Osha is an herb that belongs to the parsley family. It is found in Northern New Mexico and other areas of the Rocky mountains at elevations of 7500 – 10,000 feet in wet moist areas with rich organic soil. However, unlike it’s poisonous cousin Water Hemlock it is never found with it’s feet growing in water because it has a reciprocal relationship with mycorrhizel fungi that also makes Osha impossible to cultivate.
The herb has been used by Indigenous peoples for thousands of years to treat respiratory and digestive issues when taken internally, and topically as a skin cream to moisten dry skin and heal surface wounds. The seeds and leaves were also ingested as natural food. The root of the herb was/is chewed for endurance, respiratory, problems and to combat altitude sickness.
The root of the herb is prepared by simmering it for up to three hours resulting in a dark aromatic tea. The root can also be tinctured in alcohol and has a spicy aromatic pungent taste.
Osha is an indigenous name for bear. Indigenous mythology tells us that Native and Hispanic peoples first learned to use the herb from the bears that lived in the Rocky Mountains. Since both Grizzly bears and black bears once inhabited these areas both used the herb when they emerged from hibernation to cleanse their sluggish digestive systems early in the spring, just as black bears do today (grizzlies were extirpated in most western states by the last century). During this period bears ingest many kinds of new greens, usually the only natural foods available besides roots and corms. During the warmer seasons both grizzlies and black bears have been observed (by both naturalists and biologists) rolling in Osha to kill parasites and soothe insect bites as well as chewing the roots when feeling ill.
All through the Americas the bear is still considered by Indigenous peoples to be the greatest healer of all animals with the black bear believed to be the greater “root” healer while the grizzly is invoked as the greatest source of spiritual protection.
Although western medicine has been slow to acknowledge the healing power of natural herbs, it reluctantly acknowledges that the antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory properties of Osha “may” inhibit colds, flu, and other viral infections. It is probably the most widely used herb in the Southwest.
Bear root is seriously threatened by over – harvesting and cannot be successfully cultivated, so it is imperative to wild-craft responsibly. Osha has parsley –like leaves and umbels of white flowers. The root crowns have a reddish tint. The roots when dug are fibrous with dark wrinkled skin and the scent is similar to that of celery.
Osha is an herb with no known side effects; however because it contains oxytocin it should not be used by pregnant or nursing mothers.
I have been gathering my own herbs for 50 years and making tinctures/decoctions/salves out of the ones I grow on my own land or wild-craft in Maine. I do not normally procure herbal preparations from commercial dealers, preferring to use what is available in my own backyard. Now, however, that I am living in New Mexico I hope to find some Osha in a place where I can gather some roots without damaging whole clumps of these plants.
Because I am a black bear researcher and have observed many bears ingesting herbs in the spring I have a particular fascination of the multiple uses of Osha, and have just begun using an extract prepared by others. The bear in me just has to find out how this herb works for me!