American Herbs and Their
|There are hundreds of herbs with dozens of
uses in Native American medicine, no room here to list all of
them. You can find books and internet resources for more detailed
information on specific herbs used by specific tribes. Below is
just a small sampling. As with all other forms of herbal medicine,
get a checkup before treating yourself with herbs, research each
carefully for possible side effects. Get in touch with Native Americans
who might be well-versed in herbs and healing.
Traditional healing herbs
Rabbit tobacco (Gnaphalium obtusifolium). These annual herbs
reach a height of 1 to 3 feet and have erect stems with brown,
shriveled leaves persisting into winter and stems covered with
feltlike hairs in summer. The leaves are 1 to 3 inches long, and
alternate. The flowers, minute in whitish heads, appear in late
summer to fall. Fields, pastures, and disturbed areas are the
sites of this common native plant of the eastern United States.
It is used to treat colds, flu, neuritis, asthma, coughs, and
pneumonia. This is one of the most popular plants used by the
Lumbee. The decoction is drunk hot, like most medicinal teas,
and is said to cause profuse sweating.
(Phytolacca americana). Also a common native plant of the
eastern United States, poke is a robust, perennial herb that
reaches a height of 9 feet. It has a large white root; a green,
red, or purple stem; alternate leaves up to 1 foot long; and
white flowers in a drooping raceme. The fruit is a dark purple
to black berry, round, soft, and juicy. Poke is found in waste
areas, road sides, disturbed habitats, fields, and pastures. It
is used to treat asthma, spring tonic, boils (risings), sores,
intestinal worms in people or chickens, cramps, and stomach
ulcers. Poke is said to inhibit gram-positive and gram-negative
bacteria and is listed as a parasiticide in the British Herbal
(Pinus echinata, P. palustris, P. virginiana). Pines are
resinous evergreen trees with needlelike foliage leaves in
bundles of two to five. The male and female reproductive
structures are in separate cones on the same tree; the female
cone matures to a large woody cone with winged seeds; pollen
sheds in the spring. Pine is used to treat colds, flu,
pneumonia, fever, heartburn, arthritis, neuritis, and kidney
(Quercus laevis, Q. phellos). These deciduous trees have
alternate, unlobed, or variously lobed leaves and minute
flowers; the fruit is an acorn. Oak is used to treat kidney
problems (including Bright's disease), bladder problems, virus,
menstrual bleeding, diarrhea, sores, sprains, and swellings. It
is also used as a booster for other remedies.
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum). These deciduous, aromatic, small
trees or shrubs have green twigs and--when mature--thick,
furrowed bark. The leaves are 2.5 to 5 inches long; alternate;
and either unlobed, lobed on one side, or three-lobed. Flowers
are small and yellow in clusters at the end of twigs. The fruit
is a dark blue, fleshy drupe on a bright red stalk and cup. This
common native plant of fencerows, woodland borders, and old
fields of the eastern United States is used to treat measles,
chicken pox, colds, flu, and fever. It is also used as a
"shotgun heart remedy," a blood purifier, and a spring
to the Handbook of Northeastern Indian Medicinal Plants Native
American Indians used about 25 percent of the flora of Maryland
for medicinal purposes (Duke, 1986). A few examples of medicinal
plant species in Maryland are as follows:
Sweetflag or calamus (Acorus). The root has been used to treat
flatulence, colds, coughs, heart disease, bowel problems, colic,
cholera, suppressed menses, dropsy, gravel, headache, sore
throat, spasms, swellings, and yellowish urine. Some tribes
considered the root a panacea; others thought it had mystic
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria). This very poisonous plant is emetic,
laxative, and emmenagogue. It has been used to treat chronic
bronchitis, diphtheria, sore throat, uterine and other cancers,
tetterworm, deafness, and dyspepsia; it has also been used as a
pain reliever and sedative. In Appalachia it is carried as a
charm to ward off evil spirits.
Yellowdock. Contains anthraquinones of value in the treatment of
ringworm and some types of psoriasis. Rumicin from the roots
reportedly destroys skin parasites. The anthraquinones are
Coneflower (Echinacea, Rudbeckia). Echinacea (purple coneflower)
reportedly increases resistance to infection, bad coughs,
dyspepsia, venereal disease, insect bites, fever, and blood
Witch hazel. A proven astringent and hemostat (to stop
Lobelia (Lobelia cardinalis). Cardinal flower was used to
indurate ulcers and to treat stomachache, syphilis, and worms.
The leaf tea was used for cold, croup, epistaxis (nosebleed),
fever, headache, rheumatism, and syphilis. Lobelia inflata
(Indian tobacco) yields lobeline sulfate, used in antitobacco
therapy. It is used as an antiasthmatic, an expectorant, and a
stimulant for bronchitis; it also is used to treat aches,
asthma, boils, croup, colic, sore throat, stiff neck, and
tuberculosis of the lungs. Some smoked the herb to break a
Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum). Early Native American Indians
used the roots as a strong purgative, liver cleanser, emetic,
and worm expellant. A resin made from the plant has been used to
treat venereal warts and exhibits antitumor activity; it also is
used for snakebite and as an insecticide for potato bugs.
cherry (Prunus virginiana). The bark has been used to treat
sores and wounds, diarrhea, cold and cough, tuberculosis,
hemoptysis, scrofula, sore throat, stomach cramps, and piles.
Native American Indians treated snow blindness by leaning over a
kettle of boiling bark "tea." Some smoked the bark for
headache and head cold.
White willow (Salix alba). The bark is astringent, expectorant,
hemostatic, and tonic. It is used to treat calluses, cancers,
corns, tumors, and warts. Salicylic acid (used to make aspirin)
is found in white willow. Leaves and bark of different willows
are used in a tea to break a fever. Some Native American Indians
burned willow stems and used the ashes to treat sore eyes.
Native American Healing
Natural healing has been used for thousands of years.
Other alternative treatments - acupuncture and ayurveda - developed in parallel to Native American healing.
American and South American Indians have given modern society more than 200 drugs.
The plant osha is a strong antibiotic.
St. John's wort is a natural anti-depressant that outsells Prozac in Europe.
Pitch of pinon pine is "nature's own Band-Aid"
Indian sweat lodge
Thistle combats the ravages of alcohol and liver damage.
Today's patient-centered approach reflects the holism of Native healing practices.
Mixing natural remedies and traditional treatments can be unwise