Earth-Centered Practices for Everyday Mystics, Healers, & Creatives

First Aid with Wild Herbs, Part 5 (Celebrating Plants in the Springtime)

in Healing, Herbs, Wheel of the Year

Gaian Tarot Gardener (Empress)

The Gardener from the Gaian Tarot

Treating Toothaches & Other Topical Pain, Irritated Skin, Insect Infestation, Stings, Insomnia, Stress, Melancholy and Low Energy

Guest post by Chris Chisholm

This is the fifth in a series of five articles that Celebrate Plants in the Springtime, written by my good friend and naturalist Chris Chisholm (founder of Wolf Camp and Wolf College).

In my last article, I described how to understand the classification of plants, the difference between the “monocot” and “dicot” classes of the flowering plant division, and some details about monocots.  In this, my final article in the series, I will conclude with how to identify flowering plant families, before giving away the last secrets from my wilderness first aid apothecary.


It’s important to point out that many plants, including trees, that don’t seem to “flower” are, in fact, flowering plants in the dicot class, right along with the many garden and wild flowers we commonly think of.   Also, you need to know that North American plants in the dicot class are divided into sub-classes including aster, rose, mallow, pink, witch hazel, and magnolia.

Botany in a Day

Botany in a Day by Thomas J. Elpel

Within the aster sub-class, the orders include aster, teasel, madder, barebell, figwort, plantain, mint, phlox, and gentian.  Because I focus on wild plants in my region (pacific northwest) that are useful for first aid, there are only three of these orders which I focus on, including plantain, mint and aster.  You should learn to identify other orders which apply to you, especially if you live in the desert or southeastern states.

As you can see, it’s critical to have a field guide that categorizes plants into taxometric classification, especially by family.  If you live in the northern Rocky Mountains, Northwestern States and Southwestern Provinces, then the only field guide you need is the one published by Lone Pine for your area.  Everywhere else, find the best thing you can, or just use Botany in a Day.

Is it an Aster?

Whenever you try to identify a plant that seems like it would produce what we would commonly think of as a flower (herbaceous plants) first ask yourself, is it an aster?  The reason to first “eliminate” asters is because the aster family is the largest amongst herbaceous plants.  The aster order includes the aster or “sunflower” family, which is divided into two subfamilies, including aster and dandelion.  Your field guides will probably lump them all together into the aster or “sunflower” family.


The dandelion subfamily is of moderate size, but the aster subfamily is huge, so taxonomists categorize them further into “tribes” to keep them organized.  Those tribes include plants related to goldenrod, sunflowers like arrowleaf, groundsels like arnica and coltsfoot, sneezeweeds, bonesets, everlastings, ragweeds, chamomile/yarrow/sagebrush/tansy/oxeye daisy/pineapple weed, artichoke/burdock/thistle and dandelions/lettuces.

Aster order plants have incredibly complex “flowers within flowers” but naming other characteristics is challenging.  The rest of the orders throughout the dicot class are much more easily to distinguish.  So if you don’t recognize a plant as having characteristics from other, more distinguishing orders, then thumb through the asters which becomes a great way to automatically become familiar with them.

Other orders of the aster sub-class include teasel (with valerian and honeysuckle families), figwort (with big/fuzzy leaved plants as diverse as foxglove, paintbrush, snapdragon, olives, lilacs, and ashes), herbaceous plantain (parallel veins), mint (square stems), phlox and gentian, among others.

Instead of continuing with descriptions of every order and/or family of dicots, I’m just going to include a list of them, and leave it to you to read Botany in a Day.  However, if you would like to finish reading my descriptive list summarizing that great book, check it out here.

Is it a Rose?

Rose Hips & Kids

Wolf Camp students harvesting Rose Hips, which are its berries left over from the flower, a super high source of Vitamin C after the first frost. Photo by Kim Chisholm.

The rose sub-class of dicots includes the following orders which each have distinguishing characteristics to learn, including the mostly poisonous parsley / carrot, the flax, geranium, soapberry / maple / creosote / cashew / sumac which includes poison oak and poison ivy, grape, dogwood, myrtle / purslane, and the rose order, among others.

I will take a moment to talk about the rose order since it is a big one, and includes several families of highly edible, medicinal and otherwise utilitarian plants. In fact, taxonomists divide some of its families into sub-families and tribes in order to keep track of them. They include the gooseberry / currant, saxifrage, hydrangea, stonecrop, pea and rose families.

The rose family itself is divided into subfamilies including rose (with raspberry / blackberry, strawberry, agrimony, avens, and cinquefoil genera, among others) spireaea (with goat’s beard, ocean spray, ninebark and meadowsweet genera), plum (with osoberry / indian plum genus and the cherry / plum genus), and apple (which includes serviceberry, hawthorn, mountain ash, apple, pear, and quince genera, among others).

The pea family is also divided into subfamilies, including the mimosa / mesquite / acacia subfamily, the bird-of-paradise subfamily with desert southwest trees in it, and the pea subfamily which is further divided into tribes because it is so diverse.  Those tribes include the broom, trefoil, licorice, clover, bean and pea tribes, among others.

Is it Mallow, Pink, Magnolia or Witch Hazel?

