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  • Sara Stewart Martinelli

Bring the Wild Pharmacy to Your Home Garden

By Sara Stewart Martinelli:

 

The diverse ecosystems of Colorado are a treasure trove of native medicinal plants and trees - a living pharmacy offering remedies for a wide range of ailments. These plants, discovered and used by indigenous peoples and early settlers over centuries, are a testament to their deep understanding of the natural world. By cultivating them, we play a vital role in preserving and honoring their traditional knowledge and practices. This act fosters a deeper connection to the land, reminding us of the cultural heritage embedded in these plants. It's a responsibility we should embrace with respect and gratitude.


Growing native medicinal plants in your Colorado garden is a great idea for several additional reasons:


Adaptation to Local Climate: Native plants are naturally adapted to the local climate, soil, and weather conditions of Colorado. This means they require less water, fertilizer, and overall maintenance compared to non-native species, making them more sustainable and environmentally friendly. Native plants are typically more resilient to local pests and diseases, reducing the need for chemical pesticides and interventions. Their deep root systems also help prevent soil erosion and improve soil health.


Biodiversity and Ecosystem Support: Native species support local wildlife, including pollinators like native bees, butterflies, and birds, by providing essential habitats and food sources, which ontributes to the ecosystem's overall health and biodiversity.


Medicinal Access: Imagine the empowerment of having your own natural remedies at your fingertips. You can take control of your health in a sustainable and natural way by using plants that offer a range of benefits.


Educational Opportunity: A garden with native medicinal plants offers opportunities to learn about botany, herbal medicine, and ecology. It can be a valuable resource for teaching children and the community about the importance of native species and sustainable gardening practices, fostering a sense of connection and responsibility to our environment.


Here are some of the most beautiful, useful, and easy-to-grow Colorado native medicinal plants to welcome into your home garden.

Wild Pharmacy: Yarrow

YARROW (Achillea millefolium)

Yarrow is a perennial plant with feathery leaves and clusters of small white flowers. It grows in meadows and open areas, and is easy to grow in your garden. Be sure to purchase seeds of the native, wild variety, not the more ornamental versions.


Medicinal Qualities: Yarrow has a long history of being used to treat wounds, reduce inflammation, and stop bleeding. In fact, a clean leaf of yarrow can make a great field band-aid or stop a bleeding nose! Its healing properties are especially useful when treating urinary and digestive issues. Yarrow is one of the ingredients of one of the oldest known formulas for reducing fevers and symptoms of colds and flu.


Cultural Relevance: Named after Achilles, who supposedly used it to treat his soldiers' wounds. Native American tribes used yarrow medicinally, including for colds and toothaches.

 

Wild Pharmacy: Echinacea

ECHINACEA (Echinacea angustifolia or purpurea)

A perennial garden showstopper, echinacea has purple daisy-like flowers with a prominent central cone. It grows in prairies and dry, open areas.


Medicinal Qualities: Echinacea has long been known for its immune-boosting properties and is used to treat colds, infections, and wounds. The whole plant is medicinally useful, but if you harvest and dry the aerial parts for tea, the plant will return every year.


Cultural Relevance: Echinacea has been used by Native American tribes like the Lakota and Cheyenne to treat various ailments, including infections and snake bites.


Wild Pharmacy: Bee Balm

BEE BALM or Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)

Mondarda is an aromatic herbal plant with lavender-pink flowers that look like mini fireworks. Its leaves are lance-shaped, and it can grow 2 – 4 feet tall. It thrives in prairies and open woodlands. A member of the mint family, it will spread joyfully once established in the garden.


Medicinal Qualities: Mondarda's high levels of aromatic oils have long been used to treat colds, sore throats, and digestive issues. The leaves can be brewed into a flavorful tea.


Cultural Relevance: Native American tribes use Monarda for its medicinal properties and flavoring.


