North America

Many of the first North American inhabitants became expert botanists and developed sophisticated systems of herbal medicine and healing, represented most clearly by the medicine wheel. On the wheel, the four cardinal directions—north, south, east, and west—represent the proper balance of bodily energies, an idea remarkably similar to Chinese, Indian, and Greek herbalism. On a Native American herb wheel, the directions are represented by different animal totems, personality types, colors, and herbal medicines. Shamans used these symbols to travel spiritually through the cosmos, searching for the souls of the sick and seeking spirit guides to assist in their healing.

North America

To become a shaman, individuals were required to learn plant identification, preparation, and medicinal use, as well as patient diagnosis and tribal rituals and songs. Sometimes they underwent a spiritual awakening, called a vision quest, which required them to spend time alone in the wilderness. Initiated shamans were expert healers who were well versed in the medicinal powers of their region’s native herbs.

Navajo shamans used a tea prepared from Fendler’s bladderpod (Lesquerella fendleri). The Meskwaki tribe ground the flowers of goldenrod into a lotion and applied it to bee stings. Plains Indian tribes applied purple coneflower to insect or animal bites. Cherokees covered their bodies with an insect repellent made of a mixture of pounded goldenseal roots (Hydrastis canadensis) and bear fat. Many tribes had natural treatments for more serious ailments, as well. The Winnebago and Dakota peoples ate or smoked the roots of skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) to remove excess phlegm produced by asthma, whooping cough, bronchitis, and hay fever. Many Native Americans used dandelion as a tonic for problems ranging from liver spots and kidney pain to sore throats and indigestion.

The process of childbirth was aided by many natural remedies, too. Healers used the tubers of the wild yam (Dioscorea villosa) to relieve pain during childbirth. Cherokee and Iroquois women used partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) to speed labor, while other tribes used warm infusions of blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) to produce the same effect. The Navajos made a tea from the broom snakeweed plant (Gutierrezia sarothrae) to promote the expulsion of the placenta, and the Omahas boiled smooth upland sumac (Rhus glabra) and applied the liquid as an external wash to stop bleeding after birth. To ease labor pain, the Alabama and Koasati tribes made a tea of cotton roots (Gossypium herbaceum).

To prevent pregnancy, the women of many tribes consumed a tea made of ragged leaf bahia (Bahia dissecta) or dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum). Hopi women drank Indian paintbrush (Castilleja mutis) tea to stop their menstrual flow. Mendocino tribes drank an American mistletoe tea (Phoradendron leucarpum) to induce abortion, and in the Shoshoni tribe of present-day Nevada, women drank cold-water infusions of stoneseed roots (Lithospermum ruderale) in a quest for permanent sterility.

Native Americans also used herbs in spiritual ceremonies. Many of these occurred in sweat lodges—special huts or teepees where tribesmen and women would heighten their spiritual consciousness, mentally prepare for important events like war or a hunt, and physically “sweat out” toxins or illness. To create a saunalike atmosphere inside, rocks were heated over fires and then placed in a depression in the middle of the lodge floor. Water—often mixed with healing herbs such as cedar (Thuja spp.), sage (Salvia and Artemisia spp.), and sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata)—was poured onto the rocks to create steam. Participants would sit inside for hours on freshly cut flat cedar boughs, smoking a ceremonial pipe filled with exactly four pinches of tobacco.

Another herb-based ritual was the peyote ceremony, first documented in 1560 but practiced by Plains Indians such as the Osage, Ute, Navajo, and Mescalero Apache tribes for centuries before that. Participants sat around a fire and an altar inside a teepee, smoking pipes, as everyone was invited to speak about an illness or problem. After purifying their bodies with sprigs of sagebrush, each person chewed four buttons of hallucinatory peyote (Lophophora williamsii), then sat silently in prayer as they experienced plant-induced visions.

Tribes who settled in the far northern regions of present-day Canada and Alaska used herbal teas to provide essential vitamins during long winters when no crops could be grown. The Anishinabeg people of Ontario drank tea made from dried leaves, flowers, and twigs of chokeberry, wintergreen, pine, slippery elm, mint, clover, and goldenrod. Many natives of the North drank swamp tea, also known as Labrador tea (Ledum glandulosum). This plant grew year-round, even in cold, wet conditions. Rich in caffeine and tannins, it provided them with a coffeelike drink to help ward off the cold. Interestingly, it contains a toxic compound and must be prepared and consumed in a specific way to avoid poisoning.

The Arrival of Europeans

European settlers exchanged herbs and knowledge of their uses with Native Americans. They introduced native people to thyme, caraway, basil, rosemary, chamomile, licorice, and plantain, the latter also known as “white man’s foot” to the natives because it seemed to appear wherever the settlers lived. In return, Native Americans offered crop plants such as corn, beans, squash, and tobacco, as well as medicinal plants such as American ginseng, goldenseal, sassafras, purple coneflower, pleurisy root, and witch hazel.

