Category: Fantastic Food Written by Nick Polizzi
Growing up, I was fascinated by the hundreds of interesting plants that grew in the forests behind my childhood home in rural Connecticut. We would wander down old forgotten trails for hours, lost in the greenery and enchanted by the timelessness of the place.
I would later come to realize that these old woods are home to one of the most extensive systems of indigenous medicine in the world.
We now know that the original inhabitants of North America were extremely advanced, far beyond what our textbooks and cowboy movies would have us believe. One need only examine the hundreds of gigantic temple mounds that still stand, from the southern Mississippi Valley all the way up into the Great Lakes region, to understand the hidden capability of these cultures. According to respected archaeologists, the first of these mind-boggling earthworks were constructed 1,000 years before the Great Pyramids of Egypt!
Perhaps the clearest window into the highly evolved technologies that First Nations communities possess is their back-of-the-hand familiarity with the medicines of the forest. In fact, the early explorers of the new world relied heavily upon indigenous herbals and would not have survived without them.
Known for unprecedented generosity to strangers, tribal elders often shared this knowledge with European trappers and frontiersmen with little to no expectation of compensation. Plant wisdom was not seen as a possession to be hoarded or leveraged for personal gain. One’s intimate understanding of both plant and human came with a built-in responsibility to use these tools for the benefit of all – even the odd pale-skinned newcomers from the east.
A far cry from our patent-crazed pharmaceutical system of today right?
I tread very lightly on this sacred topic out of deep respect for the richness of the First Nations that live, or have lived on this continent. Each group has their own distinct medicine tradition and too often they are lumped together under one homogenized label. We never share indigenous herbal knowledge without the express permission of the healer and their community to do so.
Also important: Because of over-harvesting and deforestation, many North American herbs including American Ginseng (below), are now endangered in certain regions. When seeking out these powerful plants, please make sure to source them from a conscious and sustainable outfit. For more information on how to safely harvest and protect the precious herbs of the world, visit the hard-working community at United Plant Savers (www.unitedplantsavers.org)
Without further ado – the three indigenous herbs below were shared with foreign settlers centuries ago and are still widely used because of their effectiveness. They are shining examples of the extraordinary contribution that the early civilizations of North America made to herbal and clinical medicine.
“All plants are our brothers and sisters.
They talk to us and if we listen, we can hear them.”
— Arapaho Proverb
American Ginseng: Panax quinquefolius
When many of us think of ginseng our minds immediately leap across the Pacific Ocean to Asia, but an equally potent version of this plant has been used here in North America for thousands of years. The Seneca celebrate American Ginseng as one of the five most valuable plant medicines, and are not alone in their sentiments.
Like so many other herbs, French traders in Quebec quickly recognized American ginseng for its medicinal value and began purchasing large quantities back in the 1600 and 1700s.
What it’s good for:
Unlike the Asian variety which warms and stimulates the body (promoting the “yang” – or masculine forces within us), American ginseng does quite the opposite. Known for its cooling properties, American ginseng is often used to stabilize fever, reduce swelling, and flush out the digestive tract.
The Cherokee, Mohegan, and Potawatomi often dried the herb and brewed it into therapeutic teas. Known as a robust adaptogen, it has been shown to reduce many types of stress – both physical and mental.
“Panax”, the first word in its Latin name, comes from the Greek word for panacea, meaning “all healing”. High praise is built right into the title!
Goldenseal: Hydrastis Canadensis
Called the “universal herb” for over 300 years, the goldenseal is a perennial that thrives in the forests of Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and West Virginia – particularly in the Appalachian region. It was most likely introduced to early colonists by the Iroquois and its use as a medicinal has spread like wildfire since then.
What it’s good for:
True to its reputation as the “universal herb”, goldenseal was used in a wide variety of applications. It was highly favored as a diuretic, liver cleanser, and was commonly infused in cold water to treat sore or itchy eyes. The Catawbas boiled the root and drank its tea to alleviate jaundice, stomach ulcers, and cold sores.
If you’re feeling adventurous – the Cherokee were known to grind the root into a powder and mix it with bear grease to create an insect repellant. The bear grease can be substituted with other vegetable-based oils!
Black Cohosh: Actaea racemosa
Also known as “black snakeroot”, the black cohosh is a tall, white flowered plant that is quite common in the woodlands of the Lake Ontario region all the way down to Georgia. The word “cohosh” comes from the Algonquin term for “rough”, which is a reference to the plant’s gnarled root structure. This subterranean portion of the plant, or rhizome, is where the medicine is in this herb.
What it’s good for: The black cohosh has been a go-to remedy in women’s health for centuries. It is used by First Nations healers to treat menstrual cramps, sooth hot flashes, and alleviate post-menopausal depression.
Lately, black cohosh has become a popular herbal supplement in health food stores and many claim it has even broader applications, although these have not been scientifically proven yet.
Interesting fact: Both goldenseal and the black cohosh are in the buttercup family!
I hope you find the herbs above to be of benefit to yourself and your loved ones. Again, we carry a deep respect for the native cultures who brought us this vital knowledge and are honored to be in a position to pass it along to you.
Host of Remedy: Ancient Medicine for Modern Illness
& Founder, The Sacred Science
Nick Polizzi is the founder of The Sacred Science, a website and blog dedicated to explorations of alternative healing modalities and indigenous healing traditions. His work stems from a calling to honor, preserve and protect the ancient knowledge and rituals of indigenous peoples around the world. He has spent his career directing and producing feature-length documentaries about holistic alternatives to conventional medicine. His work illustrates the power we humans possess to overcome the many challenges that life can bring when we own our truth.
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