ARTICLE FOR NORTH GEORGIA JOURNAL
EIGHTEEN PLANTS, EIGHTEEN ALLIES:
MEDICINES, FOODS & CRAFTS OF THE NATIVE AMERICANS
By Mark Warren
Thousands of years ago – in a land that would later be called “Appalachia”- a man stepped from his rock overhang shelter into the late afternoon sunlight and winced. He needed to get to his blind to set up for hunting before twilight. He hoped to spear an elk or deer. But his free hand rose to cradle his forehead; his thumb and long finger squeezed at each temple. The throbbing in his head was becoming a problem.
The feeling that came over him – the feeling that set his feet into
motion downhill – was probably vague perhaps indefinable. But down the hill he went, some wisp of deliberation stirring in his subconscious… something beckoning him.
A sunny shoulder of the creek drew him. It was a place where he had found many plants that he did not see in the deep woods. When he reached the floodplain he walked directly to the tree that had been materializing in his mind like a scene blossoming with resolution from a rising fog. He chewed the green tips of the tenderest branches; and though they were decidedly bitter, he swallowed the juices and chewed more until the pain in his head began to subside.
No one had taught him about willow. He had no name for the tree. He knew nothing of analgesics. But he had felt an instinct and acted on it – much like you or I would cup cold hands to mouth to breathe warm air into them on a winter day. Who taught us to do that? Who teaches a baby snake what to eat? A bird how to fly? No one. It’s all part of the genetic package. And it may have been just that easy for early man and woman to recognize foods and medicines.
Over the millennia, humans have lost many primitive instincts while
vestiges of others still linger. I’ve never met a person who could
accurately predict the medicinal or edible use of an unknown plant
displayed before him. Yet I see a dogged intent, diligence and primal
pleasure in the faces of shoppers foraging along the aisles of a grocery
store. It is surely an ancient expression known to every chapter of
One of the prices we have paid for cultural refinement, language development and technology has been this loss of instinct. Today, to know and use wild plants, you must study, learn to identify with certainty, and use prudent moderation as to how certain plant components might interact with your particular body chemistry. Maybe one of these eighteen plants will ring an atavistic bell in your chromosomes. Or better yet, perhaps this cavalcade of wild foods, medicines and craft materials you are about to encounter will light a fire inside you to reconnect to the real world. If so, you will need more than this magazine article to begin utilizing these plant gifts. You’ll need a reliable guide or a plant identification book and the knowledge of how to use it.
These plants have been around north Georgia for a long time – even the few that are not native. Once, they were staples of the Cherokee; but these plants are still packed with the same nutrition, potency and utility for anyone willing to learn their secrets. Already you’ve learned one of these. It is the inner bark of willow that contains salicin, a precursor of aspirin. And though bitter, this inner bark is a survival food. And the tree’s wood is just the right hardness for creating fire by friction.
On the sunny bank of a stream or edge of a wet meadow, groundnut twines up goldenrod, Joe Pye weed and other long-stemmed plants. This legume’s compound leaves are easy to spot in summer, but you must know the plant intimately to recognize its slender, wispy string-of-a-vine in fall, winter and early spring. By carefully digging the earth away from its root – even in winter – you could uncover a “string of pearls” that are actually edible, protein-rich tubers ranging in size from a pea to a golf ball. Simply clean with water then boil, steam or bake. just like a potato.
In a similar habitat – possibly where there is less sun – look for a knobby, gray wooden stem (perhaps a foot tall) that abruptly terminates in drooping arcs of compound green leaves that look as if they have been snipped by scissors around their edges. like the irregular fringe of celery leaves. To dig this medicinal root is to discover a stunning color. Yellowroot manufactures an impressive healing agent (berberine) for the mucous membrane of nose, mouth, throat and stomach. It is anti-inflammatory, mildly astringent, and an immune system booster. A tiny section of dried root (the size of a 1/8″ length of pencil lead) can be chewed into a ready-to-use poultice for mouth ulcers. Or swallow the juice for stomach upset. To dry, simply hang the gently cleaned root in a dry, ventilated spot out of direct sunlight for two weeks. If you are an artist, crush roots in water for a natural watercolor.
