Herbalism in Iowa

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This article is an expanded version of an article on herbalism in Iowa that I contributed to the Essential Herbal Magazine, which was published for the issue that came out for March/April 2014!

Fleabane Paint Creek Iowa | Iowa Herbalist
Fleabane by Paint Creek, Driftless Iowa

I am not a native Iowan.  In fact, I was born and raised in Utah, moved to Minnesota, lived there 10 years, and then traveled around to many places before settling down in Iowa.  People who knew me during my nomadic spree would speculate where I’d end up, and none of them would have thought it would be here.  A lot of my stops were in places like Eastern Texas by the Big Thicket country, the Appalachian mountains, the Sonoran Desert, the Sierra of Northern California or the Andes in Ecuador.  All these places are just burgeoning with incredibly diverse plant life, wild medicinal herbs, and square miles upon miles of wilderness through which to wander.   I sometimes wonder why I wanted to leave those places, all I know is that I did.  The only reason I have is that something just didn’t *click.*

How I was lured into Iowa is a long story.  In terms of practicing herbalism or wild-crafting herbs here, my expectations were pretty low.  Being an outsider I was one of those ignorant folks who at first glance thought Iowa was nothing but a bunch of corn.  It was one of those states you “hurry through” on a road-trip, like southern Wyoming or Kansas, because it is so boring to look at from the interstate.  When I landed here two years ago, I happened to settle in a beautiful little corner on an organic farm near Iowa City, which was hemmed in by corn and soybeans nonetheless.

Prairie Driftless Iowa | Iowa Herbalist

Over time I was really pleased by the gentle “hilliness” around Cedar County.  I quickly grew to like this Iowa country; weirdly, I especially loved it in the winter, when everything is quiet, dry, and skeletal brown.  The corn and soybeans are gone by November, and all of a sudden you can see where the deer have been, migrating in their tiny little bands between fragments of forest and oak savannah.  What little woods are left spattered around between huge farms look like helpless bystanders to what’s around them.  There are big old ancient Cottonwoods that drop their  sticky buds for pain-soothing salves in the spring; there are rusty-colored Eastern Red Cedars, swathed in tall grasses, bearing loads of blue cone-berries that taste wonderful in autumn syrups and elixirs.  Sunsets here are like watercolor explosions during corn harvest season.  Coyotes yowl and sing at night in empty fields.  It’s as if nature is something exiled here, an outlawed thing.  The wild animals you do see here have this dazed look about them, a look that says “where do we go next?”

In the midst of slowly learning to love the land here, I began making my first excursions to Northeastern Iowa with my boyfriend to go fish in the wild trout streams.  We were both blown away by these preserved wildernesses and how secretive they were, up there in the Driftless Region, also called the “Paleozoic Plateau” since it was once an island in a sea of glaciers.  We did not expect what we found.  One minute you’re driving over a plain of corn and cattle, to turn into some tucked-up hills and suddenly, you’re in a lush and vibrantly forested hollow.  These were the exact spots through which the trouts streams would meander: the wildest places.  In between taking casts I’d wander off to go see if I couldn’t find any new and interesting plants, ones I wouldn’t be able to find in disturbed forest areas further south, and I still stumble upon surprises.

Dwarf Trillium Iowa | Iowa Herbalist
Trilliums dangle over a trout-filled creek in Driftless Iowa

There was so much more herbal diversity there than I would have ever expected for wild Iowa.  Mayapples, Trillium, Hepaticas, Columbines, and Bloodroot in early spring.  Sweet Cicely and Wild Ginger, Dutchman’s Breeches and various ferns, Jack-In-The-Pulpits and Green Dragons, Trout Lilies, Sarsaparilla, towering Teasel and Cow Parsnip.  Wild Bergamot (Sweet Leaf) and Mountain Mints, growing out in the open or on roadsides, sometimes inter-mixed with Echinaceas, Yellow Coneflowers and Cup Plants.  In the fall, out come the Goldenrods and New England Asters to carpet everything in purple and yellow.  Wild Cherry, Black Walnut, Cottonwoods, Poplars, Basswoods, Maples, and many different species of Oaks (including the great Swamp White Oaks) make up the forests that over-story these plants.  That’s just touching on some of the diversity out here, because there is so much more to explore, really.  All of these are fantastic, useful medicinal herbs, either very popularly used today or were once used in traditional folk medicine.  Some are dangerous or difficult to prepare, but medicinal nonetheless.  Some of them are federally threatened.

