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The Original Medicinal Plant Gatherers & Conservationists

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by M. Kat Anderson USDA NRCS

Figure1Figure 1. Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis). One example of the many medicinal plant species that the American Indians gave non-Indian settlers. Adapted from a 19th century painting.In Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, a television series that ran from 1993 to 1998, the Cheyenne taught a white lady doctor about various kinds of native medicinal herbs that could be used to treat human ailments in the frontier town of Colorado Springs, Colorado in the 1860s. The generosity and compassion shown by the Cheyenne made an impression on many viewers. Although the series was fictional, key elements were based on historical fact, and notable among these was the transfer of medicinal plant knowledge from Native Americans to white settlers. Not only were American Indians the first to discover the healing properties of many of the medicinal herbs native to North America that we’ve come to know so well–goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), echinacea (Echinacea spp.), blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), yerba santa (Eriodictyon californicum), and cascara sagrada (Frangula purshiana), to name just a few–they also passed along this knowledge to European missionaries, pioneers, and settlers, who integrated it into traditional American medical care.


In an era before antibiotics and knowledge of the causes of infectious diseases, Native American herbal wisdom provided a crucial foundation for the building of a new nation. Every American schoolchild knows that the native foods that Indians provided to early colonists kept them from starving; it is less well known that Indians also gave colonists native herbs that helped them survive disease, injury, nutritional deficiencies, complications of childbirth, and other maladies. Native plant cures for ailments such as constipation, lung problems, snakebites, burns, and rheumatism, first developed by Indians, were used very early by American doctors. Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) for soothing strained muscles, salve of balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) for healing flesh wounds, red trillium (Trillium erectum) root to ease pain during childbirth, blue cohosh as an antispasmodic, and black cohosh (Actaea racemosa) as a female and pregnancy medicine are just a few of the plants the Indians gave the colonists and pioneers.

In the 1800s, as westward expansion exposed Americans of European descent to new landscapes as well as the inevitable injuries and sicknesses, Native people often provided the explorers and settlers with herbal medicines that proved crucial to their survival. The journals of some of our great explorers, fur trappers, surgeons, and naturalists–such as Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Peter Kalm, Jedediah Strong Smith, Leonard McPhail, and William Bartram–contain references to knowledge of food and medicinal native plants gained from American Indians and the use of these plants to combat sickness and injury.

During the California Gold Rush, miners subsisted on diets of bacon, beans, and coffee. Thus, showing symptoms of scurvy, they were introduced by foothill tribes of the Sierra Nevada to Claytonia perfoliata, an edible plant that restored them to health. Subsequently found to be rich in Vitamin C, this plant came to be called “miner’s lettuce.” During the Civil War, native plants such as sassafras (Sassafras albidum), partridgeberry (Mitchella repens), dogwood (Cornus spp.), tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera), and the leaves and bark of white oaks (Quercus alba) provided field surgeons with a repertoire of remedies to treat wounded soldiers; they wouldn’t have known that these plants could be used to staunch bleeding, ward off infection, reduce fever, set broken bones, and relieve pain had Indians not shared this knowledge over the previous centuries.

European immigrants to the New World were not completely dependent on Native Americans for herbal medicines. Beneficiaries of a rich herbalist tradition in Europe and unfamiliar with the virtues of the plants native to the New World, they brought with them cuttings and seeds of favorite medicinal plants. They applied eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis) to heal inflamed eyes, treated coughs and colds with horehound (Marrubium vulgare), and used St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) as an anti-inflammatory. It was this familiarity with plants’ medicinal qualities that led them to seek herbal knowledge from Indians and to readily incorporate into their medicine cabinets the native plants about which they learned.

Just as the Old World species brought to the shores of America, both deliberately and accidentally, rapidly spread through New World ecosystems to create new ecological mixtures, so too did medicinal herbs with both native and European origins mingled together in the pharmacopeias of the young nation. In the first U.S. Pharmacopeia issued in 1820, almost half of the substances were native plants used by American Indians, such as American senna (Senna marilandica formerly Cassia marilandica) and Canada fleabane (Conyza canadensis formerly Leptilon canadense). The balance were non-native plants brought from the old European homelands or other continents.

