400-Year Old Seeds, Nuts, and Other Artifacts—Archaeological Plant Finds From Jamestown, Virginia

By Leah Stricker

Did you know that seeds, nuts, and even leaves can survive in the ground for many years, even millennia? Paleoethnobotany, the study of archaeologically recovered plants and plant elements, can tell us many things about how humans have interacted with plants throughout history. Archaeobotanists seek to answer questions like: 

“What were the people of this culture eating?” 

“How were plants harvested?” 

“Were seeds and nuts being stored in specific places on a site?” 

“How were meals prepared?” 

“What was the role of plants in medicinal practices?”  

“Which types of plants were used as construction material, fuel, or cooking fires?”

“How did this plant come to be domesticated?”

Historic Jamestowne

Aerial view of Historic Jamestowne

Of course, there are numerous other research avenues that archaeobotanists study, but the above questions are some of those that archaeologists working at the site of America’s first permanent English colony, Jamestown, have pondered as they have recovered amazing finds from the site. The Jamestown Rediscovery archaeological project is an ongoing archaeological investigation of 22.5 acres of Jamestown Island in Virginia. The land was occupied by various Virginia Indian groups (see Note) prior to the arrival of the English and other Europeans. By 1607, the Powhatan tribe had become the most powerful group in the region, and they accessed the island seasonally. Wahunsenacawh, the chief whom the English called Powhatan, had centralized power from a number of individual groups, and he ruled from the village of Werowocomoco, a site not far from what became James Fort. Archaeological work at Jamestown indicates that there was much interaction between these two groups during the fort period (ca. 1607-1624), both collaborative and destructive. The botanical remains currently under investigation support finds like Virginia Indian-produced ceramics, shell beads, and locally made bone and stone tools, including over 400 projectile points, highlighting this volatile relationship. 

Recent botanical work at Jamestown Rediscovery was initiated thanks to funding from the Surrey Skiffes Creek Curation, Conservation, and Research Collection Plan. An ambitious project is underway that includes many facets, hopefully to be covered in future posts! This blog will focus on some of the recently identified and cataloged macrobotanical material, or plant artifacts that can be seen with the naked eye. These seeds, nuts, and other plant elements have survived for so long, because they have been preserved in one of two ways. If the seeds or other plant parts were burned, they became carbonized material instead of organic. They are no longer subject to microbial activity, and they will survive as tiny artifacts for a very long time. Other seeds and plant parts are preserved, because they were deposited and found in waterlogged environments. Similar to a shipwreck, if organic items like seeds or wood are waterlogged, microbes that need oxygen to survive are not present to break down the material.

At the beginning of this project, only a few formal archaeobotanical analyses had taken place using samples from Jamestown. These began to highlight the use of local plants, and perhaps the most notably recovered evidence from only three tiny seeds dating to ca. 1610–1617, the presence of tobacco in seventeenth-century Virginia.

Tobacco seed

Tobacco seed

This find confirmed what researchers had investigated through historical documentation. Ralph Hamor, Secretary of Virginia, recorded in 1612 that John Rolfe began experimenting with plantings of tobacco seeds he had gathered in the Caribbean. While there was a local variety of tobacco (Nicotiana rustica) already growing in Virginia, it was considered too strong and bitter tasting by the English. Rolfe had imported and developed Nicotiana tabaccum, the tobacco variety that became the primary export from Virginia from the seventeenth century until the mid-2000s. 

The botanical finds from Jamestown analyzed and reported on by professional archaeobotanists have now been cataloged into Jamestown’s digital database system. This allows curators to understand the assemblage of botanical material on the whole instead of within the individual reports. Other finds, recovered by archaeologists during regular excavation and screening practices on the site, have also been cataloged, and their species identified, when possible. This data shows us some intriguing information. 

1,779 seeds have been found on the site recovered by archaeologists and analyzed by archaeobotanical experts. Only 317 of these are unidentified. Of the others, over 30 species are represented, overwhelmingly locally found varieties. Some of the most commonly represented species include Cucurbita sp. (pumpkin or squash), Passiflora incarnata (passionflower), Diospyros virginiana (persimmon), Vitis sp. (grape), Vaccinium sp. (blueberry), and Zea mays (corn).

Nutshells during sorting process. On the left are black walnut shells, on the right are hickory nut shells

Nutshells during sorting process. On the left are black walnut shells, on the right are hickory nut shells

5,155 nut shells have been recovered from the site. Only 93 are unidentified. Of the others, only six species are represented. The nut finds are almost entirely hickory and black walnut, both locally available species. Only a small number of acorns (Quercus sp.) have been recovered

Other plant parts, including grape vines, leaves, pumpkin rind, pine cones, and many wood fragments—both cut, perhaps, from construction of the palisade walls or early mud and stud structures, and naturally occurring woods, like twigs—build a bigger picture of the types of foods consumed and other ways in which plants were being used at Jamestown 400 years ago.

Wood, possibly staves to a small cask

Wood, possibly staves to a small cask

The assemblage indicates that the colonists were consuming locally available fruits and nuts, pumpkin or squash, and corn. The colonists, more than once, wrote that supplies sent from England were spoiled or full of worms. They would have needed to supplement their diet with foods they could find locally. Corn was written about as a food, but perhaps more often, corn was referenced as a resource that was taken or given, depending on the political nature of the day.

