and lab results suggests anti-cancer activity.
  • Also known as Cedar, it is considered a sacred tree by many North American indigenous people.
  • The leaves are rich in vitamin C and a tea made from the leaves and young twigs is used in winter to treat colds, flu, fevers, and arthritic pain.
  • A fresh tincture (made by dissolving a plant part or parts in alcohol) is made with summer or fall gathered leaves, is highly antifungal, and immune stimulating.
  • Steam made by simmering the dried branches or adding the tincture to hot water, is used to strengthen the lungs and protect from colds. Incense and smudge sticks made from cedar are used to clean indoor air.
  • A warm poultice made with stewed cedar leaves, applied to painful joints can bring relief as well.
  • Cedar should not be used internally during pregnancy. In high doses it stimulates uterine contractions.

Viburnum opulus

  • Its native habitat is the fire cleared patches of open lichen woodlands in Canada, Northern US and Eurasia.
  • A tea made from the bark can be used as a diuretic and can be given to mothers after birth to prevent infection.
  • Bark tea can also be given as a treatment for insomnia.
  • Also known as “Cramp Bark” also used to treat menstrual cramps and spasms.
  • The fruit has .02-.08mg of riboflavin per 100gm fresh weight – decreasing with ripeness. The ripe fruit can be eaten in small quantities raw or fresh and are antiscorbutic, emetic and laxative. The fruit should not be eaten unripe.
  • The bark contains amentoflavone, a number of triterpenes and coumarins, salicin (and derivatives), and tannins.
  • Modern herbalists use bark (tea, tincture, and topically) in recipe formulas.

This website does not provide medical advice. This site is for information purposes only. Any medical information on this site is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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