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Skill Share: Radical Botany-Learning the Lay of the Land and Oregon Grape

Ring of Fire, great floods, unique plant life - this place that we live is amazing. Where else on earth could you live near a ocean, active volcanoes, conifer rain forests, high desert, marsh lands, sea estuaries, fertile valleys, high mountain glaciers and so much more. Cascadia is a place of earth, water and fire. It is a place whose geology is new, old and ever forming. Plant life here is diverse and often unique in the world. Many plants have adapted to wide swaths of this land, others are to be found in areas so small that they are in danger of disappearing off the earth. I love this place!
Oregon Grape- a powerful healing plant
Oregon Grape- a powerful healing plant
Radical Botany Week 3- Learning the lay of the land: floods, volcanoes and ocean uplifts - Plant: Oregon Grape

Week of January 27 to February 2, 2008- Cascadia

Radical Botany: Arising from or going to a root or source; Arising from the root or its Crown: radical leaves. Favoring or effecting fundamental or revolutionary changes in the current practices.


Before you search Cascadia for the great healing plants, you should understand the lay of the land. What formed this amazing place? What kind of soils and geology will you encounter and you hike through the forest, valleys and high deserts. I am going to give the big picture here. I will write more about orienteering and how not to get lost at a later time.

Why should you learn the geology of a place? Why understand the lay of the land?
- You will be able to know where to find the plant communities.
- You will not get lost in the woods or the mountains or the desert. You will be able to find your way from any point on the land.
- You will know how to find food, water and shelter when you need it.
- You will see wonderful things and will not be afraid to wander in paradise. You will remain open to the adventure and encounter unusual plants and their communities.

Where else on earth could you live near a ocean, active volcanoes, conifer rain forests, high desert, marsh lands, sea estuaries, fertile valleys, high mountain glaciers and so much more. Cascadia is a place of earth, water and fire. It is a place whose geology is new, old and ever forming.

Plant life here is diverse and often unique in the world. Many plants have adapted to wide swaths of this land, others are to be found in areas so small that they are in danger of disappearing off the earth.


Cascadia stretches from British Columbia to Northern California. On the big scale it is being formed by the constant tension between two geological plates that are part of earth's crust. One crust stretches out into the Pacific Ocean moving eastward, is being pushed up into the land mass (coast range mountains) toward the Cascade Mountains. The other crust is moving westward and reaches deep into the hot, molten earth which is constantly forming the Cascade Mountains.

Between the two mountain ranges are valleys shaped by still further geological forces. This process is so dynamic that it is being created right in front of our eyes. This mountain range-valley-mountain range scene only covers one-third of the state. The other two-thirds- now this is going east as the crow flies-is mostly high desert. There are some other mountain ranges to the east of the Cascades like the Wallowas and the Steens, but the plant life there is very different than the Western third of Cascadia. Eastern Oregon is a place of pine, hemlock and Juniper forests. People in other parts of the world have this idea that Cascadia is all about Douglas firs, the Pacific Ocean and the fertile farm valleys. Most of the humans in Cascadia do live on the "green" part of the state.


In Cascadia the western valleys were formed by old and new geological forces. The valleys were formed somewhat by old rivers meandering through the soil levels. Another amazing force was the periodic catastrophic floods. These were floods in which 300 foot walls of water careened down valley's and river gorges carving out new geologic formations and leaving behind vast layers of huge boulders, rock, minerals and sand a gravel pits. Here is Skagit People's myth about such a flood- these myth's can be found with most all Cascadia first peoples.

A Skagit (Native People's) Flood Myth

"In the beginning Raven, Mink and Coyote helped the Creator plan the world.
They were in on all the arguments. They helped the creator have all the rivers
flow only one way; they first thought that they should have all the water first
flow up one side of the River and down the other. They decided that there should
be bends in the Rivers, so that there would be eddies where the fish could stop
and rest. They decided that beasts should be placed in the forest.
Human beings would have to keep out of their way. Human Beings would not live
on the Earth forever agreed Raven and Mink and Coyote and the Old Creator.
They will stay only for a short time. Then the body will go back to the Earth
and the spirit back to the spirit world. All living things they said,
will be male and female- animals and plants, fish and birds.
And, everything will get its food from the earth, the soil.
The Creator gave four names to the Earth. He said that only a few people should
know the names; those few should have special preparation for that knowledge,
to receive that special spirit power. If many people should know the names,
the world would change too soon and too suddenly. One of the names is for the Sun,
which rises in the east and brings warmth and light. Another is for the rivers,
streams and salt water. The third is for the soil; our bodies go back to it.
The fourth is for the forest; the forest is older than human beings, and is for
everyone on the Earth. After the world had been created for awhile, everyone
learned the four names of the Earth. Everyone and everything spoke
the Skagit language. When the people began to talk to the trees,
then the change came. The change was a flood. Water covered
everything but two high mountains- Kobah (Mt. Baker) and Takobah (Mt. Rainer).
Those two mountains did not go under"
-Excerpt- Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest, Ella E Clark


