A few days ago I discovered a Washington native wildflower growing along the stump stairway near our stream. This large-leaved perennial is an avens or Geum Macrophyllum and boasts telltale hairy stems and three-part leaves that are deeply lobed. At first glance I thought it was a weed of some type, but then I noticed its leaves look just like those in my bed of geum cultivars. This plant is on the list of Washington State’s native wildflowers here, but might be considered a weed simply because it’s a plant growing in the wrong place. I’ll attempt to transplant it where we don’t walk. Update June 2017 — These geums are very, very weedy, unlike the cultivars in other areas of our garden. This year they have flourished along the driveway’s rock wall and I am forever pulling them out. I would never dream of transplanting these pests now!
From the Washington Native Plant Society website I learned fascinating ways Native Americans have used this herb:
Medicinal Uses: The Nuxalk made tea with the roots for stomach pain. The leaves were poulticed on boils by the Nuxalk, Quileute, Snohomish and Quinault. The Quileute and the Klallam chewed the leaves during labor, because these plants appeared at the same time that seals gave birth to their pups. The S. Vancouver Island Salish ate the leaves before visiting a dying person to guard against germs. Chehalis women made tea from the leaves to avoid conception, this only worked after the woman had given birth. Cowichan men chewed the leaves and fed them to their wives when they were pregnant to “straighten the womb” and aid delivery. The Squamish used the leaves to make a diuretic tea. An eyewash was also prepared from the leaves. The Haida boiled the roots to make a steambath to treat rheumatism.
Food Uses: Roots were used for flavoring stews and fish.
In the wild portions of our land, dozens of red elderberry or Sambucus racemosa, another Pacific Northwest native, are currently in full bloom, their panicles of white flowers towering above other shrubs and reaching 20 feet in height.
Research has taught me that the genus name Sambucus is related to the the word sackbut, which was the name of an obscure ancient Aramaic stringed instrument purportedly made from elderberry wood. The word was again used in the middle ages to describe a wind instrument made from hollow elderberry wood. The species name racemosa refers to the clustered flowers. The berries have been used for centuries by many cultures as a remedy for rheumatism, which may explain the common name “elder”berry. However, I’ve also read that the name “elder” may be derived from the Anglo-Saxon word Aeld, meaning fire, and since the summer berries are bright fiery red, this fits.
Previous uses of deciduous red elderberry by indigenous peoples, again from Washington’s Native Plant Society, with apologies for the poor writing:
Material Uses: Easy to hollow out stems used as whistles, drinking straws, blowguns, and pipe stems.
Medicinal Uses: Makah pounded fresh leaves and put them on abscesses or boils. The Cowlitz (put) them on sore joints, or use(d) bark dipped in hot water. The Squaxin mash leaves and use it to help blood poisoning. The Quinault use bark to bring flowing milk to new mothers.
Food Uses: Berries were important food for peoples on northern and central coast. They were boiled to make a sauce and stems and seeds were discarded. The berries also make a good jelly. Berries can make wine if cooked first.