Herbal native plants are easy to appreciate for their beauty and environmental benefits but their value to humans and animals is far reaching as they are worthy as food, medicine, fiber, and flavor. Native Americans shared their knowledge of the native plant uses with early colonists as a way to survive and thrive in a completely new environment. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, a number of these plants and their uses are being rediscovered and re-evaluated for their potent medicines. Thus, an even greater awareness of the need for conservation of wild populations and the development of cultivation practices for production purposes has evolved. In addition, the concept of forest gardening is growing in popularity because forest gardens are ideal places to cultivate a range of useful, healthful, and valuable native plants. The creation of an edible forest garden involves mimicking the forest ecosystem structure while incorporating plants that provide food, flavor, and medicines.
Plants are chemical factories – they contain powerful compounds that continue developing as the plants evolve, adapt, and survive in a competitive world. As a result, many of these native plants are significant in the history of the U.S. for their uses and continue to demonstrate relevance in the modern world. For example, the mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) is a common plant in our woodland. It was used by the Penobscot Indians to treat cancer. Today, it is still being used in the treatment of certain cancers and continues to undergo further research. Like many potent medicines, it is poisonous so its effectiveness is dependent on the amount and methods of application.
One reason that plant medicines fell out of favor in the early 20th century was due to adulteration – when supplies became limited, suppliers would substitute more easily available plants that were not effective. A prime example is the Indian pink (Spigelia marilandica) which was once abundant throughout the southern US and was close to extinction in the early 1800s from over-harvesting. The native Americans had been using the root as an effective treatment to expel intestinal worms, especially roundworms, and the demand for the root grew so much that its trade became an important source of income. Once the wild populations were scarce, the medicines were adulterated and no longer effective. Now, Indian Pink has significantly rebounded due to its value as a stunning garden plant that attracts hummingbirds.
Two of the most aromatic plants in our woods are spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and sassafras (Sassafras albidum). They are both in the Laurel family (Lauraceae) and rich with a range of uses for tea, flavoring, and medicine. They bloom in early spring with modest lemon yellow flowers. Spicebush bark provided a tea used by Native Americans as a blood purifier and for sweating and colds as well as rheumatism and anemia. Settlers made a twig tea to treat colds and fevers and they liked to use the berries as an allspice substitute. Twigs taste like wintergreen with a touch of camphor.
This is a spicy and satisfying tea. Simmer a combination of leaves, twigs, and bark in water for 15 minutes. Add a bit of honey to taste.
All parts of the sassafras tree are useful including leaves, roots, and bark. European settlers learned of the many uses of sassafras, considered as a cure-all, and shipped great quantities to England and the Continent. The dried root bark was made into a popular tea, called “saloop,” that was served with milk and sugar and sold on street corners in England. The market became flooded with too much sassafras and its use declined. More recently, sassafras oil and safrole have been banned as flavors and food additives by the FDA because of the possibility of being carcinogenic. Nonetheless, in many parts of America, the tradition of making a delicious sassafras root bark tea continues. Moreover, in Louisiana the French settlers learned from the Choctaw Indians to add the powdered leaves of sassafras to thicken and flavor gumbo soup. Now known as gumbo filé: it is a staple in Creole cooking.
The sweet birch (Betula lenta) is another tree with a pleasing taste. The bark, leaves, and twigs yield a volatile oil that is sold as oil of wintergreen, which is extremely powerful and can be toxic. In early spring the bark and sap of the sweet birch can be boiled and sweetened to make a delicious drink or the twigs steeped to make a refreshing tea.
The most appealing goldenrod for herbal uses is the sweet goldenrod (Solidago odora). Hold the leaves up to the sunlight and you can see the oil glands dotted on the leaves that hold the essential oil that provides the flavor and fragrance – similar to anise. A rich history of herbal use can be traced to the Cherokee and other Native Americans, as well as sweet goldenrod being considered a fine tea by the settlers. In the early 19th century, the flowering tops of sweet goldenrod were exported as tea.
Associated with spring festivals, ramps (Allium tricoccum) can be found in rich, moist deciduous forests in the East. Often eaten as the first spring greens, ramps provided an important tonic rich with vitamins and minerals much needed after a long winter. The taste is like sweet spring onions with a strong aroma of garlic. Try cultivating ramps for production since wild collection diminishes the native populations. The fronds of the elegant ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) are also an important spring tonic food. Fiddleheads are considered an early spring delicacy and should always be well cooked and then can be pickled or frozen.
Our woods provide some wonderful and useful fruits. Two examples are the native persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) and the pawpaw (Asimina triloba). Native persimmons are used for making a delightful pudding, sorbet, as well as for beer and vinegar. Improved varieties have been selected and are available from nurseries but since the plants are dioecious, be sure to get a male and a female so you produce a full crop. The wonderful pawpaw fruit tastes like mango-banana-melon and is beginning to be grown commercially. Pawpaw can be found occasionally in the farmer’s markets during the short period of production in autumn. In addition to food value, the pawpaw is showing promise as a pesticide and as an anticancer plant.
Our understanding and appreciation for native plants expands greatly when we delve into their rich histories of use and recognize their added value in our own gardens. If you are cultivating natives or hiking through natural areas, learning about their herbal significance can be enlightening. You might also want try selectively and carefully adding some into your kitchen as there is much to be explored.