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.

Gather Ye Redbuds While Ye May – A Colorful Harbinger of Spring…and Edible, Too!

by Karen Cottingham

Eastern_Redbud_by Dan Keck via wikimediaHere in Texas, there’s a saying: “We have two seasons – summer and winter.” That’s not quite true; but if you’re not paying attention, spring can slip right past. And the last thing I want is to miss a single day of our glorious, but ephemeral, spring. 

The nights here are still cold – sometimes approaching freezing – but the robins have arrived, so I know springtime is near. It’s time to listen for a hushed prelude to seasonal change, time to look for intimations of life beginning to stir. Every few days, this calls for a visit to the two redbud trees in my Houston neighborhood to check the trunks and bare branches for any evidence of tiny pink flowers. Nothing to see for weeks on end; then suddenly, here they are – scattered crimson buds emerging straight from the furrowed bark, swelling with life, and some already unfolding their delicate pink wings. In a week or so, the branches will be covered with a dazzling display of vibrant spring color. Heart-shaped leaves of bronze, crimson, or vivid chartreuse will soon follow and add to the brilliant Eastern redbud by Melissa McMasters via wikimediaspectacle. 

Taking a look at the distribution map of our native redbuds, a similar burst of color might announce spring’s arrival for many of our HSA members. North American redbuds fall into two groupings, each with a number of regional varieties – Cercis canadensis, or Eastern redbud, and Cercis orbiculata, the Western redbud group. Several additional redbuds are native to Southern Europe, the Mediterranean region, and central Asia; collectively, these small leguminous trees make up the entire Cercis genus.

Many of you living in redbud’s distribution may still be snowed in or are impatiently waiting for the ground to thaw so you can prepare your garden for planting. If you’re feeling restless, just imagine the anxiety of previous generations reliant on early crops to replenish their dwindling winter stores. And then imagine their relief and delight to see the first signs of the approaching spring. 

Distribution of Cercis orbiculata (left) and C. canadensis (right).

Many crop-growing Native Americans considered the redbud just this sort of “seasonal indicator,” a long-awaited sign that fresh food would soon be plentiful. For some, the vibrant blossoms were even believed to hasten the arrival of warm weather. Members of the Kiowa tribe, for example, decorated their dwellings with redbud wreaths and twigs to help “drive out the spirit of winter.” 

Eastern redbud in full bloom with small pink blossomsWhile its ability to awaken a slumbering spring makes a lovely story, experience also proved that a blooming redbud can be dangerously misleading. According to Cherokee historian David Cornsilk, the Eastern redbud is known as Da-yi-go-gi, or “Liar,” in the Cherokee language. Don’t be deceived, the elders warn, by the Liar, the first tree to blossom in the spring. Da-yi-go-gi may put on a dazzling display against the dun and drab forest background, but it’s not always a reliable signal that winter is over. If precious seeds were planted based on the false promise of the blooming redbud, the tender plants might well be lost to a later hard freeze. It’s better to resist, for a while longer, the exuberance of Da-yi-go-gi.

Appalachian folklore also warns against naively trusting the early blooming redbud; a “redbud winter” refers to the cold snap that frequently occurs just after the redbuds bloom. 

As pioneers moved into the Appalachian Mountains, the native redbud trees played another important “indicator” role. Much of the soil there is acidic and too poor to sustain crops. Settlers soon learned that redbuds growing in a “cove” or “draw” indicated a limestone-rich basic soil suitable for successful farming.

Eastern_redbud_fruit_SEWilco via wikimediaNative Americans, along with the early settlers, also found ways for redbud to supplement their supply of food. Flowers, newly emerged leaves, young seed pods, and mature seeds are all edible. Even the twigs have a place in food preparation, being used so often to season game in southern Appalachia that the trees there are called “spicewood.” Traditionally, the flowers are eaten straight off the tree, but they have also been used for salad garnishes, teas, jellies, and pie fillings. Peter Kalm, the American agent of Linnaeus, called redbud the “sallad tree,” because its flowers were so often eaten in salads. 

Knowing this, I was thrilled to reach up, pick a tiny flower, inhale deeply, and pop it into my mouth. I’d been looking forward to this moment for months since I first read that redbud blossoms are not only edible, but are also delicious. The little flower emitted a strong floral fragrance that reminded me of honey. It was delightfully crunchy; floral, but in an out-of-focus, unrecognizable way; and sweet with a tangy lemony taste.

Encouraged, I decided to try an unopened bud, and was instantly propelled into my own Remembrance of Things Past moment. The flavor sensation of that little bud was identical to my childhood experience of munching on green peas picked fresh from the field! 

At first, this might sound strange, but it actually makes sense. The species Cercis canadensis belongs to the botanical family Fabaceae, making it a close relative of beans, peas, peanuts, tamarind, and other legumes.

