Mother Earth Living

Native America's Pharmacy on the Prairie

For thousands of years, the native people of North America sustained life and health with plants found all around them. Getting to know this ecosystem is the first step in preserving plants that can offer beautiful benefits to our health.
By William C. Handel and K.C. Compton
October/November 2005

Butterfly weed
Jerry Pavia
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For countless generations, Native Americans have used the plants around them for food and medicine. It has been reported that the various tribes on this continent used more than 1,000 species of plants for food alone. With good reason: The native plants are nutritious, rich in vitamins and minerals, and many are excellent sources of protein.

Native people weren’t just sitting around their lodges, holding their sick stomachs, nursing terrible headaches and waiting for a drug store to finally open in their neighborhoods. They needed look no farther than the surrounding prairie and woodlands for help in healing the pain, wounds and infections that are an inevitable part of being human.

Much of the collective wisdom about these healing plants was lost with the devastation of the native tribes. Oddly, it has become more common for us to look to the forests of Central and South America when considering the medicinal potential of plants.

But now, a devastating loss is occurring to the ecosystem itself as assaults degrade, fragment and destroy North America’s prairies and natural woodlands. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, urbanized area in the United States has doubled since the 1970s — a loss of about 20 million acres. The Sierra Club reports that an astounding 400,000 acres of rural land are being bulldozed every year to make way for housing subdivisions and shopping malls.

The potential loss is stunning: Only a fraction of the world’s plants have been surveyed for biologically active compounds, and many of these have been analyzed for only one type of compound, such as anti-tumor agents.

Many prairie plants in North America are just now being studied for possible treatment of cancer and heart disease and for their immune-stimulating properties, needed in the fight against viruses such as AIDS.

Gardeners and others who care about the useful plants have a role to play in stopping the devastation, preserving as much of the wild as possible, and restoring and recreating lost ecosystems wherever possible, even if that means simply planting small, wild gardens right in our own back yards. A bonus is that a whole pharmacy of medicinal plants might again be found in our back yards, just as our Native American antecedents found them.

Many of the plants in this article are uncommon or rare and should not be taken from the wild. Also, many of these plants are poisonous if used incorrectly. For more information on the use, cultivation or preservation of native plants, please see Sources . This listing is extended from our published print version, and those included only in the Website version are indicated with an *.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)
Chippewa Indians used a root decoction of big bluestem for stomachaches and gas. Omaha Indians used leaves as an external wash for fevers.

Groundnut, also known as hog peanut (Apios americana)     
The tubers, which contain three times the protein of potatoes, were boiled or eaten raw by American Indians and settlers.

Groundnuts are currently being studied for use as a food plant. Under cultivation, it is reported to produce up to 8 pounds of tubers per plant.  

Butterfly weed, also known as milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)
Considered an important medicinal plant by several Indian tribes — Omaha Indians chewed the raw root for pulmonary and bronchial troubles. It also was chewed and placed on wounds or pulverized and blown into wounds.

Milkweeds contain cardiac glycosides that are toxic to livestock and humans. One of these, amplexoside, occurs in sand milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis) and has been shown to inhibit cell growth in some types of human cancer.

England aster (Aster novae-angliae)
Root tea was used for diarrhea and fever. Asters in general were used for wounds, either burned and placed over a wound or powdered and placed in the wound.  A tea of the whole plant was used for arrow wounds; cotton or other absorbent material was dipped into the tea and pushed into the wound.

*Wild Indigo (Baptisia leucophaea)
American Indians rubbed a mixture of pulverized seed and buffalo fat on the abdomen for colic and intestinal disturbance. Root tea was used to treat scarlet and typhoid fevers. An infusion was used as an astringent for wounds.

B. leucophaea has shown possible immune stimulant activity. Large doses of this plant have been fatal.

Indian paintbrush (Castilleja spp.)
Weak flower tea was used for rheumatism, as a contraceptive and for venereal disease. Flowers and leaves of several varieties of Indian paintbrush were mixed with bear grease to promote hair growth.

