by Rod Lotter | Illustrations by Arica Schuett
– Capitol Hill Times Magazine –
The Pacific Northwest has always been regarded as a hotbed of biodiversity, but walking through what may be the most urban area of the state, you might not realize it. Sure, there are plants and trees on Capitol Hill, but most people don’t stop to appreciate or learn about them.
The fact is that the Hill is home to an array of vegetation both native to the PNW, and not native to the region at all. There are plants brought accidentally from other parts of the country and the world. There are fruits and vegetables that have been cared for in neighborhood gardens and front yards on nearly every block. There are plants that have grown here for thousands of years and were used by Native Americans as medicine and sustenance during harsh winters. In many ways, the plants that you walk past every day serve as a reminder of our shared history.
Dr. Jake Felice is one of those who stops and looks down at the plants below his feet. He is a practicing naturopath and massage therapist, as well as an amateur specialist in medicinal plants. His business is located on Broadway.
He first became interested in medicinal plants while working at a drug treatment center and trying to find alternatives to prescription medications.
“The great thing is that medicinal plants are everywhere, you just need to know where to look,” Felice said. “And there are many medicinal plants that mimic prescription drugs quite effectively, and have been used by people for thousands of years.”
Occasionally, Felice will host medicinal plant walks in coordination with Sustainable Capitol Hill, a non-profit group that seeks to reduce the neighborhood’s carbon footprint and educate people on the benefits of sustainable culture.
Felice said there are about 20 medicinal plants that can be found on the Hill, but some of them are much more common than others.
Mahonia aquifolium, Berberidaceae, aka “Oregon-Grape”
The Oregon-Grape is one of the most common plants on the streets and in the gardens of Capitol Hill. It has no relation to grapes, but gets its name from the distinct clusters of dusted purple (or blue, depending on who you ask) berries that grow on the plant. The plant also has leathery leaves, which look a lot like the leaves that grow on Holly plants, which are also very common in the PNW.
Native Americans used the tart berries as a source of food, but they would usually mix them with other fruits and berries found in the area. The Oregon-Grape is native to the Northwest and can be seen from the coasts of Alaska all the way down to the northern coast of California. It is also the state flower of Oregon.
Medicinal uses: The roots of the plant serve as an anti-bacterial and are effective in treating gastrointestinal bacterial infections. The roots and the bark from the stems are the most effective medicinal parts of the plant, and are most commonly used via a tea, in which you soak the roots and stem bark in hot water.
Geranium Robertianum, aka “Stinky Bob”
In the State of Washington, Stinky Bob is classified as a noxious weed, due to its invasive qualities. The plant grows in many areas across the world, and probably found its way to our neighborhood because of its ornamental uses. It gained its nickname from the odor it gives off, which is very distinctive but not easy to describe. It is most recognizable by its bright pink or purple flowers.
Medicinal uses: Stinky Bob has many uses: it is an effective astringent, can be used for intestinal and urinary tract infections, is effective at treating dysentery and can stop intestinal bleeding. Topically, the plant can be used as a pain reliever for toothaches, and can stop nosebleeds. The stench from the plant is also said to repel mosquitos.
Plantago major, aka “the Broadleaf Plantain”
The Broadleaf Plantain is native to Europe and Asia, but somehow found its way to Capitol Hill and much of the rest of the United States. These days it is very common, and you would probably be most familiar with it because it grows in the cracks between cement. The leaves are very broad and strong, as it can survive repeated trampling, and it thrives in very compact soils.
Medicinal uses: The most common medical use is as a poultice, in which the leaves are ground and crushed into a mixture. The poultice can be used to treat Staph infections, insect stings, wounds and sores in order to fight against infection and soothe. Historically, it was used in cough syrups. It can also be taken as a tea or salve. The effects can be felt almost immediately.
Lapsana communis, aka “Nipplewort”
Nipplewort has been naturalized around the world, and in some instances is considered an invasive species, but has been in the PNW for hundreds of years. The plant gets its humorous name from the closed flower buds, which people apparently believed resembled nipples.
Medicinal uses: Native Americans used Nipplewort to relieve soreness and irritation on the nipples of lactating women. The plant is typically used in a salve or poultice and can also be used to treat cracked skin. Its leaves, when they are young, can be used in a salad or cooked and is similar to spinach.