The mallow sub-class of dicots includes primrose, heath (blueberries, etc.), willow, violet, mallow, and carniverous plants, among others. Not to be confused with the color, this p sub-class of dicots includes the buckweat and pink orders, the latter including the amaranth, goosefoot, purlsane, and cactus families, among others. The witch hazel sub-class of dicots includes the beech, walnut, and nettle orders, among others. The magnolia sub-class of dicots includes the poppy, barberry, buttercup, water lily, and magnolia orders, among others.

Rounding Out My Wilderness Apothecary

In my previous articles, I gave you most of the secrets from my wilderness apothecary, and now to finish up, here are the rest!

For Toothaches: External Use of Cattail and Horsetail (also see previous articles for internal use of willow)

For Topical Pain: Cattail (also see previous articles for internal use of willow)

For Low Energy: Devil’s Club, among so many other uses, if used with with care.

For Melancholy: St. John’s Wort (internally, but makes skin sensitive to sunburn)

For Irritated Skin: Cottonwood/Poplar, Pearly Everlasting, St. John’s Wort (external only)

For Stings: Herbaceous Plantain

For Insect Infestation: Tansy

For Stress & Insomnia: Pineapple Weed (wild chamomile)

Students harvesting Cattails during a Wolf College workshop in 2010. Photo by Kim Chisholm.

Cattails are probably the most important plant for you to know in survival situations. Take a look at my article on cattails for more information, but as a medicine, the gel found between the leaves seems to be a topical anesthetic (and some say antiseptic, but I’m not sure about that) so I’ve used it topically on a toothache as well as for sore joints with nice success.

Horsetail is a kind of “nature’s toothbrush” due to the silica it contains, and I’ve used it successfully when without a toothbrush in the wilderness after my teeth started to feel uncomfortable.

Devil’s Club is considered by many to be the most sacred medicine of our region, and it is used similarly to ginseng which is in the same family. If you have low energy, for instance, make a small, light decoction from its root, and drink a tablespoon to see how you feel later. However, don’t use too much or you’ll be sorry like some of my camp staff did (without permission) during a survival trek a few years ago. Headaches all around. 🙂

devils club

Use a “caretaker’s attitude” if harvesting the threatened Devil’s Club to ensure that it starts to thrive. Photo by Kim Chisholm of Devil’s Club being processed.

St. John’s Wort, like the last 4 plants, also grows along sunny/gravelly patches of our region like along logging roads or fields, and it is a popular anti-depressant, although scientific studies have been totally inconclusive. Try it as a tea in case you are feeling melancholic, especially on dark days, because taken internally, it makes you sensitive to light, increasing sun-burn. Used externally, it is ironically said to have skin-healing properties, so I put it in my salves nowadays.

Cottonwood is one of the poplar species, which are the source of Balm of Gilead, a mixture of poplar buds and something like bee’s wax to make a salve for rashes, eczema, sun-burn, and other skin irritations. Cottonwood buds are the most aromatic amongst poplars, so we are fortunate to have them.

Pearly Everlasting grows along most logging roads and elsewhere in our backcountry. Its flowers are one of my favorite substitutes for lotion, keeping my skin soft and young-looking:) It blooms from summer through fall, so it is available much of our year.


Plantain seeds are also called psyllium seed, a commercial bowel cleanser. Photo by Kim Chisholm.

Plaintain species, especially lance-leaf plantain, cure bee stings like nothing else. One of the miracle herbs, just pick a leaf, chew, and spit the green mush onto a bee sting for immediate pain relief. It also draws things out, so don’t be surprised if the stinger is gone the next day and you can’t find where you were stung. Further, since anaphylaxis is a leading wilderness emergency, plantain may be attempted in case nothing stronger like benadryl is available in case of allergic reaction to stings.

Tansy is a great plant that can keep bugs away if you surround yourself with it, or rub it onto your skin, but like anything, it’s best to check for allergic reactions at home before using any of these plants for the first time in wilderness settings. I’m not sure of its internal effect, so don’t confuse it with the next similar-looking plant….

Pineapple Weed is wild chamomile, in the same genus as the cultivated German Chamomile. It can be used in the same way, with a calming effect in case of stress, and a relaxing effect in case of insomnia.

Chris, Kim and Skye

Chris, his wife Kim and their beloved border collie Skye

Chris Chisholm is founder of Wolf Camp and the Wolf College and author of the Wolf Journey Earth Skills Training Course which Joanna Powell Colbert studied as part of her research for the Gaian Tarot. Chris appears as a model in two Gaian Tarot cards, the Explorer of Air and the Five of Earth.

Chris and Kim Chisholm are leading several evening classes on Bird Identification by Sight & Sound throughout Washington State during the month of April which can be found on the Wolf College Calender.

Chris is also leading a workshop entitled Understanding Birds on Saturday, May 7th, as well as the following adult training camps:

July 10-15, 2011 Wildlife Tracking & Birders Training

July 31 – August 5, 2011 Ethnobotany & Herbalist Training

Coming Next Week and into May:

Chris will be writing weekly articles on the theme of Birds, including a discussion of why they sing, their alarms and conversations.

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