Healing plants of Lake Tahoe

Alixandra Laub / M.S. Herbalist / Special to the Tribune
Close-up of a small purple common self-heal, (Prunella vulgaris) in a meadow.
Getty Images

Within the beauty of Lake Tahoe lies a vast medicine cabinet. You may have even walked past, next to, or on top of these little medicinal beings without much notice. A glimpse of the lake along your stroll, and it’s easy to be distracted and not take much notice of the little life forces around.

Introducing a science-based magnifying glass into a locally growing berry, flower, and weed used in alternative medicine. 

Juniper Berries

Sierra juniper (J. grandis) trees are amongst the oldest inhabitants of Lake Tahoe, with some thriving at 1,000 years old. Sierra juniper is the main species of juniper in the Tahoe Basin, although species such as Western juniper (J. occidentalis) can be found from lake level down to the Great Basin desert. The ‘berries’ produced by the evergreen juniper tree can be found in a wide range of products from gin to medicine to skincare. Though not berries at all, juniper berries are actually the female cones only found on mature female trees. Ripening from green to purple-blue can take up to three years, and can taste bitter and spicy to sweet and pleasant depending on the stage. 

The cones survive throughout the winter, making them a suitable, potent, year-round backcountry tea, culinary ingredient, or spice substitute. They can also be extracted via wine, spirits, bitters, and cooking oils to be used regularly in the kitchen. Externally, Juniper berries have an antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, antioxidative effect on the skin, making them an effective ingredient for reducing redness, puffiness, and oxidative damage. Juniper berries are used internally and externally for muscle and joint pain. As a wilderness medicine, crushed berries can be applied as a compress for infections, wounds, swollen joints, and sore muscles. As an outdoor bonus, juniper berries can be useful outdoors as an insect repellent.

In alternative medicine, juniper berries are commonly used for urinary conditions due to their activity as a urinary tract stimulant and antimicrobial diuretic. The berries are also commonly used for gastrointestinal and digestive complaints. Due to its antiseptic and antimicrobial nature, it can be found in natural cold and flu medicines and is effective in a hot vapor bath and steam. About five berries per serving and up to 10 per day is the maximum dosage. To be safe, pregnant women and those with certain kidney conditions should avoid using juniper berries unless guided by a health care practitioner.

Many stinging nettles in the forest.
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Stinging Nettle

Found near streams and meadows below 7,500 feet lies an unsuspecting pain inflictor that has a weedlike, invasive character. Like many, I still vividly remember my first encounter with the sting of the nettle as a child. The flowering, fuzzy, kind looking stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) plant is covered in thousands of tiny hollow hairs. Each hair is filled with formidable compounds like formic acid, which is the same bioactive chemical in red ant and bee venom.

A brush of the plant can offer a painful venomous burn lasting minutes to an hour. However, harvested, handled properly, the plant can have healing, pain-relieving, and anti-inflammatory effects. Considered to be a nutritive tonic that can be used internally and externally for rheumatism of the joints and muscles. Externally, boiled leaves used as a compress can stop bleeding and reduce inflammation almost immediately. Internally, the leaves are incredibly nutrient-dense as they are high in vitamin A, C, D, & K, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and iron. Nettle tea can be found at all the local health food stores, and culinarily these flowering weeds work anywhere as a kale-like cooked green. 

Two grams of dried nettle leaf per day is the recommended dosage. If handled properly or purchased from a conscious source, consuming this herb is not associated with any significant adverse effects. Stinging nettle is a weed that grows abundantly around the world, so this herb can be sustainably harvested without damaging populations or the surrounding environment. The plants are ideally harvested during their flowering season, making it a common springtime tonic. 


This non-native plant blooms from May to August and can grow just about anywhere below 8,300’ with rich soil and a bit of shade. Due to its beauty and its ability to grow almost anywhere, self-heal (Prunella vulgaris) makes an excellent herb for growing in mountain gardens. This flowering member of the mint family (Lamiaceae) is among with common herbs like lavender, peppermint, lemon balm, and rosemaryAs the names suggest, heal all is used in alternative medicine for a wide variety of conditions and complaints. Although not aromatic, self-heal, also called “heal all,” has been used for thousands of years as a multi-purpose anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and antioxidative herbal remedy. This purple edible flower can be cooked as a vegetable, brewed into tea, or applied to the skin.

Topically, self-heal acts as an emollient, astringent, and vulnerary agent that may accelerate the healing of burns, wounds, and other skin ailments. Recent studies also suggest anti-aging and skin protective effects against inflammation and UV damage. Researchers found self-heal enhanced collagen synthesis and reduced radical oxygen species associated with photo-aging. This is especially important to outdoor enthusiasts since we are at a higher risk of UV irradiation, which can lead to skin damage, inflammation, wrinkles, oxidative and cellular damage. In the laboratory, researchers also found that self-heal was able to reduce glucocorticoid hormones such as hydrocortisone or cortisol that are associated with age, stress, and declining skin structure.


Finding, identifying, sustainably harvesting, curing, and storing must be done with the utmost caution, respect, and cleanliness. Improper identification can lead to some less than desirable toxic effects. Knowledge of plant anatomy, ecology, toxicology, local climate, and season are crucial for wild harvesting plants. Each species has its own set of handling requirements, so the learning is endless. However, learning about plants in this way can deepen and strengthen a person’s connection to nature and the plant kingdom. If for no other reason then to get outside, absorb some sun, and learn something new about the natural world we live in. 

Of course, there are plenty of other important herbs in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Interested in learning more about local plants, herbal medicine, or distilling essential oils? Visit  

Disclaimer: This article does not provide medical advice. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any disease. 

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