Many of these species are mentioned by the colonists in their own records. The grape seeds and vine (Vitis sp.) may have been part of the first attempts to make Virginia wine. John Smith records these early efforts but indicates that the product was not as good as what was available in Europe at the time. However, in August, 1619, the newly established Virginia House of Burgesses codified grape production by requiring households to plant and cultivate at least 10 grape vines yearly.

Passiflora sp. seeds

Passiflora sp. seeds

Smith also wrote about a fruit that the inhabitants call Maracocks [was a]…pleasant wholesome fruit much like a lemon.” Here, he is describing the fruit of the purple passionflower or maypop (Passiflora incarnata), a species related to tropical passionfruits (Passiflora edulis, P. ligularis). 

It is not known whether the English would have prepared the hickory nuts in this way, but Smith also records pawcohiscora, or hickory milk, as a substantial beverage consumed by the Virginia Indians. The nuts were ground into small pieces and then steeped in water, not dissimilar from today’s almond, soy, and oat milks!

Hickory nuts (Carya sp.)

Hickory nuts (Carya sp.)

Although many of us learn about the “three sisters”—corn, beans, and squash—being the predominant diet of many Native American tribal groups, this does not appear to have been the case, at least at James Fort. Beans are represented by only two seeds in the assemblage. This could be due to the nature of food preparation and preservation of beans, but corn and squash are found in much greater numbers, and more parts of the plant have been recovered. 

More work is currently underway that will contribute to this initial data, continuing to build upon our knowledge of plants and how they were used in seventeenth-century Virginia. Please join us at Historic Jamestowne and see archaeology in action! We are open seven days a week and would love to share our finds with you. Learn more at https://historicjamestowne.org/.

Historic Jamestowne

Historic Jamestowne

Author’s Note: Jamestown Rediscovery uses the term “Virginia Indian,” because we’ve been told that is what the tribes (at least the individuals we have relationships with) call themselves. I am sure that there is a wide variety, even amongst Virginia tribal members as to preferences, but that is what we go with institutionally.

Photo Credits: All photos courtesy of Jamestown Rediscovery.


Leah Stricker is the Curator of Jamestown Rediscovery, Historic Jamestown, Preservation Virginia. She earned a Masters of Science from the University College London and a B.A. and B.S. from the VA Polytechnic Institute and University. She has held numerous positions within the field of archaeology both in the United States and abroad.

Olbrich Botanical Gardens’ Indigenous Garden

by Erin Presley, Olbrich Botanical Gardens Horticulturist

A narrow stone path through tall squash, corn, and milkweed, with a rustic sapling trellis.Olbrich Botanical Gardens is a 16-acre, free admission public garden in Madison, Wisconsin, in the heart of the ancestral lands of the Ho-Chunk people. The Ho-Chunk, or “People of the Sacred Voice” historically lived in southern Wisconsin, from the far southwestern corner of the state along the Mississippi River nearly up to Green Bay. This is fertile land with rolling hills and scenic bluffs where the Ho-Chunk lived in permanent villages. In fact, their oral tradition simply states, “We have always been here.” 

The area around Madison, known as Dejope or “Four Lakes,” is especially significant for the Ho-Chunk because of its abundant fresh water and resources. This land proved equally attractive to white settlers, and the Ho-Chunk were forcibly removed and Madison’s extensive lakeshore was quickly developed. In the early 1900s, Madison attorney and philanthropist Michael B. Olbrich recognized how private development would soon limit everyday people’s access to the lakes, and in 1921, he purchased over half a mile of Lake Monona shoreline property. He envisioned a sweeping park with gardens, a respite from busy workaday life, allowing everyone to be nourished by “something of the grace and beauty that nature intended us all to share.” Over the decades, additional property was purchased and consolidated within the city of Madison’s park system, and the first gardens were developed starting in the 1950s.    

A group of people in a garden listening to a presentation.Especially in Olbrich’s Herb Garden, it’s vitally important that we grow, show, and interpret plants that all types of people identify with. Herb lovers know that edible plants can act as a universal language, uniting people and making them feel at home across cultural borders. In this spirit, the Herb Garden has hosted many creative collaborative gardens over the years. Most recently, an Indian-style garden created with owners of an Ayurvedic spa oozed tropical flair with ginger and turmeric, eggplant, bitter melon, and elephant ears. 

Our partnership with Ho-Chunk tribal members began in 2020 as we brainstormed with Indigenous chefs and food activists, community organizers, and university professionals and students to envision an interactive Indigenous Garden. A walk through the “Three Sisters Living Tunnel” would invite guests to immerse themselves in dangling beans and towering corn and sunflowers. An integral part of the project would involve fun activities to draw in community members and give everyone a taste of Ho-Chunk culture.

We started with a literal “taste” when we hosted two milkweed soup samplings in summer 2021. Not many people know that the unopened flower buds of common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, are edible! Ho-Chunk people celebrate them as a seasonal food known as mahic (maw-HEENCH), collected in bud before they open and turn pink, and incorporated into a brothy soup with green beans, ham or bacon (optional), and, arguably, the best part—tiny dumplings. 

Our interns foraged for milkweed buds, carefully scouting for and avoiding buds that already had tiny monarch eggs clinging to them. Once picked, the buds are soaked in salt water to clean them and to leach some of the milky latex before making the soup (see recipe below). The sample sessions were a hit with over 300 people served and great conversations wafting through the garden! A woman told us how she missed the sound of the Ho-Chunk language since her husband of many years, a Ho-Chunk man, had passed, and came hoping to hear the language spoken. A veteran related his visit to France to honor the graves of Ho-Chunk soldiers he had fought with. And, a 20-something Ho-Chunk guy from the neighborhood popped in just saying, “Hey, cool, I saw on Facebook you were serving mahic!” 