Salad_of_Romaine_lettuce_and_wild_Toothwort,_Purple_Dead_Nettle_and_Redbud_flowers_-_Flickr_-_Jay_Sturner via wikimediaAs an added bonus, redbud flowers have a significantly higher vitamin C content than most common domesticated fruits and vegetables, including oranges. The flowers are also rich in anthocyanins, the antioxidant pigments that give them their magenta/fuchsia color.

If you’re lucky enough to have your own tree, here are a few ways to add redbud surprises to your spring menu (links to recipes follow):

Fresh redbud flowers make a vibrant addition to salads, but also to cakes, quick breads, crackers, muffins, and even pancakes. Pickled buds can be used like capers to garnish a salad, but even better, the rosy-red pickling vinegar can be used for dressings or vinegar-based beverages. There are plenty of recipes on the internet for redbud flower jelly, and it is even possible to crystallize the flowers for a beautiful dessert embellishment. 

One of my favorite recipe ideas is for a cucumber, cream cheese, and redbud flower-filled tea sandwich. Imagine serving that for a springtime “Afternoon Tea!” You could even brew a redbud tisane, adding a bit of lemon to bring out the fuchsia color. A simple syrup of infused redbud flowers makes a lovely floral sweetener for cocktails, herbal waters, or lemonade. And don’t forget to add a redbud cluster as a garnish!

For the devoted forager with access to sassafras, here’s another idea – a goat cheese and coconut milk tart flavored with redbud flowers and newly emerged sassafras leaves. 

And why not really celebrate the arrival of spring by adding a few crunchy pink flowers to a spring roll? Sprinkle the flowers on the rice paper wrapper first so they show in the finished roll, then add other foraged flowers and greens, perhaps some shrimp or fish, and serve with a spicy peanut sauce. 

1200px-Redbud,_Forest-Pansy,_Cercis-canadensis_IMG_7214 S_G_S via wikimedia

The flowering period of redbuds is brief; and in a few weeks, the tree will completely leaf out and start producing seed pods. Supposedly the young leaves taste rather like grass, and the young seed pods taste like snow peas or beans. Either could be added to a stir fry, but I probably won’t try that. As one writer delicately puts it, “The high fiber content may cause some unintended and unwanted digestive consequences.”

The Navajo were said to bury the mature pods in the coals of a fire and eat the roasted seeds. I’m not sure how they would taste, but as far as survival foods go, redbud seeds, at 22-27% protein and 7-8% fat, have excellent nutritional value. The seeds are also rich in antioxidants and the essential fatty acids linoleic and alpha-linolenic acid.

Quercetin, an important antioxidant flavonoid, was actually isolated for the first time from the pods of Cercis canadensis.

Cercis_canadensis,_Forest_Pansy_-_geograph.org.uk_-_2133216 by Jonathan Billinger via wikimediaSo the edible redbud plant parts clearly offered beneficial nutrients to early inhabitants of North America. But that’s not all – redbud bark is rich in therapeutic tannins and is an important medicine for several Native American tribes. Infusions of the bark are extensively used for respiratory congestion, as a cough suppressant, and to treat diarrhea and vomiting. 

In “Lenape Indian Medicines,” a compilation of the plant medicines used by the Lenape, or Delaware, tribe, Glenn McCartlin describes the remedy for vomiting used by his grandmother, Minnie Fouts: “Take six 1-1/2 ft Box Elder limbs that are pointing east. Scrape limbs starting from the end. And take two limbs from Redbud tree, and put in a pan with some cold water and drink it every little while until it quits.” I don’t know about box elder limbs, but a tannin-rich infusion of redbud bark might well have been sufficiently astringent to relieve nausea. 

And for those who suffer from depression in the dark time of the year, the traditional healers in the Ozarks prepare a tea from redbud bark that flushes out the “winter blues.” 

We tend to think of redbud as a beautiful and welcoming harbinger of spring, but it’s actually so much more – a valuable medicine and important source of nutrition, and a lively and tasty addition to your spring menus. I’m reminded of wild-food advocate Euell Gibbons challenging his TV viewers in the 1970s with what seemed to be a preposterous question, “Ever eat a pine tree?” He paused slightly, and then explained to the shocked viewers, “Many parts are edible.” I think he would have loved the colorful and edible redbud! 

I hope you enjoy it as well.

