Herbs and Altitude

Please excuse the absence of posts, I’ve been out west for the past 6 weeks! I spent some time in the Inyo National Forest of the Eastern Sierras, climbing Mt. Langely and swimming in the Cottonwood Lakes up by Lone Pine, CA with Stew Winchester, California native plant extraordinaire, and then ventured northward through the Western Sierras out by Oroville, and on to the Olympic Peninsula of Washington. I got the chance to run into a ton of edible and medicinal plants on this trip, as well as spend some much needed time with friends and surfing the epic Pacific coasts.

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The Eastern Sierras are the Western edge of the high deserts of the Great Basin, and as you ascend up the mountains the plant life begins to change significantly. Around 7000-9000 feet, the desert is comprised of a sagebrush and piñon pine plant community, with mountain mahogany, rabbit brush, and buckwheats scattered around. As you reach the higher altitudes and start to go above the tree line, the plant life is miniaturized by the extreme climate conditions like low water and soil nutrition, high winds and temperature swings, and grows incredibly slowly.

Lupinus breweri var. bryoides

Lupinus breweri var. bryoides

Some tiny native buckwheats and lupines growing in these rocky granite soils are decades old, despite their relatively small sizes. A lupine the size of a dime can be as old as 50 years, and a similarly small buckwheat cluster can be as old as 80 years!

A tiny native California buckwheat

Some tiny native California buckwheats. For perspective, most of these flower clusters are no bigger than a pinky nail.

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At the tree line and on exposed ridges, the foxtail pines grow windswept and dramatic, similar in appearance to the bristlecone pines. We were really lucky to see a huge range of wildlife as well. Two packs of two dozen bighorn sheep grazed slowly near the trail as marmots and picas ducked in and out of their underground rock nests. I’d never seen bighorns before, so spotting two herds was an incredible sight. We spotted several unidentified raptors cruising in the sky above us, and watched a couple ravens fight near a mountain stream full of trout. The crystal clear lake near our chipmunk patrolled campsite had a small family of ducks that weaved in and out of the reeds near the grassy banks.

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In these harsh environments, more plants thrive around water sources such as the alpine lakes and streams created by snow melt. Closer to the water, more grasses, willows, mosses, and wildflowers are seen. I was surprised at the range of medicinal and edible plants we saw growing at 11-12,000 feet, where we were camping.

A willow tree growing out of the stump of a dead foxtail pine" width="600" height="800" class="size-full wp-image-2666" /> A willow tree growing out of the stump of a dead foxtail pine

A willow tree growing out of the stump of a dead foxtail pine

Herbs of the Inyo National Forest and the Golden Trout Wilderness

Pedicularis – Pedicularis groenlandica and Pedicularis attollens are found growing in the area, both of which often have the common name “elephants head”. P. attollens grows Consumption of the fresh herb can produce physical lethargy and muscular-skeletal relaxation.

Arnica – While the common medicinal variety of Arnica (Arnica montana) is native to Europe, the varities (A. chamissonis, A. longifolia) found by cottonwood lakes have similar sore muscle soothing properties as well and are often used interchangeably.

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Yampa – Perideridia californica, A small plant in the Apiacea family with a sweet and nutty root, edible straight out of the ground. In large doses it functions as a gentle laxative, but in smaller amounts is a source of carbohydrates that can be rapidly assimilated by the body. As an Apiacea, it has many potentially toxic lookalikes, so take caution with this one.

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Yarrow Achillea millefolium, A small flowering plant in the Asteraceae family useful externally to stop bleeding, and internally to sweat out fevers, calm cramps, and treat mild anxiety.

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Rhodiola – Rhodiola integrifolia is a small perennial succulent in the Crassulaceae family used as an adaptogen to help improve mood and energy levels as well as lower stress, and can also help prevent altitude sickness. It has been thought to help aid weight loss. We found this growing in rocky cliff areas – the Rhodiola is the small, fleshy plant with the red cyme of flowers.

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Gentian – Although this gentian (Gentianopsis holopetala) is not in the same genus as the standard medicinal variety (Gentiana Lutea) commonly used to treat exhaustion and as a digestive and liver tonic, it is in the same family (Gentianaceae). It would be interesting to see if their roots held similar medicinal properties.

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Corn Lily Veratrum californicum, growing by a mountain stream in a meadowy area at around 11,000 ft. Some sources consider the plant poisonous, however, California Corn lily was used as a pain reliever and anti-convulsive by Native Americans. The roots were also boiled and drunk as birth control. In modern pharmaceuticals, it’s processed into products to slow the heartbeat and lower blood pressure, as well as treat cancer.

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Monardella Monardella odoratissima, also known as Bee Balm and Coyote Mint, is an aromatic member of the mint (Lamiaceae) family and can be used in teas for digestive complaints and as a soothing nervine tonic. It’s also an important food plant for several species of Lepidoptera. We found this growing in full sun along the cracks of granite rocks in very rocky and sandy soils.

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Wild Onions – We found this choice edible, Allium validum, growing stream-side in a damp meadow near the corn lilies. As most alliums, it can help improve circulation, lower cholesterol, and improve digestion.