Ginseng, Black Cohosh, and even Goldenseal have been sighted in really protected, remote areas by buddies of mine who like to trek further up and further in, way off the main trails.  They are best left alone, since they are all Iowa has left.  Once upon a time, they used to grow prolifically here– back when Iowa was also covered with elk, bears, cougars, bison and wolves.

I was astounded to find that the diversity and peculiarity of Iowa’s plant life didn’t just stop there.  I’m lucky to have met someone who works up in the Upper Mississippi Wildlife Refuge in Iowa, a good friend of mine now, whom I poked and prodded about the plants up in places that are closed off to human traffic in the Driftless, for the most part.  I got excited one day when I realized I was in one of the wildest parts of Iowa walking around with a Federal Biologist, who probably knew more about the plants up there than most anyone.  I wanted her to tell me all about the “secret plants.”

So she told me about some of them: Northern Blue Monkshood (Aconitum noveboracense).  Monkshoods are incredibly toxic but powerful remedies, and also very threatened; this particular species is found only in Iowa and New York state.  There is the at-risk Iowa Golden Saxifrage (Chrysosplenium iowense), which is only found in the Driftless Region, Minnesota and Iowa most particularly.  “Saxifrage” is Latin for “stone-breaker,” linking it to its folkloric use as a kidney-stone remedy.  Canada Yew (Taxus canadensis) grows furtively in Iowa only in the Driftless bluffs, another very toxic plant that was deeply effective yet very carefully used by herbalists to treat rheumatism and high blood pressure.  Its more towering European counterpart English Yew, Taxus baccata, was a very sacred medicine among the ancient Celts.

Northern Blue Monskhood | Iowa Herbalist
Northern Blue Monkshood grows in isolated Iowa wildernesses – photographed in Alaska

What’s more, the greatest underlying factor contributing to these Iowa plants and their rarity is their unmatched environment: algific talus slopes, my biologist friend told me; one of the most delicate and endangered ecosystems in the world.  Iowa happens to be the single-most notable region for having these environments.  Could you imagine that: Iowa, being home to one of the rarest ecosystems in the world?  Basically, these slopes are north-facing on bluff sides, which in winter accumulate enough cold and snow to recharge its peculiar plant life– plants that once thrived during the Ice Age when glaciers covered Iowa.  They need it to be a certain kind of cold for a certain amount of time, every year, and in a very specific (and also cold) soil condition or they cannot thrive.  It has also been observed that many of these bluffs also have “cold-seeps” or tunnels that emit random drafts of incredibly cold air, which also help these plants survive year-round, during the hotter months.  It is not yet completely understood how these tunnels even work, but there they are, and here we have all these crazy Iowa plants.  Most plants found on algific talus slopes can only grow in boreal forests or alpine areas, regions that are naturally much colder.  The conditions of the slopes are such that said plants thrive in these much lower altitudes and latitudes.

Algific Talus Slope | Iowa Herbalist

The understory of the Driftless in Iowa also holds a lot more then just Northern Monkshood and Golden Saxifrage, which are algific talus slope dependent and should never be harvested.  It spurred me to look into what else may be hidden in this underestimated state on those secretive bluffs.  Canada Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), a prolific herb that typically carpets boreal forest floors, has edible berries and grows in remote areas of the Driftless.  Leaf tea was used by Native Americans for coughs, colds, and fevers, respiratory and kidney ailments,  and physical pains as an anodyne.  The root was thought to be sedative and calming, especially for youngsters.  Dwarf Horsetail (Equisetum scirpoides), related to other horsetails and the smallest of all, can be used interchangeably with other horsetails and is effective kidney and joint medicine as well as being very nutritive for hair, skin and nails.  Alpine Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea alpina) also grows up in Iowa’s bluff country, an herb steeped in occult tradition, magic, and witchcraft.  It is not a true nightshade, actually a part of the fuschia family Onagraceae and thus non-toxic.  It was internally and externally used for wounds, in a wash or poultice by Native Americans.  Medicine people employed it for binding and shapeshifting.  Reference to it has also been made in Saxon and Scandinavian folk medicines.