Wild Pharmacy: Pasque Flower

PASQUEFLOWER (Pulsatilla patens)

The delicate perennial flower has purple, bell-shaped flowers and fine, feathery, divided leaves. It blooms in early spring growing in prairies and open woodlands.  It’s always a treat to come across them in the wild, and they are a magical addition to your home garden.


Medicinal Qualities: Pasque flower has been carefully used to treat respiratory issues, headaches, and reproductive problems. Known for its calming and pain-relieving properties, it is often used in teas and tinctures. Use in small doses, as it can be an active herb, and do not use it during pregnancy.


Cultural Relevance: Native American tribes, such as the Dakota and Lakota, used pasqueflower to treat various ailments and in ceremonial practices to promote healing and well-being.


Wild Pharmacy: ROCKY MOUNTAIN BEE PLANT (Cleome serrulata)

ROCKY MOUNTAIN BEE PLANT (Cleome serrulata)

The bee plant is a tall and showy with a robust stem and dense, rounded, pink or purple flower clusters at the top of the plant that are sometimes described as  “spider flower.s” After flowering, cleome produces long, slender seed pods that look like little peas and gladly reseeds each year. It grows in prairies and disturbed areas. As its name suggests, this is an excellent plant to attract pollinators.


Medicinal Qualities: Native American tribes used leaves and stems in poultices to treat skin conditions and wounds. Teas from the plant have been used to alleviate stomach issues and promote general health.


Cultural Relevance: Tribes such as the Navajo and the Hopi also used the plant, including as a source of dye and food. The seeds are ground into a meal and the young shoots are sometimes cooked and eaten.

 

Wild Pharmacy: Stinging Nettle

STINGING NETTLE (Urtica dioica)

Nettles are herbaceous perennials with serrated leaves and tiny, greenish flowers, best known for the stinging hairs that cause skin irritation upon contact. They can grow to almost 6 feet, and readily spread if allowed. It grows in moist, nutrient-rich soils. If you are brave enough to plant nettles in your own garden, select the location carefully!  Put it in a place where you do not want people to go.


Medicinal Qualities: Nettles are rich in vitamins and minerals and are often considered one of the most beneficial medicinal plants for their wide range of uses. Used to treat allergies, boost overall health and vitality, alleviate arthritis, and treat urinary issues, nettles can be consumed as a tea, cooked like spinach, or used in tinctures.


Cultural Relevance: Native American tribes, such as the Utes, used stinging nettle for its medicinal properties and as a source of fiber for making twine and nets. It was also used in various ceremonial practices. Nettles are also a great food source.

Wild Pharmacy: Golden Currant

GOLDEN CURRANT (Ribes aureum)

A deciduous shrub with fragrant yellow flowers, green leaves, and edible berries that range from yellow to red to black. It grows in woodlands and along watercourses. In the garden it is a lovely shrub, but tends to spread if allowed.


Medicinal Qualities: The berries are high in vitamins and antioxidants, used to boost immunity and treat colds and flu. The leaves and bark have been used for their astringent properties. The plant also had medicinal uses for treating digestive issues and skin conditions.

Cultural Relevance: The berries were an important food source for Native American tribes, including the Utes and Apache, and are still used today to make jams and chutneys. They can be eaten fresh or dried, and were used to make pemmican.

Wild Pharmacy: Wild Rose

WILD ROSE (Rosa woodsii)

Colorado Wild Rose is a shrub with simple pink to white flowers, thorny stems, and red hips (fruit). It grows in a variety of habitats, from grasslands to forest edges. In your garden, wild roses won’t necessarily have the majesty of the more cultivated varieties, but their joyful bloom reminds us of the rose's original gifts.


Medicinal Qualities: Rose hips are rich in vitamin C and used to boost the immune system, treat colds, and support skin health. The petals and leaves can be used to make soothing teas and topical treatments. Both the hips and the petals are edible, and the wild rose is the perfect rose from which to make these culinary delights.