REDBUD RECIPES

Butter-Poached Panfish and Redbud Blossom Spring Rolls https://www.realtree.com/timber-2-table-wild-game-recipes/butter-poached-panfish-and-redbud-blossom-spring-rolls

Eastern Redbud Blossom Jelly Recipe https://www.realtree.com/timber-2-table-wild-game-recipes/eastern-redbud-blossom-jelly-recipe

Edible Redbud Flowers on Ham and Cheese Omelet  https://mysliceofnice.com/f/edible-redbud-flowers-on-ham-and-cheese-omelette

Herbed Watercress Cheese & Wild Flower Crackers  https://www.wildedible.com/blog/herbed-watercress-cheese-wild-flower-crackers

Mskobaskbegit Meweyak (Redbud & Maple Syrup Cakes)  https://www.mrinconranch.com/post/mskobaskbegit-meweyak-redbud-maple-syrup-cakes

Redbud & Cucumber Tea Sandwiches  
http://livetheoldway.com/redbud-tea-sandwiches/

Redbud Flower-Sassafras Tartlet  https://www.feastmagazine.com/recipes/article_987245ba-edc6-11e4-b6c6-9f639630fae1.html

Redbud & Lemon Cornmeal Loaf Cake  https://www.ful-filled.com/2017/03/25/redbud-lemon-cornmeal-loaf-cake/

Redbud Salad  
https://tracksandroots.com/2020/04/04/redbud-salad

Redbud Sour  
https://www.oliveandmango.com/redbud-sour/

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) Cercis canadensis flowers (Dan Keck); 2) Newly emerged leaves of C. canadensis (Melissa McMasters); 3) Geographical distribution of C. orbiculata and C. canadensis (USDA Plants Database); 4) Redbud in full flower (Dcrjsr); 5) Green seed pods (SEWilco); 6) Salad of romaine lettuce, toothwort, purple deadnettle, and redbud flowers (Jay Sturner); 7) Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ (S.G.S.); 8) Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ fall color (Jonathan Billinger). All photos via Wikimedia, except distribution maps.

References:

Native American Ethnobotany Database (Internet). 2003. Redbud. Accessed Feb 22, 2022. Available from: http://naeb.brit.org/uses/search/?string=redbud

Rementer, J. 1986. Some additional Lenape Indian medicines. Accessed Feb 22, 2022. Available from: https://www.academia.edu/556207/SOME_ADDITIONAL_LENAPE_INDIAN_MEDICINES

Robertson, K. R. 1976. Cercis: The redbuds. Arnoldia, 36(2): 3749. Accessed Feb 22, 2022. Available from: https://arboretum.harvard.edu/stories/cercis-the-redbuds/

Sarcraft. 2019. Wild edible Wednesday 3/27: Eastern redbud. Accessed Feb 22, 2022. Available from: https://sarcraft.squarespace.com/news/eastern-redbud-edible-and-medicinal-uses

Sibray, D. 2020. Pink-flowering redbud trees guided early W.Va. settlers. West Virginia Explorer Magazine. Accessed Feb 22, 2022. Available from: https://wvexplorer.com/2020/04/13/pink-flower-trees-redbud-west-virginia/

Some Thoughts from Polly’s Granddaughter. 2012. Beware the Eastern redbud! Accessed Feb 22, 2022. Available from: http://www.pollysgranddaughter.com/2012/01/beware-eastern-redbud.html


Karen Cottingham lives in Houston, Texas, but she grew up in a farming community in rural Washington state. After a long career in medicine, Karen now devotes most of her time to sharing her knowledge and enthusiasm for all aspects of herbs. She serves as Program Chair of the South Texas Unit (STU), contributes articles to various STU and Herb Society of America publications, and provides the content for the HSA-STU Facebook page. Karen particularly enjoys introducing herbs to the public through demonstrations at libraries, museums, elementary schools, and public gardens.

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.

Unearthly fragrance, cat-scratching thorns

By Rachel Cywinski

(This article is an abridged version originally appearing on the Native Plant Society of Texas website, November 30, 2020. Thanks to the author for allowing us to reprint her article here.)

Huisache flowersThe portals of heaven open to announce [that] spring will soon return—that’s the only way that I can describe the aroma of huisache (Vachellia farnesiana) in bloom. Texas A&M University’s Aggie Horticulture website describes this tree as “intensely fragrant.” 

For years, I was drawn to this delightful scent but stayed away because of an extreme sensitivity to bee stings. Never are bees more evident than when huisache blooms. Many people also stay away because they fear the thorns.

Huisache tree in Alamo Defenders Cemetery in San Antonio, TexasBut one day, looking for emerging native plants as I often do in the neglected historic cemeteries of San Antonio, I ducked under the branches and stood near the trunk. My senses were transported by the unearthly fragrance and the amazing sound of thousands of bees, who were all so entranced by the blooms, that they had no interest in what a human was doing. As I deeply inhaled the fragrance, breezes moved the fine leaves like caresses across my face. I was hooked. Ever since, when I see huisache blooming in the hot and high parts of San Antonio, I look for it each week in places a little farther north or more shaded, until all the trees have bloomed, and spring has arrived.

picture of Guerlain's Apres L'Ondee perfumeIn the 1800s, some enterprising Europeans imported what we in southern and central Texas take for granted; the macerated blooms of huisache grown commercially in southern France and Portugal are used in some of the world’s most expensive perfumes made in Cannes. Huisache is an “overlooked indigenous plant” that is “very valuable” to urban gardens by fixing nitrogen in the soil and attracting pollinators, said San Antonio City Arborist Mark Bird. “The bees and other pollinators can’t resist.” The Native Plant Project states that the bees particularly need the pollen more than the nectar of this tree and cites it as attracting insects and birds (1).

