Historically, American Indians traveled throughout the Swan Valley to collect medicinal plants, sometimes doing so for several months at a time. But as the area's inhabitants have changed, Anne Dahl, director of the Swan Ecosystem Center, worries the local botanical knowledge might disappear.
"When you start looking into it, you realize just about every plant has a use of some kind, but a lot of people don't realize that," Dahl says. "The native plants are part of our historic culture. One way to celebrate them is to do a workshop."
A five-hour introductory class on Sept. 26 is the first of what organizers hope will be several educational sessions designed to highlight the variety of medicinal plants available in the Swan Valley. Led by Missoula-based clinical herbalist Britta Bloedorn, participants will have a chance to learn the basics of how to use the plants, then hike the area and identify them in the wild.
Botanical medicine has been used for thousands of years and some of modern medicine's most commonly used drugs are synthesized from chemicals found in plants. Aspirin, for example, was inspired by the pain-relieving effects of willow bark.
But herbalists like Bloedorn say that there are many other beneficial chemicals inside plants that aren't found in medications. Part of the advantages of making an extract or a tincture is that several herbs can be combined to address the cause of an illness rather than just treat its symptoms.She says often people who use herbal supplements have no idea that the extracts they're buying come from plants that grow nearby.
"Like arnica, balsamroot and horsetails—those are just some of the many growing throughout western Montana," Bloedorn says. "I think more often than not many people are surprised by the wealth of medicinal plants we have around us. It's empowering information."