In sunny shallows or muddy banks, cattails grow in thick colonies. Almost everyone is familiar with the female flower gone to seed – which looks like a brown hotdog on a stick. In spring this flower and the male flower above it are enclosed in leafy envelopes. Unwrapped, both flowers can be eaten raw, boiled or steamed like corn on the cob. Or let the male flower mature to produce its copious pollen, which can be used as a flour, a soup-thickener or a raw treat. The spring and early summer stalks (peel away the outer long green leaves to reveal the white succulent core) are delicious raw or cooked. The mucilaginous gel found between leaves will stanch bleeding and allay pain when applied to a small wound.
The Cherokees called dogwood the “alligator tree”, telling a story of the reptile’s migration to the mountains, its inability to tolerate the first winter and subsequent transformation into a tree for survival. Dogwood’s reptilian bark makes the story memorable. The inner bark contains components to lower body temperature (like the story). A ½” X 3″ strip of inner bark steeped for thirty minutes in a cup of hot waternot only addresses fever, but I have witnessed the tea resolving migraine headaches within an hour on three students. The U.S. government issued dogwood bark when quinine supplies were depleted during the Civil War and again during a malaria outbreak.
It seemed that every path connecting colonial villages spawned a rosette of leaves the native people had never before seen. The Indians called it “white man’s foot.” Broad-leaved plantain is now common in lawns and along roadsides. Not having a stem, the leaves remain low to the ground, only a spike of tiny white flowers or seeds rising above the grasses. To confirm your identification of this herb, gently pull apart the blade lengthwise near the leaf stalk. If you do this carefully, the fibrous veins will hold together (as the leaf tears) resembling a set of taut guitar strings.
The crushed, juicy leaf will draw insect venom or infection from a sting or festering wound. A compress of crushed leaves relieves flared hemorrhoids. A tea of the seeds reduces cholesterol while the eaten seeds scour the intestines with psyllium. Some researchers argue that seeds eaten regularly build up an internal scent emission to repel insects. All the herbs that have the word “plantain” as part of their name were once believed to be effective poultices, but research has proved some of these ineffective. This plant, however, works.
The reputation of sassafras took a heavy blow years ago when the surgeon general announced the tree’s carcinogenic potential. In this study certain compounds were isolated from the root then pumped into laboratory animals in high dosages – a very different scenario from moderate use with the whole root. In fact, one can of beer is fourteen times as carcinogenic as a cup of sassafras root tea.
The root tea is an historic Appalachian spring tonic that has been proven to reduce the chances for sore throat and the common cold. And it subdues the microorganisms that nauseate one who has drunk untreated water. If you have an aversion to the smell of mothballs, store your winter clothes with sassafras wood chips for protection from insect damage.
Leaves come in three shapes: football, mitten and Casper the Friendly Ghost. (Mulberry leaves share this trait but are scratchy on the surface and serrate on the margin.) Sassafras’ young spring leaves are delicious raw – tasting like a popular kid’s cereal (I’ll let you guess which one). Older summer leaves can be dried then crumbled into soups as a thickener – exactly what the Cajuns use in gumbo file. For primitive fire-makers, sassafras is an important wood since it can grow on higher ground where dead wood (needed for friction) can better dry.
Unlike the infamous herb that bears the same name, the hemlock tree contains no poisons. It’s new leaf sprouts are edible raw, as is the inner bark. Early hunters dried the inner bark and ground it into an antiseptic powder that absorbed human scent when rubbed on the body. Mature needles can be chewed for their nutritious juices then spit out or they can be steeped into a tea. Hemlock is another fire-making tree, and on top of that the source for the tiniest dead branchlets for kindling.as long as the weather is dry. On foggy or rainy days, the persistent bark on these thread-sized twigs retains too much water to be useful. Hemlocks grow two different sizes of needles, both with a pair of white stripes (gas pores) along the underside. The larger, obvious leaf is about one-half inch long. The smaller needle – one-third as long – is twisted upside down and more difficult to find. Can you locate it?
All the native pines of north Georgia have edible inner bark (raw or cooked), male cones (boiled), new shoots of leaf and limb (raw) and pollen (raw or baked as flour). Their rootlets make good emergency rope. White pine, which rings its limbs around the trunk in tiers of “wheel spokes”, provides an expectorant in its inner bark tea. It separates mucous from the lining of the bronchial tubes and allows a congested person to cough up the infected material. White pine – sometimes called “mountain pine” – is the only pine in our area to group its needles in fives and the one of only three pines (in my experience) that can be used to create fire by friction. Since it is the tallest tree east of the Mississippi, dead dry wood can be readily found if you are willing to climb. And while you are up there, collect those globs of sap that ooze from wounds in the trunk. When heated (be careful; it’s highly flammable) the sap melts to a liquid. Sprinkle in hardwood ashes, mix and you have an excellent “epoxy” glue that hardens as it cools. I have arrows that I made fifteen years ago whose fore-shafts, fletchings and nocks are still secure with this rock-hard adhesive. Dead branches harvested low on the trunk can be easily debarked for a chemically flammable kindling.
