Where to look and which plant to use for a cough, stomachache, or to polish a pot? The early settlers knew. They depended upon many of the plants we regard as weeds today for food, medicine and household chores. The settlers brought seeds and roots of the plants they had used for food, medicine and house from their homelands. Often, ships landed in North America so late in the year that crops did not have time to grow before a killing frost in the fall. Until the next year, when crops could be planted, the settlers had to rely on the native wild plants the friendly First Nations showed them how to use as food and medicine. In the later years, fields were cleared, ground tilled and seeds were planted. Some of the seeds from Europe grew well in the rich, freshly tilled soil of the forest clearing. Other grew poorly or not at all. Some did so well that now we see them everywhere and we regard them as weeds. The settlers also liked some of the native plants so much that they planted them in their gardens along with the European imports. As pioneers moved west they did not have time to stay in one place long enough to plant a new crop and wait for the harvest. Once again, they relied on the little food they could find, and mostly on the wild plants they learned about from the First Nations.
Some of the plants in North America were neither native nor brought for a purpose by the settlers. They were hitchhikers. They spread most quickly due to their ways of distributing their seeds, If a seeds survived the trip across the Atlantic without any care, it would spread with ease inland. Seeds crossed the Atlantic in shoes, on the hems on long skirts, and in the bags of other seeds to be planted in the settlers’ new gardens. Many of them were brought in the ballast of ships. In colonial days, ships departing the ports of Europe to bring back goods from North America took on soil dug from waste places near the docks to use as ballast. When a ship reached port in the colonies, the sailors dumped the soil ballast overboard to make room for the goods. The soil contained many seeds which found a ripe place to grow and seed out in North America.
A small factory on the back of the Naugatuck River near Waterbury, Connecticut had sent to Europe for old rubber boots that they could melt down to create new rubber needed in the US. The factory workers then took the old cloth liners out of the boots and piled them up to burn. The river flooded before the pile could be burned and the flood water carried the liners and the seeds that had been caught in them when they were worn in Europe, down the river, and left them in the soft mud of the river bank. This was an ideal place for them to grow and soon many new flowers were blooming on the banks of the river that had not grown there before. It took the detective work of a botanist years later to solve the mystery of how they go there.
The Latin names of plants are an international code anyone can use when they want to be sure someone will know exactly the plant she is referring to. The Latin name is the same of the same plant all over the world. Some widely spread plants can have dozens of common, or folk names, each used by people living in different areas within the total growing area of the plant. Two or three plants may be called by the same name by different people. The marigold mentioned in the herbals of the early settlers as a good food and flavorful in soup is what most of us now call calendula. The flower most of us think of as a marigold is the French or African marigold. The swamp or marsh marigold is another flower entirely. Without the Latin names to assist, talking about marigolds could be confusing. Another reason for the Latin code is that if you know the meaning, you can learn a loto about the plant. Latin names, like common ones, are given for a reason. Sometimes the name will tell you what the plant is used for. Lavandula, the Latin name of lavender, means ‘something to wash with’, as in our word ‘lavatory’. A long time ago, lavender was used to perfume the water and soap to wash with. Esculentus means edible-a food plant. Medicus means medicine-a plant used to cure illness. Officinalis is more specific, and means that the plant was an official cure for something. Pulmonaris is even more specific, and means a plant that contains a medicine to cure illness of the lungs. The Latin word for lung is pulmo.
Many plants were called by other names of parts of the body. This was done according to an old belief called the doctrine of signatures. People who believed in the dos thought that you could tell what illnesses a plant cured by seeing the shape of the flowers, leaves and roots. For example, pulmonaria would be good for the lungs because its leaves were shaped like lungs. Hepatica has leaves both the shape and color of the liver-it was thought to be good medicine for the liver. The name hepatica comes from the Latin for liver. The walnut was one of the best medicines for illnesses of the head, according to the dos. The outer husk resembled the head. The shell inside the husk looked like the brain. For this reason, walnut husks were used to rub on the head. One of the things this was supposed to do was turn grey hair brown again. Since the husks of walnuts had a brown dye in them, it worked.