Figure2Figure 2. Cascara sagrada (Frangula purshiana). One of the most important herbal remedies for constipation around the world that was given to modern medicine by the American Indians. Adapted from a 19th century painting.In the early years of our nation, therefore, Americans had access to a very broad range of medicinal herbs derived from the floras of two continents and representing the combined wisdom of two distinct herbal traditions, each going back millennia. For American Indians, however, this mixing process had one unfortunate aspect: their contributions to this considerable collection of medicines were largely ignored and forgotten. This oversight continues to the present day. Over 200 drugs that have been or still are listed in the Pharmacopeia of the United States or the National Formulary were first used by American Indians, but neither reference acknowledges this fact. Thus, the tremendous benefits we’ve derived from indigenous knowledge of native plant medicines go largely uncredited.

Many native medicinal plants have proven so valuable that they’ve been subjected to unsustainable commercial harvest for decades and, in some cases, centuries. With the added pressures of habitat destruction, fire suppression, and climate change, many of these native medicinal species–such as cascara, American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), slippery elm (Ulmus rubra), and goldenseal–are becoming rare. Efforts to conserve such species and ensure they will be available in the future bump up against a variety of barriers, not the least of which is a basic lack of scientific knowledge of the species involved, the ecological effects of their harvest, and the management strategies that may ensure long-term product sustainability. We eally know very little about the basic reproductive biology, ecology, and habitat requirements of most of these species and have little baseline data on distribution, phenology, and population size. Without fundamental ecological knowledge of these species and no organized sustain-yield management program, it is no wonder that the growth in popularity of and demand for certain medicinal species results in population declines.

To find a way forward out of this impasse, we can look to the same people who gave us knowledge of these species’ uses and value in the first place. Besides curating tremendous knowledge about the use of native medicinal herbs, American Indians worked out sustained yield practices attuned to the reproductive biology of the plants and developed management practices that maintained their habitats. Both harvest and management were based on an ethical system founded on restraint, a long-term time perspective, and a body of ecological knowledge derived from close empirical observation. We can learn a great deal from these indigenous practices, integrating them into conservation plans and combining them with western science-based strategies as appropriate for the local context.

A specific example helps to illustrate how native management and harvest practices can be used in the conservation of a threatened medicinal plant. The bark from cascara sagrada has been used to treat constipation for millennia in the northwestern U.S., and since people of European descent learned of its qualities about 125 years ago, its use has spread around the globe. It has been called “the most widely used cathartic on earth”.

This large shrub or small tree up to 10 meters high grows as far north as British Columbia and south to California and Arizona and east into Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. A member of the Rhamnaceae, cascara has a gray to dark reddish brown bark that is smooth to longitudinally furrowed or scaly. The glossy green, elliptic-shaped leaves are prominently veined and have finely toothed margins. It occurs below 2000 m. in multiple habitats from semi-dry to wet, including coniferous forests of Sitka spruce, western hemlock, Douglas-fir, ponderosa pine, mixed evergreen forests, hardwood forests, montane chaparral, coastal scrub, stream drainages and ravines, swampy bottomlands with red alder and vine maple, and ecotones between forest and prairie or open wetland. When growing in deep, rich soils in low river bottoms, flats, valleys, and borders of streams, it will reach tree size; on drier sites with gravelly or sandy soils it retains a shrub-like form.

Figure3Figure 3. An example of an early 20th century advertisement touting the efficacy of a medicine, in this case cascara sagrada, that in turn heightened its popularity worldwide—often without giving American Indians credit.Cascara bark was an important laxative for treating constipation among many tribes such as the Cowlitz, Green River, Jamestown and Port Gamble S’Klallam, Lower Elwha Klallam, Lummi, Makah, Quileute, Quinault, Skagit, Skokomish, Squaxin, and Swinomish tribes of Washington, the Kootenai and Flathead tribes of western Montana, the Colville, Kalapuya, and Klamath tribes of Oregon and the Karuk, Maidu, Miwuk, Tolowa, and Yurok tribes of California. For some of these tribes, cascara was more than just another cathartic; it reportedly restored the bowel to a healthier tone, which made repeated doses unnecessary.