Virginia pine has two or three twisted needles per bundle and rough flaky bark whose under-layers have a rufous tint. But perhaps it is more useful to identify the dead tree, for you’ll not find a more flammable wood. As the dead tree rots it concentrates its resins at its core, leaving a hard wooden “spine” that, when broken, reveals amber “veins” of fuel that smell like bathroom cleanser. This wood is glassy and near petrifaction. Perhaps the dead tree’s most identifiable trait is the swirl of wood grain around the base of each branch remnant. The pattern resembles a miniature sculpture of floodwaters parting around a tree trunk.
A fire-constructor can do no better than to begin with a loose layer of Virginia pine “fat-lighter” shavings (the wood bubbles like fat as it burns). A finger-sized stick of fat-lighter can often be impaled in the ground to be used like a candle because it wicks fuel upward like a lantern.
Varying common or local names for the same plant often present identification misunderstandings between people. Our tulip magnolia tree – more commonly and incorrectly called tulip poplar or yellow poplar – is a perfect example. True poplars provide primitive fire-makers with excellent material for creating friction. And though the wood of the tulip tree can be successfully spun for fire, it is much more problematic with its moisture content and grain. The bark and interior wood of both trees can be remarkably similar in appearance, but the tulip tree is our only native tree whose leaf terminates not in a point, but in a notch.
Finding dead branches for their inner bark fibers is often made easy by birds and squirrels, who strip ribbons of inner bark for their nests. Left behind are “banners” of beige bark streamers hanging from these work sites and advertising a source of cordage fibers and tinder for fire. In spring, large sheets of bark (outer and inner together) can be cut from the trunk for shingles or solid basketry. Amazingly this extraction does not kill that side of the tree as it would with most trees. Nor does the tree visibly remanufacture its inner bark tubes as can sweet gum. Apparently compensation for water and sap flow is made up inside the trunk – a unique phenomenon.
The dead wood of tulip tree is porous and brittle, making a fine kindling that burns hot and fast for the early stage of a fire; but it is a poor wood for tool material – the exception being a canoe. The Cherokee burned and chipped out one side of a felled trunk for a dug-out canoe. If you’d like to see the size these trees once regularly reached (before mass logging was introduced), explore the forests north of Suches near Cooper Creek or in North Carolina’s Joyce Kilmer Forest.
With the advent of the Europeans, a fuzzy, pale-green rosette of soft leaves showed up on hard-packed soil in America. If all goes well in its growth, mullein sends up in its second year a tall flower stalk, which can also put out leaves. The mucilage inside the leaves is anti-inflammatory and antibiotic when used topically. When the leaves are boiled, this mucilage rises with the steam. Inhaling these vapors a few minutes twice a day introduces to the congested patient both an expectorant and a protective seal over the allergen receptors inside the nasal passages. Two handfuls of yellow flowers soaked in a pint of olive oil for ten days in sunlight then strained can be used as eardrops for infection. There are many other practical uses for mullein – one of my favorites being a fire-maker’s hand drill from the dried winter stalk.
Always growing near water – whether a roadside ditch or a stream – jewelweed can be identified by a memorable verification trick. Remove one leaf without handling the blade, submerge the leaf into still water in a sunny spot and watch it appear to transform into aluminum foil. (Tiny hairs on the leaf trap air and refract and reflect light.) The entire plant contains natural cortisone. Crush the succulent stem and apply the juice to rashes or bites (and some chemical stings like nettle, fire ants and walnut dye) that arise from immune reaction. Falling into these categories are poison ivy/oak/sumac, mosquito and chigger. In late summer and fall, after the orange or yellow cornucopia-shaped flowers have gone to seed, the fragile seed capsules “explode” when touched – giving this impatiens its other name.”touch me not.”
