June 6, 2013
Kit Stolz, OVN correspondent
One of the most common shade plants in Southern California is mugwort, a rangy grey-green perennial with serrated leaves, which also turns out to be one of the plants most useful for healing in the Chumash tradition. That’s according to Jim Adams, a professor in pharmacology at the University of Southern California, who has published hundreds of articles in the scientific press, but on his own spent years learning about Southern California plants from a Chumash mentor named Cecilia Garcia.
“Mugwort is such a useful plant,” he said. “Cecilia was constantly working with it – it was her favorite plant.”
Adams said the Chumash used mugwort for many conditions related to the womb, and he suggests making a tea with it to relieve menopausal symptoms.
But the plant is best known as an antidote for poison oak.
“Basically, you get a handful of leaves, 10 or 15, and pee on them,” he said. “Then you rub the leaves on your skin where you were touched by the poison oak. We know this works, and there have been scientific papers written on it, but we still don’t know exactly how.”
On June 16, Adams will journey from Los Angeles to join Ojai plant expert and guide Lanny Kaufer on an “herb walk” through the Wheeler Gorge area, as he has done on an annual basis in recent years.
Don’t expect to cover a great distance on the walk, Adams warns.
“Basically we walk about four or five steps and then come to a plant and talk about it,” he said. “We always start with a prayer.”
“People love Jim,” said Kaufer. “He’s very engaging, he’s entertaining, and he’s passionate about sharing his knowledge and spreading the gospel of the usefulness of our native plants.”
Adams, who has received grants from the National Science Foundation, the American Heart Association and other scientific bodies, believes modern medicine is overlooking a great deal of knowledge from Native American traditions. To help change that, he published a book in 2005 with Garcia called “Healing with medicinal plants of the West – cultural and scientific basis for their use.”
“The most important thing is how to live in balance,” he said. “When I was seven years old, my grandfather taught me that. That means loving God, loving your family, respecting tradition, working for your community, protecting your environment and keeping yourself thin and strong. If you can do all that, your body will be able to heal itself.”
Adams said that his family came to this continent in 1635 and moved steadily west, following the frontier, but consistently searched out Native American healers and did their best to retain their wisdom about medicinal plants.
“First and foremost, you have to get the right plant, and in the right condition,” he said. “It’s important not to use a plant if you don’t know exactly what it is. The other thing that is important is to use it correctly. The Chumash have been working with our native plants for 14,000 years. So many people try to modify a practice without really understanding it.”
One of the features of the herb walk on June 16 will be the preparation of a meal made from acorns, a staple in the Chumash diet.
“The most shocking thing to me in this conversation is the anti-Indian racism that you still commonly find, which most people aren’t even aware of,” he said. “Why don’t people eat food made from acorns? Because people think they are undesirable to eat because they were eaten by Indians. Why don’t we eat elderberries? They’re delicious! Because they were eaten by Indians. This anti-Indian racism is pervasive and people aren’t even aware of it.”
In his USC lab, Adams works in the scientific tradition and respects the Food and Drug Administration, but thinks the Chumash and other native healers have much wisdom to offer.
“For the most part I think the FDA is doing a great job,” he said. “But we have to remember that as human beings we evolved using plants as medicines, and that has become part of our genetic heritage. People who responded to plant medicines survived and passed on their genes. The FDA has finally started licensing plant medicines again, after removing thousands of them decades ago. We need to bring back these traditional medicines back into our practice.”
The Medicinal Plant Walk and Acorn Preparation Workshop will begin at the North Fork of Matilija Creek upstream from Wheeler Gorge at 9 a.m. The cost is $30 for adults, $25 for seniors. Children are allowed for free if arrangements are made prior to the walk.
For Herb Walk information, visit HerbWalks.com or call 646-6281.