A garden sign with the English and Hoocak words for various plants.We also wanted to highlight the endangered Ho-Chunk language, since there are only 200 fluent speakers and only 50 are the older people who grew up speaking Ho-Chunk. At Olbrich, we are lucky to have on our staff Rita Peters, a 24-year-old college student of Ho-Chunk and Menomonee descent. Rita, known as Xoropasaignga (hodo-pa-SIGN-ga) or Bald Eagle Woman, is at the heart of the Indigenous Garden. She does everything from sowing seeds and harvesting sweetgrass to developing events and educational seminars. Rita worked with her aunt, a language apprentice, to create bilingual signage that even links to a YouTube recording of the words being spoken aloud. Here is the link to the video: Ho-Chunk language plant name recording from Olbrich YouTube channel

We had a hot summer, so with occasional irrigation, the garden grew to unimagined heights! The sunflowers topped out at 16 feet, with Ho-Chunk red flint corn—sourced from the Ho-Chunk Department of Natural Resources—not far behind. As harvest season approached, we planned for our fall celebration, a drop-in sweetgrass braiding activity. 

Sweetgrass, Hierochloe odorata, is a fine textured, running grass that likes moist conditions in full sun. It is difficult to contain in most garden situations, so commercial growers or hobbyists typically grow it in raised beds, but at Olbrich, we have a large colony that inhabits our rain garden. The bluish green leaf blades grow to about 12 inches long by mid-June and carry an intoxicating fragrance reminiscent of vanilla. The grass is harvested and dried, then made into baskets or braids. Sweetgrass, known as cemanasge (CHAY-ma-nas-gay), is used ceremonially in Native cultures, but it is also appropriate for anyone to carry in a more everyday fashion. A sweetgrass braid is always made with good intention and then can be carried in any place that benefits from an infusion of positive energy, protection, and fragrance! So, we were able to teach people to make their own braid and also to show off the fruits of our harvest. 

Two women with large black containers full of picked sweetgrass blades.As winter approached, we carefully saved seeds for the Indigenous Garden in 2022. Our milkweed soup day in early June attracted more than 330 guests! This year we are extending the Garden’s reach by collaborating with Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison, the biggest employer of Indigenous people in our area. We hope that partnerships like these will create an ever-growing network as Olbrich continues to focus our efforts on ensuring that everyone feels at home in these beautiful gardens here in Dejope. 

To learn more about the Indigenous Garden check out these additional links:

PBS Wisconsin recording of Indigenous Garden presentation by Erin and Rita

Media coverage from local TV station

MILKWEED SOUP:

Ho-Chunk people celebrate the foraging season for common milkweed flower buds, known as mahic in the Ho-Chunk language. The mahic is cooked up into a delicious brothy soup with other vegetables and tiny dumplings!

Prep the common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca):

Pick milkweed flower buds prior to flowering before they turn pink, usually around mid-late June. Once they turn pink they become bitter. Only take about one fourth of the buds to leave plenty for butterflies. You can use the buds and the tiny top set of leaves.  Wash well, then soak in salted water for at least half an hour, rinse, and drain.  Milkweed can be frozen for use later in the year. 

Prepare the soup:

A woman ladling green milkweed buds into a stainless steel colander.Use equal parts of water or broth and milkweed flower buds.  You can add other vegetables (green beans, corn, carrots) or ham/bacon.  Bring broth to a boil and add milkweed or other veggies.  Simmer for 30-40 minutes until milkweed and veggies are tender.

Dumplings:

Dumplings or gnocchi are a fun addition!  Small dumplings can be made with a pinch of water mixed with a pinch of flour and rolled into a small dumpling about the size of a fingernail.  Toss individual dumplings into the soup as it simmers and cook 20 minutes until the middle of the dumpling is cooked. 

Photo Credits:1) Indigenous Garden exhibit at Olbrich Botanical Gardens’ Herb Garden; 2) Visitors learning about the Indigenous Garden; 3-5) Green milkweed flower buds on the plant, picked, and prepared as soup; 6) Interpretive sign with English and Hooca̧k words for various plants; 7) Three sisters (corn, beans, and squash); 8) Ho-chunk red flint corn; 9) Tall sunflowers; 10) Sweetgrass harvest for braiding workshop; 11) Rita makes mahic, milkweed soup. All photos courtesy of the author.


Erin Presley left her heart at Olbrich Botanical Gardens while interning there in 2005.  After earning a B.S. in Horticulture from the University of Wisconsin-Madison she gardened for nearly a decade in the private sector before returning to Olbrich in 2014, where she manages the Herb, Woodland, and Pond Gardens. In addition to teaching at OBG, Erin loves talking about plants and collaborating with herb societies and master gardeners. She has appeared on the PBS series Let’s Grow Stuff and Wisconsin Public Radio’s Garden Talk, and is a contributor to the print and online content of Fine Gardening magazine.

A Unique View of an Esteemed Native Plant: Hydrastis canadensis (Goldenseal)

By Katherine Schlosser

“I may here observe, that the disease of cancer is not confined to civilized nations. It is known among our Indians. I am informed that the Cheerake cure it with a plant which is thought to be the Hydrastis Canadensis, one of our fine native dies [dyes].”