The plant was introduced to modern medicine in 1877 by a physician from Colusa, Dr. Bundy, and became official in the Pharmacopeia of the United States in 1890. Early advertisers touted cascara as being among “the finest medicinal herbs”. By the early 1900s cascara was being used all around the world.

Despite its long-term indigenous use, there were plenty of cascara sagrada trees when the first missionaries and non-Indian settlers tried it. Cascara remained abundant because of the way indigenous people harvested it. “Native Americans gather cascara bark by taking small strips off the main trunk or by cutting a single limb so that it doesn’t harm or kill the tree” says Linda Wiechman, Lower Elwha Klallam, (pers. comm. 2014).

“It’s going to be there the next year and the year after and the year after,” says Ken Merritt of the Jamestown S’Klallam (pers. comm. 2014). “It heals over very fast. So you can keep re-harvesting for the bark if you needed to… And it would always produce the berries. And so it’s a beautiful never ending cycle.” Another method of sustainable harvest is to coppice the tree, pruning the top to leave a tall stump about four feet high from which multiple stems will sprout, each yielding usable bark in several years.

In the early part of the twentieth century, cascara was in great demand as the active ingredient in many kinds of commercial laxatives. Many non-Indian people became cascara bark peelers, going after trees that had attained large size and ignoring those smaller than a few inches in diameter. Some learned the sustainable harvest methods of the Indians, but the windfall of a big one-time harvest often outweighed long-term considerations. Most harvesters cut the bark all the way around the tree–killing it. Even areas that were harvested sustainably were subject to “pirating,” the wasteful practice of skinning trees only as high as could be reached from the ground. Those trees died–their large amounts of remaining bark unsalvageable. After many decades of unsustainable harvest, larger and older cascara trees became uncommon. The bone-white skeletons of dead cascara trees still mark landscapes in parts of the Northwest, testaments to the thoughtless and destructive harvesting of the trees. Today cascara sagrada is included on the United Plant Savers’ “To-Watch” list because it is “currently in decline due to expanding popularity and shrinking habitat and range.”

Cascara sagrada has not recovered in part because of continuing global demand for its bark, but also because the plant communities in which it grows are no longer as conducive to growth and reproduction as they once were. Cascara needs sunlight for optimum growth, and in many habitats the trees are too dense and the canopy too closed to allow for the necessary light levels. These conditions are the result of widespread fire suppression and a cessation of the regular burning of the forests, wetlands, and prairies once practiced by the tribes of the Northwest.

The Indians burned to keep the forests open and to keep the wetlands and prairies from being encroached by trees. In so doing, they maintained ideal habitats for many useful plant species, including cascara. Indian burning diversified the forest, creating a forest–prairie or forest–wetland mosaic that supported a richer variety of plants and animals than might otherwise occur. Cascara does particularly well in very open forests and in the ecotones, or edge zones, between forest and open wetland or prairie; these are precisely the kinds of habitats created and maintained by regular burning–and the ones that disappear along with anthropogenic fire. Cascara not only thrives in habitats subjected to fire, it can re-sprout from the root crown if the top is burned in a low-intensity fire–an adaptation shared by many plants that evolved in a context of frequent fire.

Figure4Drying cascara sagrada ( Rhamnus purshiana ) Courtesy of the Museum of History & Industry, Seattle, Washington.Cascara sagrada and other native medicinal plants will be around for future generations to use if we can begin to put Native Americans’ sustainable harvest and management methods into practice on a broad scale. Already, partnerships between tribes and public and private landowners have yielded successful conservation projects and programs. Together with tribes, we can combine Indians’ traditional ecological knowledge with Western-style scientific investigation to build the knowledge base and management practices needed to perpetuate not only medicinal plants but also other valuable cultural resources. One of the important goals of management would be to work out methods and techniques for calculating harvest regimes that lead to sustained yields of plant populations. This would focus on individual species’ reproductive biology and growth response, but it would do so within the broader context of habitat quality, the conservation of other ethnobotanically important plants, and the health of the land. Besides representing our best chance of success, incorporating Indians’ harvest and management practices into our conservation efforts will finally honor Native Americans’ important role in enriching the practice of American medicine.

Note: Plant scientific names were updated using the PLANTS database http://plants.usda.gov.


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