In the years when the continent was being colonized and its native flowers named, the dos was an important theory in medicine and was applied in the common names of the early settlers for the plants around them-pleurisy root, lungwort, liverwort, and throatwort. Often, they simply combined the name of the part of the body the plant was supposed to heal with the word wort, the ancient English word for plant.
Latin names can tell us where a plant grows. Most of the states had a flower named for them because it was first seen in that state. Virginiana, californica, marilandica etc. In the English common names, we have Virginia bluebell and California poppy. These names can trick you, unless you know a little history. The kind of land the plant grows on is another piece of information in Latin names. Rivularis means stream-loving, Montanus means of the mountain, Maritimus means by the sea. The common names tell us where the plants grow, too. You can find prairie evening primrose, mountain aster and roadside thistle. Many times, the Latin name describes the plant. You can see the English word in cavus-hollow, curvatus-curved and equalis, equal. These words are used to describe some part of a plant. The colors of a flower are often used to help identify the plant. Roseus means rose colored, Purpurea means purple. Albidus means white, like the word albino. Luteus means yellow. Coelestis means blue. The common names of the plants goldenrod, bluebells, scarlet paintbrush, prickly poppy, and clammy ground cherry all tell much about the appearance of the plants.
Many Latin names were taken from the names of people that the people who ‘discovered’ the plant wanted to honor. Often the name was that of a doctor. Since plants were one of the few sources of medicine in colonial times, most doctors were also botanists. Nicolas Monardes, a Spanish doctor who lived in the latter half of the sixteenth century, wrote one of our first books on the plants of North America. He was honored by having the Monardas, members of the mint family, named after him. Some common names of the native wildflowers were given more to honor people of the Bible, and to honor or tease the settlers’ own friends rather than to honor great and famous men. St. John’s wort, St. Peter’s wort and black eyed Susan, sweet Betty and stinking Willie.
What is an Herb?
The settlers would not have differentiated between food plants and healing herbs. Our word ‘vegetable’ is more recent than settlement. The pioneers called any plant that could be eaten an ‘herb’-carrots, beets and lettuce included. ‘Herb’ also meant any plant that could be used as medicine. There was no big difference between medicine and food then. The early settlers held to the practical belief that what was good for you was good for you whether you were well or sick. Later, when the plants came to be called ‘vegetables’, the name for them was taken from the Latin word vegetabulis, meaning life-giving.
The pioneers didn’t know that the vitamins in green plants were often what they lacked, especially in winter. Many of their illnesses were not due to bacteria or virus, but lack of vitamin A, B or C or one of the many vitamins fresh green foods provide. Fresh greens were among the most common herbal cures givie in spring. The herbs given to thin the blood, the spring tonics, helped because they supplied the missing vitamins. Even the unusual promise that some of the spring tonics would make loose teeth firm again has a basis in fact. Scurvy, a deficiency in vitamin C, can be cured by doses of vitamin C. One symptom is weakening of the gums and loosening of the teeth. The First Nations ate greens and berries as a cure for scurvy, but they didn’t understand the real reason why they worked so well.
Many types of tea made from green herbs were given to people sick with fever. Aside form any truly medicinal value each herb may have had, the herb teas were useful, for they reduced fever, the small amount of sugar or honey gave the patient some energy, and the mild flavor helped sooth a queasy stomach. Many of the herbs of the mint family were used to make teas: horehound, catnip, horse balm, sage, thyme, spearmint, peppermint and hyssop were some of the mints the early settlers used to make healing teas.
Many of the herbs brought to this continent for medicine are still being used in herb gardens, although now we use them for flavoring food. Chives, sage, mint, thyme, dill, rue are some you can still find in gardens, in seed catalogues and in grocery stores.
There is an old rhyme about borage, a kind of forget me not: “I borage bring always courage.”
Herbs grow in three major general biomes: woodland, pastureland and swampland. For food, medicine and household, all of these plants were important to the settlers’ way of life.
