Herb(s) of the Week: Pipsissewa
Pipsissewa was the first plant I “heard” while wide awake. At that point I had felt the presence of plants in my dreams but not while awake and in the world.
I was attending a plant walk and the group had separated to do their own explorations. I was hiking along a path and I felt something subtly tugging at me. I walked back to where I had felt it, but saw nothing. Yet I still felt a presence. I stepped slightly off the path and parted some plants and concealed by them was this beauty:
This particular Pipsissewa is Chimaphila maculata or the Spotted or Striped Wintergreen while the usual one that is used by herbalists (when they use it) is Chimaphila umbellata (here’s a link to some nice images of that one), but it is medicinal as well – in both cases it is the leaves which are the medicinal parts.
I instantly felt a connection to the plant as one I should work with, even though at the time I didn’t know what it was! At the time, I felt it less as an aid to physical ailments as one for emotional and spiritual ones.
It’s a traditional Native American medicine and the common name comes from the Creek Indians who called it “pipsisikweu” or “breaks into small pieces” referencing its antilithic qualities (breaking down gallstones and kidney stones.) It’s used for urinary tract problems and stimulates urine flow while disinfecting the urinary tract. As well as good for relieving fluid build up (and another reason I got interested in it as well in considering as part of a Meniere’s protocol.) It has also been smoked by as a tobacco substitute (okay but what hasn’t by someone somewhere?)
I like Matthew Wood’s take from his book The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants:
“Pipsissewa is a great ‘eliminator of kapha,’ if I may coin a phrase. It warms and activates the lymphatics and kidneys, the carriers and the persers of water in the body. It is indicated when the tongue is swollen and coated in the middle. This might be an indication of ‘spleen yang deficiency’ in traditional Chinese medicine, a category similar to ‘scrofula’ in old-time Western medicine. There is usually congestion and stagnation of fluids and buildup of waste products. It warms and dissolves these congealed fluids and moves the wastes. Thus it is useful in cold, swollen, sluggish conditions and patients. In addition, it contains tannins that astringe the tissues and return them to good tone. It is indicated in the sluggishness, water retention, and weight gain of middle age.”
I’ve certainly noticed the fluid motive tendencies of it just working with the tincture.
Unfortunately, there are environmental concerns with Pipsissewa and it is considered a bit endangered in areas like New England. I suspect that is partly because it likes small wild fires to spur its propagation and we tend to discourage those on our attempts to manage nature to our short term needs. Which is a shame for such a beautiful and useful plant. (Which oddly enough makes me think of the Kenny Roger’s song Lucille with a twist: “You picked a fine time to leave me Pipsissewa…” I’ll mercifully spare you the rest running through my head.) The plant can be a skin irritant which is a reminder to approach all plants with respect (although I’ve never had a problem with it bothering me.)
Ever since I first met it though (and every time since I’ve seen it) I’ve grow more and more drawn to exploring the flower essence of it. Allegedly it is useful in clearing ambivalence, releasing judgment and shame while cultivating innocence and wonder. Or another way I’ve seen it put finding light in the darkness. Which given its tendency to well shaded areas, produce such brilliant flowers and propagate via fire – seems fitting and powerful. I’ll be exploring those aspects soon.
Here’s a close up of the flower (with annoying hominid digits way to apparent!):
References of Note: I actually liked Indian Herbalogy of North America by Alma Hutchens best and found Grieve’s A Modern Herbal Volume II useful as well. Although very brief in its coverage I found some interesting tidbits in Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants and Herbs by Steven Foster and James Duke. And, of course, there’s almost always something good in Matthew Wood’s The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants
My Own Take: Overall, I think it better to use other plants with similar medicinal properties given the population problems, unless nothing else will do. Which is a shame because I think it has a lot to offer as a powerful healer and plant ally and I feel it has healing magic yet to be discovered.