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The Amazing Power Of Plants

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July 2014

Debra McGhan

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BLake3Have you ever wondered about the wild plants growing in your yard? When my children were young teenagers we moved to Valdez, Alaska where our family had won a piece of land in the state lottery. We spent the summer clearing our property and preparing to build a home. During the process, we learned a lot about the dangers and benefits of Alaska’s wild plants.

I remember one hot, summer day, my son, wearing shorts and t-shirts, set out with a machete to whack down the thick vegetation that covered the ground where we planned to build. It wasn’t long before he was complaining that his skin was stinging and burning.

As we worked alongside him, we all quickly noticed the effects because touching some of the plants caused an immediate reaction. Our skin began to blister and burn.

At the time, we had no idea what was happening or what we should do. We washed our skin with soapy water, put on gloves, long-pants and long-sleeve shirts and went back to work.


Cow parsnip in full bloom

The next day, after a bit of research, we discovered we had been exposed to Alaska’s nettles and cow parsnip. While the nettles have amazing medicinal properties when harvested and processed correctly, touching the plants can cause a burning sensation that will gradually diminish over a few hours. However the fluid from cut cow parsnip is like getting acid on your skin and can take months to heal.

According to Alaska plant specialist Shelley Plumb, knowing about the plants around you could save your life in an emergency.

Shelley Plumb with the North America Outdoor Institute and Knowing our Land shares advice about the plants

Shelley Plumb with the North America Outdoor Institute and Knowing our Land shares advice about Alaska plants

“There is so much to learn that I recommend people take on one or two plants a year and then learn everything you can about those plants,” said Plumb. “Learn to recognize them in different stages of their life cycle, where they grow, whether they are dangerous or safe, what they can be used for, and if you do use them, understand how they affect your body.”

Plumb, a life-long Alaskan is an instructor for the North America Outdoor Institute and the owner of Knowing Our Land, a private consulting firm that specializes in coming to your home to help you identify the wild plants you have in your yard. She will also teach you the uses and benefits of how to harvest, utilize and preserve the plants for edible or medicinal uses.

“Through the years I have seen the horrible effects prescription medicines have had on people and my children,” explained Plumb. “Wanting the best for my children and family helped me become very connected to the land. I feel very strongly about using what’s growing outside my door. And I’ve also learned that showing respect and being grateful for the gifts plants offer is the only way to truly receive the full medicinal affects.”

On top of her years of study with numerous plant specialists and the Native Health Consortium, Plumb gained even more personal experience of the powerful benefits after she was impaled with a dirty fish hook in 2010. She created a poultice from Devil’s Club, Fireweed, Twisted Stalk and Spruce sap that stopped a serious infection.

“Let’s just say Alaska is truly blessed in so many ways!” said Plumb. “We are the richest state there is and I’m not talking about gold. Everything a person would need to survive is here in the land. Food, water and medicine…It’s all about ‘knowing our land’ and showing the respect that it deserves so you may receive the gift it has to offer in full force.”

Carol Biggs, a nature counselor, educator, author and photographer shares Plumbs enthusiasm for the plants.

‘I am an avid nature consultant, connecting with nature for everything – food, water, oxygen, healing, sunlight, starlight, rain, wind, earth…and exploring wild edible and medicinal plants from an integrated perspective,’ she writes in her book Wild Edible and Medicinal Plants. ‘Restoring our link with nature reduces stress, enhances self-esteem, and heals us spiritually.’

Acclaimed wild plant experts and authors Verna Pratt, (Field Guide to Alaskan Wildflowers) and Janice Schofield (Alaska’s Wild Plants,) offer lots of great advice and plant photos in their books.

And both, like most plant specialists, remind you, ‘NEVER eat any plant you are not 100% certain about because many of Alaska’s wild plants can be deadly.’

Take Bane Berries, a small red berry similar to and often found growing next to high bush cranberries. It only takes about three berries to kill a small child.

DVC01062Michelle Winsor, an herbalist and sustainable living specialist, said there are other important factors to remember whenever you harvest. “Not only do you want to know absolutely which plant you are harvesting but pay attention to where. You would never want to harvest near a roadway where the plants may have been exposed to toxins from road chemicals. And obviously, if you see animal scat (especially dogs) that’s not going to be a good place either.”

Another message all the plant specialists I spoke with or read their work emphasized was that sustaining the precious gift of plants is up to us. Winsor calls it the rule of three. “Never take more than one-third of a plant, never take more than one-third of the plants in an area, and don’t return to an area for at least three weeks.”

“It’s up to all of us to protect and nurture this treasure we have been gifted with,” warns Winsor, “or we could too easily destroy it.”

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, one of the biggest threats comes from invasive species.

‘In recent years, well established and expanding populations of highly invasive plants have been documented in Alaska,’ the USDA warns in their field book, Invasive Plants of Alaska. ‘These species pose a serious threat to Alaska’s agriculture, tourism, fishers and subsistence resources.’ Please do your part to ensure these invasive species do not spread to the wild lands of Alaska.’

Driving to Valdez recently I got to see the horrible effect myself. Instead of the beautiful patches Invasive1of beneficial Fireweed and yarrow, the Glenn Highway is riddled with an invasive weed I learned today is ‘White Sweet Clover.’ It starts out like a delicate frilly plant but grows to over 5′ high and chokes the life out of EVERYTHING else.

To find out more or sign up for a plant class, visit

You can reach Shelley Plumb through the North America Outdoor Institute at If you’d like to reach Shelley Plumb to learn more about her ‘Knowing Our Land’ services, contact her at

For more safety tips and stories check out the rest of my site here at

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