Wintergreen Gaultheria procumbens
Dr. Gaultier of Quebec was one of the many doctors in early America who was interested in the native herbs and their uses in medicine. Wintergreen was officially named gaultheria in his honor. The oil is still used in many medicines to soothe stomachs and in many more to mask other less pleasant flavors. The next time you go to a drugstore, look along the shelves to see how many medicines include oil of wintergreen. The oil can be obtained from the leaves and the berries by boiling the plant. It is interesting to know that oil of wintergreen can also be taken from the bark of a birch tree. It is sometimes called teaberry or checkerberry, and can be found in woods and clearings in the eastern half of the continent. The white flowers bloom from June to September. The edible red berries follow soon after the flower. Look for them near the ground. It is only two to six inches tall.
Gill-over-the-ground, ground ivy Glechoma herderacea
This creeping mint is not a very common weed. You can smell that it is a mint as you pull it out of the garden. Once, it was used by housewives both as a medicinal tea and to brew better. The ‘gill’ of ‘gill over the ground’ is from the French word meaning to brew. The purple flowers bloom from April to July. Catnip is another mint brought from Europe for its medicinal value, For cats, it appears to be a stimulant. For people, a tea made from the leaves soothes nerves. The Latin name for catnip is Nepeta cataria.
Wild ginger Asarum canadense
This is one of the native herbs in North America that settlers used as a substitute for a spice they had used at home. The plant grows in shady wooded areas. You need to look closely to see the flowers, because they are so close to the ground. There is a reason. This plant is pollinated by a beetle that crawls into the flower. The root has the flavor of ginger, and was used both as a spice and as a cure for indigestion and whopping cough.
Many mints were used as medicine in colonial times, as they are now. Any medicine you see with the ingredient mentha in it has some form of mint. Mentha simply means mint in Latin. It is often used now as it was then, to soothe upset stomach or a sore throat. There are two kinds of mint that are usually just called mint, Mentha spicata spearmint, and Mentha piperita peppermint. Both have escaped from old gardens and are found wild in the eastern woodlands where the ground is moist. The share with other members of the mint family the characteristic square stem. The combination of a minty smell and square stem is a sure sign of one of the mints.
Mithridates Eupator, King of Pontus around 120 BC, gave his name to these autumn flowering plants when he discovered that they were a cure for a certain kind of poison. Later, in the US, another member of the Eupatorium family was called Joe Pye weed, after Joe Pye, a First Nations medicine man who used the plant to cure fever. The settlers also used the plant to cure fevers and gave it the name of feverwort. Sometimes a member of this family is called boneset. This does not mean it was used to set bones, but that its dried leaves made a tea that cured a fever called bone break fever because of the violent convulsions that came with it. Many plants of this family growin wet woods from the Atlantic to the Rocky Mountains.
Violets were used, as were so many other plants, both as food and medicine. Medicine to soothe the eyes was found in violets. The flowers were used to make a very pretty candy. Young violet leaves and flowers can be used in salads. Violets are found all over Europe and North America. There are 77 kinds of violets that are native to North America. You can find them blooming from April to summer. Most of the flowers are a violet color, but some are white, some yellow, and some all three.
Coltsfoot Tussilago farfara
Coltsfoot has been naturalized over the eastern half of the continent for a long time. This is a very old herb, and was one of the first to be brought here from Europe. The leaves were used by the ancient Greeks as candy and to make tea. Tussilago means cough chaser, which tells us that the official use of the plant was to cure coughs. In medieval Europe, coltsfoot was such a common medicine that apothecaries, or druggists, painted pictures of the plant on the doors of their shops to show those who could not read where to buy drugs and medicine. Coltsfoot blooms in March and April and can be found in wet places and along brooks. The dandelion-like flowers come up long before the leaves appear in spring.
This plant is another of the settlers’ herbs that you can find in a drugstore. The native kind is considered the best for medicinal use. It is used today the way the settlers used it, as a soothing astringent lotion for insect bites and skin irritation. The Iroquois made a medicinal astringent tea of the leaves. It is a bush that grows in eastern North America. Its yellow flowers, looking like tassels, bloom very late in the fall.
Feverfew Tanacetum parthenium
It was called wild quinine by the settlers. Both of the common names tell us that it was used to ease fever. It is another example of a native plant that was used when the plants the settlers brought from Europe were unavailable. The European feverfew grows in sunny places, not in woodlands. It is the feverfew that you can find in gardens now. American feverfew grows in light woodlands in eastern North America where it blooms from July to September. The yellow and white flowers look like small daisies.
