Native American Herbs of the Northeast

A look to the past reveals some of the most important plants used by Eastern woodland tribes – and an inestimable connection to nature.

My adventure into the historical uses of many Native American plants began when Maine native Kerry Hardy, author of Notes on a Lost Flute: A Field Guide to the Wabanaki, presented a program for Western Maine’s Greater Lovell Land Trust, billed as “Native American Plant Medicine” last summer. So many plants and so many uses! I was intrigued to find out more about these plants and explore the wealth of medicinal knowledge from Eastern Woodlands tribes like the Mohawk, Wyandot {Huron}, and Iroquois. From Hardy’s work, as well as from the research of author Charlotte Erichsen-Brown, I enjoyed a glimpse into how these tribes looked to nature for healing – and how early pioneers benefited from their knowledge.


The Essential Elderberry

Hardy’s book focuses on the Native Americans of New England, especially those of Maine. The “lost flute” in Hardy’s book title refers to one of the many uses of common elderberry {Sambucus canadensis}. If you were a Wabanaki healer long ago, Hardy explains, “you’d keep some hollowed out elderberry twigs on hand. These were used to suck bad spirits out of – or conversely, to blow good medicine into – the wounds of your patients.” But tribes in the Northeast, and in other areas of the country, would also use these twigs for making flutes to enjoy as musical instruments. Alternately, some tribes referred to elderberry as the “pipe-stem tree,” using the hollowed-out twigs of elder to blow through and stoke the blaze of a fire.

To create these useful tools, one first had to hollow out the stems. Hardy explains one novel method that accomplished this task with the help of insects. Tribespeople would boil elder twigs in melted fat and then seal maggots in on one end. “Faced with no other choice but eating their way to freedom, the maggots would eventually emerge at the other end, and you’d have your hollow tube.” Then by using sand and a smaller twig as a ramrod, the crafter would enlarge the diameter of the bore. By adding holes in the right places, they could create their flutes.

They also looked to common elderberry for medicine, which offered a variety of remedies based on the different parts of the tree. The inner bark of both common elderberry and red elderberry {Sambucus racemosa} was administered as an emetic and a laxative. Specifically, Hardy explains, “the bark was usually scraped upward to obtain the emetic effect, and downward for the laxative.”

In her book Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants, a resource Hardy used for his own book, author Charlotte Erichsen-Brown explores the many uses of the elder tree within the Huron tribe, known also as the Wyandot, who came down from Quebec. In her book, she includes an entry recorded by a botanist in 1633, who observes a range of elder uses – from gout to weight-loss. Referring to the tribe: “The leaves and tender crops of the common elder taken in some broth or pottage opens the belly, purging both slimie phlegm and choleric humors…The seeds dried are good for {those who are} too fat, and would faire be leaner, if they be taken in the morning to the quantity of a dram with wine for a certain space. The greene leaves pounded with Deeres suet or Bulls tallow are good to be laid to hot swellings and tumors and doth asswage the paine of the gout.”

In another entry, Reverend Manasseh Cutler, clergyman, botanist, and, eventually a member of the House of Representatives, writes of elderberry in 1785: “The fresh leaves laid round young cucumbers, melons, or cabbages are a good preservative against worms and insects. It is said, if turnips, cabbages, fruit trees, or corn {which are subject to blight from a variety of inscts} are whipped with the green leaves and branches of Elder, insects will not attack them. The green leaves are said to drive away mice.”

Symptoms of flu were treated with “copious” amounts of cooked elderberries or the inner bark to cause sweating and diuresis, to relieve the pain of inflammation and rheumatism, and to help control spasms. Elderflowers were made into a tea to induce sweating and diuresis for milder symptoms. Fresh flowers in melted fat became an ointment for skin abrasions, and flowers were enjoyed as a delicacy when coated in cornmeal and fried in fat. The berries were made into sauce, preserves, and in wine.

Science has since confirmed many of these traditional uses of the elder tree. {And elder bark and leaves must be helpful in some way – no matter how much I try to protect my elder trees, the deer strip off the leaves and small branches, seemingly in all seasons, and the birds didn’t leave me any berries for my elderberry tincture!}

An Educational Exchange

By the 1600s, there had been about 200 years of European contact with the various tribes on the Atlantic coast, from Virginia northwards. Fishing boats, Erichsen-Brown writes, did participate in fur-trading on the side, and when Europeans docked in the natural harbors, Native Americans would give fur pelts in exchange for iron pots, hatchets, and knives that were able to save them weeks of work compared with their stone tools.

Because of the extended contact between these groups of people, it’s quite possible that they also shared medicinal information. {In fact, some Native Americans learned to use European medicines from various ship-doctors – some of whom were not above trading the contents of their medicine chests for furs.}

Europeans were generally reluctant to use Indian medicine, but there were exceptions, pine gum being one of them. In 1633, English botanist and herbalist John Gerarde mentioned that the liquid resin from wild pines served as a very good wound healer. A report from Quebec supported this claim, explaining that “the savages” used pine gum for wounds with effective results. All early European accounts seem to agree that the Indian nations had cultivated a better method of healing wounds than they had.

French explorer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac wrote from Detroit in 1608 of some Algonquin tribes gathered there: “They are very good anatomists, so when they have an arm or any bone broken, they treat it very cleverly and with great skill and dexterity, and experience shows that they can cure a wounded man better in a week than our surgeons can in a month.”

A Safe Delivery

Childbirth was another area of medical expertise, Erichsen-Brown points out, “in which the advanced Indian nations of northeastern North America were ahead of contemporary Europeans.” In Europe, bearing a child often meant the loss of both mother and child from infection or difficult delivery. The tombstones of the early European cemeteries tell that story on this continent several hundred years later.

