Some plants were far more important than others. The conifers (including juniper and yew which actually have berries rather than cones) were used to treat colds, wounds, inflammations, burns, sore eyes, rheumatism, headaches and insect bites. Willow bark was extensively used for fever and pain. Cherry bark was widely used as a sedative. Yarrow, milkweed, calamus, sagebrush, and several members of the mint family were each used for a variety of ailments throughout North America.
Many Indian herbal remedies–often the most valuable–were potentially toxic and had to be used in moderation. Skillful preparation was often necessary. (My note: the challenge of pharmacology is for a medication to be effective in treatment without being toxic.)
In many respects, Indian medicine was quite effective. Willow, poplar, and wintergreen contained salicylate which is chemically related to acetylsalicylic acid, known to us commercially as aspirin. The Indians used these materials for the same purpose of reducing fever and pain. Pipsissewa, spiraea, and black, yellow, and cherry birch also contained salicylate, though these plants were used less frequently.
Cherry bark contains hydrocyanic (prussic) acid and is still used as a cough suppressant. Coniferous trees such as balsam fir, pine, and cedar contain volatile oils used to reduce nasal and pulmonary congestion, and the menthol in various mints served the same function. Tablets and ointments of pine and mineral oils are used for similar purposes today.
The resin from coniferous trees was also used as an antiseptic application on wounds, and the inner bark was mashed as a poultice. Oak, raspberry, sumac, dogwood, alumroot, and many other plants contain astringent ingredients such as a tannin which serve to reduce the flow of blood and other fluids.
Many herbs are rich in vitamins, mineral, and as purifying agents. They acted as general tonics. Witch hazel is still used today for sore muscles, pennyroyal as an insect repellant, and raspberry as a treatment for diarrhea. Many herbal remedies used today, or the related synthetic drugs, were actually adopted from Indian medicine. Other medicinal plants such as willow and yarrow were equally popular in early European folk medicine.
Native American Herbs Names and Uses
Agave – leaves were used by the Aztecs to cure dysentery.
Alder [Alnus] – used as an astringent on wounds by many tribes. Also used against cramps by the Penobscot and for ague by the Onondaga.
Alum Root – used for wounds and sores by many tribes. The Menominee used it for diarrhea.
Angelica [Angelica atropurpurea] – used by the Creeks for stomach problems and worms.
Arnica [Arnica fulgens] – used by Catawbas for back pain.
Ash tree [Fraxinus americana] – used by the Delaware for rattlesnake bites and by the Meskwaki as an astringent for sores.
Balm of Gilead [Populus candicans] – Menominees and Forest Potawatomis used it for sores and wounds; the Menominees and Pillager Ojibwas breathed in the odors for colds and bronchitis.
Bayberry [Myrica cerifera] – used by the Choctaws for fever and the Houma for worms.
Bedstraw [Galium Trifidum] – used by Pillager Ojibwas as a tea for curing skin disease.
Birch Bark [Betula] – widely used by Indian tribes for coughs and colds. The Creeks used white birch for tuberculosis.
Blackberry – used by the Alabama as a toothache remedy; the root was used by the Menominees and Prairie Potawatomis as an eyewash and poultice. The Meskawis used it for stomach trouble and to counteract poisons.
Blue Flag [Iris versicolor] – many tribes used it for sores. The Creeks and Ojibwa used it as a cathartic and emetic; it was applied by many tribes to burns and bruises.
Boneset – was used in teas by many tribes, including for colds and fever by the Iroquois and Mohegans and for stomach problems by the Alabamas. The Menominee used it against fevers. It was also used in a multi-herbal concoction by the Penobscot for curing gonorrhea.
Butterfly Weed [Asclepias tuberosa] – used by the Omaha for breathing problems and wounds, and by the Natchez for pneumonia.
Cayenne Pepper – used for earache by the Maya.
Cascara sagrada [Rhamnus purshiana] – cathartic used by Indians from Northern California to British Columbia.
Copaiba – used by Brazilian Indians for wounds.
Chichona Bark – anti-malaria remedy used by South American Indians (quinine is extracted from it.)
Chokecherry – given in drink to cure hemorrhage after childbirth by the Arikaras.
Coca [Erythroxylon coca] – Incas and other South American Indians used it as a local anesthetic during trephinations (cocaine is extracted from it.)
Dogwood [Cornus Florida] – used by American Indian tribes to reduce fever.
Devil’s Club Root Bark [Fatsia horrida] – used for diabetes by Indians of British Columbia.
Ginger – The Ojibwe used a poultice of wild ginger and spikenard to wrap broken limbs.
Goldenrod – used as a stimulant tea by North American Indians. The Meskwakis used it on bee stings.