If you go up on Marys Peak (Tamanawis- place where the spirit dwells)located in the central part of Western Oregon, you can look out over vast parts of the Willamette Valley. You will see a place shaped mostly by the meandering Willamette River. However, every once in a while you will see mounds. Big round mounds. For a long time it was thought that these mounds were formed by Native Americans depositing shells or dirt for burial grounds.

In the 1920's scientists started to investigate the possibility that a "Great Flood" had occurred in Cascadia. The flood called the Missoula Wash or Flood occurred thousands of years ago when a great glacial lake located in Montana above Missoula, burst its seams. Imagine a wall of water 300 hundred feet tall surging down the Columbia gorge and then down the Willamette Valley. What a sight that must have been. This was not one event. The glacial lake burst about every 50 years and made for some really exciting times for life in these valleys.

"After each ice dam rupture, the waters of the lake would rush down the Clark Fork and the Columbia River, inundating much of eastern Washington and the Willamette Valley in western Oregon. Geologists estimate that the cycle of flooding and reformation of the lake lasted an average of 55 years and that the floods occurred approximately 40 times over the 2,000-year period between 15,000 and 13,000 years ago "- Wikipedia - Missoula Flood

These floods deposited sand, gravel and other mineral deposits throughout the flooded area, including depositing large boulders throughout the Willamette Valley.

Up until about 100 years ago, much of the valley areas of Western Washington and Oregon were a series of lakes and marshes. Anglo pioneers drained and filled in much of the lakes and marshes with soil to create the farmland that is in the valleys today. Many valuable plant communities were driven to the edges of the valley. Many other plants are not found in these valleys any more. Camas, a staple food for Native peoples once graced the old marsh lands. There are a few to be found in the marshes and slews of Willamette Valley (including Portland). But these plants live in very polluted waters. (more on this in coming weeks). Native peoples did not live in these valleys because they would catch malaria or TB. They did however build seasonal shelters from plants so they could fish and collect valuable foods and healing plants.


The Coast Range mountains extend from British Columbia to Northern California. The mountains are old and worn away by erosion and time. They are formed by forces that push land up off the Ocean floor. It is not uncommon to find sea fossils and other sea sediments in this mountain range. The area used to be a vast and beautiful rain forest. Much of the Coast Range has been clearcut in Washington and Oregon. Many wonderful plants have been lost. Because the soils are so old they lack certain essential minerals needed by plant communities. Humans who live in these mountains often have bad teeth because of lack of minerals. Farmers and gardeners must add minerals (glacial rock is a wonderful source of these minerals)to help the plants grow.

In the past the forests were kept healthy because of migrating salmon, steelhead and other sea run fish. The spawning fish would swim up the streams, die in the river bed and nature would do a wonderful job of dispersing the carcass into the forest. The sea run fish helped plants to thrive. It is getting harder and harder to find some very valuable plants that once flourished in the Coast Range because the fish are disappearing in the streams.

The Coast Range mountains are not particularly tall compared to the Cascades Mountains. There a few larger mountains spattered along the coast range. And this is important because these taller coast range mountains provide habitat for plants normally found only in the Western slopes of the Cascades. These mountains are not volcanic. Some of the more important Coast Range mountains are Mt. Olympus on the Olympic Peninsula, Marys Peak (Tamanawis) near Corvallis, Oregon, Mt Ashland near Ashland, Oregon , The Siskiyou Mountains and the Klamath Mountains in Southern Oregon and the Trinity Mountains of Northern California. One of the most important and unique places in the Cascadian Coast range is the Kalmiopsis Wilderness area. There is no other place in Cascadia to find unusual and important healing plants. Walking through this area will make you feel like you are visiting another planet. (More on the plants that live here at a later date).


