Spring Medicine Part One – Adder’s Tongue

This far North, Spring is slow to arrive and sudden in her fullness. Every year about this time we have a few early- risers; notable among them Trout Lily,  Trillium (Birthroot) Bear Garlic (ramps) and Wild Ginger. In my garden, Monarda, Yarrow, Teasel, Comfrey, Vervain, Marshmallow, Hyssop,  Mugwort, Motherwort and Stinging Nettle are pushing their way upwards. The ubiquitous (but no less glorious for that) Dandelion offers a field of antioxidant rich,medicinal and scrumptious blooms, leaves and roots for oils and fritters, vinegars and tinctures and salads and more. All of this friendly, familiar, immediate and  generous medicine is greeted with much  love and anticipation after a long Canadian winter of snow, snow and more snow. Still, the call of the wild is strong. I want to know the medicines that sustained natives of this area long before my ancestors arrived. I want the forest’s bounty – just a taste, if you please.

As I make my way up the long slope of field that faces East of my house, I anticipate  a woodland scene of dappled light and a floor fully carpeted with the yellow lilies and burgundy and white Birthroot flowers. Fuzzy baby Mulleins will seemingly double in size with every visit. Ferns of all description raise their incredibly resilient fronds to greet the growing sun, every where. Cohosh is awakening too, turning from the wrinkly blackened stalks and shriveled leaves of late winter to the unmistakable healing plant that so loves this rocky forest.

Some of these plants have been used in modern herbalism (Cohosh) some not so much anymore (Birthroot) and some seemingly very little if at all (Trout Lily).   Since I’m always drawn to the obscure, the overlooked and the forgotten, I’ve been keeping notes on some of the lesser-used plants as well as the more popular ones. Ever eaten a Trout Lily corm?  No – me neither, but I’m sensitive to everything and working up to a plant that is wellknown as a potential emetic.  Since these beautiful plants are everywhere I thought I’d share a few notes from my journal on them. They do have uses for humans, but mostly, bears and deer love to eat them. And, they certainly brighten up the still-greyish forest floor with their loveliness.

Trout Lily/Adder’s Tongue

Erythronium americanum

Lily Family (Liliaceae)

Common Names: Adder’s Tongue, Deer’s Tongue, Fawn Lily, Dogtooth Violet

Found: All over North-eastern Canada and the States

The nodding yellow flowers and unmistakable mottled leaves of Erythronium are a hallmark of Spring  in the Gatineau Hills. Most of the common names applied to this flower refer to the mottling; my favorite is Fawn Lily.  While not popular as a herb anymore,  Erythronium has its uses. First, it is edible although some people will have a rather unpleasant reaction – trout lily can be emetic, so consuming large quantities is not a good idea. The larger leaves should be steamed and the smaller ones, and the corms, eaten raw. But as with any wild food – start slowly. I personally test a plant dermatologically by crushing a small piece and applying it to my arm. If I get a response – often a rash – I don’t eat it. Many people do eat the leaves, corms and flowers of this plant. Since it is very easy to identify, I don’t feel worried about sharing this. (Anything you ever sample in the wild must be 100% positively identified).

As well,  trout lily does have medicinal applications.

Clinical Actions:

Emollient, Emetic, Anti-scorbutic (fresh) antifungal/microbial

Trout lily was indeed used by many Native Americans for a variety of purposes. Perhaps most perplexing (but commonly mentioned) is the idea that the leaves are contraceptive. (One site I visited claims the reason this worked is the women who ingested them were too busy throwing up to have sex – interesting, but probably not the truth). Sources I used have been pretty consistent; Alma Hutchens cites it’s use “made into a tea with Horsetail ( Equisetum hyemale) for conditions of bleeding, ulcers of the breast or bowel; or tumours or inflammation therein”. I suspect the anti-hemmorhagic action comes form the horsetail, as I haven’t seen this mentioned in regard to trout lily anywhere else, and horsetail is wellknown as an astringent.

She goes on to state that the root and leaves simmered in milk are useful for dropsy, vomiting (which is odd, as the root is highly emetic according to other sources )and bleeding from the lower bowel. Further, the plant “boiled in oil is a panacea for wounds and inflammation” – hhmm, I am wondering about a salve?  Hutchens mentions bruised fresh leaves applied to skin ulcers, best if the tea is also taken internally. I’m willing to go with external application for now. J.T.Garrett says
the roots were used in Appalachia by “squeezing the juice and combining it with crushed leaves for a skin and hair softener”.

A brief mention in Mrs.Grieve reiterates the same ideas; use leaves externally for “swellings, tumours and scrofulous ulcers.” Modern research has not yielded a lot about Adder’s tongue; I did find  commentary about one constituent, but not a lot of follow-up.  Researchers have found “active substances in the plant ( alpha-methylene-butyrolactone, or tulipalin) inhibits cell mutation and could be useful in fighting cancer.”

The best research I was able to turn up shows tulipalin – so named for it’s presence in tulips and wellknown  for its propensity to irritate skin – is an anti-ulcer agent, capable of ameliorating peptic ulcer distress and general irritation of the upper GI tract. Tulipalin is also antimicrobial and fungitoxic…for those with an interest in the biochemistry.

I will try a fresh leaf poultice, first.

Some lovely photographs here: http://www.wildwoodsurvival.com/survival/food/edibleplants/troutlily/index.html

Single leaf of a young plant. Trout lily can take seven full years to bring forth a blossom.

We return from our walk with a few fresh leaves and flowers. The lilies will not last long once the sunlight grows stronger.  Spring comes to the Gatineaus – kisses our sleepy hibernating eyelids with a splash of mottled leaf, elegant yellow flower, and the memory of bears waking for a long awaited breakfast.   Danny sighs and plops down on his bed for a snooze after much exuberant sniffing and marking. I sit with the flowers awhile, thinking of my ancestors who settled this area, and of the life that went on here for thousands of years before their arrival.  Were the Hills this sweet and serene,the stream this enigmatic, did the trout lilies long to be made into medicine?  I sit in a tunnel of time remembered in the soul of this one simple flower…diving deep, and surfacing.


The Cherokee Herbal:Native Plant Medicine from the Four directions…J.T. Garrett

Indian Herbalogy of North America…Alma Hutchens

A Modern Herbal…Mrs. Maud Grieve

King’s American Dispensatory, via Henriette’s Herbal:  http://www.henriettesherbal.com/eclectic/kings/index.html


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