The Pharmaceutical Forest
Local ethnobotanist and author Robert Rogers takes urbanites on walking tours of the nurture within the city’s nature
Tuesday, Aug 04, 2015 04:03 pm
While standing in the Mill Creek Ravine parking lot, Robert Rogers points out several native plants nearby that can be used for food and medicine, including hazelnut, alfalfa, star-flowered Solomon seal and rosehips.
The Mill Creek ravine is part of Edmonton’s 160 kilometer trail network of natural beauty. When you sit quietly in the river valley you can hear the chatter of squirrels, song birds and a breeze rustling the poplar leaves. The distant hum of traffic is almost completely drowned out and yet the area is underappreciated. Rogers, an ethnobotanist and assistant clinical professor of Family Medicine at the University of Alberta, wants to teach people to see what is in plain sight. Cyclists, joggers, dog walkers, and parents with children all move through the park, but they rarely look beyond the trail in front of them. There are hundreds of edible and medicinal plants and several species of edible mushrooms in the river valley. These herbs are “the people’s medicine,” says Rogers, “because they are available for everyone our bodies know how to use them.”
For example, wild sarsaparilla, which the Cree call rabbit root, helped the Cree survive harsh winters because it helps prevent muscle wasting. Sarsaparilla, one of the main ingredients in root beer, has similar healing properties to ginseng. Another common healing plant is pin cherry. When the inner bark is dried and reconstituted in a tea, it is a mild cough suppressant. However, just because it is natural doesn’t mean it is harmless; pin cherry can be fatal if it is not harvested carefully and can interact badly with certain medications. For Rogers’ part, his extensive education began in the 1970s. Some of his knowledge come from his friendship with Cree healer Russell Willier. Today he uses his knowledge to help people become aware of the diversity of plants that grow within our city limits. “I want people to see plants as individual personalities and see what they have to offer as food or medicine,” says Rogers.
During the summer Rogers leads 3-hour walks through the river valley to teach people about the mushrooms, food plants and medicinal plants used by Cree healers. Attitudes towards healing with natural sources are changing in North America, especially among young people looking for solutions to lifestyle issues that pharmaceuticals don’t solve. Understanding the plants in our river valley becomes increasingly important as we begin to understand that our current food infrastructure is not sustainable for a growing population. Nurturing native plants within an urban environment can help maintain our food supply. Native plants also have an important role to play in our health care system as part of a prevention and wellness program. He would like to see the City of Edmonton include wild plants in their Urban Food Strategy program and advocates including First Nations knowledge in the city’s plan to address issues of safety and sustainability “because we must learn how to manage, respect, and never take more than we need.”