                                                                   – Benjamin Smith Barton, 1766-1815

Goldenseal, Hydrastis canadensis, has been known for centuries for its medicinal uses ranging from a gastrointestinal aid, stimulant, tonic, emetic, and febrifuge, to helping with ear and eye complaints, heart problems, liver issues, pulmonary complaints, and more.  

Europeans learned of goldenseal’s value as a medicinal plant not long after arriving in North America. The initial knowledge of its use is often credited to the Cherokee people, but as their territory is far from where the first colonists landed, it seems likely that the Europeans first learned of goldenseal from more northern tribes. Word of mouth and trading between Mid-Atlantic tribes, such as the Cherokee and Eastern North Carolina tribes, and those in New England likely resulted in widespread knowledge of goldenseal’s uses.

USDA map of Hydrastis canadensis native rangeAs the Abenake, Algonquin, Menominee, Mohegan, Narragansett, Wampanoag, and others had local access to goldenseal, it could be that they, too, had learned about the usefulness of the plant. In whatever manner the knowledge was spread, colonists soon learned to treat it as a valuable product and began harvesting the plant for personal use and for trading. Consequently, centuries of wild collecting and habitat loss have put it at risk. Goldenseal is considered endangered, threatened, or of special concern in all 27 states in the United States that have native populations.

A rather curious fact about goldenseal is that, for as long as it has been known to have a great many medicinal uses, little scientific research has validated those uses. In fact, depending on dosage and how long it’s used, it can be harmful. Still, it is collected, bottled, and sold as effective for many of the same complaints mentioned above. It is strongly recommended that one consult a medical doctor prior to using products produced from this plant.

King Solomon's seal Star of DavidThere is another interesting story connected to goldenseal, and that is the use of the term “seal” in the common name. From about 932 – 970 BCE, King Solomon, son of King David, ruled the United Kingdom of Israel. He was a wealthy and wise man for whom many amulets and medallion seals were created. Held in great esteem over the centuries, King Solomon is remembered today in the common names of several plants including Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum), false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum), evergreen Solomon’s seal (Disporopsis pernyi, native to high altitude forests in China), and goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis).

Seals were designed, in part, to verify that a document was, in fact, from King Solomon, much as we are required to verify signatures on legal documents today. A design attributed to one of Solomon’s seals was fitted to a gold ring and bore what, many years later, became the Star of David.

Drawing of cut end of Hydrastis canadensis showing "seal"What Solomon’s seal has to do with Hydrastis canadensis, the plant recently identified as The Herb Society of America’s Notable Native Herb of the Year 2022, requires research and a healthy dose of imagination. The secret is in the woody rhizomes of these plants. The plants die back in winter, and as spring arrives, one or more new shoots emerge from the rhizome. If you carefully dig up the rhizome, brush away the dirt, and slice off a section, you will see what could be called an image of King Solomon’s Seal at the site of the cut.

You can, then, replant a section of the rhizome, though it will take from 3 – 5 years for it to grow to maturity. Plant rhizome roots about 1” deep, horizontally, spreading out tiny roots and with a bud pointing upward. If there is no bud, the rhizome will grow one, which may add a little time to maturity. The bud should be just below the surface of the soil. Add some mulch (hardwood) and see that the plant gets at least a few hours of sun a day, but mostly shade. 

Hydrastis canadensis botanical printOther common names for Hydrastis canadensis include yellow or orange root, yellow puccoon, Indian paint, jaundice root, Ohio curcuma, Indian dye, eye balm, and yellow eye. If you pull up a plant, you will immediately see the reason for the common name—the slim roots growing from the rhizome are bright yellow, as is the inside of the rhizome. 

Polygonatum and Maianthemum species (Solomon’s seal), are better known for the appearance of a seal on their rhizomes. However, the “seal” appears at the site of bud scars from the previous year’s growth.

Anytime we begin to explore our native herbs, we learn a lot of history, science, botany, and legend, making the study of herbs an almost endlessly entertaining pursuit.

To learn more about goldenseal, you can download a copy of the Fact Sheet for Hydrastis canadensis at

https://www.herbsociety.org/explore/notable-native-herbsprofiles.html 

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.

Photo Credits: 1) Goldenseal, showing the coloring of roots and rhizome (Charles F. Millspaugh, M.D.); 2) Distribution of Hydrastis canadensis across the United States with populations shaded in green (USDA Plants Database); 3) Hydrastis canadensis spring bloom and maturing fruit (K. Schlosser); 4) Seal of King Solomon from a Talismanic scroll at The Metropolitan of Art in New York City (Public Domain); 5) Hydrastis canadensis rhizome cut across the point of previous year’s growth (David M.R. Culbreth); 6) Solomon’s seal rhizome showing past year’s growth scar (Creative Commons, Sid Vogelpohl, Arkansas Native Plant Society).

References

Culbreth, David M.R. (1917).  Manual of materia medica and pharmacology, Lea Brothers & Co. 6th Edition.  Fig. 115.  Available online https://chestofbooks.com/health/materia-medica-drugs/Manual-Pharmacology/Hydrastis.html  Accessed September 12, 2021.

Millspaugh, Charles F. M.D. (1887).  American medicinal plants: an illustrated and descriptive guideBoericke & Tafel, New York and Philadelphia.  Pages 9 to 9-3.  Available online: Biodiversity Heritage Library:  https://ia600203.us.archive.org/15/items/americanmedicina01mill/americanmedicina01mill.pdf  Accessed April 4, 2021.

