Stopping to smell the rose hips:
“When we enter the forest, walk as if walking on your grandmother’s face.”
Brenda Holder is sharing an aboriginal saying with a small group of locals and visitors near a trailhead behind the Sawridge Hotel.
Holder, a medicine woman from Cree and Iroquois lineage, is leading a “plant walk,” one of the events scheduled for National Aboriginal Day. Holder’s reverence for the forest stems from her culture’s understanding of the forest as a provider.
“Underneath this forest canopy lies a grocery store, a hardware store and a pharmacy all at once,” she says.
Early into our walk Holder piques our curiosity with a plant called yarrow. She crushes a feathery leaf and holds it beneath each of our noses, encouraging us to experience the plant through our senses. The aroma reminds some of sage, others of mint or citrus. Holder remarks on the complex healing properties of yarrow, telling us of how the root is a pain killer, the leaf and flower can either staunch or help blood flow, and that overall, yarrow is a powerful antiviral.
Holder’s depth of knowledge comes from growing up with her grandmother, who was a prominent Cree medicine woman. While standing underneath a spruce tree, Holder recounts watching her grandmother cure a man with severe lung illness by smearing warm spruce pitch over his chest and laying a piece of tanned hide over top, before placing hot stones to allow the medicine to penetrate to where it was needed. Other stories that Holder recounts are more comical, such as one of the Cree names for rose hips: ‘Itchy bum berry.’ The name refers to the week-long after-effect of eating too many rose hips without removing their seeds.
At one point along the walk a couple of participants impulsively pick a few yarrow leaves to remember its distinctive smell. Holder, while respecting their enthusiasm, gently reminds them of national park policy forbidding the picking of plants. Holder herself has a harvesting license which allows her to continue her aboriginal practice of gathering from the forest.
During the hour-long walk in the sparse stands of trees wedged between busy summer traffic and a hotel, we encounter a diverse number of medicinal plants, making time to observe and learn about nine of them. Returning to the Sawridge parking lot, several participants express their gratitude to Holder for generously sharing her knowledge and stories from her rich background.Holder’s practice of the Cree aboriginal medicine system, which is so rooted in locally-available plants, informs her strong relationship with place. The walk demonstrates how we can all begin to cultivate a deeper relationship with the plant world.
The next time a brightly-coloured flower or strange plant form catches your eye when you are out exploring, stop moving and take a closer look. Over many seasons of observation you may eventually come to know a plant and perhaps, also how it can heal you.
If we listen, Holder assures us, the forest will teach us.
BY FERN YIP
Arnica (Arnica spp.)
Folklore: I’ll share one of the many personal anecdotes I have with arnica. On a bike trip from Seattle to Baja, Mexico I developed an aggravating knee injury near San Francisco that caused me pain at every turn of the pedal. I applied arnica for two days religiously; both pain and injury disappeared shortly afterwards.
Found: Arnica’s cheery yellow flowers are noticeable in mountainous valleys and meadows all the way up to the subalpine where there is ample moisture. Several different species exist in the Jasper region.
Medicine: For anyone active in the mountains arnica is a godsend. It speeds the healing of any strain, sprain, or bruise, especially if applied immediately after the initial trauma. Arnica is highly effective for these injuries because it is anti-inflammatory and a pain killer. It also increases circulation by dilating blood vessels, encouraging the healing properties of blood to injured tissue. You can find arnica prepared as a cream, salve, or ointment.
Precautions: Only apply topically (ie. on top of the skin) and not on broken skin. Taken in high doses internally, arnica can cause dizziness, tremors, and heart irregularities. Avoid if allergic to members of the Asteraceae family.