Native American Medicinal Plants

This article contains my responses and corrections to a recent article by another author, “31 Long-forgotten Native American Medical Cures” appearing at two websites:

Often what is given under the name Native American Medicine is not, or are listings of plants from European tradition taken up by natives post-colonization. Often those interested in herbal medicine have promoted it by using the exotic cache of ‘native’, but are able to deliver little substance attributable to actual traditional tribal practice. This is because the orally based traditions have never been properly recorded due to the near total cultural genocide committed in North America against tribal people.

I have emboldened the text of plants native to North America that were used or could have been used by native peoples here.

Alfalfa – Medicago sativa not present in the Americas until the mid-1800s. Not part of traditional native medicine.

Aloe – genus not present in the Americas prior to colonial times. Agave americana is sometimes given the common name “American aloe” but is not an aloe, given that it is in an entirely different family (Asparagus), and has different uses.

Aspen – North American trees generally referring to members of the poplar (Populus)) genus which does indeed contain salicins, as well as significant tannins for an astrigent medicine.

Bee pollen – there were no bees in North America for millions of years before they were reintroduced in the 1600s and were completely foreign to native tribes here.

Bees wax – same.

Blackberry and Black Raspberry – Rubus genus definitely American plants whose leave are astringent, fitting the historical usage as a hemostatic, for ulcers, and anti-diarrhea remedy.

Buckwheat – a common name referring to two genera, the Californian Eriogonum known as wild buckwheat, and the non-native Fagopyrum genus cultivated in Europe and Asia. Both are of the Polygonaceae family much touted in Chinese medicine (Polygonum multiflorum).

Chamomile – Neither Matricaria chamomilla (German) or Chamaemelum nobile (Roman) were present in the Americas prior to colonial times.

Chokecherry – the berries of Prunus virginiana. It is a close relative of the black cherry and was definitely used by many tribes across North America, both as food and medicine. It contains antioxidants like many fruits and could be more useful than the western-based herbal medicine has so far recognized.

Echinacea – definitely a genus of North America, but over-harvested in the plains states due to tribal needs for income, and due to over-reliance and over-marketing by herbal supplement companies, endangering it in the last 20 years. This is why many products for sale on shelves now do not contain any of the potent root, but only the tops. Rudbekia is a related (composite family) genus that has very similar immunity stimulating uses to Echinacea, but is far more powerful. We should be cultivating and using it instead.

Eucalyptus – Eucalyptus genus not present in the Americas prior to colonial times. Brought by Australians to California in the mid-1800s.

Fennel – Foeniculum vulgare not present in the Americas prior to colonial times.

Feverfew – Parthenium genus of North America, particularly Parthenium incanum, which was used by the Jicarilla Apache, but apparently not in the fashion of traditional European use or modern use (headaches).

Feverwort – There are two genus referred to with this common name. The genus native to North America is Triosteum, which appears to have been given the common name “Feverwort” by Europeans using the term. These American species are sometimes referred to as Tinker’s root after a doctor named Tinker’s root, or Dr. Tinker’s weed.

Ginger root – Zingiber genus, not native to the Americas. What is native to North America is Asarum canadensis (family Aristolochiaceae), referred to as wild ginger and is unrelated to the Zingiberacea family. It does, however, have similar uses.

Ginseng – Panax quinquefolium is definitely a native plant of North America, little used here, yet very prized by Asians. It should be brought back into common usage. It is highly prized to combat the effects of aging, exhaustion, diabetes, impotence or fertility problems. Its root boosts and builds overall energy as good as any herb around.

Goldenrod – definitely a North American plant genus, the prolific Solidago. It has been mistaken for the allergen ragweed (Ambrosia spp). Solidago nemoralis had many uses, including as a liver tonic for jaundice, a kidney remedy (roots), and as a topical treatment for injuries or skin conditions. This is a prolific genus of 100-200 plants that should be explored further and put to better, more common use.

Honeysuckle – natives would have used Lonicera americana or L. canadensis, not the invasive Japanese honeysuckle more commonly found in some areas today.

Hops – there are wild Humulus lupulus varieties native to North America.

Licorice – Glycyrrhiza species were definitely used by Cherokees as an expectorant for coughs, and for asthma, among other things. This would have long predated any contact with Asians using their Glycyrrhiza uralensis for very similar purposes.

Mullein – Verbascum genus not present in the Americas prior to colonization. The usage listed here comes from European tradition.

Passion Flower – Passiflora incarnata is definitely a plant of the new world, but it appears that most often the root was used by tribal peoples for topical applications and drawing salves.

Red Clover – Trifolium pratense not present in the Americas prior to colonial times.

Rose Hips – Astringent, vitamin C rich fruits of the rose plants (Rosa genus) used as a food and medicine by native peoples.

Rosemary – Rosmarinus officinalis, a member of the Labiatae (mint) family not present in the Americas prior to colonial times.

Sages – Many Salvia species grow in North America and have been used for a variety of purposes, medicinal and ceremonial, generally as a cleansing agent/detoxifier.

Spearmint – Mentha spicata not present in the Americas prior to colonial times.

Valerian – Valeriana officinalis not present in the Americas prior to colonial times.

White Pine – Pinus monticola was used as a decongestant/expectorant (among other uses) by western tribes.

Some Other Important Native Plants

Cascara sagrada – Rhamnus purshiana a species of Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica), laxative herbs first used by native tribes of North America.

Mormon Tea (Brigham Tea, American Ephedra) – Ephedra species in North America contain no ephedrine, thus being safer for regular use. However, usage has fallen out of favor due to confusion with the Chinese Ephedra sinensis, abused by supplement companies in formulas or quasi-drugs intended for easy weight loss. Various uses are known by mostly western tribes in the U.S.

Yaupon Holly / Ilex vomitoria – A prolific evergreen genus in the Aquifoliaceae family. Yaupon Holly contains xanthine alkaloids caffeine and theobromine, so it can be used as a stimulant, which could be expected to behave in the body similarly to its South American cousin, Ilex paraguariensis (Yerba Mate). This means it is possible it contains similar powerful polyphenol flavanoid antioxidants, which can protect the body from poisons and forestall the aging of tissues.

I will add more to this list, as a make a permanent page for this topic.



About Kannon McAfee

Poet, herbalist/healer, professional astrologer. Kannon means Kwan Yin -- healer. So I approach my work and others with a healer's heart. I'm dedicated to advancing astrology as a soul-oriented science. My specialty is birth chart interpretation and rectification.
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