Vogelpohl, Sid.  Arkansas Native Plant Society.  https://anps.org/2014/04/03/know-your-natives-false-solomons-seal/


Katherine Schlosser (Kathy) has been a member of the North Carolina Unit of The Herb Society of America since 1991, serving in many capacities at the local and national level, including as a member of the Native Herb Conservation Committee, The Herb Society of America. She was awarded the Gertrude B. Foster Award for Excellence in Herbal Literature and the Helen de Conway Little Medal of Honor. She is an author, lecturer, and native herb conservation enthusiast eager to engage others in the study and protection of our native herbs.

Subterranean Treasures: the Beneficial Roots of Native Vines

By Angela Magnan

As I pulled into the parking lot next to the native plant collection at work one day, I noticed our intern up in a tree cutting down a native honeysuckle vine. Uh-oh, I thought. Not again! Working at a public garden, our attempts to grow vines can often be frustrated by well-meaning visitors and volunteers, and yes, overly enthusiastic interns, who automatically think that all vines are weeds and cut or pull out the vines we have planted there. 

Apios in August by Angela MagnanOne strategy to avoid such tragedies is to plant vines that are less obtrusive and that produce underground structures from which they will resprout. One such vine is Apios americana, or groundnut. This leguminous, sprawling perennial vine grows up to 10 feet long and produces clusters of maroon pea-type flowers. Used by native peoples east of the Mississippi as a food source, it has both edible seeds and edible tubers.  The seeds are in long pods that can be harvested in the fall when dry and contain as much protein and fiber as pinto beans. Although not commonly grown in the US, it has been commercially farmed in Japan for more than a hundred years. 

The tubers, which grow every 10-12 inches along the rhizomes, need to be cooked and can be eaten in similar ways to potatoes. Research has also shown that dried and powdered tubers have some promise as an additive to gluten free bread products, increasing the protein content and improving the texture. If you harvest the tubers, the plant won’t come back, but it does seed around; you can maintain its presence in your garden by harvesting sparingly. The tubers are a good source of proline, an amino acid that helps build collagen. Groundnuts have been made into a poultice and used by New England tribes to treat proud flesh, a skin condition caused by inadequate healing of wounds that is particularly common in horses. 

Another native vine with a subterranean edible is hog peanut or ground bean. Also a legume, this is a great plant for botany geeks. Its scientific name, Amphicarpaea bracteata, refers to its production of more than one type of flower, a characteristic known as amphicarpy. It has two types of aboveground flowers and a third type underground. One of the aboveground flowers and the underground flower are cleistogamous, meaning they are permanently closed and self-fertile. The second aboveground flower is a delicate white or light purple pea-like flower that is pollinated by bumblebees. This annual or short-lived perennial produces edible underground seeds, but the aboveground seeds are not edible.

In the wild, this plant typically grows along streams and given enough moisture in the garden, it can run rampant and smother nearby plants. If grown strictly for ornamental purposes, this could be undesirable, but if you want to eat the seeds, you can harvest it aggressively and it will still come back. Because it gets a late start during the growing season, it is a great companion for early spring plants that go dormant by mid-summer. If it has something to twine around, it will, but it will also sprawl along the ground as a groundcover. 

In the US, Cherokee and Iroquois people used the plant for intestinal distress. The Cherokee also used it as a snake bite remedy and the Iroquois used it to treat tuberculosis. In Mexico, indigenous peoples grow it amidst maize and beans, allowing it to twine up the maize stems and intermingle with the climbing beans. Referred to as talet beans, they harvest the underground seeds in early spring before planting that year’s maize crop and then roast the beans as a snack. The aboveground seeds are plowed into the soil for next year’s crop. 

Yet another native vine with useful underground structures is Dioscorea villosa, a wild yam whose tubers contain diosgenin. In the 1940’s, scientists figured out how to synthesize human steroid compounds from diosgenin, a process that was then used to manufacture oral contraceptives and cortisone. Today scientists can synthesize diosgenin in the laboratory, but prior to 1970, wild yam was the sole source of diosgenin and most steroid hormones used in modern medicine were developed from this plant. Although diosgenin can be converted into such steroids in a lab, this process does not occur naturally and consuming wild yam would not have the same effect. 

The flowers of Dioscorea villosa are inconspicuous, but it has attractive heart shaped leaves. Even though its long runners can lead it to pop up in unexpected places, it is not aggressive like some of its non-native relatives. The tubers have an unpleasant, bitter taste, and you wouldn’t want to eat them, but they have been used medicinally for various ailments. Native Americans used a root-based tea to treat menstrual cramps, labor pains, inflammation, asthma, and rheumatism. European settlers used it to treat colic, which led to one of its other common names of colic root. It continues to be used in modern herbal medicine as an anti-inflammatory, either dried in capsule form or as a liquid extract to be made into an herbal tea.

The best thing about all three of these vines is that if a well-meaning individual cuts one down, you might still be able to use the underground treasures or leave them be and let the vine grow back. And what about the native honeysuckle cut down by our intern? It was not so lucky; it never came back. 

Photo credits: 1) Apios americana in August (courtesy of author); 2) Amphicarpaea bracteata flowers (Fritzflohrreynolds via Wikimedia Commons); 3) Amphicarpaea bracteata foliage (R. A. Nonenmacher via Wikimedia Commons); 4) Dioscorea villosa twining up hemlock (courtesy of author)

References:

Foster, S. & Johnson, R. (2006). Desk reference to nature’s medicine. National Geographic.