ISA-Certified Arborist® David Vaughan, one of the charter members of the ISA-Texas chapter, recommends huisache for dry sites. Vaughan listed benefits of huisache as being a pioneer species, fast-growing, maturing to a medium size, fragrant and “gorgeous” with early spring flowers that last a month, with the perk that “compound leaves are small and do not need to be raked.”

Huisache thorns adult and juvenile forms

Young huisache trees have large thorns on new foliage (right). More mature trees have sharp pairs of barb-like thorns at junctures.

Mature trees do have two small barb-like thorns at the base of each leaf, but only the youngest trees have the long spiky thorns to protect themselves. This adds to their attractiveness in urban landscapes, where so many birds fall prey to domesticated cats let outdoors. Birds nest in huisache, according to the Natives of Texas website. Native Plant Project lists it of particular value for white-winged doves (1).

Huisache, a Nahuatl term meaning “many thorns,” is the most common name for Vachellia farnesiana, though it has been called an “acacia” for so long that many will likely continue to remember it as such. The gum derived from the tree is considered higher quality than gum arabic. Other historic and current uses of huisache include medicine, wood, dye, tannin, ink, pottery, glue, toothbrushes, and firewood (2). David Vaughan cautions that, although huisache and mesquite wood have a similar appearance, grilling meat over huisache wood will ruin it.

Other medicinal uses recorded for huisache include: an astringent and demulcent; in treatment of wounds, skin inflammations, and swellings; sore throat, diarrhea, typhoid, stomachic, dyspepsia, dysentery, leucorrhoea, conjunctivitis, uterorrhagia, neuroses, and headaches (3).

Vachellia farinesiana seed podsThe ebony-colored seed pods appear to bulge with numerous small seeds that contain a toxic alkaloid. But that does not prevent them from being invaded by insects as soon as they drop to the ground. If you plan to start huisache from seed, be on the lookout to get the seeds before they are eaten.

Mark Bird has found huisache valuable for controlling erosion and restoring degraded soils. He said, “In some ways the tree can be considered a pioneer species, because it can establish in poor quality soils and lead to future, ‘more desirable’ trees, such as oaks and elms.”

Another ISA-Certified Arborist®, Mark Peterson, concurs with Bird. Peterson, who is a project manager in the Conservation Department of San Antonio Water System, said huisache “is definitely a pioneer species. In certain regions of south and southeast Texas, it is the primary woody species during the first five to thirty years of succession after land clearing.” Peterson has observed that establishment of huisache and mesquite improves soil quality for later growth of hackberry, pecan, mulberry, or oak, particular to site conditions.

Huisache tree blooming and Diana Kersey Art on bridge over San Antonio RiverVachellia farnesiana’s native range is considered to cross from southern Florida to southern California, south to northern South America. Vaughan said, “a few grow more north, but seldom survive the occasional very cold winter of the [Texas] hill country.” Huisache is not freeze-hardy, but it is fast-growing and exceptionally drought-tolerant. Peterson says, “The only thing that can seriously affect its growth is over-watering.” In the San Antonio area, one could almost draw a map of the waterways by the presence of huisache, as it is pervasive on the upper banks of streams, creeks, and the river. I think of it as one of those unique plants that so often grows near, but never in, waterways as they are uniquely able to tolerate periods of moisture and yet withstand dry conditions.

This past spring, I happened to be in northwest San Antonio near the place of the most extraordinary annual sight of huisache in bloom. The trees near where I live, between Salado Creek and the San Antonio River, had bloomed a few weeks earlier. And so, I realized this might be the time that trees along creeks in more elevated areas were blooming. Indulging in huisache viewing would really brighten my day, I rationalized—and there were so many trees [from which] I could get whiffs of the fragrance just driving past.

Huisache trees along byway

Huisache trees between the roadway and hike-and-bike trail provide visual calm to drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians along the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River in southern Bexar County.

With great anticipation, I found my way to a large roadway that serves traffic exiting and entering a main entrance of a major local employer. I remembered how stunningly the display of golden blooms gleamed all along the upper bank of a stream tributary to Zarzamora Creek and took deep breaths to maintain calm as I rounded the bend, where the setting sun would create such a breath-taking display.

I did not remain calm. I rounded the bend and saw the sunset. There was nothing between us. I pulled over. There were no trees: there was nothing. Where was the “rain of gold” that blooming huisache made in the wind? 

As I stared, stunned, another motorist pulled her car in front of mine, and came running back, asking if I was okay. “The huisache [trees] are GONE,” I said to her. She looked at me with confusion.

