Curly-cup Gumweed ~A Scruffy Plant worth Finding
My passion for medicinal plants has taken an interesting twist this month. Quite by coincidence, I have been harvesting a local high prairie native, Grindelia squarrosa, for its exceptional ability to address the mucous congestion of coughs and bronchitis. At the same time, a tangential interest in the botanical findings of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1806), is providing a rich historical perspective into this valuable plant as medicine.
On August 17, 1804, according to their notes, in the prairie habitat outside an Omaha Indian village in Dakota County, Nebraska, specimens of Grindelia squarrosa, also known as Curly-Cup Gumweed were collected as part of the expedition’s botanical findings during their three-year exploration of the American West. History is not one of my better suits, but looking through a botanical lens, my passion for plants finds this compelling. For all the times the question “What makes a plant native?” has been asked, we touch upon a perspective that gives us an answer. This plant was in common use by North America’s native Peoples prior to Anglo exploration.
Merriweather Lewis, an extraordinary naturalist, was chosen by then president Thomas Jefferson, to lead the expedition west across the northern tier of the Great Plains and beyond, with cartographer William Clark. They encountered village after village of Crow, Blackfeet, Cree, Cheyenne, Dakota, Flathead, Gros Ventres and Shoshone all using boiled decoctions of Grindelia as tea internally for coughs, pneumonia, digestive colic and urinary tract maladies. Topically the plant was commonly made into poultices for skin sores, swellings and poison-ivy-like blistering rashes.
Today, the genus Grindelia ranges widely in the US, Canada and south into the Chihuahuan region of Mexico, mostly west of the Mississippi River and into the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. It presents as kind of a weedy, unkept plant, offering good medicine, but not particularly adding beauty to the landscape or a “proper” garden. Most mature plants are 2-3 feet in height, appear shrub-like, and grow in sandy, rocky and poor soils, along roadsides, building sites and open grasslands. Most sources agree that Gumweed is a biennial or short-lived perennial, surviving on nothing more than the mercy of seasonal moisture. Grindelia squarrosa is host to the Blister Beetle (Zonitis sayi, Family: Meloidae), shown here.
Curly-cup Gumweed is a member of the Sunflower or Asteraceae family. Its oval, linear leaves clasp alternately to its sturdy erect stems. Leaf margins are broadly toothed; with leaf surfaces relatively smooth except for numerous resinous glands found throughout. Grindelia flowers are a bright golden yellow with flat disc surfaces up to 2cm in diameter. Flowering begins by mid-July, their discs initially covered by a sticky, milky sap. Some species of Grindelia are rayless (without petals), while others have short ray florets appearing after the milky stage. Each flower head is held in a cup-like structure called an involucre, covered with sticky curled bracts. It is at the milky stage that the flowers and leaves are gathered for medicine.
Many types of remedies can be prepared from Grindelia. Fresh, the flowers can be made into a tincture, the resinous sap being extracted only by a high percentage grain alcohol. The leaves and flowers can be dried and later used as a tea. Both tea and tincture are useful for a dry, spasmotic cough, bronchitis, or for asthmatic breathing. Its medicine helps to break up sticky, dry phlegm so that a cough becomes productive. Grindelia has an affinity for the lungs, helps open the chest, promotes expectoration, and relaxes breathing.
Grindelia flowers can also be infused into a high quality olive oil for topical use at a later time. As a medicinal oil, soothing salve, a poultice, or in tincture form, Gumweed has a wide range of topical applications for poison ivy/oak reactions, insect bites, burns, eczema, bed sores, herpes lesions and stubborn wounds that resist healing. It promotes tissue repair, reduces inflammation, stops itching, and moistens and benefits the skin. NOTE: From personal experience, the alcohol tincture works best on poison ivy rashes because of the drying effect of the alcohol.
This harvest season, I’ll be making an alcohol (organic) tincture and an oil infusion of this healing plant. Its pleasant, balsamic aroma is unmistakable and its medicine powerful. The kitchen will be a sticky mess before I’m finished, but the end result will be a great medicine for coughs, combined with with thyme, osha root, and hyssop. For an all-purpose healing salve (pictured right), I will combine grindelia, calendula, comfrey, and plantain. It is quite satisfying to create relationship with a plant prized so long ago, knowing that it is still appreciated and used for its healing gifts.
PLEASE NOTE: Posts on Yarrow’s Garden Blog and Three Sisters Medicine are for educational and inspirational purposes only and not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. Herbs are Medicine! Proceed with care. Self-diagnosis and self-treatment of serious medical conditions is inappropriate and unwise. If you have or suspect a medical condition, it is your responsibility to consult a medical practitioner for appropriate treatment.
THREE SISTERS APOTHECARY offers a variety of dry tea blends and tinctured formulations.Formulas are custom blended for your specific health and healing needs. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone: 719.783.0465 to schedule an appointment.