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Gardeners learn bitter truth.

Byline: Karen McCowan The Register-Guard

There's healing power in Oemleria cerasiformus, a local native shrub better known as osoberry or Indian plum. That's what Tobias Policha told a group of gardeners and naturalists taking his medicinal plant tour of Hendricks Park on Sunday afternoon.

But Ellen Lewis had trouble swallowing it. Literally.

"I don't like it a bit!" said Lewis, a California resident who took Policha's tour while visiting Eugene.

In the end, she spat out the chewed leaves of the shrub, which taste - in Policha's own words - "like bitter cucumber peels."

Even so, she may experience its healing properties, he said.

"We've sort of lost our taste for bitter in this culture," noted Policha, a University of Oregon biology student. "But bitter plants are good for your digestive system - they improve timing and increase enzyme and acid secretions in all the organs along the way. And you don't have to eat very much - bitter works through reflex action. Just tasting it and chewing it improves things."

Policha, a Canadian transplant, appeared something of a Pied Piper as he led more than three dozen people on the two-hour tour. He began in the century-old park's Native Plant Garden.

"There's a lot of really great eatin' out in the woods, and there are a lot of plants that are real good medicine," he said. "But you do need to also learn which plants are poisonous. Some will just burn your throat, but others can fry your nervous system."

As an example, he pointed to Dicentra formosa, or Western bleeding heart, which can cause convulsions.

By contrast, Bellis perennis, or English lawn daisy, is edible, he said as he led the group toward the forest.

"You can impress your friends by adding these to a salad," he said of the tiny, white flowers with bright yellow centers. "But this daisy is also medicinal. It's an astringent, which is used to dry, draw or shrink swollen tissue. It's really good for oily rashes, like poison oak. It's also mildly anti- microbial, so it's good for cuts, burns, stings and boils."

One of the simplest ways to use it, he said, is in a spittle ball.

"You chew up the leaf and just kind of glob it on," he said. "If you let it dry, it will stick there pretty good."

Later, the group learned about Maianthemum stellatum, or starry-eyed Solomon's seal. The spreading plant's slimy, creeping stem is a natural emollient - soothing for burns, chapped lips and dry rashes such as eczema, Policha said. It's also a natural demulcent, useful in healing mucous membranes. And the same compounds that make it slimy can ease heartburn and encourage production of "good microbes" in the digestive track.

Some plants are both toxic and medicinal, depending on which part is used, Policha noted as he stood beside a Sambucus racemosa, or red elderberry bush. While its berries are unpalatable when raw, the flowers can induce sweat, helping bring down a high fever when boiled into a hot tea.

Many on the Sunday tour had decades more plant experience than their guide, but most ate up Policha's presentation.

"This is great!" said Sandra Austin, secretary of the Friends of Hendricks Park. "I've been gardening for 40 years, but I didn't know anything about medicinal plants."

Policha said he grew up gardening near Edmonton, Alberta, which stirred an interest in both botany and herbalism. He co-founded the Institute of Contemporary Ethnobotany here with the idea of restoring knowledge of indigenous and "long-standing European" medicinal uses of plants.

"I strongly believe that reconnecting with our immediate environment and the plants and animals around us is part of building a more sustainable society," he said.

MORE INFORMATION Learn about Policha's work online at
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Title Annotation:Environment; A Hendricks Park tour reveals the medicinal qualities of native plants
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jun 19, 2006
Previous Article:WOUND AROUND A GOAL.

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