Native American Plants and Medicinal Herbs

Discover the benefits of five of North America's most-researched healing native plants.

By Jessica Kellner


November/December 2016

Saw Palmetto

Saw palmetto berries can help support healthy prostate function.

Photo by iStock

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Mother Earth Living’s dual focuses on natural health and local eating overlap when we highlight healing plants native to our North American homes. In keeping with the wondrous abilities of nature to provide for our well-being, each part of the globe is gifted with its own healing plants. Here in North America, much of our traditional plant knowledge comes courtesy of the American Indians, who relied on medicinal plants for much of their health care. Yet, understanding American Indian medicinal herb use is complex. First, the use of medicinal plants varied widely across the many tribes—and frequently knowledge of the uses of these plants is culturally guarded. 

I am, however, fortunate to have some of the nation’s best resources on native medicinal herbs at my fingertips. Lawrence, Kansas, where I live, is home to Haskell Indian Nations University, the premier tribal university in the United States. Additionally, my next-door neighbor is the nation’s pre-eminent expert on native medicinal plants. Kelly Kindscher, Senior Scientist for the Kansas Biological Survey, is a Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Kansas and the author of numerous pioneering books focused on native medicinal plants. 

When starting this story, I reached out to Kelly and the faculty at Haskell University. They advised me that, although much of American Indian knowledge of herbal medicine is culturally guarded, the plants in this article are some of the most widely used, effective and scientifically studied plants native to our continent. I hope you will use this information as a starting point to learn more about these native plants, and as inspiration to start learning about the healing plants native to your own specific region.  

Much of the information in this article (except where otherwise noted) was provided by the herb experts at Mountain Rose Herbs. One of our partners, Mountain Rose Herbs is one of the nation’s most trusted suppliers of sustainably sourced, organic and fair trade medicinal herbs. 

Echinacea

Common Name

Echinacea purpurea
Other: Purple coneflower

Botanical Name

Echinacea purpurea (L.) Moench

Plant Family: Asteraceae

Echinacea is one of the most widely known herbal medicines in American folk herbalism. Used extensively by herbalists and American Indians in North America for generations, echinacea gained popularity in Europe in the 1900s. One of its main uses is to support healthy immune function, although many of its historical uses were related to topical applications. It’s now one of the most widely available dietary supplements in health-food stores and continues to be the subject of scientific studies.

Nine species are native to the United States and Canada, with heavy concentration in Kansas, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri. These species are perennial members of the sunflower, or Asteraceae, family and mostly prefer rocky, disturbed soils in open fields, prairies and along railroad tracks. The material found in commerce is generally E. purpurea, E. angustifolia and occasionally E. pallida

The genus name Echinacea is derived from the Greek echinos, which means hedgehog and refers to the spiny seed head. E. purpurea is the most widely cultivated species, yet little is found in the wild now due to overharvesting. E. pallida and E. angustifolia are more difficult to grow.

Uses and Preperations

• Root fresh or dried as tea, tincture or capsules
• Aboveground parts fresh or dried as tea, tincture or capsules
• Fresh plant juice

Precautions

Persons with allergies to other members of the Asteraceae family should exercise caution.

Echinacea History & Folklore

Echinacea was used extensively by American Indians and traditional herbalists in North America. A variety of tribes, including the Pawnee, Dakota and Omaha-Winnebago relied heavily upon this plant, which was used for ailments ranging from supporting the immune system to distemper in horses.

American Eclectic physicians popularized echinacea in the late 1800s, showing particular interest in E. angustifolia. Famed Eclectics John Uri Lloyd and John King extolled its virtues far and wide until it became the Eclectics’ single most widely used herb. It was all the rage until the Eclectic schools closed down in the mid-1930s.

However, during this time, E. purpurea was gaining recognition in Germany. As the story goes, in the 1950s, Swiss naturopathic doctor Alfred Vogel came to the U.S. to study echinacea. He took back what he thought were E. angustifolia seeds but were soon discovered to be E. purpurea. So, ironically, E. angustifolia was the species herbalists and American Indians used medicinally, yet E. purpurea was the species the Germans ended up researching and therefore the one that became the most popular. Thus, the species that had the most substantiated historical evidence has the least scientific research.

Black Cohosh

Common Name

Standardized: Black cohosh
Other: Black bugbane, black snakeroot, rheumatism weed, bugwort, rattle root, rattle snakeroot, rattlesnake root, rattleweed, squawroot

Botanical Name

Actaea racemosa (L.)
Plant Family: Ranunculaceae

Black cohosh is a flowering perennial native to many parts of Canada and the United States. It thrives in old-growth coastal forests and regions of considerable biodiversity. The vast majority of the world’s black cohosh is produced and cultivated in the United States and Canada. The plant grows between 3 and 6 feet tall, with a stem that is clustered with tiny white flowers. The medicinal root is best collected between late July and September.