The native people seemed to have had a much better system. “The medicine woman of the tribe kept the mother on a special regimen for a week before delivery, administering a tea made from the root of blue cohosh {Caulophyllum thaliictroides}. This aimed to increase the chances for an easy and swift delivery. The root contains glycosides called caulosaponin and caulophyllosaponin, which provoke strong uterine contractions that are intermittent and more successful than those provoked by ergot, the plant fungus that was used by white physicians for the same purpose in childbirth. Blue cohosh became widely known and appreciated, and it was adopted by the Eclectic doctors.” {Eclectic physicians, who were somewhat outside the realm of conventional medical practitioners, borrowed treatments from all schools of medicine, including conventional, homeopathic, and herbal.}

Roots of trillium, yellow clintonia {Clintonia borealis}, and wild ginger were also used by Native Americans to facilitate childbirth. Wild ginger root is known to contain an antibacterial substance that combats gram-positive, abscess-forming bacteria. “The Illinois in 1724 used the root, crushed to a powder, for putting a stop to the pains of women in childbirth.” {Much later, the Algonquins used it in wound dressings.}

Native American women, Erichsen-Brown states, were well-versed in methods of birth control. Having too many children in those bands that moved according to the season and food availability could have put the tribe at risk of starvation in times when the food supply was short. Interestingly, the same plants that encouraged menses could also be useful at the final stage of a pregnancy, helping to deliver the baby. Of course, women were also general healers who relied on an impressive mental catalog of botanicals to treat many ailments. “They had a full, practical knowledge of the poisonous properties of the plants that grew around them,” Erichsen-Brown notes.

From Mattress to Medicine

Known also as wild cotton, silky swallow-wort, Virginia silk, and wild asparagus, milkweed {Asclepias syriaca} also played an important role in native daily life.

In 1609, explorer Marc Lescarbot, author of Histoire de la Nouvelle-France, a book about his expedition to Acadia {kmown then as “New France” and comprising  Eastern Quebec and parts of Maine} wrote of milkweed: “Of this cotton, or whatsoever it be, good beds may be made, more excellent a thousand times than of feathers, and softer than common cotton.” {Milkweed pods were collected during the 1940s. President Roosevelt had urged all Americans to do whatever they could to help the war effort, and this buoyant milkweed silk went into stuffing life jackets.}

A translation from the Mohawk in 1945 revealed another use: “The silk attached to the seeds is used as a dressing for wounds. To make women sterile, a fistful of milkweed and three rhizomes of Arisaema {Jack-in-the-pulpit} dried and pulverized, in infusion in a pint of water for 20 minutes. Drink a cup every hour. The sterility is, however, temporary.” {Up until the 1900s, the Native American pharmacopeia was mostly observed and recorded by white men, including missionaries, traders, explorers, and, a little later, ethnobotanists. It wasn’t until the 20th-century that a push was made to learn more about Native American plant medicine directly from the source, and information, written in a variety of tribal languages, was finally translated.}

Indian medicine women spent years learning to know the plants, the parts to use, their preparation and dosage, as well as the difficulties and dangers that could arise from using them incorrectly. Today, research has found contraceptive agents in both milkweed and Jack-in-the-pulpit.

Sweet Relief

Calamus, flag-root, myrtle flag, beewort, and muskrat root – these names all describe sweet flag {Acorus calamus}. A 1633 entry by John Gerarde reads, “The decoction of the root of Calamus drunke proveketh urine, helpeth in the paine in the side, liver, spleen and brest; convulsions, gripings and burstings; it easeth and helpeth {urination} by drops…The juice strained with a little honey, taketh away the dimness of the eyes.”

Sweet flag made an impression on Europeans, who exported it back home in the “early stage of the North American Colonies,” according to Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, author of Medical Flora, or Manual of the Medical Botany of the United States of North America, the first volume written in 1828. “The roots are the most essential part. They form an article of trade in China, Malabar, and Turkey…Cattle won’t eat the plant and it is noxious to insects so it may be used to advantage against moths and worms…Leather can be tanned by the whole product.”

As for its medicinal benefit, he goes on to say, “The infusion in water is useful in disorders of the stomach, flatulence, vertigo, cholics, dyspepsia…The warm infusion cures the wind colic of infants and sailors. When the root is chewed, a copious salivation is produced which has cured the toothache.”

A Toronto household guide from 1894 includes the following prescription: “Sweet flag is recommended for pain in the stomach or bowels. It can be taken in the form of a tea, sweetened with a little sugar, or the root may be eaten without any preparation.”

Of course, all of this information derived from the knowledge of Native American tribes. Anthropologist Frank Speck, who studied the Penobscot of Maine, wrote in 1915 that sweet flag, “is perhaps the most important herb in Penobscot pharmacology, and the knowledge was imparted to a man by a Muskrat in a dream. A plague of sickness was sweeping the Indians away. There was no one to cure the people. One night a man was visited by a Muskrat spirit in a dream. Muskrat told him he was a root and where to find him. The man awoke, sought the root, made a medicine of it, and cured the people of the plague. Sections of the root are cut up and strung together and hung in nearly every home.”

Erichsen-Brown notes that many of the tribes of Northeastern America used sweet flag as a treatment of influenza, and for almost all the tribes in North America, it served as a panacea. When it didn’t grow in an area, they wouldn’t hesitate to import it.

These plants are just a sampling of species the Northeastern tribes depended on for food, medicine, and resources. They shared their expertise with the colonists – and today, we continue to benefit from these valuable botanicals, with a debt of gratitude to those who came before.