Brimson woman teaches others about the medicinal qualities of common plants

BRIMSON -- Pam Thompson laughs as she shows visitors her garden. "My garden's a joke," she says, standing by the seemingly unkempt plot. Indeed, it's not what most would consider a garden, with its dandelions, creeping Charlie, wild lettuce and o...

BRIMSON -- Pam Thompson laughs as she shows visitors her garden.

"My garden's a joke," she says, standing by the seemingly unkempt plot.

Indeed, it's not what most would consider a garden, with its dandelions, creeping Charlie, wild lettuce and other plants most would consider undesirable weeds.

But to Thompson, a certified herbalist living 60 miles north of Duluth, they are natural ingredients for the healing ointments, tonics, and body lotions -- even organic bug repellents -- she makes.

"Before I mow, I have to go through and pick all the dandelions and anything I need," Thompson says of her lawn that's brimming with weeds. But the trained eye can pick out the sheep's sorrel, quackgrass and plantain she might use. Plantain, also called White Man's Footprint, thrives in compacted areas where often nothing else will grow.


"These weeds have had medicinal qualities for thousands of years," says Thompson, 63, who conducts herbal retreats on her 80-acre Finnish farmstead and teaches wild herb classes through Duluth Community Education.

On a recent Saturday, a small group from the University of Minnesota Duluth Health Services joined Thompson as she strolled around her yard, bent over, eyes peeled downward in search of fresh wild ingredients to make her Triple Antibiotic Summer Salve.

The leaves of plantain, self-heal mint and common yarrow were soon gathered, as the group took care to leave enough of each plant so that they would grow back. Once the leaves are chopped and simmered in extra virgin olive oil, the plant material is strained out. The strained liquid is combined with melted beeswax and allowed to harden into an antiseptic ointment that relieves bee stings, insect bites, sunburns, rashes, burns and more.

Thompson's enthusiasm never diminishes as she takes stock of the natural ingredients around her.

Those Johnny-jump-ups?

"They make a lovely tea that's good for a broken heart," Thompson says of the violet flowers and heart-shaped leaves. "They help the central nervous system and help the heart function."

Shade-loving pulmonaria? It's a lung plant, named for its pulmonary benefits. Its leaves and stems make a tea that's anti-inflammatory and relieves congestion, Thompson says.

Wild lettuce?


Make a tea out of it for a powerful pain reducer, she says.

Thompson, who has a degree in food and nutrition and communications from Cornell University, served in the Peace Corps in the 1960s along with her husband, Fred. Her work with herbs started 30 years ago when she began using and growing kitchen herbs. In time, her interest expanded to their healing properties. Her studies and an apprenticeship led to certification from the American Herbal Institute in 2002.

The group from UMD Health Services had been at Thompson's forest retreat a few winters ago to learn how to make Thompson's anti-fungal, antibiotic winter salve. It has been used for students' skin problems and has been sold at the student health center for a couple of years.

The winter salve, called Boreal Forest Triple Antibiotic Ointment, is made from lichen, pine needles and northern white cedar twigs, also in an olive oil/beeswax base. Although more gentle than hydrocortisone, it has successfully treated cases of athlete's foot, dermatitis, eczema and other rashes where orthodox medicines have failed, according to health services staff.

"It clears some things that other medicines don't," says Diane Dickey, a registered nurse at the center and part of the group that visited Thompson.

Today's college generation are receptive to such alternative approaches, says the center's Dr. Debra Cudnowski, who was also part of the group.

"The older population is staunchly into antibiotics and pills," she says. "College students are more open to experimenting; they're more open to other types of intervention."

When Stephanie Boisjoli, a registered nurse at the student health center, went to remote Kenya on a two-week medical mission a few years ago, she took 50 small containers of the winter salve donated by Thompson.


It worked so well and so quickly on fungal infections there that word spread and Kenyans were coming to them for the ointment, she says.

Medicinal herbs are traditional therapies used by people through history, including American Indians, Aztecs, Mayans and residents of the Roman empire. The uses were handed down through folklore, oftentimes with civilizations separated by oceans using some of the same plants for similar medicines, Thompson says.

"They're things we've learned and forgotten through time," she says.

Today, those uses are being rediscovered and accepted by people as they become more concerned about the safety of the food they eat and the medicines they take, she says.

"My view is [that] crisis medicine here in the United States is the best in the world," Thompson says. "If you think you're having a heart attack, don't have some herb tea. Take two aspirins and call 911. But herbs can be helpful for chronic problems such as allergies, skin issues and digestive difficulties like irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn's disease."

Cudnowski believes there's a place for medicinal herbs in modern medicine as medical schools incorporate health, nutrition and healing herbs into their curriculums.

"They complement one another," she says. "It's a more holistic approach."

CANDACE RENALLS is at (218) 723-5329 or e-mail: .

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