It was a favorite herbal remedy for American Indians, who used it for a variety of ailments. The name comes from the Algonquian tribe, and means rough, referring to the feel of the rhizome. It was given the name “bugbane” because the flowers have such a strong odor, and they have been used to effectively repel insects.

Black cohosh is traditionally used to support women’s health, and it is approved by the German Commission E for premenstrual discomfort and pain associated with normal menstruation. Black cohosh is also used in supporting a healthy menopause.

Uses and Preparations

Finely chopped, dried root in tablets, teas or tinctures

Precautions

Do not confuse with the potentially toxic blue cohosh. Not for use in pregnancy except under the supervision of a qualified health-care practitioner.

Black Cohosh Effectiveness

In the classic reference book Herbal Medicine, Dr. Rudolph Weiss lists black cohosh as a treatment for conditions caused by lack of estrogen, such as depression associated with menopause. Clinical experience of European practitioners backs this up. Scientific studies show that black cohosh has a balancing effect on hormone production, either by acting as a mild estrogen or regulating estrogen’s production in the body. For that reason, black cohosh is often found in herbal formulas for regulating female hormones, especially those prescribed to reduce hot flashes, which can occur when estrogen levels drop too low. 

Commercial preparations of the herb, available in the United States, are commonly prescribed in Europe and backed up by many test-tube and animal studies, as well as a few human trials. In one controlled double-blind study, 110 menopausal women who complained of unpleasant symptoms and who hadn’t taken estrogen replacement therapy for at least six months took a standardized black cohosh extract. Researchers reported the women felt less depressed and had fewer hot flashes than those in the placebo group.

Cranberry

Common Name

Standardized: Cranberry
Other: American cranberry, large cranberry

Botanical Name

Vaccinium macrocarpon 
Plant Family: Ericaceae

The familiar accompaniment to the American Thanksgiving meal is also one of the most versatile antibacterial herbs. Also anti-asthmatic and diuretic, the cranberry offers side benefits beyond its traditional use in treating urinary tract infections. Cranberry is a fruit native to North America, with almost 98 percent of the world supply cultivated in the northern U.S. and Canada. Both indigenous Americans and colonists valued cranberry for its medicinal and nutritional properties. Cranberries are a high-value crop, ranking 40th in sales of all cash crops monitored by the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistical Service.

Uses and Preparations 

For medicinal use, the powdered berry is best. It may be encapsulated or added to sugar-free teas. Most dried and powdered products on the market are freeze-dried and usually contain an anti-caking agent to prevent it from solidifying.

Precautions

No known precautions.

Cranberry Can Do! 

According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, these are the top medicinal capabilities of cranberry. 

1. Prevent urinary tract infections: Several studies confirm that cranberries help prevent infections of the bladder and urethra. In one study of older women, cranberry juice reduced the amount of bacteria in the bladder compared with a placebo. Another study showed that younger women with a history of frequent UTIs who took cranberry capsules had fewer UTIs compared with those who took a placebo. However, studies suggest that cranberry does not work once you have a UTI.

2 Prevent ulcers: Two studies showed that cranberry may also prevent the bacteria Helicobacter pylori from attaching to stomach walls. H. pylori can cause stomach ulcers, so cranberries may play a role in preventing stomach ulcers. More research is needed.

3 Ward off cancer: Some test tube and animal studies suggest cranberry may help stop cancer cells from growing.

4 Fight viruses: Cranberry seems to fight some viruses in test tubes. Studies in people are needed.

5 Fight bacterial illness: Cranberry has been shown to inhibit common forms of bacteria, such as Escherichia coli (E. coli) and Listeria monocytogenes.

American Ginseng

Common Name

Standardized: American ginseng
Other: Xi yang shen

Botanical Name

Panax quinquefolius (L.)
Plant Family: Araliaceae

Three distinct herbs are commonly called ginseng: Asian or Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng), American ginseng (P. quinquefolius) and Siberian “ginseng” (Eleutherococcus senticosus), the last of which has many of the same effects, but is in a different plant family. American ginseng is grown along the entire eastern seaboard of North America from Quebec to Florida. Unlike Asian ginseng, which has “warming” properties, American ginseng has “cooling” properties and is noted for its thirst-quenching effects. 

American Indians used it in the same way as the Chinese, as a preventive. When it was first discovered that ginseng grew wild in North America, it became a big business. Daniel Boone, American folk hero and frontiersman, was known as a fur trader, but he made a fortune selling wild-harvested ginseng.

