Wednesday, July 29, 2009


Today I was reminded of a tried and true companion that has travelled with me from the Okanogan to the Yukon to Hells Canyon and the Wallowa Valley. I’m talking about The Herb Book by John Lust. The subject of the book came up over dinner when we were discussing a malady that has afflicted me the last few weeks, the nasty rash, swelling and pain caused by exposure to Rhus radicans L, poison ivy.

Since I have been affected before, I know what poison ivy (commonly referred to in these parts as poison oak) looks like and I avoid it like the plague. But I still get it several times a year, from Mike, the dogs, tools, laundry, etc. This time I suspect I got it from the horses. When Mike and our good friend Bryan trailed the cows up Log Creek to the summer range, they said they went through a “jungle” of poison oak. I remembered not to touch the dogs, but I forgot about the horses.

The Herb Book
contains a startling amount of information on useful plants. It not only includes botanical information, but also educates the reader on medicinal terminology, methods of preparation, nutritional properties, other useful properties, herbal formulas, plant lore and has several comprehensive indexes. Yellowed and worn, I grabbed the compact and dense paperback from my kitchen cupboard and showed it to my friend at the dinner table. “Wow,” she said, “I’ve never used a book enough to have it look like this.”

That’s when I realized how many times this book has helped me treat various illnesses, wounds and discomforts for myself and my family. Living in remote areas, I could often use this resource to find herbal relief in my cupboard, garden, or surrounding landscape. Just a few days ago, I used it to review the properties of my chosen remedy for poison oak and refresh my memory on preparation, dosage and application.

I have heard of many “treatments” for poison oak, everything from bleach and kerosene, to scratching-the-heck-out-of-it, to steroids and shots of whiskey. The remedy I prefer is a decoction of black walnut leaves. Luckily, Mike was heading down river so he picked some fresh leaves for me. As a plant person recently reminded me, the treatment for offensive plants is generally another plant that grows in the same region.

In this case, I used two remedies.

Black Walnut Poison Oak Remedy

Simmer a couple cups of whole fresh leaves in about a quart of water for 5 - 10 minutes. (Dry leaves can be substituted for fresh, simmer 10 minutes.) Let cool. Pour leaves and decoction into a glass jar and store in the fridge. If you are not going to use it up in a week or so, strain and discard the leaves before storing the liquid. Soak a small cloth in the liquid and apply it to the affected area for several minutes, three or four times a day. It helps relieve itching and dry out the rash.

The Other “Remedy”

I hiked from Buckhorn Springs out the end of the ridge above Tulley Creek. A storm was gathering, with fretful winds, dull yellow underbellies of thunderheads, and dark curtains of rain trailing south. When I reached a rock knob at the end of the ridge, I looked down to the Tulley Creek bench below, and the spot where our first home in Wallowa County still squats beside the creek in a ribbon of birch, alder, and willow.

I sat down to contemplate the vast expanse before me and suddenly the world was becalmed. Not a breath of wind, not a bird singing, not even a fly buzzing. It was utterly still. The kind of quiet you can feel on your skin.

Now that kind of remedy works for most anything.