Native American ethnobotany

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This is a list of plants used by the indigenous people of North America. For plants used by the Zuni, see Zuni ethnobotany, and for plants used by the Navajo, see Navajo ethnobotany.


  • Abies balsamea (balsam fir) used for a variety of medicinal purposes, as well as firewood and fiber.[1]
  • Abronia fragrans (snowball-sand verbena) Used as both food and medicine. See article for complete list of uses.
  • Acer negundo (box elder), used as food, lumber, and medicine. Please see article for more information.
  • Acer saccharinum (silver maple), An infusion of bark removed from the south side of the tree is used by the Mohegan for cough medicine.[7] It is also used by other tribes for various purposes.[8]
  • Acer saccharum (sugar maple), used by the Mohegan as a cough remedy, and the sap as a sweetening agent and to make maple syrup.[9] It is also used by other tribes for various purposes.[10]
  • Actaea rubra, (red baneberry), used by the Algonquin for stomach pains, in some seasons for males, other seasons for females.[12]
  • Alnus rubra, used to treat poison oak, insect bites, and skin irritations. The Blackfoot Confederacy used an infusion made from the bark of red alder to treat lymphatic disorders and tuberculosis. Recent clinical studies have verified that red alder contains betulin and lupeol, compounds shown to be effective against a variety of tumors.[15]
  • Asarum canadense, used to treat a number of ailments including dysentery, digestive problems, swollen breasts, coughs and colds, typhus, scarlet fever, nerves, sore throats, cramps, heaves, earaches, headaches, convulsions, asthma, tuberculosis, urinary disorders and venereal disease. In addition, they also used it as a stimulant, an appetite enhancer and a charm. It was also used as an admixture to strengthen other herbal preparations.[18]


  • Baccharis sarothroides, used by the Seri people to make a decoction by cooking the twigs. This tea is used to treat colds, sinus headache, and general sore achey ailments. The same tea is also be used as a rub for sore muscles.[20] Studies done on plant extracts show that desert broom is rich in leutolin, a flavonoid that has demonstrated anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and cholesterol lowering capabilities. Desert broom also has quercetin, a proven antioxidant, and apigenin a chemical which binds to the same brain receptor sites that Valium does.[21]
  • Baptisia australis The Cherokee would use the roots in teas as a purgative or to treat tooth aches and nausea, while the Osage made an eyewash with the plant.[23]


  • Cardamine diphylla (crinkleroot), use for food and medicine. See article for full information.
  • Ceanothus velutinus, used by certain Plateau tribes to create herbal tea to induce sweating as a treatment for colds, fevers, and influenza. Leaves were also used when rinsing to help prevent dandruff.[2] C. velutinus was known as "red root" by many Native American tribes due to the color of the inner root bark, and was used as a medicine for treating lymphatic disorders, ovarian cysts, fibroid tumors, and tonsillitis. Clinical studies of the alkaloid compounds in C. velutinus has verified its effectiveness in treating high blood pressure and lymphatic blockages.[15]
  • Claytonia virginica (Virginia spring-beauty), used medicinally by the Iroquois, who would give a cold infusion or decoction of the powdered roots to children suffering from convulsions.[29] They would also eat the raw roots, believing that they permanently prevented conception.[30] They would also eat the roots,[31] as would the Algonquin people, who cooked them like potatoes.[32]
  • Cleome serrulata, used by tribes in the southwest to make an infusion to treat stomach illnesses and fevers. Poultices can be used on the eyes.[33]


  • Devil's Club, traditionally used by Native Americans to treat adult-onset diabetes and a variety of tumors. In vitro studies showed that extracts of Devil's Club inhibit tuberculosis microbes.[37] The plant is used medicinally and ceremonially by the Tlingit people of Southeast Alaska, who refer to it as "Tlingit aspirin". A piece of Devil's club hung over a doorway is said to ward off evil. The plant is harvested and used in a variety of ways, including lip balms, ointments, and herbal teas. Some Tlingit disapprove of the commercialization of the plant as they see it as a violation of its sacred status.[38]


