Ethnobotany in Native American Cultures

Disclaimer: Medicinal uses of wildflowers listed below are not intended to be seen as potential remedies or cures but for acknowledgments of their historical value. If suffering from one of the ailments mentioned below, please see a licensed health professional.

Long before western medicine was established, Native American tribes used a wide variety of native plants to treat common ailments such as headaches, stomach irritation, and sore throats. These findings became tradition as they were passed down from generation to generation. Traditional folk medicine, on the other hand, dates as far back as 3700 B.C. Egypt (Fisher, 1997). Today, we call the study of these customs ethnobotany.

Many tribes utilized forbs to treat headache pain: The Chippewa used spreading dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium), while the Navajo smoked coyote tobacco (Nicotiana attenuata) and the Iroquois used field horsetail (Equisetum arvense) to ease headache pain (Herrick, 1977; Densmore, 1928; Vestal, 1952). Field horsetail has also been used to aid bone growth, treat hemorrhaging, and reduce eczema (Williamson, 2002).

For stomach irritation and pain, the Cherokee used stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) and the Blackfoot used sharpleaf penstemon (Penstemon acuminatus) (Hamel & Chiltoskey, 1975; McClintock, 1909). Powell’s amaranth (Amaranthus powellii) had also been used to treat the same ailment (Moore, 2003).

In the treatment of colds and sore throats, the Nevada Indians used sulphur-flower buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum) and the Kwakuitl used barestem bicuitroot (Lomatium nudicaule) (Murphey, 1990; Turner & Bell, 1973). California yerba santa (Eriodictyon californicum) and western yarrow (Achillea millefolium), which contains an antioxidant-rich flavonoid called quercetin, have also been used to treat colds (Moore, 2003; Williamson, 2002).

For more in-depth information, please visit the Mid-Snake River Watershed Vegetation Database.

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References:

  • Densmore, F. (1928). Uses of Plants by the Chippewa Indians (Annual No. 273-379) (p. 336).
  • Fisher, P. S. (1997, January). Folk Medicine
  • Hamel, P. B., & Chiltoskey, M. U. (1975). Cherokee Plants and Their Uses -- A 400 Year History. Sylva, N.C.: Herald Publishing Co
  • Herrick, J. W. (1977). Iroquois Medical Botany. State University of New York.
  • McClintock, W. (1909). Medizinal- Und Nutzpflanzen Der Schwarzfuss Indianer.
  • Moore, M. (2003). Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West. Santa Fe, NM: Museum of New Mexico Press.
  • Murphey, E. V. A. (1990). Indian Uses of Native Plants. Glenwood, IL: Meyerbooks.
  • Turner, N. C., & Bell, M. A. M. (1973). The Ethnobotany of the Southern Kwakiutl Indians of British Columbia.
  • Vestal, P. (1952). The Ethnobotany of the Ramah Navaho.
  • Williamson, D. (2002). Healing Plants of the Rocky Mountains. McCall, Idaho: From the Forest.