Cultural Relevance: Native American tribes, such as the Blackfoot and Cheyenne, used wild roses for their medicinal properties and as a food source. The hips were dried and stored for winter use, while the petals and leaves were used in teas and poultices.

 

Wild Pharmacy: Quaking Aspen

QUAKING ASPEN (Populus tremuloides)

Nothing is more “Colorado” than the Aspen, a deciduous tree that typically grows between 20 to 80 feet tall with smooth and pale bark that can appear almost chalky. With age, the bark becomes darker and develops recognizable furrows and cracks. The leaves are nearly round, with finely serrated edges and the leaves tremble or "quake" even in the slightest breeze. Leaves turn a brilliant yellow in the fall, creating spectacular autumn displays.


Medicinal Qualities: The bark of the Quaking Aspen contains salicylates, compounds similar to the active ingredients in aspirin. These compounds provide pain-relieving, anti-inflammatory, and fever-reducing properties. Traditionally, teas and poultices made from the bark were used to treat ailments such as fevers, colds, arthritis, and sore muscles.


Cultural Relevance: The Quaking Aspen holds significant cultural importance for many Native American tribes. The bark was used medicinally, and the wood was used for making tools, structures, and even art. Due to their unique clonal growth, aspens are also symbolic in many cultures, representing endurance, transformation, and connection.

 

Wild Pharmacy: Chokecherry

CHOKECHERRY (Prunus virginiana)

Chokecherry is a deciduous shrub or small tree that typically grows 10 to 20 feet tall. It often forms thickets through root suckers, creating dense stands that can be perfect for creating organic hedges or borders. Chokecherry produces dense, elongated clusters of small, white flowers in late spring that attract numerous pollinators and develop into a fruit that is a small, dark red to black drupe (cherry-like berry) that ripens in late summer. The berries are astringent and bitter when raw but become sweeter after cooking.


Medicinal Qualities: The bark, leaves, and fruit of chokecherry have been used traditionally for medicinal purposes. The bark contains compounds that can be used to make cough syrup and treat respiratory issues such as colds, bronchitis, and sore throats. The fruit is rich in antioxidants and vitamins and can support overall health and boost the immune system.


Cultural Relevance: Chokecherry is important for many Native American tribes, including the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Blackfoot. The berries were a staple food, often dried and used in pemmican or made into jellies and syrups. The bark and leaves were used for medicine and wood for crafting tools and arrow shafts.

Wild Pharmacy: Valerian

VALERIAN (Valeriana edulis)

Our native version of valerian, also called ‘tobacco root’, is a perennial herb that typically grows 1 to 3 feet tall. It has a stout, erect stem and a deep, thick taproot. The leaves are divided into numerous lance-shaped leaflets, forming a basal rosette at the base of the plant. Flowers are small white to pale pink flowers clustered in dense, rounded to flat-topped inflorescences. The flowers bloom in late spring to early summer and are mildly fragrant.


Medicinal Qualities: The thick, fleshy taproot is edible and has a strong, distinctive odor and taste. It has been used traditionally as a calming sedative as it contains compounds similar to those found in Valeriana officinalis (common valerian), which are known to promote relaxation, reduce anxiety, and improve sleep quality. The root can be dried and used to make teas or tinctures.


Cultural Relevance: Valeriana is significant for several Native American tribes, including the Blackfoot and Apache. The roots were used medicinally as a relaxing, pain-relieving herb and as a food source, often roasted or boiled to make them more palatable. Valeriana was also traded and valued for its nutritional content.

 

The native medicinal plants of Colorado are a testament to the region's rich botanical diversity and cultural heritage.  By cultivating them in our gardens, we preserve and honor their historical significance, support local biodiversity, and create resilient landscapes.


 

Sara Stewart Martinelli is a certified herbalist and professional tea blender. She owns five restaurants in the Boulder area and an organic farm. To learn more visit www.threeleaffarm.com


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