Fortunately, the jewelweed often grown near poison ivy, for it likes the same shady, moist ground. The juice of it is an old folk remedy for poison ivy rash. It may merely dilute the poison and wash it off, but there is evidence that it acts against the poison in some way. The watery juice of the crushed stems is rubbed on the part of the body that touched the poison ivy. It is found in the eastern half of North America where it blooms from July to September. The yellow blooms hang down from the branches like earrings. This gives the flower one of its folk names, ‘ladies’ ear drops’. It is interesting for another reason, too. The pioneers called it ‘touch me not’ and ‘quick in the hand’ because when the seeds are ripe, the seed pod explodes and shoots the seeds in the air. This gives the plant its Latin name Impatiens, meaning impatient.
Sassafras Sassafrasa albidum
Sassafras was second only to gold in value to the merchants who brought cargo back from North America. It was mentioned as a source of medicine and tea as early as 1569 by Monardes the Spanish doctor. The First Nations called the small tree winauk and used the roots to make a tonic, a tea that is good for you. The dried inner bark of the root was used to make the best tea. Sassafras root still is used both as medicine and to make a very nice tea. If you have tasted root beer, you have tasted sassafras, for it is one of the flavors in root beer. We can find these small trees throughout eastern North America, although they are most plentiful in the south.
Nettle Urtica diocia
Urtica gracilis is the most common nettle in North America. It grows over much of North America. European nettles had long been used as food. When the early settlers came to America, they used the native gracilis the way they had used piliulifera and others at home. They cooked nettle leaves as we cook spinach and used them in stews and soups. The fiber of the stems were used to make a linen-like cloth. To some early settlers, especially the Scots, the nettle cloth was finer than the finest linen. Be careful of nettles, they have stinging hairs that can give a painful rash. Only the very young shoots of nettles are used as food, before the stinging hairs develop. Urticaria is the medical term for a bad rash. The settlers used the sap of the dock plant to wash out the stinging poison of nettles when they brushed against the mature plants.
This tall purple-stemmed plant has been used to make food, medicine, dyes and ink. Our name pokeweed comes from the Algonquin name pucoon, meaning plant with dye, also called inkberry. The early settlers use the berries to make ink to write their letters, dye to color their clothes and even paint to paint pictures. In early spring, when the shoots are round and still green, the pioneers collected the leaves to use as food. In some parts of the continent even now, poke greens are a favorite spring food. After the purple dye develops in the stems and berries, however, it contain a poison. In very small doses it was used medicinally both by the First Nations and the settlers. It is a very tall plant, growing from four to twelve feet high. It dies back to the ground each winter and sends up the green shoots each spring. It is in woods, roadsides and in city lots.
Elderberry Sambucus nigra, Canadensis
This tall bush, or small tree, provided something for each member of a pioneer family. The women used the berries to makes pies, jam and wine. They made face lotions from the flowers and dyes for their clothes from berries, The men used the straight, finely grained wood of the stems to make smooth pegs and dowels, serving until a more permanent peg could be hand carved out of pine. The children pushed the soft, pithy centre our of the smooth stems and used them to make flutes, as the First Nations did. The boys used the same tubes to make pea shooters. The men used the hollow stems too, in the way that probably gave the elder its name. It comes from ‘aeld’, the ancient Anglo-Saxon word for fire. The hollow stems were used to blow air into the centre of a pile of kindling to help start a fire. The flat, white clusters of flowers can be seen in June and July. The berries come in early fall. You can see it along edges of woods and streams everywhere in eastern North America. Sambucus pubens is very similar, but it has red berries in a pointed cluster and is poisonous, while canadensis has deep purple berries in a flat cluster.
Plants of the Pastureland
Dandelion Taraxacum officinale
It is hard to believe, but no dandelion had bloomed in North America until the colonists brought them for food and medicine. Remember the meaning of officinales? Dandelion was once the official remedy for illness that came on in winter. The same qualities in the plant that make it such a persistent pest now, made it a rich and much needed source of vitamins for the early settlers. It stays green long into the winter and grows green again with the first warm sun of early spring. It can do so because of the food it stores in its deep taproot. The settlers used the greens as a spring tonic and vegetable. They used the youngest leaves in salads and boiled the less tender ones, roasted the roots to make a coffee-like drink. They even made wine from the blossoms. Now we see them all over North America, even in cities. The familiar yellow flowers come mostly in spring, but you can usually see a few blooms all summer and into the fall.
