SINCE WE BEGAN TO POPULATE THE PLANET, humans have enjoyed the blooms of flowering plants and shrubs, used plant fibers for garments and coverings, and made shelters from the wood of native trees.
Early humans also found through experimentation and observation that the plants around them could help treat disease and injury. In the Americas, much of this knowledge was handed down orally in families and tribes and documented in firsthand ethno-botanical studies of Native Americans made over the past 150 years.
The plants that enhanced and sustained the lives of native peoples still thrive around us today. With just a little practice in plant identification, you can learn to recognize and appreciate them and their traditional — and sometimes modern — value as medicine.
Willow (Salix alba and Salix nigra) helps to stabilize riverbanks with its thickly matted roots and provides a dense natural shelter for wildlife. North American native peoples used leaf poultices and liniments to relieve the pain of headaches and sore muscles and joints; chewed the bark to soothe toothaches; and gargled for sore throat and gums. But other peoples have employed the willow for medicinal properties as well: The Sumerians, for example, were using it as early as 3000 B.C.E.
In 1763, a British parson reported to the Royal Society on the use of Salix as a treatment for malaria. By 1838, the plant’s active chemical, acetylsalicylic acid, had been extracted. It caused serious stomach upsets however, so researchers turned to non-native meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) — an important medicinal wildflower that contains significant amounts of acetylsalicylic acid. The “buffered” form was patented as aspirin. Herbalists still prescribe both black willow and meadowsweet as safe, effective treatments for the relief of pain and inflammation.
When you see bee balm (Monarda spp.), you’re likely to see bees, since these fragrant members of the mint family are beloved by bees and other pollinators. The plant’s Latin name refers to Nicolás Bautista Monardes, a Spanish physician and botanist who described it in his 1574 book, translated into English as “Joyful News out of the New Found World.” Native to the Americas, bee balm’s common name reportedly comes from the practice of applying the plant’s leaves as a soothing poultice for bee stings — useful if you happen to be stung while admiring a bee balm’s often spectacular blooms. Other names you may know: horsemint, Oswego tea (M. didyma) and bergamot (for the resemblance of its fragrance to the Bergamot orange that flavors Earl Grey tea). When crushed, the leaves produce oil that is rich in an antiseptic, antimicrobial, antifungal chemical called thymol. Two species (Monarda fistulosa and Monarda didyma) have a long history of medicinal use by Indian tribes such as Blackfoot, Menominee, Ojibwa and Winnebago. Native users applied leaf poultices to stings and bites, skin infections, wounds and burns; brewed infusions of the leaves to treat mouth and throat infections, headaches, and fevers; used dried leaves as a snuff for colds and sinus infections; and made an infusion of the root to treat gastric ailments and heart problems. Today, thymol is an active ingredient in many antiseptics, toothpastes and cough syrups.
The fragrant ornamental flowers of many species of Oenothera open in the evening, usually in less than a minute. This nocturnal habit gives them the common name evening primrose. The blooms are usually yellow but also may be white, purple, pink or even red. The flowers open and release their fragrance after most bees have gone to bed, so it is only the nocturnal pollinators, such as the hawk moth, that visit Oenothera spp. The young roots of this edible plant have a nutty flavor and were boiled for eating. Its shoots were eaten as salad, while the mucilaginous seeds — contained in an oblong hairy capsule — were used in soups and stews, in the same way that we use okra today. Many tribes employed various parts of the plant to treat sprains, swellings, sores, toothache, gastrointestinal ailments and insect bites.
But it is the seeds of the evening primrose that are of current therapeutic interest. They are rich in gamma-linoleic acid (GLA), an omega-6 fatty acid. Evening primrose oil has been used to treat eczema, inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, and menopausal symptoms and premenopausal syndrome, including breast pain. The oil is also used in soaps and cosmetics.
Yarrow (Achillea spp.) is a familiar wildflower, with its flat-topped clusters of small white or pinkish flowers and feathery leaves. The leaves give yarrow part of its Latin name: Millefolium means thousandleafed. In Spanish-speaking areas it is commonly called plumajillo, or “little feather.”