She asked several times whether I was all right, and I continued to explain the huisache were gone. Her confusion concerned me. Perhaps she might think I was some dangerous person. Then we both changed the conversation. I asked her if she didn’t remember the huisache. Clearly, she didn’t. Then I realized that she just did not know the NAME of the trees. She probably missed them but did not know what they were called. So, I explained it was the trees that always had such beautiful blooms every year, the ones that looked like shining yellow all along this area. I motioned to where the trees had been and said, “It makes me want to cry.”

Huisache blooming at Ecumenical Center of San Antonio, TexasThe woman stared open-mouthed then looked to where the trees had been, then at me, then to the stream bank, as if trying to remember. But she couldn’t.

The woman explained it was very dangerous to stop a car along the roadway, even with flashers on. I asked if it wasn’t between shifts when there would not be so many employees driving. She agreed, and said it was still very dangerous. Even though there were many lanes, there were constant motor vehicle collisions. It was not safe even to be on this roadway. 

I told her that I was going to leave. But, I insisted, didn’t she miss the trees that had been there? Again, she seemed confused and unable to place any trees where they had been. She said if I was okay, she was leaving, but that I really needed to get my car off the road altogether; there were too many drivers who ran into people here.

Huisache tree bloomingI thanked her. As I waited for her car to move, I began crying in earnest. How many times had the concerned woman driven past the beautiful delicate-looking green of huisache branches dancing over the breeze? Had she passed golden huisache blooms thousands of times and never noticed them?

To me, this was the saddest thing of all.

*For more information about supporting native herbs in the landscape, visit The Herb Society of America’s GreenBridges™ Initiative website.

Photo Credits: 1) Huisache (Vachellia farinesiana) flowers (R. Cywinski); 2) Huisache tree in Alamo Defenders Cemetery in San Antonio, Texas (R. Cywinski); 3) Perfume by Guerlain containing huisache essential oil (public domain); 4) Mature and immature thorns (R. Cywinski); 5) Mature and immature seed pods (Creative Commons, Starr Environmental); 6) Huisache tree blooming and Diana Kersey Art on bridge over San Antonio River (R. Cywinski); 7) Huisache along roadway (R. Cywinski); 8) Huisache bordering the Ecumenical Center of San Antonio, Texas (R. Cywinski); 9) Huisache flowering boughs (R. Cywinski).

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. 

References

(1) Native Plant Project. https://www.nativeplantproject.com/. Accessed 8 October 2021.

(2) Purdue University Center for New Crops and Plant Products. https://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/duke_energy/Acacia_farnesiana.html. Accessed 8 October 2021.

(3) Plants for a Future Database. https://pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Acacia+farnesiana. Accessed 8 October 2021.


Rachel Cywinski’s professional background is in journalism and mathematics education, including degrees in international business and business economics. She is a native plant enthusiast (with a special affinity for plant identification) and serves as a volunteer for the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center in the San Antonio region and is a member of the Native Plant Society of Texas.

Stalking Evening Primroses in the Rockies

by Jane Thomson

Each spring, I hike trails in the northern Front Range of the Colorado Rockies with a group of fellow wildflower enthusiasts. This spring, much of the western U. S. had been suffering from severe heat and drought. However, the northern part of the Front Range, as locals call Colorado’s eastern foothills, had been blessed with unusually cool temperatures and drenching rains. As a result, wildflower displays were the best seen in years. Flowers were bigger, and plants were much taller than usual. Wild evening primroses are one of the delights of this display.

Howard's evening primrose with inset photoEvening primroses are in the genus Oenothera, and their flowers can be recognized because they have four petals, four or eight stamens, and a stigma with four terminal parts. The picture above shows one of this year’s flowers on steroids, O. howardii, Howard’s evening primrose. Note the size compared to the handle portion of the hiking pole. Its flower measures more than four inches across. Spent flowers in this species fade to a copper orange (inset). Another yellow evening primrose found in a dry, sandy area is O. lavandulifolius, lavender-leaved evening primrose (see below). Its species name was chosen because of leaves similar to those of lavender plants. Lavender leaved evening primrose

Oenothera species are believed to have originated in Mexico and Central America, although they have now spread from North to South America. Many species form hybrids with one another. As a result, their appearance is now quite variable, with heights ranging from four inches (alpine) to ten feet (Mexico) and leaves that can be entire, toothed, lanceolate, or ovate. Flower colors also vary widely and can be yellow, white, pink, purple, or red. However, the most common colors in our area are yellow and white, with white flowers typically found in dry, desert habitats. 