  • Echinacea, Echinacea angustifolia was widely used by the North American Plains Indians for its general medicinal qualities.[39] Echinacea was one of the basic antimicrobial herbs of eclectic medicine from the mid 19th century through the early 20th century, and its use was documented for snakebite, anthrax, and for relief of pain. In the 1930s echinacea became popular in both Europe and America as an herbal medicine. According to Wallace Sampson, MD, its modern day use as a treatment for the common cold began when a Swiss herbal supplement maker was "erroneously told" that echinacea was used for cold prevention by Native American tribes who lived in the area of South Dakota.[40] Although Native American tribes didn't use echinacea to prevent the common cold, some Plains tribes did use echinacea to treat some of the symptoms that could be caused by the common cold: The Kiowa used it for coughs and sore throats, the Cheyenne for sore throats, the Pawnee for headaches, and many tribes including the Lakotah used it as an analgesic.[41] Native Americans learned of E. angustifolia by observing elk seeking out the plants and consuming them when sick or wounded, and identified those plants as elk root.[15]
  • Encelia farinosa, used by the Seri to treat toothache. For toothache the bark is removed, the branch heated in ashes, and then placed in the mouth to "harden" a loose tooth.[42]
  • Erigenia bulbosa, the Cherokee were known to chew this plant as medicine for toothaches, it is unknown what parts of plant they chewed.[44]
  • Eurybia macrophylla (bigleaf aster), used as both food and medicine. Please see article for more information.


  • Geranium maculatum, used by Mesquakie tribe to brew a root tea for toothache and for painful nerves. They also mashed the roots for treating hemorrhoids.[55]
  • Goldenseal, referred to by Prof. Benjamin Smith Barton in his first edition of Collections for an Essay Toward a Materia Medica of the United States (1798), as being used by the Cherokee as a cancer treatment.


  • Hamamelis virginiana, also known as Witch Hazel. Native Americans produced witch hazel extract by boiling the stems of the shrub and producing a decoction, which was used to treat swellings, inflammations, and tumors.[58] Early Puritan settlers in New England adopted this remedy from the natives, and its use became widely established in the United States.[59]
  • Holodiscus discolor, used by Indian tribes, such as the Stl'atl'imx. They would steep the berries in boiling water to use as a treatment for diarrhea, smallpox, chickenpox and as a blood tonic.[61]



  • Juniperus communis Western American tribes combined the berries of Juniperus communis with Berberis root bark in a herbal tea. Native Americans also used juniper berries as a female contraceptive.[65]




  • Mahonia repens,used by the Tolowa and Karok of Northwest California used the roots for a blood and cough tonic, as well as by other tribes for various purposes.[70]



  • Pectis papposa, used as food and medicine. See article for full information.
  • Prunus virginiana, the root bark of which was once made into an asperous-textured concoction used to ward off or treat colds, fever and stomach maladies by native Americans[81]



  • Salvia apiana, several tribes used the seed for removing foreign objects from the eye, similar to the way that Clary sage seeds were used in Europe. A tea from the roots was used by the Cahuilla women for healing and strength after childbirth. The leaves are also burnt by many native American tribes, with the smoke used in different purification rituals.[89] A study performed at the University of Arizona in 1991 demonstrated that Salvia apiana has potential antibacterial properties against Staphylococcus aureus, Bacillus subtilis, Klebsiella pneumoniae, and Candida brassicae.[90]



  • Umbellularia,The leaf has been used as a cure for headache, toothache, and earache—though the volatile oils in the leaves may also cause headaches.[94] Poultices of Umbellularia leaves were used to treat rheumatism and neuralgias.[95] A tea was made from the leaves to treat stomach aches, colds, sore throats, and to clear up mucus in the lungs.[96] The leaves were steeped in hot water to make an infusion that was used to wash sores.[95] The Pomo and Yuki tribes of Mendocino County treated headaches by placing a single leaf in the nostril or bathing the head with a laurel leaf infusion.[96]


  • Virginia Iris, Cherokee and other tribes in the southeastern United States are known to have used Virginia iris for its medicinal properties. The root was pounded into a paste that was used as a salve for skin. An infusion made from the root was used to treat ailments of the liver, and a decoction of root was used to treat “yellowish urine.” Virginia iris may have been one of the iris species used by the Seminole to treat “shock following alligator-bite".[98]



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