Early French explorers noted the prominence of tribal shamans and called them “medicine men.” The medicine men taught colonists how to heal wounds and diseases, and they were often better educated than the settlers themselves in safe childbirth practices, surgical procedures, and the herbal treatment of infections.

Soon, the bounty of botanicals led to the publication of New World herbal texts. In 1565, a Spanish physician and botanist, Nicolas Monardes (1493–1588), published the first-ever illustrations of tobacco, coca, sunflowers, and sarsaparilla in an herbal translated by the English merchant John Frampton as Joyfull Newes Out of the Newe Founde Worlde. More than a century later, Englishman John Josselyn (1610–1675) publishedNew England’s Rarities, Discovered in Birds, Beasts, Fishes, Serpents, and Plants of that Country in 1671. Following Josselyn’s guidelines, the colonists were able to grow a wide variety of herbs. For preparing sallets (salads of greens sometimes mixed with bacon fat) and potages (hearty stews made of meat, poultry, game, and fruit), they grew sorrel, burnet, and purslane; for general flavoring, they grew chervil, mint, fennel, dill, and savory; and for dyeing clothes, they grew saffron, woad, alkanet, and calendula.

Exploration and Industrialization

In the early 1700s, cash crops of tobacco, cotton, sassafras, and ginseng were grown on the abundant farmlands of North America and Canada and then exported to Europe. A Pennsylvania Quaker farmer, John Bartram (1699–1777), sent hundreds of drawings, seeds, and specimens to England for cultivation and study. Swedish scientist Carolus Linnaeus described Bartram as the “greatest natural botanist in the world” and relied heavily on the specimens for his classifications of American plants. In 1728, Bartram founded North America’s first botanical garden near Philadelphia. He also treated the sick with herbal medicines, called simples, made from licorice, green figs, spearmint, pennyroyal, or marshmallow.

Samuel Thomson (1769–1843) transformed Native American herbalism and simple colonial remedies into a national movement known as phys-iomedicalism. He used natural healing practices such as herbal treatments, mineral baths, and body heating to create “Thomson’s Improved System of Botanic Practice of Medicine,” a kit for self-diagnosis and treatment. Thomson classified herbs as stimulating, sedating, relaxing, or astringent, and he prescribed a balanced regimen of these four types for each illness. Many of the herbs he promoted, such as black root, black and blue cohosh, agrimony, cayenne, and true unicorn root, were already familiar to Native Americans. By the mid-1830s, three million Americans owned one of his kits.

Around the same time, the Shakers, an offshoot of the Quaker religious sect, created large “physick” gardens stocked with as many as 200 herbs, such as bayberry, feverfew, sage, calendula, and rue. They harvested the herbs and either pressed the dried, chopped plant materials into bricks or mixed them into tonics, which they labeled and sold. In the mid-1800s, the Shakers even established a mail-order business, offering several hundred medicinal herbs and extracts.

By the 1840s, a more scientific approach to herbal healing emerged, called Eclecticism. The Eclectics established a medical school in Cincinnati, Ohio, where they analyzed the chemical composition of herbs, isolated many active ingredients, and created liquid extractions for medical use. Though the American pharmaceutical industry can trace its roots directly to the Eclectic movement, its influence waned early in the 1900s, when philanthropists such as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie began to support “orthodox” medical schools.

In the first half of the 20th century, America’s reliance on scientific medicine and synthesized drugs grew, and popular interest in herbs declined. In the United States, a rebirth of interest in herbal remedies began around the 1960s, when groups of Americans—motivated by political, philosophical, or spiritual beliefs—began to feel distrust for clinical medicine and started to explore herbal therapies. Shops selling herbs opened all across the nation, people began to visit herbal practitioners in record numbers, and popular interest in this topic began to grow exponentially.

Along with his colleagues, Dr. Andrew Weil, a medical doctor who championed the concept of incorporating evidence-based so-called “alternative” medical practices into conventional medical care, developed the concept of integrative medicine, a holistic approach to health care and wellness now widely practiced in the United States and internationally. Today, the herbal, vitamin, and supplement industry is flourishing—these products fill the shelves of our supermarkets, drug stores, and health food shops—as people seek ways to optimize wellness and improve their quality of life. This has led to a renewed interest in herbal cuisine and organic foods, which today has driven unprecedented growth in the demand for a wide variety of herbs all over North America.

Important Herbs Of North America

Herb Examples Of Uses
American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) All-purpose medicine and tea
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) Insect repellent, treatment for ulcers and sores, emetic
Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon) Beverage, treatment for urinary tract infections
Echinacea (Echinacea spp.) Treatment for colds and flu
Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) Treatment for infection, dye
Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) Topical treatment for warts, chemotherapy
Pokeberry (Phytolacca americana) Antiviral and pesticide
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) Tea and cure-all
Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) Prostate treatment
Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) Astringent