One white evening primrose that we often see out hiking is O. coronopitifolia, cut leaf evening primrose, which can be identified by its deeply divided leaves (see inset). Another characteristic is that its flowers turn pink with age. Cut leaf evening primrose with inset

Sometimes evening primroses are hard to identify because flowers open late in the day. This is because they have evolved in sequence with their main pollinators, nocturnal moths. Typically their flowers begin to wither and close in the sun the day after flowering. The plant below, O. cespitosa, tufted evening primrose, shows flower buds that are only partially open. Often at the start of a hike, we find evening primroses aren’t open yet, and we see them to better advantage on the way home. Tufted evening primrose

This primrose is one of four varieties of tufted evening primroses in Colorado. Which one? We’ll leave that to the experts. Do you find any evening primroses growing wild in your area? It is fun to see how many you can identify out on the trail or scattered here and there in fields near where you live.  

Photo Credits: 1) O. howardii, Howard’s evening primrose, Coyote Ridge Natural Area (inset photo by Ed Seely, Pineridge Natural Area); 2) O. lavandufolia, lavender-leaved evening primrose, Pawnee Buttes National Grassland, Weld County, CO; 3) O. coronopitifolia, cut leaf evening primrose, Eagle’s Nest Open Space; 4) O. cespitosa, tufted evening primrose, Hermit Park, Limber Pine trail. All photos taken in Larimer County, CO by the author, except as noted.

References:

Ackerfield, J. 2015. Flora of Colorado. Brit Press.

Bilsing, L. (ed.). 2017. Wildflowers and other plants of the Larimer County foothills region, 2nd ed. Larimer County Department of Natural Resources.

Elpel, T.J. 2010. Botany in a day, 5th ed. HOPS Press, LLC.

Oenothera. Accessed 8/28/2021. wikipedia.org/wiki/Oenothera


Jane Thomson has been a member of the Herb Society of America for over 20 years, first with the Sangre De Cristo Unit in Santa Fe and currently with the Rocky Mountain Unit. She is a retired chemist and amateur wildflower enthusiast.

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.

Herbal Trees and Shrubs of the Plains and Prairies

By Katherine Schlosser

From place to place, season to season, and year to year,

the colorful mixtures and combinations of flowering herbs 

are influenced by permutations of weather, grazing,

competition with grasses, and seed abundance.

                                                    ~David S. Costello                        

Since childhood the words “For amber waves of grain, For purple mountain majesties, Above the fruited plain” colored my impression of the landscape of the western part of our country. Visits to grandparents, aunts and uncles, and masses of cousins didn’t disappoint my vision. It wasn’t until adulthood that I fully understood that those words were essentially a drone fly-over.  

For some of us, it takes paying attention not only to the larger landscape, but to the details as well to appreciate the enormous botanical diversity of our country. From the tallest coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) to the tiny littleleaf pyxie moss (Pyxidanthera brevifolia) and its 1/4-inch flowers peering out from 1/5-inch leaves, there is a lifetime of plants to observe and learn. Narrowing the focus to herbal plants, those with uses for flavoring and medicinal purposes, makes the task a little easier, but there is still a world of plants to learn.

Following are just a sample, and for further inspiration I recommend the sources listed in References:

Red false yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora)—though not a Yucca species—is a perfect summer blooming perennial plant that approaches shrub size at 3 – 5 feet tall and 4 – 6 feet wide. Arching evergreen leaves, with the appearance of a narrow Yucca leaf but softer, grow from a basal clump and have fine white curling filament hairs on the margins. In colder climates, the leaves will turn a purplish-red in winter.

Native to Texas and northern Mexico, red false yucca needs six hours of direct sunlight and good drainage. The plant is drought tolerant and can survive in urban settings but does not do well in damp soils. In temperate climates, it blooms only in the summer, and in warmer areas it can bloom year-round.

The leaves and fruits/seeds are toxic, but the flowers can be eaten: cut the flowers off the stem, leaving the base, stamen, and stigma in place to produce seed. Use only the flower petals in stir fry recipes (sautéing with onions, celery, carrots, squash, or other vegetables), in omelets, in salads or as a garnish. Add the petals toward the end of cooking.

This sweet bison calf, with her mother not far away, is enjoying the early fruits of the western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia). It makes me wonder if that is how humans learned to eat the fruits—by watching wildlife. One taste would have told us YES, eat the fruits. They are luscious if you can get to them before the birds devour them. 

The western serviceberry is smaller than A. arborea (downy serviceberry) and others that grow in eastern states. Generally less than 20 feet tall, western serviceberry makes full, well-rounded shrubs with fruits easily within reach of bears, bison, deer, and other animals, as well as the expected birds. Pure white, star-like flowers appear in May, with dark purple fruits ripening by July. Habitat varies, but a certain amount of water is needed for good fruit set. They adapt to stream banks, moist hillsides, or open areas (as above), and grow from near sea level to sub-alpine areas.

