I live in the big sky country, the high desert of Central Oregon. Everywhere I look I see Big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata). The genus Artemisia comprises hardy herbaceous plants and shrubs, which are known for the powerful chemical constituents in their essential oils. In a search of artemisia on the USDA plants database in Oregon there are 150 species of artemisia that appear. The name Artemisia comes from Artemis, the Greek name for Diana. There are any number of artemisia species that are popular in our modern herbal materia medica, from wormwood to mugwort. The intent of this post is to continue to explore my bio-region and develop herbal protocols based on the use of local plants and to that end, sagebrush (artemisia tridentata) will certainly play a role. This is by no means a definitive article but a written documentation of my search through the literature related to traditional uses and potential current applications.
My exploration of plants always starts through the eyes of First Peoples/Native American’s, who have had a long relationship with using artemisia species throughout North America. The focus of this blog is to explore the use of Artemisia tridentata, which is mostly relegated to the western states. Big sagebrush and other artemisia species are the dominant plants across large portions of the Great Basin.
Any number of tribes used artemisia tridentata including tribes affiliated with my bio-region, Okanagan-Colville, Paiute, Shuswap and the Thompson. Many of the tribes used it similarly. These uses include the following: respiratory and gastrointestinal aids, cold and cough remedy, antirheumatic both internally and externally, antidiarrheal, ferbrifuge, dermatological aid, eye wash, gynecological aid, analgesic, diaphoretic, emetic, pulmonary aid, and antidote for poisoning. All parts of the plant were used including the leaves, stems, seed pods, branches and roots.
It was used both externally and internally.* Externally it had many uses including: as a poultice of fresh and dried leaves for chest colds, as a wash made of the leaves and stems for cuts and wounds, as a leaf decoction for an eye wash, the leaves were packed into the nose for headaches, the ground leaves were used as a poultice along with tobacco for fever and headaches, the leaves were powdered and used for diaper rash or packed into shoes for athlete’s infection, a decoction of the leaves were mixed with salt and gargle for sore throat, mashed leaves were used for toothaches, a leaf decoction was used in a bath for muscular ailments. * There are many references to it being used internally as an infusion or decoction, but as one informant indicated it was too strong and powerful to drink, “you wouldn’t have any more kids, no children”. Internal use is not recommended due to some chemical constituents found in the plant. There are many references to artemisia being inhaled for headaches, for spiritual cleansing, to produce sweat and rid the body of colds, respiratory infections and pulmonary issues.
An interesting fact is that the Paiute’s and Okanagan-Colville indicated that they used a decoction of leaves for malarial fever, which is also similar to the use of other artemisias around the world. Most of artemisia’s research as an antimalarial is focused on Artemisia annua (sweet annie). Artemisia annua is a very interesting plant and is the source of the most powerful antimalarial drug ever discovered, artemisinin. It is also being investigated in treatment of breast cancer.
Many of its traditional uses can be attributed to artemisia’s active medicinal constituents including camphor, terpenoids, and tannins. Sagebrush essential oil contains approximately 40% l-camphor; 20% pinene; 7% cineole; 5% methacrolein; and 12% a-terpinene, d-camphor, and sesqiterpenoids. The essential oils present account for its use in inhalation. Sesquiterpene lactones are among the prominent natural products found in Artemisia species and are largely responsible for the importance of these plants in medicine and pharmacy.
For my own purposes I can definitely see incorporating it into liniments, antiseptic washes, chest poultice, fumigation, powdered for use as foot powder. Although there is tremendous oral history of its internal use I personally would be hesitant and look to other herbal options.
A few of my references:
Adams, James D., Garcia, Cecilia., Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West. Abedus Press, 2009.
Moreman, Daniel E., Native American Medicinal Plants. Timber Press, 2009.
Parks, Willard Z. Notes of the Northern Paiute of Western Nevada, 1933-1944. Compiled and edited by Catherine S. Fowler. University of Utah, Anthropological Papers, Number 114, 1989.