For centuries, plant medicine has been used to help with pain and inflammation. Every region has its own collection of plants that are remedies for such common ailments as headaches, body aches from colds and flu, arthritis, and inflammation from wounds.
What would you do if you were out in our local mountains without your first aid kit and needed a pain reliever? Your first stop might be along the stream that runs down to Big Laguna Lake. Arroyo willows, Salix lasiolepis, grow along the stream and are a source of salicylic acid, the main component of aspirin. In fact, willow is said to have provided the raw material from which salicylic acid was originally extracted. Willow bark tea was used by the Indians for all types of pain relief as well as to reduce fevers. And willow has been used in similar ways all over the world.
Another in your plant pharmacy would be yarrow, Achillea millefolium. Like willow, yarrow is found around the world. A tea is used to relieve pain from headache, arthritis, and colds. Hot yarrow tea makes you sweat, so helps break a fever. According to Celia Garcia, the Chumash Indians would suck on yarrow leaves for pain relief. Yarrow is found all over our mountains and blooms from mid to late summer. The plant is named for Achilles and was the plant used to bind his wounds when he injured his heel in the Trojan War.
Yarrow leaves do indeed help wounds close up and heal more quickly. They have an astringent action that helps stop bleeding. Never put yarrow on a wound that hasn’t been cleaned carefully. The quick closing of the wound can trap bacteria and debris inside.
If you had arthritis, in addition to drinking willow bark or yarrow tea, you might use stinging nettles, Urtica dioica, for temporary pain relief. Fresh nettles were picked and whipped against the affected body part. Ouch! But after the pain subsides, which takes anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour, relief follows for a few hours to a day. The Indians used nettles this way. So do current day herbalists.
You can find stinging nettles along Los Huecos Road about half a mile from the Visitor Center. These are just a few of the local plants used traditionally for pain relief. We really are in the middle of nature’s pharmacy!
Joanne Odenthal, Cabin 505
- Garcia & Adams. 2005. Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West.
- Kane. 2011. Medicinal Plants of the American Southwest.
- Moore. 1989. Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West.
- Tilford. 1997. Edible and Medicinal Plants of the West.