Day 205: Native Plant Herbalism

One of the things I try and do with my educational programs and workshops (and this blog in general, I suppose) is to encourage folks to look to their own surroundings as a source of plant-based healing. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with the old tried and true herbs like rosemary, thyme, peppermint, etc. there’s a reason why these herbs are still in use, they work. The problem arises when focus is shifted from the preservation of native plant knowledge to the propagation and promotion of common garden plants as the “only way to heal.” We can’t leave native plant knowledge and protection just to the biologists, horticulturists, and ethnobotanists, herbalists and healers should get involved as well.

It always excites me when I meet native plant gardeners. I’ve grown things in the past, but much prefer going out and hunting the plants I need. For me, growing native medicinals is more of a challenge than I can handle right now. But I greatly admire those folks who are able to grow native plants, they aren’t always easy. Most of the natives around the Ozarks require stratification, or a freezing process, before they sprout, and even then the plant may not come up for another two or three years. The amount of patience and awareness that goes into growing native plants simply amazes me.

The advantages to growing native plants are numerous. They tend to be more adapted to your climate, meaning they require less maintenance than other plants would. They tend to be more insect resistant (although there may be many local critters that enjoy having them for a snack). You can save seeds from year to year and continue the garden with relatively little cost. Also, letting your native plants go to seed every year adds to the wider biodiversity of your area (Fruits are eaten and seeds are dispersed). Native plants are also great for your local pollinators like bees and butterflies.

There are some disadvantages to native plants, but they should really be considered challenges. Native plants, as I mentioned earlier, are often hard to start from seed. That’s why community is so important. Talk to other native plant gardeners and share knowledge about planting times and sowing.

Whenever I introduce Ozark folk healing to a group of people I always try to preface the talk by highlighting the fact that probably 80-90% of our plant knowledge here in the Ozarks came from the Indigenous people that the hillfolk came into contact with. We can talk about native medicinal plants without talking about those groups of people that were using these plants for far longer than most of us have been here. Specifically looking at the Ozarks, most of the Ozark plant knowledge came from the Cherokee groups that the Ozark people would have been living beside while they were in the Appalachian mountains. When you look at native plant knowledge here in the Ozarks it is almost exclusively influenced by the Cherokee traditional medicine system. There was also interaction between Ozark people and the Osage who used most of the Ozarks as their hunting grounds. Knowledge about plants growing exclusively here in the Ozarks likely came in from the Osage people, but there are very few plants that grow here and weren’t also used by Cherokee or other Southeastern nations.

I think that’s one of the reasons why so many people shy away from native medicinal plants, there has to be a certain amount of humbleness to say, “I don’t know anything about these plants but would like to learn.” It’s easy to pick up a few books and start calling yourself an herbalist. It’s much harder working with native medicinals because for the most part they aren’t going to be written about. You tend to either have to go to ethnobotanical resources (which there are plenty out there) or to native peoples themselves. That’s probably the best way to learn about native medicinals, by talking to the elders. A lot can be learned from talking to people with this knowledge, and talking to lots of different folks. Don’t just take one person’s word on a plant, but verify it against other sources, and published research too, if you can.

Daniel E. Moerman has a few amazing resources on Native American plant usage:

“Native American Ethnobotany”
“Native American Medicinal Plants: An Ethnobotanical Dictionary”
“Native American Food Plants: An Ethnobotanical Dictionary”

Willam Banks also has a great work on Cherokee medicinal plants called “Cherokee Ethnobotany” which is available online or in published form.

There’s also the Native American ethnobotanical encyclopedia from the University of Michigan at Dearborn, which is a great resource.

These resources are, of course, pertaining mostly to native plants and native plant usage here in North America. There are tons of other resources out there, you just have to look for them. Do the work! Don’t be lazy! If you can’t find resources about the plants in your area (which I highly doubt) then go to local people. Ask around about plants. Don’t assume that because you may not know much that everyone around you is also in the dark.

I’ll end by offering up my services to anyone that may need help researching plants in their area. Email at or message me (I prefer email) and I’ll try to get you some suggestions for resources. 

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