Wild Medicine

I’ve been interested in alternative medicine since taking a microbiology class as an undergraduate and being harangued by the professor about the impending demise of antibiotics as useful remedies for all that ails us. I’ve spooned garlic-infused oil in the ear of my ailing toddler son (after reading about its use by the Germans as an antibiotic in the trenches of World War II), munched zinc tablets for a threatening cold, drunk chamomile tea for stomach ache, used a netti bottle for sinus problems, soaked infected feet in hot salt water, and plastered wounds with Manuka honey—all with various levels of success.
Recently I’ve been following a new line of research which describes a startling decline in nutritional value of domestic vegetables. This is attributed partially to the pressures of farmers’ selection for sweeter more carbohydrate-rich vegetable varieties, and partially to higher growth rates due to elevated carbon dioxide levels associated with global climate change. This increases the value of including wild foraged vegetables such as dandelion greens, nettles, fireweed shoots, twisted stalk, wild celery, devils club shoots, and kelp in our diet. In addition to being highly nutritious, many of these wild vegetables also have medicinal value.
Thus, my interest was piqued recently when I heard of a skunk cabbage (x’aal’) root digging outing organized by Victoria Johnson of the Goldbelt Heritage for the Gruening Park Culture Club. What, I wondered, could skunk cabbage roots be good for? With this question in mind, I joined the Culture Club, a group of parents and their Tlingit children, on a lovely sunny April day to be taught by several Tlingit elders and knowledgeable Tlingit harvesters of local plants. Before heading down the Richard Marriot trail, we adjusted our mood by giving thanks (Gunalcheesh) to the plant people in the area for the skunk cabbage we were about to harvest. Victoria, her husband Johnny, and friend Tommy led us out the trail and we set about digging out several skunk cabbages, roots and all. As you might imagine, it’s quite a muddy affair. About an hour later, we had excavated two skunk cabbage plants from 4-ft diameter, 2-ft deep holes. After carefully filling the holes back in and thanking the skunk cabbages for gifting themselves to us, we washed them in Switzer Creek and brought them back to the parking lot.
There Victoria, Tommy, and Johnny, overseen by several Tlingit elders, explained the medicinal use of skunk cabbage and we each cut ourselves a share of the roots and preserved them in 99% rubbing alcohol in a glass canning jar. Turns out that skunk cabbage root extract is useful as a liniment for arthritic joints and for eczema. I’m grateful to have been included in this outing and looking forward to trying this remedy out on my ailing momma’s sore shoulders and my wimpy knee!
Perhaps the best part of the outing was the bright eyes and earnest efforts of the children as they helped us excavate and wash the skunk cabbage. They truly provide much-needed reason for optimism in our world full of problems.
Upon returning home, I read a little more about internal medicine uses of skunk cabbage. According to Janice Schofield, a tea made of thoroughly dried skunk cabbage can be used for colds and flues. I also read an interesting booklet by Richard Newton and Madonna Moss; in addition to describing historic Tlingit methods of harvest and preservation for fish, shellfish, and plants, it reminds us of the importance of harvesting sustainably.

Additional Resources:

Schofield, J.J. 1989. Discovering Wild Plants: Alaska, Western Canada, The Northwest. Alaska Northwest Books.

Newton, R.G., and M. L. Moss. 1983. Haa Atxaayi Haa Kusteeyix Sitee, Our Food is Our Tlingit Way of Life. Excerpts from Oral Interviews. United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service Alaska Region, R10-MR-50.