Highly volcanic and much alive, these mountains provide much drama for both plants and humans. The Cascades are part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, the ring of volcanoes and associated mountains around the Pacific Ocean. All of the known historic eruptions in the contiguous United States have been from Cascade volcanoes. They are large and snowcapped in the winter. Some still support glaciers. The wilderness around these mountains provide a safe harbor for diverse plant communities that provided food, clothing, healing and shelter for humans and other creatures for thousands of years. Each Mountain has its own energy but shares similar soils and weather that support similar plant communities.


Oregon Grape is one of my favorite plants. It is known by many healers as the Golden Seal of the West Coast. I have used it to heal many ailments, made dye for wool and basketry, eaten the berries, and healed my cat and others. All parts of the plant are valuable and powerful healers. It is a plant to be respected!

Oregon Grape lives in a tight, healthy tribal community. A perfect mirror of how healthy human community once lived. It is very important to honor that community when harvesting this plant.
Go to the Oregon Grape Community with right intent. If you are a commercial "wild crafter" trying to make your "quota" stay away! Oregon Grape is a powerful plant. It's healing energy-chemistry can change instantly with lack of right intent.


Mountain areas on wooded slopes below 7000 feet throughout the Western part of North America.

Intention is everything!

Your intention should be first to learn the lesson the plant wants to teach you. Second, you should intend to use this medicine plant wisely. Third, you should be respectful in harvesting and fourth you should always leave thankful for the medicine.
I guess I could also say, that what I just shared with you should be the way to harvest all plants.

The community of Oregon Grape plants exist in an specialized ecological community. Oregon Grape roots and thrives under especially powerful healing trees like Red Cedar, Sequoia, and Sitka Spruce.

Never harvest the largest central plant. This is the mother plant. This is a vigorous plant whose roots reach out to the whole community. Sometimes if the community is quite large, there will be more than one "mother plant". Think of these plants as tribal leaders. The largest plants in the community attract certain bacteria to the community soil, insects, other plant chemicals, earth worms and other tunneling creatures that feed the community.
The largest plants are not always the ones who have the most color, or the strongest medicine. Be respectful.


The plants to harvest are smaller. Oregon Grape is best harvested in August or September when it is full of berries. It is O.K. if there are a few flowers on the plant.

Find the Oregon Grape community. Look out in front of you and you will see a plant whose leaves are especially green. The berries on the plant will be full and deep blue, the flowers if still blooming will be brighter than others in the community. This plant will be in the outer circle of the community not too near a animal or human path.


When harvesting the root, uncover the soil lightly around the plant root. Do not pull up the plant! Find a side root, not the tap root. (Tap root is central to keeping the plant alive. Tap root is the largest central root that provides nourishment for the plant). Use a sharp knife that has been cleaned with an organic seed oil like olive or sunflower seed oil. Keep this knife cleaned between harvests. Always place an offering to the plant next to the plant. I carry tobacco, Mayan Corn, or sunflower seeds (that I grow especially for offerings). Be thankful. It's a wonderful gift that has been given to you. I talk to the plant when I am harvesting. I tell the plant that I will use it wisely. I talk about the healing that I need to do and ask the best way to proceed. I sit with my journal write down what comes to me about the plant.

The root of the Oregon Grape has strong medicine. The root is bright yellow and can be used for dye. The yellow color is caused by an alkaloid called berberine.

The Oregon Grape Root is the most commonly used part of the plant. Recent studies indicate that M. aquifolium contains a specific multidrug resistance pump inhibitor (MDR Inhibitor) named 5'methoxyhydnocarpin (5'MHC) which works to decrease bacterial resistance to antibiotics and antibacterial agents.1.

Oregon grape root is used almost exactly like other Berberis species and goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), as an alterative, antibiotic, diuretic, laxative and tonic. It is commonly used internally to detoxify the blood in an effort to cure skin problems. Also occasionally used as a treatment for rheumatism.

Berberine is the most studied of the alkaloids and has been shown to possess fungicidal and antibacterial activities as well as activity against protozoa, e.g. Giardia lamblia, Trichomonas vaginalis and Entamoeba histolytica.

In homeopathy, Oregon grape is used as a tincture for skin diseases, like acne, eczema, herpes and psoriasis.

Oregon Grape is a good Antibiotic and Cholagogue (increases the flow of bile).
Oregon grape contains berberine alkaloids, including berberine, berbamine and oxyacanthine, stimulating the gut and the uterus, and are somewhat strong antibiotics This is a very powerful healing plant and practitioners should consult a plant healer to learn to make the tinctures and infusions.


