If you find yourself wandering in the Rocky Mountains, in a shady clearing made by old burns, at elevations between 7,000 and 10,000 feet, you just may stumble upon a very special plant. You might think it resembles celery or parsley at first, and if you’re familiar with botany you may even mistake it as wild poison hemlock – but if you’re lucky, you’ll find yourself in the presence of osha!
It’s unlikely that you’ll be in such a scenario on accident, but many wild crafters have spent a lot of time learning about the best way to forage for this revered and sought-after plant. Lingusticum porteri is the scientific name, but osha has gone by quite a few different names, such as chuchupate, bear root, deer eye, loveroot, mountain ginseng, wild parsley, empress of the dark forest, and numerous others based on the region.
There’s a reason that this plant’s large, brown and slightly hairy roots are sought after – many traditional and holistic health communities consider osha to be a plant medicine panacea! More specifically, it is thought to be a useful agent, which may be helpful in battling respiratory conditions. It is also used in aiding digestive disorders as it can support the gastrointestinal tract and expel toxins, phlegm and gasses from the body. It may aid menstrual cramps, nausea and toothaches, and has been used topically for minor injuries to prevent infection. Osha is even sometimes burned in a medicinal context, as the smoke is considered to clear the sinuses.
Native American people such as the Apache, Hopi, Navajo and Lakota tribes, as well as Hispanic cultures, are credited with first using osha not only for medical remedies but also for plant smudging, therapeutic purposes and as a food source. However, legend of the Navajo tribe has it that humans first learned how to use osha with the help of brown bears (hence the name “bear root” – osha is the Native American word for bear). It is one of the first things that bears seek out to dig up and munch after hibernation, likely to stimulate their sluggish digestion. Bears have also been observed to chew the roots up into a paste, drop it on the ground and roll in it to coat their fur, possibly to protect themselves from parasites and infections. Plants such as osha that have their origins as bear medicine are highly respected and considered to be strong, protective, nurturing, and healing.
Beyond medicinal purposes, osha is considered to be a sacred plant that is used for ritualistically and symbolically by North American tribes. It is believed to be a plant guardian and is associated with good luck and protection. The roots are sometimes carried as a talisman by wayfaring native people to ward off rattlesnakes and witches’ spells. Natives have been known to grind it up and sprinkle it around their house to ward off snakes and scorpions. Ritualistically, it may be used to promote love and fidelity, and it is used for cleansing prior to ceremonies. Navajo singers even suck on the root during ceremony to strengthen the voice and help with hoarseness, as they may be singing for hours or days at a time.
If you have the privilege of interacting with this glorious plant, the taste brings quite a sensational experience of bitter-pungent cold that leaves the tongue tingling and a little bit numb. Even more notably, you’ll find its odor to be like nothing you’ve ever smelled before. This doesn’t come as much of a surprise as it comes from the same family as many other culinary herbs we use: dill, anise, celery, parsley and carrots. Its pungent, fragrant, floral smell is some conglomeration of celery, butterscotch and licorice. Some people love the smell – others, not so much. We always joke that there’s no mistaking when someone is pouring it or using it in a blend, and when we’re extracting it the whole lab blossoms with its distinct aroma and our clothes smell like it for days.
While there has been some success cultivating osha in such environments, the majority that is harvested is wild crafted. Unfortunately, due to its increase in popularity and difficulty in cultivation this beautiful plant is in danger of extinction. It is extremely difficult to farm, as the plant prefers high altitudes and its growth is slow-going and highly dependent on mycorrhizal fungi networks. On the bright side, the pique in interest has prompted more research on its medicinal uses as well as its cultivation. Specialists are working on germinating osha from seed and have accomplished successful propagation from vegetative crown cuttings. In the meantime, it’s very important to source osha from wild crafters that harvest it respectfully, responsibly, and sustainably so it can be used and loved by many generations to come!