Climbing up into the trees or sprawling over the forest floor, wild grape vines provide a wonderfully supple stem for weaving baskets, shelter walls and shelter doors – as well as a source for clean drinking water. In spring and early summer, if you sever a vine near ground-level then notch the side of the vine as high up as you can climb, sweet water will drip steadily from the lower cut. Young leaves are edible – though often bitter – while mature leaves are handy for wrapping foods to be baked in a primitive oven. The delicious fruit maturing in late summer enjoys a new reputation medicinally. Recent research shows that resveratrol – a component of dark grapes – has proved beneficial in suppressing both cancer and arthritic inflammation. Winemakers jumped on this news to promote their products to the public, but eating grapes is equally salubrious.
There are several sumacs that grow in north Georgia as shrubs or small trees. Only poison sumac fruits mature into white or grayish berries that grow from the intersection of compound leaf and branch. Staghorn, smooth, and winged sumacs produce “candle-flame” clusters of scarlet berries at the ends of branches. All three (but not poison sumac) are good for making a favorite Cherokee drink called qualla. In fact, the Eastern Cherokee named their North Carolina reservation Qualla.
The ripe red berries – which can stand on the shrub and retain flavor through a good part of winter if rainfall is minimal – should be gathered with care, because a large pith in the wood makes branches and trunk fragile. After harvesting, go through each cluster of berries to liberate insects and spiders that have taken up residence there, then soak the berries in water, hot or cold, until the water turns pink. Strain this through a cloth to remove tiny irritating hairs then sweeten accordingly for a unique drink made tart by ascorbic, mallic and tannic acids.
The golden yellow wood of sumac is fire-making wood, but your fire kit will have to be modified a bit to work around the Styrofoam-like pith. Natives chewed a piece of root sparingly for sore throat, but the high tannin content of the root suggests making a tea for gargling instead.
People are often surprised to hear that yucca is native to the mountains since it is such a well known desert and coastal plant. Its long green bayonet leaves are tipped with formidable spines that can draw blood or damage the eye of an unwary visitor. The leaves are filled with remarkably strong fibers that can be exposed by gently pounding the retted leaves with a mallet or smooth stone on a smooth, barkless log until the leaf blade material has been removed. If the sharp spine is left in tact, you have a serviceable needle and tail of trailing threads already attached.
The leaf and root juices contain saponin, a natural soap (and poison that was used on Cherokee darts and arrows for hunting small animals). The large white flower petals can be eaten raw. The young flower stalks should be peeled then boiled before eating. The tall green stalk that pushes these flowers skyward eventually turns woody to supply primitive fire-makers with an effective, crisply-grained hand drill and fire board.
Hickory trees are fascinating. Just look at the diamond-shaped pattern of outer bark of most species and already you can deduce an important facet about its inner bark (part of which becomes outer bark each year). The inner bark has a woven quality – like fabric – and since it is pliable enough to be cut green and stripped from the tree (after outer bark is shaved away), you have in hickory a source of instant tough cordage.
Like a maple tree, hickory can be tapped for its potable sap (as a water source, not a syrup). Hickory nuts are edible raw but tedious to pick out of their convoluted shells. The Native Americans simplified the process by removing the thick hull, crushing nut and shell together to heat in water. As the mixture cooled the nut oil and nut meat rose to the top while the shells sank in time. The valuable surface material was skimmed off or the whole batch strained through a sieve to serve as a soup stock called powcohicora.
Since part of the inner bark annually becomes wood, the woven quality of wood fibers lends itself well to tool handles.and a first handmade bow. And surprisingly, as tough as it is, hickory wood can be spun on itself to make fire.
We’ve only skimmed the surface with these eighteen plants, but you can see that the gifts of plants are legion. We in the southeastern United States are fortunate to live among an impressive diversity of botanical species – more than any other part of the country. If you choose to explore the historical use of plant medicines, the delight of wild foods and the utility of natural craft materials, proceed with studious caution, unerring identification skills, moderation always and guidance from experts. Never guess about a food or medicine! Never assume that nature will treat your good intentions with benevolence. Primitive people also possessed instincts that warned against ingesting poisonous plants. Remember, we traded in those instincts long ago for a different kind of literacy.
I wonder if we shall ever be able to go back. Or will nature teachers like myself continue to nurture ever-widening shelves of books as we rediscover what was once common knowledge to every man, woman and child? (end)
Mark Warren has authored a four-volume set of books called Secrets of the Forest which details plants, survival skills, fire-making, stalking, tracking, archery and other projectiles and canoeing. For more information visit his books page “Secrets of the Forest”.