There are over 125 species, most of them native to North America. When the colonies were being settled, goldenrod was considered to be a very rare and useful herb. Great cargoes of it were taken to England where the dried leaves were sold to make medicine. The seeds are very viable and easily grown, and soon it was growing in England too. The medicine made from it was thought to make you solid, or grow well, again. It is a very easy wildflower to find when it blooms in late summer. It grows in any dry, sunny place in the eastenr half of North America. It is very hard to tell which goldenrod you have found; the many kinds are very much alike, and even trained botanists sometimes have trouble identifying them.
Chamomile Matricaria recutita, Anthemis cotula
Chamomile has many folk names: white stinkweed, stinking daisy, and pig sty dairy. It has a very unpleasant smell. Its European relative Anthemis nobilis was brought here because of its use as a tea for upset stomach and fever. Noble Anthemis, has a very nice smell. Because of it, it is used even today as an ingredient in hair rinses. They look very similar, resembling small daisies with fernlike leaves. It is easy to tell which one you have by smell. They grow in areas of old cultivation, where they bloom all summer.
Horsemint Monarda punctata
Horsemint and Oswego tea (beebalm) Monarda didyma were both used to make medicinal teas. They are a lot alike, except horsemint has light purple flowers and Oswego tea has red. Horsemint has nothing to do with horses. ‘Horse’ meant coarse then, so it means large or coarse mint. Oswego tea got its name from the settlers around Oswego, New York, who used it to make tea instead of buying tea from the British during the Revolution. These herbs grow in lightly wooded areas and open roadsides, where they bloom from June to September. The Oswego tea is such a good looking wildflower that is if often grown in gardens foe the beauty of the red flowers and the fragrance of the leaves. Both are members of the genus Monarda, named for Dr. Nicolas Monardes, the Spanish doctor and botanist.
Tansy Tanacetum vulgare
This is a member of the daisy family, as its flowers show. Tansy tea made from the leaves was a very bitter tea used to decrease fevers. It was also supposed to be good for stomachache and cold. The settlers thought it was a very useful herb to have and almost every herb garden had some. It is very long lived and sometimes the last remaining sign of an old homestead is the clump of tansy plants still growing where the garden used to be. It was another of the herbs used both for medicine and food. In old recipe books you can see recipes for tansy cakes and puddings, and the medicinal tea. It has escaped from cultivation in the eastern half of North America, where it blooms from July to September. The small, round, yellow flowers and the bitter taste of the leaves gave it the folk name ‘bitter buttons’.
Yarrow Achillea millefolium
Yarrow has more solid footing in Greek history than elecampane. It is called Achillea because Achilles was said to have stopped the bleeding of his soldiers’ wounds with the fernlike leaves of this herb. We know that it was used to stop bleeding of the Greek soldiers at least as far back as 1000 BC. Since the Trojan War is believed to have been fought around 1299 BC, the legend could be true. Yarrow still has the ability to stop bleeding, to be a styptic. One of the common names is ‘nose bleed’, because it was used to stop them. It is found nearly all over the world. In North America, you can find it in old cultivated areas and roadsides and in city lots where the white flowers bloom from June to November.
Elecampane Inula helenium
Elecampane was one of the first medicinal herbs to be brought to the colonies. It was part of an herb farm in Ipswich, Massachusetts, in 1640. It was used for lung infections both for people and horses. This gave it the common name of ‘horseheal’. Recently, it was been found to contain a drug that is a powerful anti-bacterial. It is named Helenin in honor of the plant. The settlers didn’t know why it cured a lung infection, but they knew it did. There is a legend that Inula got its Latin name because long ago in ancient Greece, Helen of Troy took some with her when she was carried off. You can find it naturalized in old cultivated areas and roadsides in the eastern half of North America, where it blooms in August. The flowers look like sunflowers.
