A Tribute to Six Medicinal Plants

Find out why these native herbs should have been commerative stamps.

| April/May 1994

In 1992, the U.S. Postal Service issued a sheet of commemorative stamps portraying fifty wild flowers of the United States. The fifty plants on these stamps were chosen more for their aesthetic variety and geographical distribution—one from each state in the Union—than for their usefulness. I couldn’t help thinking how easy it would be to come up with the same number of attractive, widely distributed plants whose medicinal, folkloric, and economic interest would equal or exceed those of the Postal Service’s selections.

This article is a tribute to six possibilities—native medicinal flowering plants that easily could have been honored along with (or instead of) those that were merely pretty: bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), horse­­­­­­mint (Mo­narda punctata), even­­­­­ing primrose (Oenothera biennis), ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), golden­­seal (Hydrastis canadensis), and mayapple (Podophyllum pel­­tatum). These six plants can be found through­­­­out the eastern United States and Canada and in use from toothpaste to cancer drugs. Their flowers—some shy, some showy—are only one of their distinguishing features. All these plants were in use and esteemed long before the first European settlers arrived.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

This hardy perennial is found in cool, moist deciduous woods throughout eastern North America. In early spring, pristine, many-petaled flowers rise above deeply lobed leaves that open fully after the flowers fade. In the leaf veins, you can discern the orange sap that flows through the entire plant but is concentrated in its roots. Bloodroot was listed as a botanical drug in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia until 1926.

In the early 1980s, a television ad showed two toothsome beauties touting toothpaste and mouthwash containing sanguinarine, an alkaloid found in bloodroot that was thought to prevent plaque formation. This was not the first time that the plant, also known as puccoon, has been associated with female pulchritude. Popular literature reports that the Indian maidens selected to cohabit with Captain John Smith had stained their bodies with bloodroot: “At night where his lodging is appointed they set a woman fresh painted red with pucoon [sic] and oil, to be his bedfellow.” Whether this was intended to entice or frighten him is not known. The men among some Native American tribes stained their faces with bloodroot to frighten their enemies; less sanguine males applied the stain to their palms before shaking hands with a maiden as a magic ­inducement to attract her to him. Bloodroot was even used to stain the porcupine quills used to adorn the clothing of Indian women, before the advent of the cheaper beads and trinkets from Europe.

In Medicinal Plants of Native America, Daniel E. Moerman details medicinal uses to which Native Americans put bloodroot. The Cherokee snuffed the powdered root for nasal polyps, the Delaware ate pieces of root daily for general debility, and the Fox applied juice from chewed roots to burns. The Potawatomi and Ojibwa squeezed the juice onto maple sugar to suck for sore throat. Following what Europeans called the “doctrine of signatures”, or using a plant to treat the part of the body it most resembled, many tribes used the roots for blood and bleeding disorders, some even believing that it made the blood redder.

Contemporary research confirms the utility of at least some of these uses. Sanguinarine has been cited as being potentially effective against bacteria, human pathogenic fungi, parasitic protozoans, viruses, and more. And although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has ruled against the claim that it prevents dental plaque, it is still an active ingredient in at least one popular toothpaste and mouthwash.

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