Latin names: Grindelia aphanactis, G. arizonica, G. camporum, G. hirsuta, G. humilis, G. integrifolia, G. nana, G. nuda, G. robusta, G. squarrosa, G. stricta
Common names: Gumweed, Field Gumweed, Gum Plant, Great Valley Gumweed, Rosinweed, Tarweed, Yerba del Buey
Plant Family: Asteraceae (Compositae)
Energetics/Taste: Warming, Stimulating, Resin-rich, Bitter
Actions: Expectorant, Antibacterial, Anti-inflammatory, Bronchial antispasmodic
There are several species of grindelia, which grow primarily from the Mississippi River, westward. Thus far, I've been able to meet two of them, Grindelia squarrosa and G. aphanactis. Grindelia generally grows at elevations of 3,000 to 8,000 feet. I did find a vibrant stand at Emory Pass in the Gila National Forest, which stands at just over 8,200 feet. It prefers alkaline soils, and is often found in gravel on roadsides.
The Latin name Grindelia comes from the name of a German botanist, David H. Grindel, whom it was named after. Its common name, gumweed, refers to the sticky resin which coats all green parts of the plant, but is concentrated in the flower buds. These buds have been chewed as a gum. The resin is very sticky, and sticks to the teeth. Below is a timeline of what the flowers of Grindelia squarrosa look like from bud to blossom.
|Young bud of Grindelia squarrosa, ©Trisha McCaul|
|A lovely pool of medicinal sap, ©Trisha McCaul|
|Ray flowers coming up, ©Trisha McCaul|
|Blossom, lovely & sappy, © Trisha McCaul|
|Mature flower, ©Trisha McCaul|
Like many resin-rich plants, Grindelia is an expectorant. It is useful for bronchial congestion, particularly with dry and stuck phlegm. Its anti-bacterial properties make it useful for respiratory infections and it soothes spasms and inflammation in the respiratory tract. It can be useful for spasmodic coughs, bronchitis, allergies and asthma. Being a warming expectorant, it is ideal for phlegm that lingers after the acute state of a respiratory infection. It also seems to be of value in sleep apnea.
When I go on hikes on high-altitude hikes, I like to have some osha tincture with me, because it helps the respiratory system acclimate to the altitude so well. Recently, I went up into the mountains, but neglected to bring the osha. Luckily, there was grindelia growing everywhere. Chewing on a flower head, I immediately felt my bronchi and lungs open up. It wasn't as pronounced as the effects of osha, but it is helpful in a pinch.
Grindelia is a mildly bitter herb. When we taste a bitter herb this activates the bitter taste receptors on the tongue, and the central nervous system communicates this information to various areas in the body, causing a cascade of physiological changes. The most immediately noticeable are the effects on the digestive system. The mouth secretes more saliva, which contains enzymes (like salivary amylase) that begin to break down foods. The stomach, duodenum, pancreas and liver secrete more digestive juices (which also contain enzymes). Peristalsis (the muscle movement that moves food through the digestive tract) is stimulated. Appetite also noticeably increases.
Due to these actions, herbal bitters can be beneficial for those with sluggish digestion and poor appetite. Because they increase the overall health and function of the digestive system, they can also prove beneficial in health conditions that seem completely unconnected to the digestive system (though in bodily ecology, everything is ultimately connected to everything else).
Herbal "bitters" are traditionally taken 15-20 minutes before meals. It is important that the bitterness is tasted, so a tea or tincture are the preferred forms to ingest it.
I have to admit, before I began to really learn about grindelia I didn't think of it as a bitter. Because it is mildly bitter, I don't think its action on the digestive system would be as pronounced as, say, gentian. It will make an interesting organoleptic comparative study. I will write more about bitters and their actions in a future post.
Herbalist Michael Moore said that Grindelia is on par with Calendula as a healing agent for the skin. It stems the growth of unwanted microbes, brings down inflammation, and stimulates regeneration of epithelial tissue. It is also an effective remedy for poison oak. Topically, I frequently use calendula in my formulas, so I'm looking forward to playing with grindelia in a salve or an oil.