The fruits were very important to Northwest tribes and were in such abundance that they could be dried and stored for winter use. Combined with leaves of wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) and field mint (Mentha arvensis), they were a major ingredient of pemmican. Dried fruits also flavored meat stews and sweet puddings. Now, we make jam, pies, and wine with them and add them to muffins and pancakes. Daniel Moerman (1996) devotes two full pages to the herbal and other uses of western serviceberry.

Western serviceberry grows in most states west of the Mississippi River, including Alaska.

Mountainspray, Holodiscus dumosos, is a stunning shrub that first caught my eye during a 1996 trip to the northwestern states. This reliable plant grows well across ID, WY, NV, UT, CO, AZ, and NM. It also blooms from June to August, making chances of finding them highly likely. 

This is a slender, deciduous shrub with oval, coarsely toothed, aromatic leaves and reddish stems. The flowers are slightly smaller (½” – ¾”) than its cousin, H. discolor (1 3/8” – 2 3/4”), which grows a bit further north. The shrub itself, though slender, can reach seven feet tall.

Mountainspray roots are brewed to make a pleasant tea, and the leaves are boiled to make a tea for treating flu. A beverage tea is also made from the bark. There are many other medicinal uses, enough for Moerman to fill a full page, along with toolmaking and hunting and fishing uses.

Mountainspray is enough of a beauty to put it on my “find one of these” list.

We don’t often think about our western states without thinking about “sagebrush.” Artemisia tridentata (named for the three lobes at the tip of the leaves) is the iconic big sagebrush of the West. It grows across most of the states we describe as “western.” Big sagebush is easy to identify with its aromatic, wedge- to fan-shaped leaves that are three-lobed at the tips and remain on the shrub through winter. Average height is 3 – 4 feet, but can range from as much as 15 feet in certain habitats – generally dryish, well-drained, neutral to slightly alkaline soils. They bloom with small yellow flowers in mid-fall.

Artemisia tridentata can develop a thick woody base, which was used for firewood in the absence of trees. Smoke from burning branches cleansed the air of impurities in ceremonies, and branches were tied together to make brooms.

Uses of the plant are many and mostly medicinal. However, the seeds were used to add a touch of bitter flavor to soups and stews and also made their way into liqueurs as a bittering agent.

Big sagebrush provides food and shelter for a broad range of animals and birds.

Wild tarragonI couldn’t end this post without mentioning another of the many Artemisia species: wild tarragon, a favorite of herb gardeners. This plant is recognized by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service as native to all states from the Rocky Mountains west to the Pacific coast. A few scattered populations also appear in Wisconsin and Illinois, and in one county each in New York and Massachusetts. There are some who suggest that our A. dracunculus can be traced to the garden variety, stating that it may have naturalized many years ago. Given its range and history of use by Native American tribes, I suspect it was here before colonists arrived.

Wild tarragon has been used to treat a great many health problems due to its anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, digestive, and antimicrobial properties; it was added to tobacco for flavor; branches were burned to sedate bees around their nests and to discourage mosquitos; as an insecticide; and to add a pleasant fragrance to baths and hair dressings.  

It is still a popular herb in the kitchen with an anise-like flavor that graces a multitude of dishes, salad dressings, and beverages. I have not tested the theory but am told that those growing on prairies and plains are not as strongly flavored as those available commercially.

It grows far better in the West than it does in my Mid-Atlantic garden, for in spite of droughts that seem to be happening more often, if my red clay holds moisture too long, the Artemisia dracunculus roots suffer. A friend up the road, however, has no difficulty keeping it as a perennial in her garden.

Regarding the information available to us about the Native American uses of various trees, shrubs, and plants, I am partial to the statement below:

Traditional Ecological Knowledge is the on-going accumulation of knowledge, practice and belief about relationships between living beings in a specific ecosystem that is acquired by indigenous people over hundreds or thousands of years through direct contact with the environment, handed down through generations, and used for life-sustaining ways (Newman, 2021).

I, too, have great respect for the knowledge and wisdom we have gained from the Indigenous Peoples of this land. That knowledge saved many from starvation and death and taught us much about this land.  

When you have the opportunity or need to add a tree or shrub, or replace one or more, consider some of our choices among native plants. Especially as we watch our climate change, there may be more choices for those of us in eastern states than we ever dreamed possible.

Photo Credits: 1 & 2) Hesperaloe parviflora (red false yucca), photos taken near Yuma, AZ; 3) Amelanchier alnifolia (Western serviceberry) enjoyed by as bison calf, photo taken in Idaho. 4) Amelanchier leaves and growing fruit (Sally & Andy Wasowski, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, www.wildflower.org); 5) Holodiscus dumosos (mountainspray); 6) Lochsa River along Lolo Pass, near Warm Springs Trailhead in Clearwater National Forest; 7) Artemisia tridentata (big sagebrush); 8) big sagebrush habitat in southern Idaho; 9) Artemisia dracunculus (wild tarragon). All photos courtesy of the author, except No. 4.

