Durango Living
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Do you Dig it?
Locals love medicinal osha – the forest’s buried treasure

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BY KARLA SLUIS
Magazine Editor

Many people are discovering what Native Americans – and bears – have known for a long time: The roots of a special mountain plant have healing power.

Ligusticum porteri, commonly known as osha, is native to the San Juans Mountains and northern New Mexico. It can be found in deep, moist soils rich in organic matter at elevations between 9,000 to 10,000 feet.

Bears respond to the herb like cats do to catnip. They will roll on it and cover themselves with its scent. When a bear first comes out of hibernation, it will eat osha if it can find it, to cleanse its digestive system.

The root is “bear medicine” traditionally used by Native Americans in the Southwest, as much for good luck as for health benefits.

“I had a friend who carried osha with her for protection when she traveled,” said Durango resident Alicia Spear.

“I just like to eat it.”

Osha stimulates the respiratory, immune and digestive systems. The root has been clinically verified for its antiviral and antibacterial properties, as well as its ability to fight a wide variety of respiratory ailments.

Dancing Willow Herbs carries Osha Chews, which are locally harvested (“wildcrafted”) and soaked in honey from Southwest Colorado. The shop also carries tinctures, tea and throat sprays infused with the herb.

Some locals harvest osha root carefully for personal use.

“I dry it, or cook it in honey,” said Spear.

“You can eat it straight, or pour hot water over it to make tea. I use it for respiratory issues and general immune boosting.”

Spear has been harvesting osha every September for many years. She learned about the root and how to prepare it and harvest it ethically as a former employee of Dancing Willow Herbs.

Osha is in the carrot family of plants. It has a very strong, spicy flavor: a blend of parsnips and licorice, with a bitter aftertaste. The tall plants have leaves that look and smell like celery. In summer the plants have clusters of tiny white flowers in an umbel, or flat umbrella shape.

Gretchen Fitzgerald, a forester with Columbine Ranger District in Bayfield, said people can legally harvest osha for personal use, but they must get a free-use permit at any San Juan National Forest Office and are limited to 10 pounds per person.

“That is plenty of osha root to last a family for the winter,” she said. “If a tincture is made, it is enough to give to the whole neighborhood.” Osha collected under a personal-use/free-use permit cannot be sold.

Some herbalists around the country are concerned that osha is being overharvested due to growing interest and acceptance of herbal remedies. But Fitzgerald said with the exception of a few popular locations near roads that are easy to access, the Forest Service does not believe the plant has been overharvested locally.

Despite its many benefits, it’s never smart to dig up and eat wild plants without expert guidance. Osha can be confused with hemlock, which is poisonous.

“The best characteristic that distinguishes osha from any other root is the (‘spicy celery’) smell,” said Fitzgerald. “I would also not harvest osha if hemlock is growing near it. Hemlock grows in wet areas, whereas osha is much more widespread. So to be ultra-safe, just don’t dig in a wet area.”

Osha is dependent on mycorrhizal fungi, and attempts to artificially cultivate the plant outside of its habitat for commercial use have not been successful. That means the wild plants are a precious resource. According to Fitzgerald, to harvest osha sustainably, people should follow these guidelines:

- Only harvest mature plants with flowering stalks.
- Osha should only be harvested in the fall, when the leaves start to senesce, or turn yellow.
- A harvester should leave a portion of the root undisturbed of the plant they are digging. The easiest way to do that is to cut the root with a shovel and dig all the way around the portion to be harvested. Osha has rhizome roots, so leaving a portion of the root undisturbed will allow it to recolonize the area that was harvested.
- Harvesters should fill in any holes. They can also leave some root crowns or seeds in the disturbed area.
- The best way to encourage regeneration is by leaving some of the root to re-sprout, and fill in the disturbed area.
- Never take more than 10 percent of the mature plants in a given area. It’s best to change the harvest area by finding a new location to visit each year.

For more guidelines for ethical and sustainable harvesting of wild plants, visit:
http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprd3822046.pdf.