Wild thyme Thymus serphyllum
Like the Monardas, wild thyme is a member of the mint family. It was used in Europe for a long time before the settlers brought it here. It is a plant of hills and mountains, that has become at home in the eastern mountains of North America. It was brought here as a cure for coughs and stomachaches. Today you can go into a drugstore and find thyme in bottles on the self. Thyme oil and a medicine called thymol are used in medicine as a germicide and antiseptic. You can find this low herb in dry pastures and along roadsides. The square stems and pleasant smell will help you identify it.
Mullein Verbascum thapsus
Mullein is native to Europe, where it is grown in gardens. Here we value it much less and call it a weed. It was brought here because the settlers used its leaves to make a cough medicine. It has a drug in the leaves that can be used to break up a cough and ease sore throat. It has a wide variety of names: Adam’s flannel, velvety plant, blanket leaf, because of its large soft, velvety leaves; and torches, hedge taper and candlewick because the flower stalk was dipped in fat or oil and burned as a torch. Torches were used by the Roman armies when they invaded Europe and England. Today we see the tall stalks along the roadside and in old fields where the yellow flowers bloom in July and August.
Chicory Cichorum intybus
This lovely blue flower is closely related to lettuce. Both are members of the daisy family. The early settlers brought it here because the young green leaves were eaten in salads, as they still are in Europe. The endive that you see in grocery stores is very closely related to the wild chicory. You can find old recipes for salads and soups using chicory, or succory, as it was sometimes called. Another use was for the roots, which were roasted and ground to make a coffee substitute. The chicory that is added to coffee so often in the southern states comes from this flower. It was also used to make love potions. Succory was supposed to keep a lover faithful. We can find it growing in old fields and roadsides in the eastern half of North America, and on the west coast. Ships have brought it to both the shores. The blue flowers bloom from July to October.
The rose may not seem like food to us, but it was to the settlers. The seed pod, or hip of the flower was used as food and to make jelly. We know now that they are high in vitamin C, something the settlers needed in the long winters of North America. Two other members if the rose family were known to the settlers as they explored the forests and clearings of North America for food. The strawberry, Fragaria, and the raspberry, Rubus, grow wild in North America and Europe.
Wild onion Allium
The native wild onions have many relatives all over the world. When the early pioneers saw the many kinds of wild onions in the open meadows of North America, they gathered them to use in the same ways they had used them at home. The strong flavored kinds they called wild garlic and used to flavor food. The mild ones they called wild onion and ate as vegetables. The First Nations used them the same way.
Jerusalem Artichoke Helianthus tuberosa
Jerusalem artichoke is a native of the Midwestern states. It is easily one of the most poorly named plants in North America. It is not an artichoke, and it is not from Jerusalem. No one seems to know why the name artichoke was given to it. We know that Jerusalem came from the Italian word girasol, meaning ‘sun follower’. The early settlers, who delighted in giving plants names from the Bible, such as Solomon’s seal, Eve’s thread and Adam’s flannel, turned the strange sounding girasole into the more familiar ‘Jerusalem’. Actually, the Italian name is much closer to describing the plant, for it is a member of the sunflower family. The roots have tubers much like a potato, which First Nations and later pioneers used as food. It grows 5-8 feet tall on rich, moist ground. The bright yellow flowers bloom in September and October.
Sunflower Helianthus annuus
A relative of the Jerusalem artichoke, the giant sunflower produces many seeds on heads that are often 8 feet high. It has been greatly improved by hybridization and now produces seeds that are a major item of trade in several European countries. It traveled to Europe from the central US, where the plains First Nations used the seeds for food long before the pioneers came. It can be found in eastern North America, where it has escaped from gardens, or where seeds from bird feeders have found places to grow. The large yellow flowers bloom from July to September.
Curly dock Rumex crispus
Curly dock was one of the many herbs brought here for use both as greens and medicine. Since it is one of the first plants to show new green growth in the spring, it, like the dandelion, was an excellent spring tonic. It was used to make a tonic and astringent as early as 500 BC. Dock, or sorrel, as it is sometimes called, is still widely used in France as a green. It is considered a weed here. Curly dock can be found along roadsides, in places of old cultivation and in city lots. The small, green flowers bloom from June to August.
