Pray to the Moon when She is round,
Luck with you will then abound,
What you seek for shall be found
On the sea or solid ground.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Wandering: Paradise or Parasite?

A casual glance a this image yields a deceptively tropical feel, assuming you do not dwell upon the coniferous twig in the foreground or inspect the leaf litter too closely. When I stumbled upon this oddity I literally dove under the low-lying tree to inspect it. Then, while crouching in the duff I came to my senses & retrieved the stroller (with baby) from the path. What was this weirdness I was seeing? I was unsure how to even begin the search for the answer -- was this even a plant? I imagined loading a search engine with this: 'strange, elongated, pinecone-looking thing under tree in Alaska.' Fortune smiled upon me however & my search was short.
Quite serendipitously, my godfather had gifted me with a book just days before that would provide the answer. The Field Guide to Alaskan Wildflowers (V. Pratt) happens to have a section in the back describing some "Miscellaneous Plants and Trees." Among the the miscellany is the peculiar organism in question: Broomrape or Ground Cone, Boschniakia rossica. The tree I dove under was a Mountain Alder -- this is important because this plant is a parasite which grows exclusively on the roots of the Mountain Alder. It has no chlorophyll so it depends entirely upon its host tree for its relatively long life-span. Fascinating.

Uses & Lore
Of course, I needed to know more, so I did some poking around & discovered it has a bit of folklore & several interesting medicinal uses. Because it occurs around the northern regions of both North America & Asia, various peoples have found applications for this peculiar plant.

  • The Chinese use the whole plant medicinally (often as a tea) for invigorating & nourishing the kidneys, relaxing the bowels & invigorating Yang (that is, curing impotence).
  • The Gwich'in (the most Northern Native peoples in the Americas) chew the white core for "medicine" or, they dry & grind it into a powder for ingestion &/or topical use. The young plants have a white portion of their root which the Gwich'in call the "potato." The potato is eaten to relieve stomach upset & improve the appetite. In addition to medicine, the Gwich'in traditionally used the plants to make pipes & even added dried, pounded roots to their tobacco.
  • The Dena'ina (an Alaskan Native people) tie a piece around the neck of a baby to help it grow correctly.
  • Various Native Canadian peoples have been documented using it as a food source (Grizzly bears love it too!).
  • One source noted the it can be used in stress relieving teas & can also be added to facial steams for oily skin.
  • Medical studies show it may delay the degenerative changes in the brain associated with aging & the NIH reports that it may be hepatoprotective (liver protective) & possibly have application in treatment of acute liver injury.

I had expected to find a great deal of folklore & medicinal uses for B. rossica associated with Russia. I was befuddled when at first, I found very little. I then discovered that this plant is an endangered species in Northern Russia & perhaps this accounts for the lack of information describing how to use it. If you know something more about this amazing plant, please leave me a comment -- I would love to know more

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