Oshá Root: Bear Medicine

by Jessa Fisher and Phyllis Hogan

In the herb room at Winter Sun Trading Company in downtown Flagstaff, we are always surprised when someone comes into the store and has never heard of the plant oshá. People often ask about it because it is in such a large, prominent jar, and has such dark, gnarly roots. What would you do with that, people wonder? That looks EARTHY! And we are always excited to turn new people on to the magic and healing powers of oshá. After all, this plant is one of the most universally important medicinal plants to tribes of the high desert and Rocky Mountain regions. This is oshá: bear medicine.

The large-rooted plant is called bear medicine for a reason. Bears love it! To them it is like catnip. When they come out of their winter-long hibernation, bears seek out oshá root. They eat it to stimulate their sluggish digestion and rub it all over their bodies. In fact, The Hopi translation of their word for the plant, hongyapichuchupate, derived from the ancient Aztec language. Oshá roots are never collected casually by Native Americans, but are always given proper respect and prayer offerings.

Oshá is in the carrot family, like many of the culinary herbs we use including dill, anise, celery, and parsley. It has a big beautiful umbel of white flowers, which means the flower head is shaped somewhat like an umbrella. The leaves are divided many times and are very large. The main way to identify oshá though is by the root, which is dark chocolate-brown and hairy with a particularly pungent smell. It is often twisted and contorted, with the inside being lighter brown and fibrous. Oshá likes to grow in moist soils, protected by the sun. It is mostly a higher elevation plant, from between 7,000-10,000 ft. The species in our area is Ligusticum porteri, although there are other medicinal species up into Canada and over to China.

As with any powerful herb, oshá comes with some warnings. Do not use this plant if you are pregnant. Also, be very careful when collecting this plant! First of all it is very rare, particularly in this area, so it is best to collect it where it grows more abundantly, in Colorado, New Mexico, or Utah. As well, oshá has some extremely poisonous look-alikes, poison hemlock and water hemlock. Make sure you know your plants you are collecting! The hemlocks like to grow near water, and their roots do not have the distinct smell that oshá does.

Oshá is an incredibly potent medicinal plant. It has local anodyne (pain relieving) effects on the throat. In fact, in the Southwest it is THE herb for coughs and sore throats. You can suck on the root like a lozenge. It strengthens the voice and helps with hoarseness; Navajo singers use the root in ceremony because they must sing for hours or days at a time. Oshá is also used for headaches, as a bronchial dilator, and is an effective, reliable expectorant. It is one of the best herbs to help your body combat an invading flu virus.

Oshá is a plant used as a guardian. It is a powerful plant for protection. People wear it as a talisman, and sprinkle the ground-up plant around their houses to ward off snakes and scorpions. If you try to "google" oshá, you might come up with info instead on OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, an arm of the government. This is a very ironic acronym, as all of the safety and health you could want exists in the plant oshá. Look no further for a powerful healing plant ally.

ENDING STATEMENT: The Arizona Ethnobotanical Research Association (AERA) is a non-profit organization founded in 1983 to investigate, document, and promote the use of traditionally utilized plants of the Southwest and to aid in preserving this knowledge for future generations. Phyllis Hogan is the director of the AERA and Jessa Fisher is the herbarium curator. www.azethnobotany.org