Last week, I went hiking with my dogs in Jacksonville’s Woodland trails, an area once famous for its gold. It struck me that there’s another kind of wealth here in the forests of Southern Oregon, which lies in not the minerals, but in the plants. Instead of gold, you could say, “There’s medicine in them thar hills!”
When I relocated my veterinary practice from Portland to the Rogue Valley two years ago, one of my goals was to learn about the local medicinal plants and how to use them in my practice. While I’ve been using herbs in my practice for many years, I never had the time to devote to studying – or much less making use of – the plants that grew in my area. That was one of the main reasons I sold my busy practice: so I would have the time.
Soon after settling into our new home in Jacksonville, I enrolled in a class to learn about the local medicinal plants and how to make clinically useful medicines from them. My fellow students and I gathered arnica and valerian near Mt. Ashland, balsam root and wild oats from the slopes of Anderson Butte, bayberry and yarrow from the coast near Gold Beach. Some plants we made into oils for topical use, and others we made into alcohol extracts, or “tinctures.” It’s quite amazing that many of the herbal medicines I use every day in my veterinary practice were ethically and sustainably harvested from a variety of public lands in our area. Many other “weeds” such as California poppy, lemon balm and vervain came from my own yard. The herbal powder I use to help heal damaged ligaments in my patients I made from teasel plants that I dug up on the side of the road near my house.
Jon Calson, owner of the Vitalist School of Herbology in Ashland, has extensive knowledge of our local healing plants. Through years of fieldwork, he has developed an intimate appreciation for them. “When you gather medicinal plants from their local environment,” he explains, “it provides the opportunity to learn more about the nature of the plant, to monitor plant populations, and to be a steward the ecosystem… Just the act of communing with local medicinal plants can be a healing experience in and of itself.”
As I ambled up and down the hills above the Britt Pavilion, I made note of the plants that I use regularly in my veterinary practice. The leaves of the ubiquitous manzanita bush have antiseptic and astringent properties that make it useful for treating urinary tract infections. I use a tincture made from the root of the equally prolific Oregon grape for skin eruptions in my patients. Redroot tincture, made from the buckbrush shrub common in the oak woodland, is used to address swelling of the lymph nodes and the spleen.
Having a knowledge of local herbs is certainly interesting, and promotes an appreciation of our local wild lands, but is it good medicine? This is a big question that brings up the difference between conventional Western medicine and holistic modalities of healing in general – and is certainly a good topic for a future article. I can say, however, that there are certain medically beneficial effects that can be obtained through the use of herbs that simply can’t be achieved with pharmaceutical drugs. No one, for example, has ever come up with a drug that can heal damaged liver cells the way that milk thistle can. A tincture of echinacea flowers can dramatically reduce the tissue damage from a venomous snake in a manner no pharmaceutical can match. I can’t think of any drug that promotes drainage of congested lymphatics as well as redroot. The list goes on.
We are fortunate to live in an region of incredible beauty and biodiversity, one that yields an amazing wealth found in plants. Using these plants is not only good medicine, but it also promotes conservation of our precious wild areas. Buying locally made herbal products from such sources as Vitalist Botanicals in Ashland or HerbPharm in Williams, supports local commerce, and even saves fossil fuels. And that’s a win-win all around.
Dr. Judkins is the owner of Animalkind Holistic Veterinary Clinic in Jacksonville