Yarrow has a long history of cross-cultural use as a medicinal plant. Pollen identified in a 60,000-year-old burial site indicates that Neanderthal people were familiar with it; it is included in an ancient Chinese pharmacopoeia; and Homeric legend relates that Achilles used it to staunch his soldiers’ bleeding during the Trojan War. (One of its early English common names is wound-wort.)
In North America, ethno-botanists report use by nearly every Native American tribe for the treatment of almost every known ailment and injury, and the plant was listed in “The United States Pharmacopeia” from 1836 to 1882. The wide range of use is due in part to the presence of 120 different chemical constituents. Its ability to arrest both external and internal bleeding is due to the alkaloids achilletin and achilleine, which promote coagulation. And yes, among its many constituents, yarrow also contains the aspirin precursor acetylsalicylic acid.
The state flower of New Mexico, yucca (Yucca spp.) has been an extraordinarily useful plant across the American Southwest. You probably know it as an attention-getting ornamental, especially in xeric gardens, or you have seen its stately form displayed across arid landscapes as you’ve driven along the highway. But early humans in the region used every part of the plant. The flowers, stalks and fruit pulp (particularly of the banana yucca, Yucca baccata) were eaten; the stalks were used as building material, fencing and fuel; the leaves offered an abundant source of durable fiber for cordage, cloth and basketry; and the roots served as a soap. It is yucca’s steroidal saponins that give the plant its lathering capability. Native Americans, Hispanics and early settlers used the saponin-rich roots and leaves as a shampoo to promote hair growth and to combat lice. It is also these saponins (precursors of cortisone) that are responsible for many of the yuccas’ traditional uses as a medicine. Decoctions of the stems and leaves treated gastro-intestinal ailments such as heartburn and served as a laxative. Poultices of the grated roots (sometimes applied hot) were used to treat sprains and cuts, and the roots, stems and leaves were used to prepare tinctures, salves and liniments to relieve the pain of arthritis and rheumatism.
However, the findings of a single 1970s study that claimed yucca effective in relieving joint pain have not been supported by additional published research. More recently, laboratory researchers have isolated several yucca compounds related to anti-inflammatory drugs used to treat joint pain, but their use as an effective therapy for arthritis has not yet been demonstrated.
Everyone who travels or lives in the Southwest is familiar with the prickly pear (Opuntia spp.), the Texas state plant. We see it in flower along spring roadsides, in impenetrable thickets in the wild and as an architectural accent in xeric landscaping. Under the name nopalitos, the green pads are on the menu in many restaurants, and the fruit (called tuna) is made into a beautiful and tasty ruby-colored jelly.
What is less evident, however, are the many medicinal uses of this versatile plant. The pads are filled with a mucilaginous gel that traditionally was used as a topical treatment of infections, inflammations, burns, sunburns, boils, inflamed eyes and insect bites. Often the cactus pad (with the spines removed) was roasted or baked, then split in two, revealing its gelatinous inner surface. This was then used as a poultice to prevent infection, promote healing or stop bleeding. Chunks of peeled pad also were applied in the mouth to treat infections and toothaches. The juice of the pad or the fruit was taken internally as a diuretic, to treat pain on urination, and to reduce fevers and treat chest complaints. Recent research at the University of Arizona suggests that the pads’ high flavonoid content contributes to their ability to reduce low-density lipids (“bad” cholesterol), while the high antioxidant level may slow the development of arterial cholesterol – and even reverse arterial damage. The high amounts of pectin (a high-fiber gelatinous substance contained in the cactus fruit and pads) may help to delay glucose absorption, thereby allowing people with type 2 diabetes to significantly decrease their insulin requirement.
When I see plants in their wild meadows, woods and deserts – and in my garden as well – my appreciation of their beauty is deepened always by an awareness of their importance to the health and wellness of the many people who lived long before me. I appreciate this natural legacy even more when I understand that it can be a source of healing for modern humans as well.
However, before you use any of these plants therapeutically, please do your homework and consult with an expert in plant medicines as well as your doctor.
Susan Wittig Albert delved into research about plants with healing properties for her acclaimed China Bayles Mysteries that feature the owner of an herb store in rural Texas.