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Herbs for Altitude Sickness
Altitude sickness is a condition that can occur above 10,000ft, but most commonly closer to 14,000ft. Up at these elevations, the oxygen in the air is typically less than 60% of what we typically breathe around sea level. Symptoms are typically nausea, headaches, dizziness, fatigue, appetite loss, loss of balance, and vomiting. In extreme conditions, fluid can fill the lung and cranial cavities, and immediate descent is required. I’d been really nervous about hiking around at high altitudes before I left for the climb, and had been instructed to take aspirin and ibuprofen to help cope. As someone who is allergic to both those drugs as well as most other NSAIDs, I did a little research and asked some mountain climbing friends to see how I could prepare and what I could use as an herbal alternative.

Polemonium eximium, or Sky Pilot, one of the few wildflowers that grows at high (14,000+ft) altitudes.

Polemonium eximium, or Sky Pilot. It’s one of the few wildflowers that grows at high (14,000+ft) altitudes and has a short blooming period – we were lucky to find these in such radiant blooms.

Beating Altitude Sickness!
-In preparation, eat plenty of carbohydrates and iron rich foods. Pumpkin seeds and pistachio nuts are thought to help.
-Take Osha and Gingko as you ascend and descend.
-Stay well rested and hydrated, and supplement with electrolytes.
-Sleep low, hike high.
-Try not to move your base camp more than 1500 feet at a time.

One of the Cottonwood Lakes

One of the Cottonwood Lakes

I opted to take a gingko tincture to increase circulation, eletrolite gummies and pills, and an osha supreme tincture by Gaia Herbs, which is osha blended with other respiratory herbs to help increase lung function and oxygen intake. I felt great until we hit Old Army Pass on our way down, a steep cliff pass where each step is at least a foot or two drop in elevation. The dry, sandy path down was nerve wracking, and as I reached the bottom, started to feel lethargic and headachy. Realizing I had totally neglected tinctures, water, and electrolytes for the past hour and a half I’d been concentrating on not sliding off the mountain, I quickly took some, and the headache eventually subsided. I definitely was exhausted for almost a week after this hike, so getting out of the desert and taking it easy was much needed.

View from the valley of the Eastern Sierras and Mt. Whitney, a neighboring peak to Mt. Langley and the highest peak in the continental US.

View from the valley of the Eastern Sierras and Mt. Whitney, a neighboring peak to Mt. Langley and the highest peak in the continental US.

Mae and V on a Feather River tributary. We found huge quartz crystal points on the shores.

Mae and V on a Feather River tributary. We found huge quartz crystal points on the shores.

The following week, I worked my way up the coast, spending time in Oroville, CA, where I went swimming in the crystal clear feather river and it’s tributaries, ate wild blackberries and apples, collected st. johns wort to make infused oils, and mined for crystals. St. John’s Wort is found in abundance in the Western Sierras and can either be dried and used in teas as a mood lifter, or infused into oils to ease dry and chapped skin. The Western Sierras are much damper (although this year, due to the extreme drought in California, the lakes are hundreds of feet below their usual levels and in places like Yosemite, the wildflower blooms seem less abundant than usual) and are home to other interesting herbs such as Mountain Ash, used as an astringent, good for treating diarrhea and tanning animal hides. Hanging out and swimming every day with this rad lady was the best vacation I could have asked for.

The dark, mossy Hoh.

The dark, mossy Hoh.

I then caught a ride with the illustrious Nell in her killer van North to the Olympic peninsula in Washington, where we camped for a while at our friend’s land Trollsplinter and spent some epic sunsets at Ruby Beach. The forest there was primarily composed of mossy hemlock trees with sword ferns and a dozen types of berries as the understory. I came across chicken of the woods mushrooms, a beautiful bright orange and yellow shelf polypore; To cook it, we boiled it for half an hour (boiling and draining the water off removes a chemical sometimes found in the mushroom that causes nausea), then fried it in butter, salt, red wine, fresh herbs, and tomatoes.

A glacial river in the Hoh Rainforest on the Olympic Peninsula.

A glacial river in the Hoh Rainforest on the Olympic Peninsula.

I also spent a day hiking through the Hoh rainforest, which was rich with moss and sword ferns, eating all sorts of berries, from thimble berries (my new favorite), currents, salal berries, blackberries, black raspberries, and salmon berries. All dark little berries are high in vitamins and antioxidants, but salal berries have additional properties. They are thought to be appetite suppressants, and the leaves are astringent. They can be prepared as a tincture and a tea for urinary tract infections, menstrual cramps, indigestion, diarrhea, and sore throat, or as a poultice to ease bug bites and stings. After a few hours of hiking, we can across and swam in a swam in a beautiful, freezing, mineral rich glacial melt river and sat in the sun eating snacks.

Gaultheria shallon, or Salal berries, are like velvety little blueberries.

Gaultheria shallon, or Salal berries, are like velvety little blueberries.

Ruby Beach

Sunset at Ruby Beach

Well, back in Louisiana now. Posts to look forward to in the upcoming weeks: Motorcycle trip to Joshua Tree for Babes Ride Out, canoe adventures in the swamps and native Louisiana plants, hurricane season herbal home-brews, Magnolia essential oil and more soaps, and as always, more herb materia medica.

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