Ethnobotany: Uses of Missouri’s Native Plants

by Cindy Gilberg

Life on earth would not be possible without plants and the relationship between plants and humans has been intertwined from earliest times. Early societies lived their lives in the rhythm of the seasons, collecting and harvesting plant parts to satisfy their daily needs—food, medicine, fiber, dye and building materials for shelter. Plants fed the animals they hunted and many Native American cultures managed vast hunting lands with fire to enhance the optimum conditions for grazing. Though the term ethnobotany was not coined until the late 1800’s, the study of the relationship between human cultures and plants had long been recognized and studied.

Before the explosion of modern transportation, regional cultures had an intimate connection to the indigenous plants around them. Perhaps the most frequently associated use of native plants is their medicinal benefits. Tthe first ones that come to mind are those frequently seen on the supplement bottles at Walgreens and elsewhere – purple coneflower, American ginseng, St. John’s wort and evening primrose, among others. Almost every plant had a use that early cultures depended on for a wide range of purposes in daily life. Around the world, many cultures developed extensive written herbals describing medicinal plants, their uses and preparations for taking as medicine. Further studies of many of these traditional medicines are providing insight into new options for today’s health care.

Some plants’ common name refers to its medicinal use. For example, rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) is a prairie species whose name is derived from early use of the roots as an antidote for rattlesnake bites. Other accounts indicate that a bitter concoction of the root was used to treat maladies such as inflammation, malaria and expelling worms as well as reports for its use in kidney disorders.

Pleurisy root, also known as butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), has specific healing qualities for chest ailments and has been used to treat many lung diseases. While the above ground parts of the plant were used primarily for food and clothing, it is the root that was used medicinally for many ailments. A poultice of the roots can be used in treating swelling, bruises, wounds and skin ulcers. Other uses included its use as an antispasmodic, to treat diarrhea and dysentery. Because of the numerous references to medicinal uses of milkweeds in general, the genus Asclepias got its name from the Greek god of medicine and healing. It is a beautiful plant that is a commonly used garden perennial, with orange flowers and, most notably, it is the host for the monarch butterfly.

Lewis, of Lewis and Clark fame, was delegated with the task of collecting and writing about plants from their famous exploration of the Missouri River. Much of his observations were of the many uses native tribes had for plants. In one entry Lewis mentions purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea) that “the Indians used as a poultice for healing fresh wounds.” Another note indicated that some tribes made tea from its leaves.

Rattlesnake master is also renowned for a strong fiber made from the leaves. It was harvested and used for cordage and to make shoes. Some of these shoes have been found in a Missouri cave and date back to as long ago as perhaps 6000 BC. Today the fibers are still used for basketry. A close examination of  remnant fiber artifacts found at the Hopewell sites in Ohio revealed that rattlesnake master and swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), also native to Missouri, were among the primary plant fibers used by that civilization. The seed ‘fluff’ of milkweed has proven to be as soft yet warmer than goose down and was harvested for use in bedding and pillows. During World War II the milkweed filaments were used as a kapok substitute for vests and coats. It has also been used historically for making candle wicks, twine and cloth.

Food crops abound in our native landscape, though today much of them are underutilized. The acorns of our mighty oaks were harvested, tannins were removed and made into a highly nutritious flour that was an important dietary staple for many early cultures. In addition, oaks provided lumber for shelter, staves for barrels and slats for baskets. Other nut crops include black walnut, hazelnut, hickory and pecan. Many fruits were part of a regular diet and included such delectable treats as persimmon, choke cherry, blackberry, gooseberry, pawpaw, serviceberry and wild plum. Recently, the fruit of elderberry has gained attention due to its very high content of vitamin C, resulting in some small scale farming.

This is but a small sampling of the rich historical traditions of Missouri’s useful plants. It is always highly recommended to learn as much as possible about a plant, especially proper identification, before considering using a plant for food or medicinal purposes. Each has a specific part and method of preparation to ensure safe consumption. For those wanting a more in-depth look at the variety of uses of Missouri native plants that go beyond simply landscaping, check out classes at Shaw Nature Reserve (www.shawnature.org).

Cindy Gilberg is a Missouri native and horticulturist whose work includes design and consulting, teaching and writing. Much of her work focuses on native plants, habitat gardens and rain gardens. Cindy’s projects include work at Shaw Nature Reserve and its Native Plant School, the Shaw Professional Landscape Series and the Deer Creek Watershed Alliance. Cindy can be contacted at 314-630-1004; cindy.gilberg@gmail.com.