Frey, D. & Czolba, M. (2017). The food forest handbook. New Society Publishers.

Ichige, M., Fukuda, E., Miida, S., Hattan, J., Misawa, N., Saito, S., Fujimaki, T., Imoto, M., & Shindo, K. (2013). Novel isoflavone glucosides in groundnut (Apios americana Medik) and their antiandrogenic activities. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 61 (9), 2183-2187. https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/jf305233t

Ito, S. & Arai, E. (2021). Improvement of gluten-free steamed bread quality by partial substitution of rice flour with powder of Apios americana tuber. Food Chemistry, 337, 127977. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodchem.2020.127977

Pena, F.B., Villalobos, G. Martinez, M.A., Sotelo, A., Gil, L., & Delgado-Salinas, A. (1999). Use and nutritive value of talet beans, Amphicarpaea bracteata (Fabaceae: Phaseoleae) as human food in Puebla, Mexico. Economic Botany, 53 (4), 427-434. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4256226

Salmon, E. (2020). Iwigara: The kinship of plants and people. Timber Press.

Schnee, B.K. & Waller, D. M. (1986). Reproductive behavior of Amphicarpaea bracteata (Leguminosae), an amphicarpic annual. American Journal of Botany, 73 (3), 376-386. https://bsapubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/j.1537-2197.1986.tb12051.x

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.


Angela grew up on a dairy farm in Vermont and has degrees in biochemistry, horticulture, and science writing. She now lives in Maryland and has worked in the Gardens Unit at the US National Arboretum since 2012.

Who Was That Guy?

By Chrissy Moore

wp-LostAmazon_backcoverWe’ve likely all had the experience of never having heard of something your whole life, and then suddenly you hear about that thing everywhere. A while back, I was putting together a presentation on cacao research but couldn’t find a photo of the botanist I would be discussing. So, I had to use a placeholder image of some random fellow who happened to be looking at plants with a couple of Indigenous tribesmen in the Amazon. “That’ll have to do for now!” I thought, as I had no idea who the stand-in fellow was and didn’t have time to research him prior to delivering the presentation. But, I acknowledged my photographic hack to the audience and moved on, not giving it another thought.

A week later, one of the audience members emailed me the exact picture I had used, which she stumbled upon in an old copy of The Herbarist (No. 53., 1987), the annual publication of The Herb Society of America. What a coincidence! Come to find out, that “random fellow in the Amazon” was Dr. Richard Evans Schultes. But, still…who was that guy? Clearly, he was someone of importance, but for what? I tabled the inquiry for the time being. Shortly thereafter, one of my volunteers happened to forward me a link to a blog post about the Oakes Ames Herbarium at Harvard University. And whose name appeared in the post? Yep. Richard Evans Schultes. Him again? I decided it was time to go on my own hunt, and lo’ and behold, I found his name practically everywhere in the botanical world. Little did I know that Schultes was a famous 20th century taxonomic botanist and ethnobotanist; Harvard University professor of economic botany; curator, then executive director, of the Botanical Museum of Harvard University; and the one who is considered the father of modern ethnobotany. In other words, plantsman extraordinaire! How had I not come across his name after all these years in the herb world? Boy, did I feel silly. But, you don’t know what you don’t know until you know it! 

rivea_corymbosaSchultes was born in 1915 in Boston, Massachusetts, but spent many years of his life studying plants used by Indigenous peoples, primarily in the Americas. He is known for his work on medicinal and toxic plants, particularly those with hallucinogenic and entheogenic properties. (Hallucinogenic “refers specifically to plants or drugs which induce true hallucinations through the action of deleriant anticholinergic substances such as naturally occurring tropane alkaloids,” while entheogenic refers to “plants and substances which can induce transcendent mystical or spiritual experiences nearly always involving visions….It is associated with a range of psychoactive plants, specifically when used in religious or spiritual…contexts, be they hallucinogens, psychedelics, dissociatives, or others” (Hay et al., 2012).) His deep dive into Amazonian plants began while seeking out wild, disease-resistant Hevea (natural rubber) species in the Western Hemisphere for the United States government during World War II. (During the war, the Southeast Asian rubber sources were cut off, and new sources were needed.) Though he worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture for twelve years, Dr. Schultes’ research branched out to include many other plants with varying economic or ethnobotanical uses. All the while, he maintained a focus on hallucinogens of plant origin. During his career, Schultes collected over 24,000 herbarium specimens and is credited with introducing 300 plants not previously known to science. 

In one of his papers, Schultes notes, “In view of the number of plant species, variously estimated at from 400,000 – 800,000 species, those that have been used as hallucinogens are few; probably no more than 60 species of cryptogams [spore-producing] and phanerogams [seed-producing]….Only 20 may be considered important” (Schultes, 1969).

Lophophora williamsiiSome of his most well-known research subjects were peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii), used for ritual by the Kiowa tribe in Oklahoma; ayahuasca, an entheogenic botanical brew used by Indigenous tribes of South America; and the numerous plants used to make curare, “a mixture of naturally occurring alkaloids found in various South American plants and used as arrow poisons” (ScienceDirect, 2021). After decades of research into its mode of action by many scientists around the world, curare was applied to surgical procedures in the 20th century, along with anesthesia, as a muscle relaxant during operations until safer synthetic analogues were discovered (Burr and Leung, 2014).

“I have tried several of the Indian hallucinogens, in part because the Indians consider them sacred plants and it would have been an unpardonable rudeness to refuse them when the Indians were kind enough to offer them to me during a ceremony” (Schultes, 1994).

