Ethnobotany of the Healing Herbs of Native North American Peoples

Written by Leanna Serras

Ethnobotany is the study of people and cultures and their relationship to plants. Plants are used by various cultures around the world to satisfy medicinal needs, as a food source, in cosmetics, dyes, and even ritual use. Modern ethnobotanists study more than just the particular use of a plant in a culture; they also study the way the various cultures understand plants and their symbolic meaning to each group. Native American’s relationship to plants involved understanding where, how and why they thrived in various conditions. Native Americans believe that plants are a gift from earth and recognizing their needs and the various weather conditions that ensure their continued growth is the key to understanding the relationship between Native Americans and plants. Plants and herbs are well understood by Native Americans and have their own specific use. Native Americans used plants as a source of food, medicine, for fragrance, perfume, cologne, and technological reasons.

American Beech is used for its nuts as a food source in the late summer season and the bark can be used to create a lotion for relief from poison ivy.

Basswood can be used for its flowers and leaves to help alleviate the symptoms of a cold. Fibers from the inner bark of a basswood tree were used for multiple purposes such as making straps for carrying heavy loads and mats. This wood was also prized for its softness which made it a great choice for carving.

Bloodroot was used by the Native Americans as face paint and for its medicinal purposes. Sore throats and rheumatism was treated with the juice of the bloodroot plant. Cancer was also treated with bloodroot because it was believed that the caustic nature of the juice would destroy cancer.

Blueberry not only provided a food source, but the flowers of some species were used to relieve the symptoms of insanity according to the Chippewa.

Burdock also had a number of uses including a food source from the greens, a medicine for coughs and the leaves could be sewn together to make a hat to shield the head from the hot summer sun.

Cattail was used to make flour from the roots. The sap from the cattail plant can also be used to thicken soups and the shoots are also eaten in salads or boiled. The medicinal uses for the cattail are many. The starch that is located at the base of the leaf is an antiseptic and can also cause numbing. The pollen from the plant is taken internally for chest pains, internal bleeding, and menstrual cramps. It is used as toothpaste and the flour that is created from the roots of the plant can be used to stop diarrhea.

Daisy Fleabane was used for its aromatic essential oils which can relieve the symptoms of bronchitis. A tea made from the plant can be used for digestive illnesses and as a diuretic. The plant was also found to be a good insecticide when it is burned.

Dogwood Bark was used after simmering in water to relieve aching muscles and a tea made from the bark could be used to help break a fever. Native Americans also used dogwood in their smoking ceremonies. The bark could also be used to make dyes.

Goldenrod was used for a tea to cure urinary illnesses and intestinal problems. The goldenrod plant is also widely known as a source for yellow dyes.

Ground Pine was used to relieve stiff joints by Native Americans.

Hog Peanut was used as a food and also for medicinal purposes by the Chippewa.

Indian Cucumber Root was used as a food source and is usually eaten raw. It should be noted that the berries of this plant are not edible.

Indian Tobacco was used as a medicine to relieve lung problems such as asthma. It can be used as a stimulant when it is in small amounts and larger amounts will produce a relaxant effect.

Jewelweed is used as a food with its greens and seeds. The seeds are eaten raw and make a good dessert topping. It is also used as a medicine for a sore mouth and helps relieve the symptoms of poison ivy.

Juniper Berries are used as a diuretic and the twigs are boiled into a tea that is used to help stomach aches and colds. The berries are also used for decorative beads.

Milkweed is used as a medicine and food source. The shoots, pods and flowers are all edible, but they must be boiled in several pots of water to eliminate the toxins. Boiled roots are used to treat kidney problems and bowel disorders. Sap from the milkweed plant is used to treat poison ivy and warts.

Nettle was used to create a dye along with fibers that are used for string. Boiled roots and leaves are used to relieve the symptoms of rheumatism. Nettle was also used for an herb when it was boiled to eliminate the irritant in the plant.

Partridge Berry was used by Indian women in the final weeks of their pregnancy to ease the pain of childbirth. The leaves were also turned into a lotion for sore breasts by mothers as well.

Pickerel Weed is used as a food and can be eaten raw or boiled. The fruit from the plant can be eaten raw or it is dried and ground for food as well.

Spicebush is eaten as a food for its leaves, twigs and bark. The dried fruits are ground into a spice for cooking as well. Spicebush is also used as a tea to ease the pain of menstruation.

Witch Hazel was used for its medicinal uses in multiple ways. An astringent can be created from the bark and leaves of the plant and distilled with alcohol and water. It can be used as an eye wash and as a treatment for menstrual flow when it is taken internally. Native Americans also used the branches as divining rods to locate water and minerals.

Yarrow was used as a pot herb and for its medicinal uses. It was used as a painkiller, salve and astringent. The Yarrow was also used to ease the pain of earaches and toothaches. Yarrow also produces a green dye.

Sumac, not to be confused with poison sumac, is used for its berries as a food source. A beverage was produced with the red berries as a lemon flavored drink. Its medicinal purposes included a relief for stomach upset.

Violet is used as a food source with its flowers and leaves. The flowers are often eaten fresh from the plant and they can also be made into syrups and jams.

Water Lilies were eaten for their roots and it was also used by the Chippewa for relief for a sore mouth.