Exploring Ethnobotany at the Crosby Arboretum

Published 4:03 pm Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Have you ever wondered how you would pass a typical day if you lived hundreds of years ago, during a time when people depended on the plants around them for their food, shelter, and medicine? If you’d lived in America prior to European settlement, you might have had a good day if you’d found a new stand of ripe native blueberries, or discovered a cache of beech nuts stored away by squirrels or chipmunks. Consider the fact that we humans have lived with modern comforts for only a very short period of time. For many centuries, the survival of people was critically dependent upon their knowledge of which plants could be used for their benefit.

One of the Crosby Arboretum’s many trails is called the Ethnobotany Trail, located in the northern portion of our site, along its western woodland edge. Ethnobotany is the study of the cultural uses of a region’s native plants by the people of that area. For example, plant fibers were used by Native Americans for food, shelter, medicine, weaving clothing or baskets, for dyes, for hunting, and in religious ceremonies. Trail signs along the Ethnobotany Trail explain just a few of the ways in which our ancestors used native plants.  

A great book for researching the ways that plants have been used in our country is called “Native American Ethnobotany,” by anthropologist Daniel E. Moerman. The volume contains comprehensive lists of plants used by Native American peoples, representing more than 25 years of research on the subject. More than 4,000 kinds of plants and over 40,000 ways to use them are documented, with more than half of these uses being medicinal. In addition to their more obvious uses, the use of plants for fuel, ceremonial items, cleaning agents, containers, jewelry, musical instruments, soap, waterproofing, tools, toys, and weapons is included. The information is arranged by tribe, usage, and common name, and is a thoroughly fascinating treatment of the subject.

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Most of us are familiar with cattails, a marsh perennial with club-like brown flower spike. In addition to providing a resting spot for red-winged blackbirds, cattails were widely used for their fiber by Native American peoples. The leaves were used for making baskets and mats, and the fuzzy down was used for stuffing mattresses, making quilts, and baby diapers. Cattails were also an important food plant, and the stems and roots were reportedly eaten by many Native American people. According to the Native Plant Database of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center (www.wildflower.org), the roots of this plant were ground into a meal by Native Americans, as well as being a food of early American pioneers. The tender new shoots can be eaten like asparagus, used in salads, or boiled as greens.

Dye plants, such as bloodroot, yielded dyes used to color fibers. I have seen bloodroot growing in the deep ravines of the rolling land north of Carriere. This common wildflower is also found in more northern locations such as the Smoky Mountains. Cherokee people knew this plant well and used it to create a red dye for their basket fibers. A rich brown dye can be made from black walnut hulls by soaking them in water for several days, and then boiling for several hours. I can personally report that yellow jackets find black walnut juice irresistible, as I once used some in an outdoor group art project. In Moerman’s book, I learned that it is conjectured that flavonoids, the same substances in plants that are responsible for their ability to dye fibers may also function to attract or repel pollinating birds and insects. Now, you would think that a yellow jacket could surely tell the difference between a flower and a person running at a high rate of speed across the lawn, holding a brush loaded with black walnut juice.

Long, straight arrow shafts were crafted from shrubs such as the deciduous, spring blooming arrow-wood viburnum and from the yaupon holly, a tall evergreen shrub found along our Arboretum paths. Moerman’s book also reports that the bark of yaupon holly was useful as a medicine for “nightmarish dreams and waking up talking”.  

Outside the Arboretum’s Visitor Center stands a large American holly, now heavy with bright red berries. A decoction of the leaves was used to treat measles, and also as a wash for sore eyes. Wood from the American holly was favored for carving items such as cooking utensils. In the Arboretum’s Aquatic Exhibit, a plant called lizard’s tail is common. Roots from this plant were made into a poultice by the Choctaw people and applied to wounds. Seminole lore reports that poultices of this plant were used to treat spider bites, as well as for rheumatism, fever, and body aches.

Sassafras is found along the Arboretum’s pathways, and also grows among the savanna grasses. This plant had numerous uses by many Native American tribes. The root was used for the treatment of measles and scarlet fever, as well as for stomach pain or to treat colds. Sassafras wood was used for furniture making, and the leaves were used both in whole form, and ground into powder for use in soups — particularly with meats — for flavoring. Made into a powder, sassafras is also known as file, and is used in authentic Creole and Cajun dishes, such as gumbo.  

Come take a walk on our Ethnobotany Trail! The Crosby Arboretum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. For more information, visit www.crosbyarboretum.msstate.edu or call the office at (601) 799-2311. The Arboretum is located in Picayune, off I-59 Exit 4, on Ridge Road (between Wal-Mart and I-59.)   



Pick ten native plants found near your house or school and research their uses by Native Americans, and by early settlers to our region. If you are unfamiliar with native plants, visit www.msucares.com, and in the menu for publications, enter “native plants” in the search field.