By all accounts, Schultes was a die-hard ethnobotanist, who defined it thusly:

 “[It is] the complete registration of the uses of and concepts about plant life in primitive societies… comprising aspects of botany, anthropology, archeology, plant chemistry, pharmacology, history, geography, and sundry other tangential fields of the sciences and arts” (Schultes, 1988).

Schultes5-572x768His knowledge of the field went beyond just the cultural or botanical, but also landed squarely in the geographical as he sought to document the locations of plants and people. His journal notes and maps were indispensable for recording hard-to-get-at information, including language documentation of the tribes with whom he worked.

After living with and learning from the Indigenous populations in Amazonia for more than ten years (he concentrated on the northwest Amazon region of Colombia), Dr. Schultes returned to the United States and taught economic botany classes at Harvard University for decades, inspiring hundreds of students with his understanding of people and the plants they use. He also contributed hundreds of papers to various scientific publications, as well as authored eight books.

During his career, Schultes noted the rapid destruction of the Amazon rainforest and strongly advocated for its conservation, not just for the plants themselves, but for the knowledge that the Indigenous peoples held of those plants, both of which were disappearing at an alarming rate.

“It is therefore our responsibility – nay, our duty – to put ourselves in the forefront of ethnobotanical conservation. We cannot allow such precious funds of knowledge to become extinct” (Schultes, 1988).

He also understood the potential loss of knowledge yet to be discovered and encouraged continued botanical, pharmacological, and ethnobotanical research throughout the Amazonian basin.

Schultes_amazon_1940s-593x768Schultes was a lover of people, whether they were the tribespeople with whom he forged friendships or the students he mentored at university. His knowledge was profound, and scores of plants share his name. His conservation efforts were acknowledged through numerous awards during his lifetime, including the World Wildlife Fund’s Annual Gold Medal in recognition of ethnobotanical conservation, as well as a 2.2-million-hectare tract of land in Colombia. Dr. Schultes was also an honorary member of the New England Unit of The Herb Society of America! Not surprisingly, his impact has been felt the world over. I may have only recently heard of this tremendous ethnobotanist, but he’s definitely taken me on a botanical journey I’ll not soon forget.

Photo credits: 1) R.E. Schultes in South America (Wade Davis/Earth Aware Editions); 2) Turbinia corymbosa (syn. Rivea corymbosa) botanical illustration (R.E. Shultes); 3) Lophophora williamsii (peyote cactus) (Wikimedia Commons); 4) Schultes’ hand drawn map in his field notebook (Harvard University Botany Libraries); 5) Schultes with Salvador Chindoy (left), a renowned Kamëntsá healer from Sibundoy Valley of Colombia (Archives of the Economic Botany Library of Oakes Ames, Harvard University).

References

Burr, S.A. and Y.L. Leung. 2014. Curare (d-Tubocurarine). Encyclopedia of Toxicology (Third Edition). Academic Press.

Curare – An Overview. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/veterinary-science-and-veterinary-medicine/curare. Accessed 14 June, 2021.

Davis, Wade. The Lost Amazon: The Photographic Journey of Richard Evans Schultes. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2004. 160 pp. ISBN# 0-8118-4571-0

Hay, A., Gottschalk, M., & Holguín, A. 2012. Huanduj: Brugmansia. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew: Richmond, United Kingdom

Kahn, E. J. “Jungle Botanist [Richard Evans Schultes]”. The New Yorker. v. 68: pp. 35-58. 1992.

Schultes, Richard Evans. “Burning the Library of Amazonia.” Sciences 34, no. 2, pp. 24. 1994.

Schultes, Richard Evans. “Hallucinogens or Plant Origin.” Science, New Series, Vol. 163, No. 3864 (Jan. 17, 1969), pp. 245-254. www.jstor.org/stable/1725088, accessed 08 Jan 2020.

Schultes, Richard Evans. “The Medicine Man: Herbalist Superb.” The Herbarist, No. 53. 1987.

Schultes, Richard Evans. “Primitive Plant Lore & Modern Conservation”. Orion Nature Quarterly; v. 7, No. 3, Summer 1988. New York, NY: Myrin Institute, 1988b.

https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2003/09/richard-evans-schultes/. Accessed 3/31/2021.

https://blog.biodiversitylibrary.org/2020/08/richard-evans-schultes.html. Accessed 3/31/2021.

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.


Chrissy Moore is the curator of the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, DC. She is a member of the Potomac Unit of The Herb Society of America and is an International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist.

Backyard Butterfly Weed

By Kaila Blevins

Butterfly weed flowersI, like many other people preparing for the COVID-19 lockdown, frequented my local garden center to purchase vegetable seeds and buy plants for the different backyard projects intended to keep myself occupied as the weather warmed. One of the projects that I tasked myself with involved creating a pollinator garden in a wonky, pain-in-the-butt-to-mow patch of grass in my backyard. While walking through the garden center’s aisles, looking for plants to complement the coneflowers (Echinacea) and bee balm (Monarda) I had already placed in my cart, I came across butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa).

Originally, I was drawn to the numerous orange flowers that would bloom from mid-summer through the fall that would potentially allow me to see a variety of butterflies, moths, and maybe even a hummingbird, when I peer out of the kitchen window while washing dishes. But, once I got home, I researched butterfly weed’s uses outside of being pollinator friendly. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that several Native American tribes in the eastern and southwestern portions of the United States used butterfly weed medicinally.