Native peoples used the berries for food. (There was no difference between food and medicine for Native Peoples. They recognized that whatever you put into your body caused healing or disease. There was no such thing as recreational food.) Native Peoples used a few berries mixed with Salal or some other sweet berries as a staple dried food in the winter months. Today the berries are made into jelly (mixed with other sweet berries or fruit). The berries were also used for medicinal use: to cleanse the liver and gall-bladder and to treat eye problems. Don't take all the berries on a plant, leave some for the birds and wildlife.


The stems of Oregon Grape were used by Native Peoples as a dye. They were shredded with Oregon Grape root and soaked. A bright yellow dye could be extracted from the mixture. I use a sharp scissors to cut branches from a plant. When harvesting the berries and the stems, take a small amount from each plant. No need to destroy the plant. Leave some berries for the birds and other wildlife. The berries become essential food for wildlife during the long winters in Cascadia.

1. Lewis, Current Biol., 1999,9, R403-R407
2. Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest, Ella E Clark (1953)
3. Information on the Missoula Floods - Wikipedia -  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Missoula_Floods
4.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cascade_Mountains
5.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marys_Peak
6.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalmiopsis_Wilderness
7.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Olympus_%28Washington%29

Reading list:

1. The Botany of Desire -A Plant's-Eye view of the World - Michael Pollan
2. Botany in a Day: Thomas J. Elpel's Herbal Field Guide to Plant Families, 4th Ed. (great book for learning how to "key" plants.
3. The Lost Language of Plants - The ecological importance of Plant Medicines to Life on Earth - Stephen Harrod Buhner
4. Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast - Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Alaska - Pojar and Mckinnon
5. The Herbalist: Joseph E. Meyer- First edition was 1918- Meyerbooks, Publisher; Rev Upd edition (May 1, 1986)
6. How to stay alive in the woods - Bradford Angier Copyright 1956
7. Plant Spirit Medicine: Healing with the Power of Plants Eliot Cowan, 1995

Books that will fit in our backpack or emergency gear:
The Hebalist, How to Stay alive in the woods, Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast.

"Everything on the earth has a purpose, every disease an herb to cure it, and every person a mission."
-Mourning Dove [Christine Quintasket] (1888-1936) Sal

native peoples, TB, and malaria 29.Jan.2008 14:20

me again

(hope this isn't already there; site keeps dying whenever i click publish.)

"Native peoples did not live in these valleys because they would catch malaria or TB."

not so.

neither TB nor malaria are native to the new world. thus, before european contact there was no need to avoid either disease. both diseases (plus the complete lack of any immunity to them caused by their absence) figured prominently in the repeated decimations of native peoples post contact with europeans.

the chinook people, who lived along the lower columbia river, _did_ live in marshes and lowlands. the tubers of the wapato plant (saggitaria sp.) were one of their staple foods. sauvie island (then undiked and mostly natural wetlands) was probably one of the most densely-populated areas on the west coast.

the fact that the chinook were marsh-dwellers, together with the presence of the native anopheles freborni mosquito (capable of transmitting malaria), meant that all it took was one malaria-carrying sailor (in a ship going up the columbia to trade at fort vancouver) getting bitten for catastrophe to be unleashed.

Malaria info 29.Jan.2008 19:53


Thank you for your post "me". Since your post I have done some more research and find that you are correct. Malaria was brought by white settlers. They also brought Measles, ditheria, and small pox. I wondered why the Kalapuya called the central to southern Willamette Valley "the valley of disease"? I find that most references say because TB was here. Natives peoples lived through many cultural cycles of their own and may have cycles of war and disease that came and went. The Native myths for this area reference times when people live hard lives and easy lives.

Thank you for your input. Oregon Grape seems to be a plant of choice when dealing with respiratory disease. I understand that many mushrooms have anti-viral components also.

interesting about the "valley of disease" 30.Jan.2008 09:41

me again

i haven't read much about the kalapooya (sp?); as a resident of the portland area my interest has been the chinook peoples, who lived along the lower columbia. if memory serves, the border between the two groups was willamette falls. the main reference i've read about the chinook is _naked against the rain_ (don't have the author name handy, but it's a fairly easy book to find).

as for TB, it turns out i was wrong:  link to query.nytimes.com

so TB indeed might have been present in the central and southern willamette valley pre-contact.