New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus)
Leaves were used during the Revolutionary War as a substitute for regular tea. Root tea was used for colds, fever, snakebite, stomachaches and lung ailments, and as a laxative and blood tonic. Current research shows that alkaloids in the root can lower blood pressure.

Purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea)
Roots were chewed for their sweet flavor. Leaves were used as a diarrhea treatment. Mesquakies Indians used a tea from this plant to treat measles.

*Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis)
Pawnee Indians used leaf tea for itching. Seeds were used for eye infections.

Illinois bundleflower is being studied to see if it has potential for a range crop plant.

Purple coneflowers ( Echinacea spp.)
Purple coneflowers were probably the medicinal plants most widely used by the Plains Indians. The crushed root was used for relieving pain and reducing inflammations, especially for bites from insects, spiders and snakes, and as a local anesthetic.

Research in Germany has yielded over 200 pharmaceutical preparations from purple coneflowers.  Extracts have shown the ability to stimulate the immune system and inhibit several types of cancer.  Fresh juice from aboveground parts of E. purpurea increased the resistance against several viruses in the cells of mice. Unfortunately, demand has caused overharvesting of this plant in the western part of its range. The plant is easily propagated from seed in gardens.

Rattlesnake-master (Eryngium yuccifolium)
Creek, Cherokee and Fox Indians used a poultice from an infusion of the root for reducing fevers, cleansing poisonous bites and expelling water from the body.

No research has been done on E. yuccifolium; however a related species of Eryngium in Jordan has been found to contain an effective antivenom for scorpion stings.

Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)
Tea from the leaves was used to treat colds and fevers; large doses were used to induce vomiting. Tea also was used to treat fever in horses.

Tests in Germany have shown that boneset is as effective as aspirin in treating cold symptoms. There is suspicion that boneset contains potentially liver-damaging alkaloids.

*Flowering Spurge (Euphorbia corollata)
Mesquakies Indians had several uses for flowering spurge. They drank an infusion of the root before breakfast as a laxative and also as a remedy for rheumatism. They also mixed roots with berries of staghorn sumac and bur oak and drank the concoction to expel pinworms.

Research indicates that several toxic compounds occur in many Euphorbia spp., including some that cause dermatitis.

Bottle gentian (Gentiana andrewsii)
Used by several Indian tribes as a bitter tonic for stomach digestion and to promote appetite.

Several compounds in the gentian family are used today to treat malaria and rheumatic inflammations.

Sunflowers (Helianthus spp.)
Sunflowers were an important food plant for the Plains Indians.  Evidence indicates that sunflower domestication began 3,000 years ago. Since then, Indians increased the size of sunflower seeds 1,000 percent through cultivation. Seeds were used to make bread or eaten raw. One variety of sunflower, the Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus L.), produces edible underground tubers. Uncooked, they taste like water chestnuts; cooked, they are sweeter than potatoes but not as firm. Considered a good food for weight-watchers and diabetics because of inulin, a carbohydrate that is highly digestible.

Jerusalem artichoke now is being cultivated as a food crop for livestock and human consumption.

*Gayfeather (Liatris pycnostachya)
American Indians in the St. Louis region used the root of gayfeather for treating sexually transmitted diseases. Gayfeather corms were chewed and blown through the nostrils of horses to make them run faster. Flowers were mixed with corn and fed to horses to keep them in good condition.

Hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens)
The Lakota Indians used the powdered roots for chest wounds. Hoary puccoon leaf tea was rubbed on a person for fever with spasms and to treat insanity.  Yellow puccoon was chewed and spit on the face to keep a person awake. The puccoons were an important dye plant for many Indian tribes.

Studies have found naturally occurring estrogen compounds in some species of puccoons, which eventually may make them useful for birth control.

Blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica)
Lobelia was used as a love charm by several American Indian tribes. The plant was chopped and put in the food of a quarrelsome couple without their knowledge. Chippewa Indians used a combination of sumac and lobelia to treat sexually transmitted diseases. Colonists used it to induce vomiting.

Lobelia is fatal in large doses. The alkaloid lobeline is used to help people quit smoking and also is used in resuscitation of newborn infants and to revive people from drug overdoses.

