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10 Edible and Medicinal Plants in the Colorado Rockies


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Did you know many wild plants found in our homes and backyard are scientifically proven to help with healing and relief from ailments? Before the advent of the corner drug store, when not feeling well, you'd run down to the local apothecary. Someone would've already found Rocky Mountain edible plants for you! These methods and materials were well-known centuries ago but have fallen into obscurity today. However, to effectively use wild plants, one must learn basic plant identification skills (especially for poisonous plants), and ethical and proper collection and preparation methods. This list and info shares some of the more common wild plants used for medicine, food, and practical purposes found in the Rocky Mountain region of Colorado. These resources can help you discover new ways to bring wild plants into your life for bountiful health.

Edible Plants in the Colorado Rockies

Arnica (Arnica angustifolia)

Macro image of single yellow Arnica fulgens blossom

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Also known as mountain tobaccoleopard's bane, and wolfsbane

Arnica is a plant in the sunflower family and has been used for medicinal purposes since the 1500s in the folk medicine histories of Russia and the Swiss Alps. It's still popular today, and is usually applied to the skin as a cream, ointment, lotion, salve, or tincture. It's been used to soothe muscle aches and sprains, reduce inflammation, and heal wounds.

Aspen Trees (Populus tremuloides)

Leaves yellow red orange aspens. Looking up at sky through foliage

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Also known as quaking aspentrembling aspen/poplarAmerican aspenmountain golden aspenwhite poplar, and popple

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The bark and leaves of the aspen tree are used to make medicine, mainly for treating rheumatoid arthritis, cystitis, diarrhea, and even the common cold. Additional health benefits of aspen include alleviating chronic skin conditions, like eczema or acne, relieving fever, speeding up frostbite healing, and treating urinary tract infections. Aspen contains a chemical very similar to aspirin, known as salicin--so don't drink alcohol when taking aspen!

The aspen tree has some edible uses as well. The inner bark can be eaten raw or cooked, and the sap can be boiled down into syrup, like maple tree sap, but this is usually impractical due to the smaller yield. Also, the light, powdery substance found on the bark acts as yeast and can be used in baking bread, as sunscreen (SPF 5), and as a styptic. It was also rubbed upon the body to prevent hair growth.

Common Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

Crested Butte Colorado village closeup of yellow dandelion flower and background of coal creek river in summer on sunny day

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Another ubiquitous lawn weed, dandelion cleanses the liver and blood and acts as a diuretic. Eat any part of the plant in any way you like--tea, tincture, or eaten raw in salads. They're found virtually anywhere; you certainly don't have to venture into the wilderness to track them down. Just be sure, as with any wild edibles, that you verify their cleanliness and give them a wash as needed. It is a benefit that dandelions are ready to be eaten as is, without much preparation needed at all to make them beneficial.

Fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolium)

Wild Colorado Fireweed Flowers

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Also known as Saint Anthony's Laurel

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The entire fireweed plant is edible, and it is both tonic and nutritive. The leaf, stalk, root, and flower are used in herbal remedies; as food, fireweed leaves and flowers are cooked in soups and stews. When young, the leaves are eaten raw. When left to dry, the leaves and flowers are made into tea, often consumed for stomach or intestinal inflammations. The presence of the antioxidants is responsible for fireweed's medicinal effect on fungal, yeast, and bacterial infections as well as its role as an antihistamine. Traditionally, fireweed has been used for bladder and kidney disorders and has research-backed anticancer benefits, with recent evidence on its therapeutic effects on the prevention of prostate cancers.

Mullein (Verbascum)

Close of yellow mullein herb flowers.

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This versatile plant grows so abundantly across North America that it's considered a weed. Some Native Americans used fresh green mullein leaves as moccasin inserts to keep their feet warm. The fuzzy leaves offer insulation and release oil that opens up the capillaries to increase blood flow. You can also place mullein leaves in hot water, then breathe in the steam to relieve congestion (though many Native folks just smoked the leaves for the same result) or drink it as tea. To create earache drops, you can also soak the pretty yellow flowers in oil. Mullein is a powerful healer that helps with chest congestion, cramps, sunburns, snakebites, earaches, warts, and more.

