The 10 most common medicinal plants used by Native Americans

ArtemisiatridentataIn the United States, it’s easier, now more than ever, to acquire calories.  What was once limited to wild pursuits has been tremendously simplified to the process of supermarket harvesting.  And because of this, humans now have a steady supply of calories at their fingertips.

What’s not so easy anymore is the acquisition of medicine.  At first this may sound confusing, as pharmaceutical drugs are readily available from a variety of outlets.  What I am referring to, however, is natural medicine.

The domestication of our food, from the wilderness to the farm, correlates with a decline in phytonutrient levels.  Plant phytonutrients, some of which are antioxidants and anti-microbial compounds, benefit not only the plant itself, but the consumer of the plant as well.  A modern diet of cultivated foods lacks the presence of these natural medicines, and because of this, the health of the standard bitter-deficient dieter suffers.

The conventional solution?  Prescription drugs.  After all, a medicine-deficient dieter has to make up for the loss somehow.  And just what are the most commonly prescribed drugs in America (1)?

  1. Hydrocodone/Acetaminophen
  2. Generic Zocor (simvastatin)
  3. Lisinopril (Prinivil/Zestril)
  4. Synthroid (levothyroxine sodium)
  5. Norvasc (amlodipine besylate)
  6. Prilosec (omeprazole)
  7. Azithromycin (Z-Pak/Zithromax)
  8. Amoxicillin
  9. Generic Glucophage (metformin)
  10. Hydrochlorothiazide

Seems like we have no shortage of individuals with pain, high cholesterol, hypertension, hypothyroidism, acid reflux, bacterial infections, and to top it all off, type 2 diabetes.

It also seems this is what one would expect when most of the medicine in our food is bred out, purified and patented by drug companies, and sold back to us alongside a deficient diet of domesticated food.

Life wasn’t always this way, however.  Native Americans were very aware of the synergy between plants and humans, and incorporated various plants into their lifestyles for not only calories, but for medicine as well.

Daniel E. Moerman, a Native American ethnobotanist, compiled a book examining the plants traditionally used by indigenous cultures in America*.  In a previous post, I discussed the plants, according to Moerman’s research, with the greatest number of uses in several categories, and here I will be presenting the 10 most utilized plants by Native Americans for medicinal purposes.  Among 2,582 species analyzed, this is the list of plants Moerman provides, along with the number of uses amongst different cultures.

  1. common yarrow (Achillea millefolium), 355
  2. calamus (Acorus calamus), 219
  3. big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata), 166
  4. fernleaf biscuitroot (Lomatium dissectum), 139
  5. common chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), 132
  6. Louisiana sagewort (Artemisia ludoviciana), 128
  7. devil’s club (Oplopanax horridus), 128
  8. common juniper (Juniperus communis), 117
  9. Canadian mint (Mentha canadensis), 115
  10. stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), 114

Many of the plants in this list are native to North America.  Some, however, were introduced in either pre- or post-Columbian times.  Regardless, the Natives were able to utilize an extensive pharmacopoeia to treat a variety of ailments, and did so successfully.  This is a perfect example of using food as medicine, alongside medicine as food.

Today, a different picture is painted.  What was once common knowledge has been lost or almost entirely forgotten.  Not only do people experience sickness due to poor dietary choices, but the issue is exacerbated even more by the lack of expertise in natural treatment.  The outsourcing of our food is essentially leading to the outsourcing of our medicine, ultimately resulting in a sick population that cannot take care of itself.

Something needs to change, evidenced by the fact that 7 out of 10 Americans are taking at least one prescription drug, with more than half that number taking two (2).  I understand the use of medicine in emergency situations, but the reasons for most of today’s prescription sales are due to poor lifestyle habits.  I also understand that a single plant may not hold the cure for a disease.  Cinnamon may not cure diabetes.  Congestive heart failure may not resolve itself through the supplementation of hawthorn alone.  But when used in conjunction with proper diet and lifestyle practices, they may certainly help.

Plant medicine is not wishful thinking.  Plants have been a part of our diet since the beginning of our existence, and surely serve essential functions in keeping us well.  We do not get sick because we lack enough pharmaceutical drugs to keep us well.  We get sick because we lack plant medicine.

If you’re looking for a good place to start, the list above may help.  Reward your body by incorporating more wild plants into your diet.  You deserve it!

*Moerman, D. E. (2008) Native American Ethnobotany. London: Timber Press, Inc.

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