I thought it would be appropriate to write an article giving thanks to our Native Americans who gave us a wealth of information about medicinal herbs. We celebrate Thanksgiving traditionally because of a remembrance to the settlers when they first arrived in the Americas. When you see pictures portraying the feast, Native Americans have been a vital part of the community. We all know the history that followed, and I feel like we owe a lot to our native peoples due to their exploitation. This article will deal more with the plants that are native to America and the historical use of them. I think you will find it interesting that many of the plants are still being used today even though they are not the designer herbs of the month and not found in the mass market. Herbalism goes much deeper than what we see in the marketplace.

The settlers owed a deep gratitude to the Native Americans. When they first arrived on this continent, they had been on ships for weeks. Disease ran rampant and many of these diseases, (scurvy and fever) were not known in the Americas. As a matter of fact, the native people succumbed to them and had to learn which plants would heal them. Influenza, diphtheria, malaria and many other afflictions were the epidemics that affected the settlers. If the ships from the Old World did not make port on time, valuable medicines carried from Europe used at that time were then in short supply and many people died. It was the Native Americans that came to the rescue.

Native American medicine has a different aspect of understanding than conventional medicine in that it is an energetic-based system. This means that the healers were in tune with the plant energy and how to use it appropriately. They did not have a defined method of anatomy and physiology or care to call a sickness a particular name or quote a diagnosis. This does not mean they did not understand body imbalances. In text, it is found that the Native Americans used herbs for liver, blood regenerating, nerve tonics, to restore health, strengthen the stomach, all of which had a purpose in systemic harmony.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the plants the Native Americans used:

  • Bearberry – Was excellent against scurvy, also used for urinary tract inflammation.
  • Black Cohosh – Used as antidotes for snakebites, to relieve menstrual pain and for painful childbirth. Also used to treat hysteria, neuralgia, migraines, and asthma.
  • Black Walnut – The nuts were used as food; leaves and outer hulls for ringworm, and diphtheria; very astringent.
  • Blue Cohosh – Used for cramping during menstruation and during labor; also for hysteria and rheumatism.
  • Bloodroot – Used for all blood conditions, also as a stain or dye; useful for bronchitis, asthma, whooping cough, and liver ailments.
  • Blue Flag – Cultivated as a cathartic, meaning to move the bowels rapidly. Also used as a poultice to heal leg ulcers and for lung ailments during cold and flu.
  • Boneset (popular with all tribes) – Used to break fever or help sweat out chills; used to treat malaria, typhoid, and influenza.
  • Burdock – Used as a food and medicine; aided all skin conditions – used for acne, bunions, ringworm and to soothe mucus membranes.
  • Cascara Sagrada – Used for constipation, indigestion and rheumatism.
  • Calamus – The tribe runners chewed the fresh root due to its ability to increase stamina and endurance.
  • Wild Cherry Bark – Used for sore throat and a disease the colonist called bloody flux.
  • Dandelion – Used as nutritive tonic, for anemia, all skin disorders and fluid retention
  • Elder (all parts were used) – Flowers for kidney bladder infections and fevers; berries for fluid retention and as a gargle; leaves for constipation.
  • Goldenseal – Used to treat ulcers and arrow wounds, used for congested conditions, used for enlarged tonsils, skin eruptions, sinus inflammation, scarlet fever and smallpox. Great for gums and used as an eyewash for conjunctivitis.
  • Ginseng – Used for stamina, digestion, nervous disorders, whooping cough and asthma. Used during weakness and debility.
  • Gravel Root (Queen of the Meadow or Joe Pye Weed) – Used for all kidney ailments, gout and rheumatism
  • Juniper – Used to purify the air during sickness. Has an antibacterial and antiseptic property. Used for kidney disorders.
  • Lady Slipper – Used for nervous debility, to relieve pain and stomach disorders.
  • Mandrake Root – Used for incontinence, as a liver balancer and for constipation.
  • Nettle – Was considered a food due to high nutrient content, used as a counter-irritant for pain. Useful in joint stiffness and rheumatism.
  • Pleurisy Root (Butterfly Weed) – Used mostly for lung ailments.
  • Sassafras – Used as a tonic and rejuvenator, helpful in all skin disorders and to thin the blood.
  • Skunk Cabbage – Used in lung conditions, asthma and bronchitis and whooping cough.
  • White Pine – Used for colds flu with cough. Also used for desperate wounds.
  • Yarrow was used for colds and flu, fevers, chickenpox and for incontinence of the bladder.

Others herbs used included Chaga, Wild Ginger, Partridgeberry, Poke Root, Prickly Ash Bark, Slippery Elm, Spikenard, Stoneroot, and Thuja,

Most plant remedies were used singularly, often as specific cures for a particular affliction. They did not usually blend formulas like herbal medicine of later times.

This is only a small list of plants used in the Native American Materia Medica.  As you can see, we owe a lot of thanks to the Native Americans because of the wealth of knowledge they gave us in friendship and in a time of need. Be thankful this Thanksgiving season because many of these plants are still with us and have not become endangered by over harvesting or over use.

Much of the information came from two sources, one called Indian Herbology of North America by Alma Hutchens and the other – Green Pharmacy by Barbara Griggs.

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