The vast majority of research regarding ginseng has focused on the Asian variety, not the American. The two species 
contain similar properties and are often used interchangeably by herbalists. 

The German Commission E has approved ginseng for invigoration and fortification during times of need. It has been shown to improve reaction time and attention in healthy adults. In older adults, ginseng has been shown to support healthy aging and memory.

Uses and Preparations

The mature root, dried and used in teas, extracts or capsules

Precautions

Don’t combine with warfarin unless under supervision of a qualified health-care professional.

American Ginseng Benefits

Ginseng is sometimes called an “adaptogen,” meaning it is an herb that helps the body deal with various kinds of stress, although there is no scientific evidence to prove the benefit of adaptogens. Laboratory studies in animals have found American ginseng effective in boosting the immune system and as an antioxidant. Other studies show that American ginseng might have therapeutic potential for inflammatory diseases. Research has focused on the following conditions:

Diabetes:
Several human studies show American ginseng lowers blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes. The effect was seen both on fasting blood sugar and on postprandial (after eating) glucose levels. One study found people with type 2 diabetes who took American ginseng before or with a high-sugar drink experienced less of an increase in blood glucose levels. Other studies suggest North American ginseng prevents diabetes-related complications including retinal and cardiac functional changes by reducing stress. More research is needed.

Cancer: American ginseng has been shown to inhibit tumor growth. In one laboratory study on colorectal cancer cells, researchers found American ginseng possessed powerful anti-cancer properties.

Colds and flu:
In two studies, those taking the American ginseng-containing product Cold FX for four months got fewer colds than those taking a placebo. Those who got colds experienced shorter symptoms than those who took a placebo.

ADHD: One preliminary study suggests American ginseng, in combination with Ginkgo biloba, may help treat ADHD. More research is needed.

Immune system: Some scientists believe American ginseng enhances the immune system, which, in theory, could help the body fight infection and disease. Several clinical studies have shown American ginseng boosts the performance of cells that play a role in immunity.

Cognition: One preliminary study found daily consumption of American ginseng enhanced cognitive function in mice. More research is needed.
Reprinted from the University of Maryland Medical Center, umm.edu

Saw Palmetto

Common Name

Standardized: Saw palmetto 
Other: Sabal palm

Botanical Name

Serenoa repens (W. Bartram)
SmallPlant Family: Arecaceae

Saw palmetto is a small species of palm native to the Southeastern United States, specifically concentrated in Florida and a few surrounding regions. Because they usually grow prostrate, the plants generally reach between three and six feet in height, reaching up to 15 feet on the rare occasions that they grow erect. Saw palmetto plants can live for many years—the oldest plants in Florida are estimated to be between 500 and 700 years old. Saw palmetto grows in sandy soil, producing medicinal fruit throughout the summer and into October. The fruit is bluish-black when fully ripe. It has a distinctive, sweet aroma with a taste that is described as slightly soapy and acrid. 

Saw palmetto berries were used as a food source and general tonic for American Indians in Florida, and were eaten by early American settlers to stave off starvation. American botanist John Lloyd was one of the first to note the positive effects the fruit had on grazing animals, concluding that it may assist humans as well. The herb fell out of favor in the 1950s as science could not account for the observed actions of the berries. 

Today, saw palmetto is among the most commonly used and studied herbs to support healthy prostate functioning. 

Uses and Preparations

Berries, dried and cut or powdered used in teas, tinctures, encapsulations 

Precautions

No known precautions.

Does Saw Palmetto Really Work? 

    Extracts of saw palmetto fruit have been used for more than 100 years to treat prostate conditions, particularly benign prostatic hyperplasia, or BPH. BPH is characterized by a benign (noncancerous) enlargement of the prostate, and it’s believed to afflict more than half of men older than 50. It produces poor urinary flow that can cause a host of symptoms including straining to urinate, painful urination, increased frequency of urination, and more.

     The use of saw palmetto standardized extracts is backed by more than two dozen controlled clinical studies, most conducted in Europe. Head-to-head clinical studies have confirmed that saw palmetto is as effective as a conventional drug in relieving BPH symptoms, with fewer side effects.

     Results of the first U.S. clinical study on saw palmetto were published in June 1999. For six months, 44 men diagnosed with BPH received a dose of 320 mg per day of a saw palmetto extract or placebo. It was reported that the size of prostate tissue shrank from 17.8 percent to 10.7 percent in the patients treated with saw palmetto, with virtually no reported side effects. Lead researcher, UCLA urologist Leonard Marks wrote, “saw palmetto extracts appear to be a reasonable treatment option for men with uncomplicated symptomatic BPH.” 


Portions reprinted from the University of Maryland Medical Center, umm.edu