Our Ever Evolving Relationship with Plants

Plants have played a critical role in human survival through the ages.  Although most people in the modern world do not rely on plants they gather themselves, we are surrounded by useful flora that Native Americans and later European colonists relied upon.  Today, some are labeled as ‘weeds’ while the more attractive ones are propagated as ornamentals, but little thought is given to their potential usefulness.  Some are native while many are introductions or ‘invasives’ brought over from Europe, Asia, or Africa.  Here are just a few plants you’ve likely encountered that played active roles in the lives of our colonial and Native American ancestors:

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus):

Not to be confused with Foxglove or Lamb’s ear, this delightfully fuzzy-leafed plant was an early introduction by Europeans.  It was considered a potent medicinal herb, the leaves of which were prized for treating a number of ailments including respiratory disorders and skin conditions, it having both anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic properties.  To alleviate coughs, the leaves were steeped in a tea or dried and smoked.  Painful or itchy skin maladies could be relieved with a poultice of leaves applied directly to the affected area.  It was also ingested as a diuretic.  In addition to being useful as a medicine, mullein’s long woody stalk could be dried and dipped in tallow or wax to create a candle or torch that would burn slowly.  Native Americans were quick to adopt mullein as a useful plant both as a medicine and as an expedient way to catch fish.  Turns out mullein seeds contain saponins, a compound that is poisonous to fish but safe for human consumption so a liberal amount added to a body of water resulted in stunned fish that would float to the surface to be easily collected.

‘Wild’ Garlic (Allium vineale)

Most gardeners have dealt with this plant, called wild garlic or wild onion by some.  Stinky and hard to pull from the ground, wild garlic has all the makings of a grade A weed.  You can thank Europeans again for this invasive plant, however.  Colonists brought it over as a flavoring for food and used it in much the same way as we use cultivated garlic today.  In addition to being useful in cooking, wild garlic contains all the heart-healthy benefits of domesticated garlic.

Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina)

Staghorn Sumac

Courtesy of Katya/Wikipedia

Sumac has gotten a bad reputation due to mistaken identity.  It is often confused with poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix), which is actually only a distant relative that grows exclusively in extremely wet conditions (like bogs). The staghorn sumac is an upland plant that will grow pretty much anywhere poison sumac doesn’t grow.  Essentially every part of this plant was used in some way by Native Americans in what is now the eastern United States.  The roots and the bark were used in dying cloth, the leaves could be dried and mixed with tobacco for smoking, and the berries could be eaten in a number of different ways.  Whether soaked in cold water to make a lemonade or ‘sumac tea’, dried and added to cooked dishes, or eaten directly off the plant, sumac berries imparted a pleasant citrus flavor to foods and is rich in vitamin C in addition to other nutrients.  The tender young shoots of sumac trees were also cut, peeled of their bar, and eaten in the spring – that is if the deer didn’t find them first!  Although colonists did not always readily adopt plants that had been used for thousands of years by Native Americans (I’m looking at you, tomato!), the sumac was too good to ignore and was quickly incorporated into colonial life and diet.

Cedar/Juniper (Juniperus virginiana)

Eastern Red Cedar

Courtesy of Famartin/Wikipedia

The words ‘cedar’ and ‘juniper’ are often used interchangeably around here (And by around here, I mean Virginia, of course!).  But the tree most people in our area think of when they hear those words is the Eastern Red Cedar, which is actually in the Juniper family – confused yet?  Regardless of what you call it, the Eastern Red Cedar is a very handy local tree.  Colonists had equivalents in Europe and immediately recognized the utility of the tree.  Both Native Americans and colonials flavored food with the ‘berries’, which are actually cones, and the young shoots.  High in vitamin C, the berries were also used by Europeans to flavor gin and brewed into a medicinal tea by various indigenous tribes.  In addition, the bug-repellant properties of the cedar were well known and the wood itself excellent at resisting rot. It was fashioned into anything from fence posts to clothing chests.

Gradually our reliance on plants and trees immediately around us has waned and not many people nowadays realize the utility of the local flora.  Truthfully, there aren’t many plants in existence that don’t have some useful properties. Our colonial and Native American ancestors were aware of them and incorporated a multitude of ‘weeds’ into their everyday lives.

Mara Kaktins
Archaeologist

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