My interest in herbal remedies was kindled first in the 60′s in Northern California, when exploring alternative healing practices first was in vogue. Back to Eden by Jethro Kloss was everybody’s standard reference, and to this day this book remains on my shelf. My knowledge was enhanced when I moved to Amsterdam in the 70′s where I helped open and run a vegetarian restaurant, which included an herb shop upstairs from the cafe. I loved the many shelves lined with clear bottles of herbs. I knew their sacredness, their gifts. And I have continued to learn over the years. Chamomile, peppermint, licorice root and ginger tea are all standards in my kitchen and I will be eternally grateful for their healing properties. So it was with great delight that I noticed Timber Press had recently published Native American Medicinal Plants: An Ethnobotanical Dictionary by Daniel E. Moerman, a professor and well known ethnobotanist. He is former editor-in-chief of the scholarly journal Economic Botany.
The indigenous peoples lived for many thousands of years on this continent prior to Europeans arriving. The first permanent villages in my area of Northern California were established nearly 12,000 years ago. Indigenous tribes lived in harmony with the Earth and they knew and understood plants. They were not distracted by the myriad technologies and manufactured goods and services that take our attention away from the out of doors. They lived very close to the Earth and became intimate with what they found there. They had time to explore. They learned. And they passed this knowledge down from ancestor to ancestor. What might we learn from them? Is this book a book to be taken literally, as gospel? No. But it is an excellent starting point of invaluable information for all and anyone interested in the medicinal value of plants. What might we learn? One small example is that oft times the chemicals within a plant were created by the plant for very specific means. For example the pyrethrin in chrysanthemums was a way of the plant protecting itself from insects, and lo and behold, we extract this substance from the chrysanthemum and use it for the very same reason. There are many instances when our needs are the same as the plants needs; this is just one of many threads worth examining.
While most likely the value of plants found in their environ was known by each family, in some instances there was a special person who attended the native tribe, a medicine man or medicine woman. This learned person was entrusted with the well being of the tribe. The members of the tribe turned to this person for his or her healing skills and knowledge.
To ascribe the role of medicine man or medicine woman as one of superstition or ignorance, as is sometimes the case, is naive at best. This wisdom keeper, while not all-knowing, knew much. It is a blessing that Professor Moerman has drawn on the research of literally hundreds of serious scholars to arrive at such an invaluable compendium of this knowledge and wisdom. It is especially fascinating that the information gathered has been cross-referenced across 218 Native American tribes.
The ten plants with the greatest number of drug uses by Native Americans are: Achillea millefolium, common yarrow; Acorus calamus, calamus; Atemisia tridentata, big sagebrush; Lomatium dissectum, fernleaf biscuitroot; Prunus virginiana, common chokecherry; Artemisia ludoviciana, Louisiana sagewort; Oplopanax horridus, devil’s club; Juniperus communis, common jupiter; Mentha canadensis, Canadian mint; Urtica dioica, stinging nettle.
The values of stinging nettle are not completely lost, are they? I recall when I lived in Holland that I was told that the Dutch drink nettle tea as a spring tonic. I was also told that to rejuvenate themselves that elderly folks rolled in it! I was never able to verify this and was not privy to seeing it happen, in any case!
What is most true for me about Native American Medicinal Plants is that I now have in hand a beautiful tome I can in my leisure over the years turn to in order to expand my knowledge of the plants that cross my path. To be able to add to my knowledge of plants how they might have been used for thousands and thousands of years by the people who traversed the lands I now walk adds dignity and depth to the plant, to the culture that lived here before I, and to my own learning. This reference book is highly recommended!
Love and garden blessings,
Posted on July 5th, 2009 by Kathryn
Filed under: Book Notes