From poisonous to healing

The botany in the region around the Ötscher is wild. And beautiful.

It blossoms, smells and grows in all directions - and some of it even has the power to heal. Nature educator Claudia Kubelka and environmental educator Katja Weirer give their insights into the plant world around the Ötscher in the Mostviertel. In doing so, it becomes clear that beauty can be treacherous. And that this beauty, though treacherous, is not protected from climate change or other negative impacts on ecosystems.

If you ask herbal expert Claudia Kubelka about the most common herbs sprouting from the ground in the region around the Ötscher, one name after another bubbles out of her. She talks of valerian and mugwort, nettle and watercress, lady's mantle and elder, mullein and dandelion. There’s meadowsweet and thyme, horse mint and yarrow, celandine, ribwort and willowherb - some are good for sore throats, others are soothing, and the third helps with menstrual cramps.

A plant script for the Ötscher

You could easily compile an alphabet of herbs, if you were to ask further, including all types of processing and forms of use, from tea to tincture to ointment and oil. So if you want to know exactly, you should take a look on site. On a herb hike with Claudia Kubelka, you will probably also learn that meadowsweet has an aspirin-like effect and that the unloved nettle is a nutrient bomb that can be processed from the root to the tip of the leaf. But what you definitely learn when you approach the matter openly is respect. "If you’re interested, you handle the plants more carefully", says Claudia Kubelka.

Claudia Kubelka knows the herbal world of the region like no other. "Herbs is such a general term", she says. "I prefer to speak of more highly developed plants. We have over 3,000 of them throughout Austria, and that includes all herbs. In the Ötscher region alone, we have around 800 species and about 10% of them are used as medicinal plants", she says. "So we don't just have a few plants, we have a lot". This diversity of species, also called biodiversity, is due to the nature of the region around the Ötscher, an Alpine landscape with gorges, waterfalls and forests, with moorlands and pastures - a wild piece of earth, in the middle of Lower Austria.

What you should definitely avoid along the way

But where there is so much beauty, you also have to be on your guard, especially when it comes to herbs. For not all of them are harmless. And it is often the most beautiful ones that are the most poisonous. "I'm thinking of deadly nightshade, also known as belladonna, or the beautiful blue-flowered aconite", says Claudia Kubelka. You have to know what you're doing before you reach for it and pour yourself a tea or make a soup.

However, in the Ötscher-Tormäuer Nature Park, it is not allowed to grab anything anyway. And in any case, you should only collect what you know and what is not too rare, such as arnica. St. John's wort, horse mint, valerian and nettle, on the other hand, can be picked in areas outside nature parks almost without hesitation. This also applies to wild garlic, but special caution is needed there, because the garlic-like herb is confusingly similar to lily of the valley and meadow saffron. "If I make a strudel with meadow saffron, it is guaranteed to be deadly", the expert warns. Wild garlic does have a specific smell, but that can also be deceptive. "Once I've had a wild garlic leaf in my hand, everything smells like wild garlic". In addition, these plants share places in the region around the Ötscher, as the vegetation period, i.e. the phase in which they grow, flower and fruit, is relatively short and they all sprout from the ground at the same time.

Escape and entry at the same time

Environment educator Katja Weirer is also familiar with vegetation periods. Although they are short in the Alpine region around the Ötscher, they are becoming longer and longer due to climate change. "This makes it possible for farmers to grow crops that could not have grown here before, such as cereals", she says. This example shows one of the few opportunities that come with climate change; otherwise, people face challenges here. "As in other regions, it is becoming drier and warmer here. The spruce, the most common tree species in the region, is suffering most from this here. Extreme weather events such as heavy rain, storms and hail are also increasing. Gale-force winds sometimes bring down entire forests", says Katja Weirer.

In winter, on the other hand, the lack of snow is problematic, she says, because snow cover allows plants to overwinter at a constant temperature. "If there is no snow and conditions become milder, other plants can also spread". Alpine plants, however, are adapted to harsh conditions and are not competitive, so they could lose habitat. The Ötscher Climate Research Centre addresses questions like these - and how to counter the effects of climate change.

The rare and the very special

As an environment educator, Katja Weirer is often out and about in the wild flora. She and other nature educators of the nature park also do guided tours in the region, among other things. She immediately thinks of several plants that are characteristic of the region around the Ötscher. One name often comes up in her stories - Clusius. A Dutch botanist who is credited with the first ascent of the Ötscher and who was the first to describe several plants in the Eastern Alps that now bear his name - Clusius primrose, Clusius gentian, Clusius yarrow; you can get to know them personally on a special tour. "These are plants that are only found in the Eastern Alps", says Katja Weirer, "that's really something special".

The Burser saxifrage, with its small white flowers that turn all the rock faces white in May, is also found nowhere else in the world. Orchids also grow here. “There are inconspicuous species such as the two-leaf, which you only notice if you know about it, and then you have more exciting species such as the really beautiful but also very rare lady's slipper”. The yellow flowers of this orchid look like little slippers and their scent attracts bees, which then fly into the slippers. They remain trapped there until they find the only way out - a narrow, hairy opening. If they managed to squeeze through, they pollinate the plant. In this case, too, beauty is a double-edged sword. But fortunately this is not always the case. Because a visit to the Ötscher-Tormäuer Nature Park is simply beautiful - and in no way treacherous.