Butterfly weedBased on the historical texts I read, the seeds and roots of butterfly weed were used in numerous treatments. The seeds harvested from the ripened pods were used to treat diarrhea and dysentery. However, most of the different tribes primarily used the roots, which were applied externally to tighten the skin or smashed to create a paste to treat bruises, cuts, sores, and bites. In addition to topical use, the roots were ingested or steeped to create beverages. Raw roots were consumed to treat pulmonary and respiratory issues; dried roots were administered to treat chest pains as well. Drinks were given to women after childbirth to ease the pain and bring comfort to the new mothers. Lastly, individuals believed that rubbing their legs and running shoes with butterfly weed would enhance their running capabilities.

Butterfly weedSince planting the garden back in May, it has been a delight watching the different insects interact with the butterfly weed, but it was also fun learning how people used it in ways other than just adding pops of orange to their garden. For more information on other native herbs and native herb gardening, check out The Herb Society of America’s Notable NativeTM and GreenBridgesTM web pages.

 

Photo Credits: 1) Butterfly weed flowers; 2) Butterfly weed developing seedpod; 3) Butterfly weed in author’s garden. All photos courtesy of the author.

Sources

Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Medicinal Plants: an Ethnobotanical Dictionary: Timber Press, 2009.

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.


57348119_2256114837761256_4232634512942563328_nKaila Blevins is the 2020-2021 National Herb Garden intern. She graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park, with a B.S. in Environmental Science and Technology and a minor in sustainability. This fall, she will pursue a Master’s in Landscape Architecture at Morgan State University while also interning in the National Herb Garden. She hopes to expand her knowledge of plants, and how they benefit human health and life. In her spare time, she likes to read, paint, brew kombucha and experiment with its flavors, as well as spend time with her family and pets. Kaila also likes to stay active in the community through volunteering.

Spicebush to the Rescue

Spicebush to the Rescue

By Kaila Blevins

Author Volunteer TripWhile on a volunteer trip in Orlando, Florida, I was desperate for bug spray. In the middle of December, the mosquitoes nibbled on any exposed skin they could find, leaving me and the rest of the unprepared Maryland native participants with patches of red swollen bumps on our ankles and arms. Our guides, a retired couple who volunteers with the state parks, became our heroes on the second day of the trip. During our lunch break, the husband saunters over to us, carrying a branch from a nearby shrub and states, “This is spicebush. Crush its leaves and rub it onto your arms. Keeps the bugs away and helps the itch.” Immediately, we passed the branch around, ripped the leaves off the branch, crumpled them, and rubbed the lemon-peppery scented oil onto our skin.

A couple years later, I would learn that spicebush (Lindera benzoin) has a multitude of uses. The fragrant multi-stemmed shrub is native to the margins of wetlands and along woodland streams in the Eastern United States. It can grow close to 10 feet tall, and in spicebush flowersApril, yellow flowers begin to appear on the branches. By the end of the summer, the flowers are replaced by cherry red fruits. Spicebush is integral to the native ecosystems, as it serves as the host plant for the spicebush swallowtail butterfly, and birds are known to snack on the seeds. However, Native Americans and early settlers relied on spicebush’s herbal properties.

Native Americans would brew tea with the bark, twigs, leaves, and berries. When ingested, the tea would induce sweating. The increased perspiration would help fight off fevers and ease body aches. In addition, ingestion would assist with removing intestinal parasites. The tea could be applied topically as well. Compresses soaked in spicebush tea would be applied to the skin to ease the pain from arthritis, rashes, bruises, and itching. Once settlers arrived in the new world, they sought help from the Native Americans.

The settlers did not know much about the peculiar plants growing in North America, so Native Americans taught them the herbal benefits of the native plants. Lindera benzoin fruitSettlers used spicebush for similar ailments as well as typhoid fever. They also used the plant in culinary dishes. The dried seeds and bark became milder substitutes for allspice and cinnamon, respectively. Beyond its herbal uses, settlers used the presence of spicebush as an indicator for rich soil that could be converted into agricultural land.

Spicebush’s herbal properties may get overlooked by its ecological importance or showy yellow leaves in fall, but it was a staple for Native Americans, early settlers, and my volunteer trip. For more information on spicebush, check out HSA’s Essential Fact Sheet.

 

Photo Credits (from top): Author on field trip; spicebush flowers (courtesy E. Holden); spicebush fruit (courtesy E. Holden)

References

Keiffer, Betsy. “Lindera Benzoin.” Cultivation Notess, Sept. 1998, riwps.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Lindera_benzoin.pdf.

“Lindera Benzoin.” Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center – The University of Texas at Austin, http://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=LIBE3.

“Lindera Benzoin.” North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox, plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/lindera-benzoin/.

Nesom, Guy. “Spicebush.” Plant Guide, USDA NRCS National Plant Data Center & the Biota of North America Program , 2003, plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/pg_libe3.pdf.

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.


57348119_2256114837761256_4232634512942563328_n

Kaila Blevins is the 2020-2021 National Herb Garden intern. She graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park, with a B.S. in Environmental Science and Technology and a minor in sustainability. This fall, she will pursue a Master’s in Landscape Architecture at Morgan State University while also interning in the National Herb Garden. She hopes to expand her knowledge of plants, and how they benefit human health and life. In her spare time, she likes to read, paint, brew kombucha and experiment with its flavors, as well as spend time with her family and pets. Kaila also likes to stay active in the community through volunteering.