Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Ligusticum porteri - Osha

Ligusticum porteri - Osha, also known as Bear Root, Bear Medicine, Indian Parsley, Colorado Cough Root, Chuchupate, Porter's Lovage, Mountain Lovage, Love Root, Wild Parsley, Licorice Root and Mountain Ginseng. It is native to theNorth American Rocky Mountain regions above 8,000 feet in Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. 

"Ligusticum" is Latin, and probably means  "from the Liguria region of Italy," where a related plant, Lovage, Levisticum officinale, grows in profusion and is widely used as a herb.  "Porteri" refers to Thomas C. Porter, a Colorado botanist who collected the plant in 1873.

Osha is a Native American word meaning "bear." It is called ha'ich'id in the Jicarilla language and the White Mountain Apache call it ha'il chii' gah.  It is referred to as "Bear Medicine" because Native Americans observed that bears would search for the plant after emerging from hibernation as well as when they were wounded or sick, and would eat it or rub it over its fur.  Rubbing the macerated root into their fur helps protect them against parasites and infections.

Osha is used ceremonially and medicinally by various Native American groups, including the Zuni, Yuki, and Chiricahua. It is valued in traditional herbalism for its powerful influence on the respiratory and bronchial systems. It supports a healthy immune system and associated mucous membranes.  It relaxes the air passages for clearer breathing, and is the ideal herbal solution for bronchial distress. 

It's appearance is typical of members of the parsley family, with hollow stems and delicate dark green divided leaves up to 24in long, which have a celery/parsley aroma.  Tiny white flowers are produced in umbels in summer.  The base of the leaf where it attaches to the root crown has a reddish tint which is unique, and the roots are fibrous, with a dark brown, wrinkled outer skin. The inner root tissue is fibrous and yellowish-white with a pleasant "spicy celery" fragrance. 

There is leaf material surrounding the root crown like a collar, which is hairlike in appearance. The roots are very astringent when fresh, and can cause blistering of the mouth and mucous membranes in humans if ingested. The dried roots do not have this astringent affect. Roots of older plants are far stronger and bitter than those of younger plants.

Osha has been clinically verified to possess anti-viral properties and is very effective for treating cold and flu systems of the upper respiratory tract, and other viral infections of the respiratory system.

The plant is also a powerful stimulant if consumed to excess. Osha root is typically chewed, then spit out after the medicinal components have been extracted by the chewing action. Osha root is also used internally in small amounts to treat fever, stomach ache, and heartburn. Osha root can be made into a poultice to treat brown recluse spider bites.  White Mountain Apaches use it as a snake and insect repellent as well as an aid in the curing of common colds, sore throats, cough, sinusitis, and other side effects of the winter season.   Like other bitter herbs, Osha also tends to improve symptoms of indigestion and increase appetite.  Chewing small root pieces is used to help break nicotine addiction.

Osha was used by the Jicarilla Apache in ceremonial smoking blends with tobacco as well as by decoction to soothe sore throats and loosen phlegm in the chest.  It was listed in the 1918 United States Dispensatory as Ligusticum filicinum and indicated for respiratory ailments. This same use has been confirmed historically in folk culture through interviews with Hispanic families in the San Luis Valley in Colorado.

A related plant from India and Nepal, Ligusticum wallichii, has a long history of use in Chinese medicine, and most of the scientific studies on Osha were actually performed on this species.

Osha root can be steeped in ethanol (whisky, vodka) for at least a month. The resulting tincture is an effective, albeit pungent, liniment for sore muscles that can be stored in a cool place indefinitely.

Osha is commonly used today by the Taos, and other Northern New Mexican Pueblo People for a variety of purposes, including placing a root in irrigation acequias (ditches) to inhibit cutworms and other larvae.  I personally witnessed a Native American woman using Osha root as a smudge.  She was cleansing a room where her grandson was about to have a high school graduation party.

 In his publication Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West,  Michael Moore states; "I have at least once been offered quantities of Osha root for purchase when the picker had mistakenly dug water hemlock roots, a deadly poison! Even the Spanish New Mexicans make mistakes, for one little valley is blithely labeled "Osha Canyon" on all maps, but is crawling with Hemlock.  If the plant is at least two or three feet tall, but the seeds have little thin bracts reflexed downward it is not Osha, but hemlock. The root is smaller with little scent, whereas Osha stinks! Poison Hemlock looks very much like Osha but never grows above 7,500 feet. Water Hemlock can grow as high as 9200 feet, but the leaves are much coarser resembling a combination of celery and marijuana."

Demand for Osha Root has been increasing and over-harvesting threatens wild stands. Ligusticum porteri is challenging to cultivate at low elevations.  It is a mountain plant, and can be found in moist soils that are rich in organic material at elevations between 9000 - 10,000 ft. in Taos County of New Mexico and other Rocky Mountain regions of the Southwest.

It is a slow-growing plant that takes up to 10 years to reach harvestable mass in the wild.  As it grows, Osha forms into a large clump over time and can get very large.  In areas of New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah, it can reach heights of 6 to 7 feet and produce circular colonies with dozens of root crowns growing from a central root mass.

Simple seed stratification methods were tested to propagate plants for sustainable production. Seed germination of 3 commercial seed sources (New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado) improved when the stratification period was adjusted for origin of seeds.  An increased duration of stratification of up to ten weeks was required for the more northern sources. These results indicate that common seed stratification can be used to develop nursery plants for reestablishment and production of harvestable roots.

So, I guess it was no surprise that the Osha seedlings I ordered didn't survive.  This is one plant that will not make it into most medicinal gardens, unfortunately.  However there are several variations of this plant that might suffice, including Ligusticum wallichii, commonly know as  Szechuan lovage, and Ligusticum scoticum known as Scot's Lovage, Scotch parsley, Scottish Licorice-Root, and Sea Lovage.

Resources include: 

The Southwest School of Botanical Medicine
Southwest Colorado Wildflowers
Vascular Plants of the Gila Wilderness
US Forest Service

1 comment:

Sleepy.buttock66 said...

Has anyone used 'blood and bone' fertilized soil for these plants if they are attempting to cultivate these plants at home?