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© Missouri Botanical Garden
Follow that Sheep
According to a European folk tale, the medicinal value of arnica was discovered by shepherds who noticed that injured sheep and goats were attracted to the plant.
Arnica grows primarily in the western mountains, from the Yukon and Northwest Territories in the north to the southwestern U.S., but it can also be found in small isolated pockets as far east as Lake Superior.
History and traditional uses
First Nations used poultices of arnica to soothe strained muscles and bruises. Settlers from Europe recognized North American arnica as closely related to a familiar European medicinal plant, Arnica montana, also employed to soothe minor aches and pains, as well as to treat wounds.
Current findings and new possibilities
Arnica contains several chemical compounds with anti-inflammatory or counter-irritant properties, which help relieve minor pains. It is currently being investigated for possible pain relief for arthritis. Arnica products for external application are readily available in Canada and used widely in Europe.
However, arnica is also a highly poisonous plant. In Canada, products containing arnica cannot be marketed for internal use, and arnica should not be applied to injured areas if the skin is broken.
In the Canadian garden
While A. fulgens and A. cordifolia are both sometimes used as garden plants, they can be harder to find than other arnicas, especially the European native A. montana. Both the North American and European species make cheery displays in July and August of bright yellow daisy-like flowers that dance on long stems well above the leaves. Plants need sun, good drainage, and acid soil, and are often grown in alpine, rock, or herb gardens.
Commercial growing and harvesting
Most commercial arnica products have been made from the European species, Arnica montana. Due to over-harvesting, this plant is becoming rarer in its native habitat, increasing the demand both for other species and for farm-grown arnica. Some arnica is gathered from the wild in Canada, but commercial production of the native and/or European species is also being fostered in several regions.