Ipecac – used as a purgative by South American Indians.
Jack-in-the-Pulpit – used for bowel problems by the Delaware Indian tribe.
Jimson Weed [Datura] – Aztecs made an ointment of the ground seeds for treating gout and burns; they created two gout medicines from it (tlapatl and mixitl).
Juniper – burned an inhalant smoke treatment for headache, insomnia, eye problems and arthritis by the Navaho tribe.
May Apple [Podophyllum Peltatum] – used by American Indian tribes as a purgative.
Milkweed – used as an oral contraceptive by the Navaho after childbirth.
Mint – Used for insect bites by American Indian tribes.
Mistletoe [Pharadendron Flavescens] – used as an oral contraceptive in a tea by California Indians.
Nettle [Urtica] – used for nosebleed by the Aztecs. The Ojibwe drank it as a diuretic.
Nopal/Prickly Pear [Opuntia tuna] – used as an ointment for burns by the Aztecs.
Oak Bark – used as astringent or antiseptic by many North American Indian tribes.
Pinon – burned an inhalant smoke treatment for headache, insomnia, eye problems and arthritis by the Navaho tribe.
Pennyroyal – used by the Rappahannock to repel fleas.
Peyote – used by the Aztecs as a pain killer, a treatment for fevers and an ointment (peyotl).
Puffballs – used to stop bleeding by the Kwakiutls, Meskwakis, Mohegans, Ojibwe and other Plains tribes. Also used as a baby talcum by the Menominee and Rappahannocks.
Purple Cone Flower – burned and inhaled for headaches by many Plains Indian tribes.
Red Cedar – burned in an inhalant smoke treatment for head colds by the Dakota, Omaha, Ponca and Pawnee tribes.
Red Mulberry – The Rappahannocks used the sap to cure ringworm.
Rosemary – used as an oral contraceptive in combination with other herbs in a tea by the Opata tribe of Mexico.
Spikenard – used by Penobscot in a tea for curing gonorrhea. The Ojibwe used a poultice of wild ginger and spikenard to wrap broken limbs.
Spruce Pine [Pinus Virginiana] – the Rappahannock tribe used the sap for kidney trouble.
Sweet Gum/Copal – the sap (copal) was used by American Indian tribes as a stimulant, expectorant and antiseptic.
Thistle – boiled roots were used by the Comanches in a drink to cure gonorrhea.
Tobacco – used by the Rappahannock, Mohegan and Malecite Indian tribes to cure earache (by blowing the smoke into the ears). Tobacco was also used on wounds. The Maya used tobacco on insect bites and stings.
Touch-me-not [Impatiens Biflora] – Omahas used it against skin rashes.
Wild Cherry Root – used against worms by the Ojibwe tribe.
Wild Morning Glory – used as a narcotic by the Aztecs (ololiuhqui) and also used as an external remedy for gout and a purgative for fevers and abdominal distress.
Wild Plum Root – used against worms by the Ojibwe tribe.
Wintergreen – used as a stimulant tea by North American Indian tribes. The Penobscot tribe mixed it with wild indigo, cleavers vine, spikenard root, Solomon’s seal, moosewood and boneset and drank it for gonorrhea and kidney trouble.
Witch Hazel [Hamamelis Virginia] – used by Mohawk tribe as an astringent.
Wormseed/Jerusalem Oak – used against worms by the Natchez tribe.
American Indian: PLANT PREPARATION FOR MEDICINAL USE
Plants were gathered when they contained the highest concentration of the desired active ingredient. Inner bark was gathered in the spring. Leaves were usually picked just before the plant was in bloom, and the roots of annual plants were dug at the same time. The roots of perennial plants were gathered in the autumn, while they were storing various substances for winter. Many plants were dried for later use, though in some cases the active ingredients would be lost.
Like pharmacists early in this century, Indians distinguished between a decoction and an infusion. (My note: pay attention to these definitions.) A decoction is a liquid preparation prepared by extracting the crude drug with actively boiling water. The way we make coffee is an example. In some cases, the admixture is deliberately boiled for a time to concentrate the solution. An infusion is a liquid preparation prepared by extracting the crude drug with water after it has boiled–and is allowed to cool.
A good example is the way we make tea. Why the difference in technique? Infusions and decoctions can extract different materials from the same plant material. In its early days, modern pharmacology prepared concoctions, which were simply a mixture of many ingredients–a sort of ’shot gun therapy.’
Native American medicine: Cautions
- If you have medical symptoms or an existing medical condition, you should consult your primary-care physician before seeing a Native American healer.
- If you are pregnant, you should consult your obstetrician or your primary-care physician before seeing a Native American healer