Red Clover (Trifolium pratense)

close up of a red clover

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A group of clovers is called a cluff. This herb has historically treated skin conditions, fever, colds, and lung issues in traditional Russian and Chinese use. Floral tea is used to support bronchial-respiratory health as an expectorant and anti-spasmodic. At one time, red clover was smoked as an anti-asthmatic. Red clover contains a mild sedative property, complementing its anti-spasmodic effects for cough. The flower is also used for inflammatory conditions associated with arthritis and gout and has been found to contain estrogen-mimicking flavonoids, known as phytoestrogens. These substances can contribute to maintaining normal estrogen levels during menopause. This is especially helpful in reducing hot flashes and night sweats.

Thistle

Purple Thistle Flowers - Meadow of purple/magenta wildflowers with selective focus on foreground flowers.

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Thistle is common in a lot of the U.S. Their stems or roots are boiled and eaten, and thistle is well known for its ability to treat swelling of joints and tendons, such as rheumatoid arthritis, especially in children. It has also been used to treat other inflammatory conditions, such as inflammatory bowel syndrome. Thistle stimulates bile production, which assists in the liver's detoxification. This, in turn, leads to a decrease in symptoms associated with poor liver function such as fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, and brain fog. It also stimulates digestive activity by increasing the secretion of digestive enzymes, which leads to improved digestion and appetite. Thistle can help the body battle bacterial infections, and observed decrease or the complete reduction of inflammation in addition to helping to remedy infections has been noted.

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Western Blue Flax (Linum lewisii)

Field of Blue Flax Blooms In Summer in Rocky Mountain National Park

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Also known as Lewis flaxblue flax, or prairie flax

The plant is anti-rheumatic, has agents that relieve and remove gas from the digestive system, and contains substances that give strength and tone the stomach. The fresh herb is boiled and taken internally to treat rheumatic pains, heartburn, colds, coughs, and dropsy. The oil in the seed has soothing and lubricating properties and is used in medicines to soothe tonsillitis, sore throats, coughs, colds, constipation, grave, and stones. When mixed which an equal quantity of lime water, it is used to treat burns and scalds. A poultice of freshly crushed leaves has been used to treat eye problems, and a tincture of the entire plant is used in the treatment of diarrhea. An application of the plant is applied to bruises to reduce the swelling. The seeds have agents that soften and soothe the skin when applied locally, and an eye medicine is made from the sources, while an infusion of the roots is used as an eyewash. An infusion of the whole plant is used as a hair and skin wash. It is said to be very beneficial to the skin and help prevent hair loss.

Wild Sage (Salvia)

Purple russian sage plants growing wild in summer sunlight

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Sage is filled with phytochemicals--oils that make it highly medicinal; it is used during the fall and winter for sore throats as a gargle, spray, or tea, for excess sweating including menopause, for oral health as a tooth powder, and for digestion as a tea. The health benefits of sage tea may also include its possible ability to lower anxiety symptoms, be anti-carcinogenic, reduce menopausal symptoms, detoxify and purify the blood, aid in weightlessness, reduce blood sugar levels, boost appetite, soothe the stomach, and overall stimulate the immune system. This magical and fragrant herb is functional medicine in cooling fevers and beneficial in biliousness (low bile production), liver complaints, kidney troubles, bleeding from the lungs or stomach, sore throat, pains in the joints, lethargy, and palsy. A cup of the strong infusion will be found suitable to relieve nervous headaches, while the fresh leaves, rubbed on the teeth, will cleanse them and strengthen the gums, and gargling with tea helps aid gingivitis and toothaches.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Macro closeup of white lovage flowers on meadow field on trail to Ice lake near Silverton, Colorado in August 2019 summer

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Also known as old man's pepperdevil's nettlesanguinarymilfoilsoldier's woundwort, and thousand seal

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Yarrow tincture is a medicinal herbal remedy that helps with health ailments such as respiratory, digestive, diabetic, bleeding, liver, and other issues. Additionally, Yarrow has medicinal uses in wound and blood coagulation and stops bleeding; it is also antimicrobial and reduces fever. Yarrow also lowers blood pressure, stimulates blood flow in the pelvic area (especially the uterus), and is anti-spasmodic, helping with menstrual cramps and discharge. Its anti-inflammatory properties make it an excellent treatment for rheumatic pain, and its anti-catarrhal (which removes excess mucous from the body) makes it useful in treating pneumonia.

READ MORE: PHOTOS: 10 UNEXPECTED WILD PLANTS YOU CAN EAT

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