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.

| October/November 2005

  • Blue vervain
    Jerry Pavia
  • Indian paintbrush
    Jerry Pavia
  • Butterfly weed
    Jerry Pavia
  • New England aster
    Karen Bussolini
  • Rattlesnake-master cleanses poisonous bites.
    Karen Bussolini
  • Jewelweed is a traditional poison ivy cure.
    William C. Handel
  • Pokeweed
    Jerry Pavia
  • Bottle gentian
    David Cavagnaro
  • Sunflower
    William C. Handel

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.

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