Bayberry Myrica cerfera
Bayberry grows along the eastern coast of North America. It has waxy berries. They are so waxy, that the early settlers made candles from them. When candles were one of the few ways of lighting a room, it was very important. They had a nice fragrance when they burned. The cerifera of the Latin means wax bearing. The myricas are bushes or small tress growing on sandy soil.
Lady’s bedstraw Galium verum
This wildflower has many uses. The leaves were used in colonial times to curdle milk to make cheese. A red dye was made from the roots. An astringent was made from the leaves. The whole plant, when dried and gathered into a pile, made a soft and sweet smelling bed. There is an old legend that lady’s bedstraw made the first bed for the infant Jesus in the manger. According to the legend, the lady of lady’s bedstraw was Mary. It was brought here early during settlement. Now it can be seen in areas of old cultivation anywhere east of the Rocky Mountains. It blooms from June to September. There is another bedstraw that is very similar, except that it has white flowers, while this one has yellow ones. The white flowered kind has a wider range and may be a native.
Plants of the Swampland
Marshmallow Althaea officinalis
Marshmallow was the original source of a food you can find today in any grocery store: marshmallow. The pioneers used these as much for medicine as for candy. They boiled the roots with sugar to make a slippery medicine. The slipperiness of the boiled root coated and soothed sore throats. Marshmallow came here from Europe, but long before that, it had come to Europe from Asia and the Middle East. Marshmallow is mentioned in the Old Testament as a food. It was even used as a powerful charm against witchcraft. The ones we buy in the store usually have a glycerin or gelatin base and have no connection with the ancient herb, except in name. It grows in wet land in the eastern part of North America. The pink flowers look like small hollyhock flowers. They bloom from June through August.
The bark of the willow has been used for a long time as a medicine to cure headaches and to prevent malaria. When a farmer in medieval Europe had a headache, he found a willow tree and chewed a twig of it. Willow contains salicylic acid, which has been turned into Aspirin. Saclicyl comes from the Latin name for willow, Salix. Willow bark also contains a drug called salicin, which is an anti-malarial agent, that is, salicin is used as a cure for malaria. Willows are water-loving trees and are found near water all over North America.
Sweet flag Acorus calamus
This water-loving plant is native both to Europe and to North America. Both the Greeks and the First Nations used the root as candy and as a remedy for stomachache. The long iris-like leaves were used to cover the bare dirt floors of the earliest settlers’ cabins. The sweet smelling leaves made the close air of the small homes more pleasant. The settlers had learned to do this in England where leaves of the sweet flag were used to cover the floors of small homes and castles. You can find the unusually-shaped yellow flowers blooming in the swamps of eastern North America in April, May and June.
Cattail is probably the best known of all the food plants of the swamp. It provided much food for the First Nations, who taught the settlers to use it as they did. The young shoots were gathered in the spring and eaten they way we eat asparagus. In some parts of Europe, these young shoots are still eaten in spring, One of the folk names is ‘Cossack asparagus’. Later, the flower buds can be eaten, much like corn on the cob. The First Nations used the ground roots to make flour. Still later, when the flowers were in bloom, they used the plentiful pollen to add to flour to make pancakes and breads. Finally, when the seed heads were mature and starting to disperse the fluffy down, they collected the down to line their sleeping bags and cradle boards. You can see them growing near water all over North America, even in city parks.
Cranberry Vaccinium macrocarpon
Cranberry was one of the berries used by the eastern First Nations to make pemmican, a combination of berries, fat and dried meat that they carried on long journeys. Cranberries are rich in vitamins, and were an important part of the early settlers’ diets because they could be preserved for winter use. They grow only in a certain kind of bog along the east coast of North America, and only farther inland to Minnesota and Illinois. The red berries appear in September and October.
Horsetail Equisetum arvense
Horsetail is one of the oldest living plants. You can sometimes find fossils of it near the place where the plants are still growing. The early settlers used them to scrub pots and pans. The rough branches have silica in them and make ideal pot scrubbers. An added benefit is that the plants grow in wet places by streams, where the pioneers washed their dishes. You can use them in the same way if you find them on a camping trip. The silica is also a musculoskeletal tonic.
The early settlers knew where to look for plants to cure coughs, stomachache, and to polish pots. They depended on many of the plants we regard as weeds, both European and native, for their food, medicine and household.
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