The Eclectic medical literature contains much information on grindelia. Briefly, the Eclectics were, in effect, medical doctors who used primarily herbs in their treatments. They were in practice roughly from the 1820's until the 1930's, when the last Eclectic medical college closed its doors. Eclecticism grew out of previous medical schools, including the Thomsonian system. Much of what these medical systems knew about the native plants grew from what they were taught by the Native Americans. King's American Dispensatory, the compendium (and some say culmination) of the Eclectic medical establishment, says the following about the uses of grindelia:
"Grindelia squarrosa has been highly eulogized as an efficient remedy in intermittent fever, and in other malarial affections, also to remove splenic enlargement which so frequently follows those disorders...Webster, however, asserts that the remedy has a special action upon the splenic circulation, and points out as the case for it one of splenic congestion associated with sluggish hepatic action and dyspepsia. Dull pain in the left hypochondrium, sallow skin, debility and indigestion are the symptoms pointing to its selection. The same author recommends it in chronic dyspepsia due to prolonged malarial influence, gastric pain when the spleen is seemingly involved, and in the splenic congestion of malarial cachexia. As a local application, the fluid extract is stated to be of value in the painful eczematous inflammation and vesicular eruption resulting from contact with the poison vine or the poison oak."
Following are the Eclectic specific indications for Grindelia robusta and G. squarrosa:
"Grindelia robusta: Asthmatic breathing, with soreness and raw feeling in the chest; cough, harsh and dry; breathing labored, with a dusky coloration of the face in plethoric individuals. Locally, old atonic ulcers; full tissues; rhus poisoning.
Grindelia squarrosa: Splenic congestion, especially when dependent on malarial cachexia; fullness and dull pain in left hypochondrium , with indigestion, pallid, sallow countenance, and general debility; gastric pains associated with splenic congestion."
Michael Moore lists Grindelia arizonica as at-risk in New Mexico. Grindelia fraxinipratensis (Ash Meadows Gumweed) is listed as threatened in California and Nevada. Grindelia hallii (San Diego Gumplant) and Grindelia hirsutula var. maritima (San Francisco Gumplant) are threatened in California. I do not know if the last three species are medicinally interchangeable with the other Grindelia species listed above. Quite frankly, it doesn't matter. They need to be cared for and rehabilitated, so do this and avoid harvesting them in the wild.
One of my fundamental beliefs about herbalism (and well-being in general), is that anyone who works with or uses plants inherently takes on a role of stewardship for these plants, and the ecosystems they inhabit. Just as herbalism is a manifestation of self-responsibility for our own well-being, we must also care for the well-being of our green friends. If we take without giving back, we perpetuate the unsustainable ideas that are a hallmark of the path that we've been on for far too long. Herbs are not man-made concoctions manufactured from dead substances in a laboratory. They are living medicine. Healthy and respected plants yield good medicine.
Grindelia leaves and flowers are often prepared as a tea. It can also be made into a tincture, the flowering tips being the preferred part for this preparation. Topically, it can be prepared as a poultice, compress, salve, oil, and the tincture can be used as well.
Recently I harvested some Grindelia squarrosa for the first time. I didn't pick a lot, as I'm a bit of an overly-cautious wild-crafter (this is okay). The leaves that I harvested were very sticky and resinous, so I decided to use both the leaves and flowers in my tincture.
|Grindelia squarrosa flowers and leaves ©Trisha McCaul|
|Beautiful medicine ©Trisha McCaul|
|Add some grain alcohol, and the transmutation begins ©Trisha McCaul|
After a couple of weeks, I strained the tincture and gave it a taste. It was definitely warm and stimulating. It felt like a fire went down into my lungs and opened everything up. After a few minutes, my respiratory system and my entire body was in a state of relaxed well-being. I'm guessing this is due to its cardiac relaxant and mild sedative properties, or because of the actions that bitter herbs have on the nervous system (more on this in a future post). It turned out quite nicely.
Felter, Harvey Wickes and John Uri Lloyd. King's American Dispensatory Vol. II. Sandy: Eclectic Medical: Publications, 1997.
Mars, Brigitte. The Desktop Guide to Herbal Medicine. Laguna Beach: Basic Health Publications, 2007.
Moore, Michael. Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2003.
Skenderi, Gazmend. Herbal Vade Mecum. Rutherford: Herbacy Press, 2003.
Wood, Matthew. The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants. Berkeley: North Atlantic, 2009.