Saulteau Elder shares knowledge on healing plants

Saulteau First Nations Elder Della Owens is sharing her knowledge of healing plants in Northeast B.C. to keep traditional practices alive.

Typically, First Nations people don’t share their picking spots or their harvesting secrets, but Owens is opening the door to anyone who wants to learn.

When knowledge keepers pass away, Owens worries that their information and experiences will be lost. She wishes more people take more of an interest in being out on the land to forage, gather and learn.

“There are so few of us left, and we need to share what we know. If I were to die today, who is going to know? We need to share with the next generation, or the medicine will be lost,” Owens.

Over the past two weeks, Owens has been picking Heracleum maximum, commonly known as cow parsnip, which can be eaten raw, added to recipes or used for medicinal purposes.

Traditional medicines are picked when in season and processed to be stored and used year-round. Cow parsnip is the only member of the genus Heracleum native to North America. It is also known as American cow-parsnip, Indian celery, Indian rhubarb or pushki.

In Cree, it is called pukwanaahtia (puh-gwa-nee-tik). It flourishes on the mountainsides, roadsides, and boreal forests in early June and July and is one of the first edible plants to sprout in the region.

Cow parsnip has broad, lobed leaves that can grow up to 16 inches wide, and the plant can get up to seven feet tall. Its small, white flowers grow in large umbels, clusters of small flowers connected to small stalks radiating from a central point like an umbrella, and attract birds, butterflies, and ladybugs.

The plant is part of the parsnip family and received its name as it is a food source for cows, sheep, goats and bears.

Owens says the stalk tastes like celery and can be eaten raw, in salads or boiled into soups or stews. She says the roots can also be frozen so the plant can be used year-round.

Traditionally, First Nations people in Treaty 8 also use the roots for healing. Salves are made with cow parsnip to create an anti-inflammatory to ease swelling. The plant was shared and traded widely with the European settlers by First Nations people since contact.

The plant also acts as a natural antibiotic and can ease headaches, toothaches, earaches and constipation.

All parts of the plant can be utilized as the roots make yellow dye, and the dried stems can be used as flutes for children.

New pickers should use caution as the cow parsnip closely resembles Giant Hogweed, which can be toxic.

Owens recommends inexperienced pickers to go out with someone familiar with the medicine who can guide them on how to process it, its dosage and proper storage.

She further cautions about over-picking in one spot, as the plants will regrow throughout the season if they’re processed with respect. Good picking sites have declined due to roads and infrastructure, but the land will provide if left in its natural state.

“The land takes care of us when we take care of the land,” said Owens.

Some other common traditional medicines harvested in the Peace Region are:

  • Chaga mushrooms are usually brewed into tea. It may be beneficial for lowering cholesterol levels, slowing cancer growth, supporting immune function, and reducing blood pressure.
  • Bear grease is a moisturizer and will keep drum hides flexible and vibrant. Within the Native American community, bear grease is used for skin ailments (rashes, sunburns etc.), ligament problems, (arthritis, tendonitis, sprains etc.) and hair conditioner.
  • Stinging nettle has been used for decades to treat joint and muscle pains, gout and anemia. The roots and boiled leaf decoction were commonly used on eczema rashes and insect bites.
  • Heal-all was often brewed into a therapeutic tea to treat sore throats, stomach aches, as well as urinary and liver problems. Moreover, heal-all was used as a natural pesticide among the First Nations.
  • Willow is used for smoking meat, and its ashes have been used to treat wounds. Willow bark and leaves were chewed as a way to heal sore throats and manage headaches. Willow is also said to be efficient on fevers.

Traditional medicines are picked when in season and processed to be stored and used year-round.

Picking native plants and medicines have endured despite the impact of colonization, including the lasting effect of residential schools, relocation to permanent settlements and the introduction of the wage economy.

Gathering wild plants is only one aspect of harvesting activities that have been part of Indigenous peoples’ ways of living for millennia.

These practices, such as hunting, fishing, and trapping, are still being practiced to this day in Northeast B.C. and around the world.

Participation in harvesting activities has been identified as being important for fostering cultural identity and morale for First Nations.  It is also key to meeting nutritional needs and supporting food security.

Other advantages include increased physical activity, prevention of chronic disease, better mental health, and lower food costs.

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