White Pine Hollow Iowa | Iowa Herbalist
Towering white pines in White Pine Hollow State Park, Iowa, where the very last native stand of white pines in Iowa grows

Apparently Iowa’s only native pine is the White Pine, considered one of the most potent antiseptics in herbalism, and most preferred medicine amongst all other pines.  The last great wild population is in White Pine Hollow State Preserve, and it is slowly disappearing.  A few random stands of it grow nearby but they are slipping slowly away as well.  Remote parts of the Driftless are home to Balsam Firs, Mountain Maples, and Yellow Birches in small numbers. These trees mostly grow in areas that are protected and where harvesting is strictly prohibited.  Their under-stories hold Northern Black Currants and High-Bush Cranberries, also in minimal numbers.

The list goes on: Twinflower, an Algonquin Woman’s Medicine; Alder Buckthorn, a laxative;  Mermaid Weed, stated by Pliny to have helped allay insect stings outwardly and fatigue inwardly.  What more, Iowa is home to over 30 species of orchids, including Yellow Lady’s Slipper, Spotted Coral Root, and Downy Rattlesnake Plantain, the most notably medicinal ones.  Switching to another biome entirely, a whole other range of herbs– some of which you wouldn’t dream grew here– can be found in abundance in Iowa’s “sand prairies.”  This is a sandy loam deposit covered in prairie plants dominated by Blue Stem grasses and peppered with other prairie plants.  Some potent medicinals number among the ranks, such as Puccoon, Horsemint, and Goat’s Rue.  To my disbelief, I was told that Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia fragilis) thrives really well in these little environments, and you can find it in plenty there!  Prickly Pear (Nopal in Spanish) is one of my favorite herbs and foods combined, and can be an amazing part of diets for those suffering from diabetes.  It has very stabilizing effects on the body’s blood sugar levels and helps the body maintain insulin.

Adam and Eve Orchids Iowa | Iowa Herbalist
Wild Adam and Eve orchids in Iowa

Once you crack Iowa open as an herbalist or even just a botanist, you realize it is actually quite special.  Even more so because the prized medicinal plants are like hidden, mystical secrets that you have to search for.  But there seems to be a continuing trend in Iowa’s treasures: these plants are for the most part rare, threatened, at risk, endangered, or protected.  This shelf in the medicine cabinet of Iowa is off-limits, if we ever want to see it thrive and come back again.  Conventional agriculture has paved over and marginalized what few hidden gems we have left.  It seems that exiles and outlaws are the makeup of the most unique facets of the Iowa Apothecary.

Being an herbalist in Iowa, I think, means something a little different to me than being an herbalist in Texas, or California, or the Appalachian Mountains; particularly for an herbalist who seeks out herbs only in the wild.  I happen to think this is what led me to stay here and what attracted me to its beauty.  It is rare, delicate, and outlawed.  There are certainly plenty of rare plants to be protected out there in more naturally preserved states like California or North Carolina, and there are certainly plenty of common plants here in Iowa to make do with, whose populations are doing just fine.  But the fact that what is truly special and unique to Iowa is at the same time equally just as fragile and threatened, makes me believe that as a person who works with plants in this state, you absolutely must be ecologically aware.  What more, you need to take a bit of a stance of protection and stewardship.  You need to stand up for these plants, not just use them.  Stand up for them, or they will be gone forever.

So I guess you could say that is why I like Iowa, and why it’s got me hooked and here to stay: it is secretive, unique, understated, and in need of some really caring herbalists– and boy am I a sucker for an underdog.


References: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Iowa Department of Natural Resources.  Central Iowa Orchid Society.  Lisa Maas, Federal Biologist.  Stephany Hoffelt, Iowa Herbalist.  Personal Experience.  Sarah Anne Lawless.  Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants and Herbs by Steven Foster/James A. Duke.