Wild bergamot (Monarda spp.)
Many North American Indian tribes used wild bergamot extensively for treatment of colds and fevers. Tea was drunk after childbirth. Dakota and Winnebago Indians used wild bergamot to treat Asiatic cholera.

Monarda is a source of thymol, which has been used for its antifungal, antibacterial and vermicidal properties.

Evening primrose (Oenothera biennis)
Roots were boiled in several changes of water and eaten like parsnips. Leaves were cooked as a vegetable or added to salad for a peppery taste. American Indians used the root for coughs, as an antispasmodic, to suppress pain and to reduce inflammation.

Extracted oil from seeds has been shown to be useful in treating atopic eczema, premenstrual syndrome and mild hypertension. Evening primrose also contains several substances that make it useful for treating burns, wounds and skin lesions.

Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana)
Roots were mixed with lard and used for skin diseases. Berry tea was use to treat rheumatism, arthritis and dysentery.

Used in cancer research for replication of blood cells, pokeweed also is being studied for AIDS; a protein present in pokeweed is reported to be 1,000 times more potent than AZT in fighting AIDS. Juice from pokeweed may cause dermatitis and even chromosome damage.

*Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum)
Indian children supposedly used resinous sap for chewing gum. During the 19th and early 20th centuries compass plant was used to reduce fevers, induce vomiting or sweating, as a diuretic and stimulant.

Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis)
Several Indian tribes used spiderwort as an edible green that was eaten raw or cooked like asparagus. Root tea was used for kidney problems and stomach ailments. The smashed plant was applied to insect bites, stings and skin cancers.

Eastern gama grass  (Tripsacum dactyloides)
Large numbers of gamma grass seeds were found among remains of the Ozark Bluff-dwellers.  The seeds may have been popped like popcorn.

Eastern gama grass has potential as a perennial agricultural crop because it can be propagated easily, has natural immunity against insect pests and is high in protein and carbohydrates.

Blue vervain (Verbena hastata)
Blue vervain leaf tea was used for stomachaches and a wide range of other medicinal purposes, including use as a sedative, a diuretic, to kill worms, as a bitter tonic and antispasmodic.

*Missouri ironweed (Vernonia missurica)
American Indians used the root of several species of ironweed as a tonic to regulate menses, relieve pain after childbirth, to stop bleeding and relieve stomachaches. Cherokee Indians made a tea from ironweed to prevent menstruation for two years after childbirth.

*Culver's root (Veronicastrum virginicum)
Used as an effective laxative during malaria attacks. American Indians used culver's root to induce vomiting and stimulate the liver. An overdose is potentially toxic.

*Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis)
Used as a traditional poison ivy cure.


Bill Handel is a field biologist and scientist for the Illinois Natural History Survey. K.C. Compton is editor in chief of The Herb Companion.

Sources

Recommended Reading

Information for this article came from these sources, among others:

Elias, T. and P. Dykeman. Edible Wild Plants: A North American Field Guide. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., 1990.

Foster, Steven and James A. Duke. A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants: Eastern and Central North America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990.

Jackson, Wes. New Roots in Agriculture. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985.

Kindscher, K. Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie: An Ethnobotanical Guide. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992.

Moerman, D. E. Medicinal Plants of Native America. Research Reports in Ethnobotany, 2 vols. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, Museum of Anthropology, 1986.

General information

Green Landscaping with Native Plants: An informative website from The Environmental Protection Agency: www.epa.gov/greenacres.

Wild Ones: This nonprofit organization has chapters across the United States. www.for-wild.org; (500) FOR-WILD.

Native Plant and Seed Sources

Abundant Life Seed Foundation: Nonprofit organization that provides seeds and publishes a newsletter. Box 772, Port Townsend, WA 98368; (360) 385-5660.

Monrovia: Teamed up with the National Audubon Society to create the Audubon Habitat Collection of Plants. Plants listed by region and wildlife they attract. Available in most garden centers. (888) PLANT-IT.

An Internet search for native plant societies or seed banks will provide additional information for various regions throughout North America.


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