References

Brown, Lauren. (undated). The Audubon Society Nature Guides: Grasslands. Alfred A. Knopf, NY. 

Costello, David F. 1975. The Prairie World. Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York.

Johnson, James R. PhD, and Gary E. Larson, PhD. 2007. Grassland Plants of South Dakota and the Northern Great Plains. South Dakota State University, Brookings, SD. 

Kershaw, Linda. 2000. Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Rockies. Lone Pine Publishing, Renton, WA.

Moul, Francis. 2006. The National Grasslands. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London. 

Moerman, Daniel E. 1996. Native American Ethnobotany. Timber Press, Oregon.

Newman, R. 2021. Human Dimensions: Traditional Ecological Knowledge—Finding a Home in the Ecological Society of America. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America, pre-publication, article e01892. https://doi.org/10.1002/bes2.1892. Accessed 06-18-2021. 

Williams, Dave. 2010. The Tallgrass Prairie Center Guide to Seed and Seedling Identification in the Upper Midwest. University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, IA.

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.


Katherine Schlosser (Kathy) has been a member of the NC Unit of The Herb Society since 1991, serving in many capacities at the local and national level. 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.

What Can One Person Do?

By Bonnie Porterfield

Darrow Road Park projected meadow signAs you drive along State Rt. 91 in Hudson, Ohio, you pass a community park, Darrow Road Park. As long as I’ve lived in Hudson (38 years), it’s just been there, nothing really to look at. An occasional pick up football game on the lawn near the parking lot and a few people using a trail, but nothing more notable, until this past year, when I noticed a sign posted near the parking lot with a picture of a beautiful meadow.

Around the same time, our local garden club put together member garden visits with limited numbers of attendees due to Covid. The featured garden that piqued my interest was a pollinator-friendly garden. What an inspiration! The owner had transformed her whole yard into a haven for all kinds of pollinators using native plants, trees, and shrubs. During the tour, she mentioned the Friends of Hudson Parks (FOHP) and described what they were doing with the Darrow Road Park to restore it as a pollinator meadow. This led me to the FOHP’s website for further information.

As it turns out, there was one woman with a strong interest in pollinators that got the ball rolling. She had attended programs by the Ohio Natural Areas and Preserves Association in 2019, as well as visited some previously restored native habitats. These were the inspiration for her idea of transforming Darrow Road Park into a more pollinator-friendly meadow that she brought before the Hudson Park Board. Her perseverance with the Park Board proved successful! This, in turn, led to a collaboration with the US Fish and Wildlife Private Land Division, the Hudson Park Board, and Friends of Hudson Parks.

Darrow Road Park meadow before June 2020After much work behind the scenes, the restoration of this 6-acre park began in June 2020, with the first phase consisting of removing native spring flowering plants. These plants found a temporary home in local gardens to be returned to the newly restored meadow in the spring of 2021.

During the following month, large woody invasive trees and shrubs, along with invasive grasses, were removed. FOHP members and community volunteers gathered in August and dug out hundreds of native plants amongst the invasive weeds and moved them to the Hudson Springs Park Monarch Waystation Garden. FOHP members also found monarch eggs in the field, which they hatched off site, and returned them to the milkweed plants at the Monarch Waystation Garden. Many of these eggs became caterpillars, formed chrysalises, and emerged to join the migration south.

Monarch Waystation signUS Fish and Wildlife biologists removed the remaining weeds and cold season grasses in August and September. Then in October, they tilled the meadow for late fall/early winter seeding. After the first frost, the meadow was “frost seeded” by the USFW biologist. (For a description of frost seeding, click here.) In early spring 2021, the field was mowed to cut back invasive grasses and to encourage native plant root growth. First growth from the 2020 frost seeding should be well under way. Since this is a 3-year project, the meadow will be managed under the direction of the USFW biologist.

Restoring this area to a more pollinator-friendly site will increase wildlife biodiversity and provide a beautiful meadow for wildlife and the surrounding community. In the future, as I drive past this park, I will enjoy the beauty of this new pollinator meadow and realize that one woman, with a group of like-minded individuals, can make a difference in our communities by bringing man and nature together to create amazing Green Bridges.

To learn more about The Herb Society of America’s GreenBridges™ Initiative, go to https://www.herbsociety.org/explore/hsa-conservation/greenbridges-initiative/greenbridges-initiative.html.

Photo Credits: 1) Darrow Road Park Projected Meadow sign; 2) Darrow Road Park “meadow” prior to June 2020; 3) Monarch Way Station sign. All photos courtesy of the author.


Bonnie Porterfield is a forty year Life Member of The Herb Society of America and a member of the Western Reserve Unit.  She has served in many roles during that time including two terms as Great Lakes District Delegate, Unit Chair, Co-Chair of the Western Reserve Unit’s first symposium and member of the GreenBridges™ and Library Advisory Committees.  She is an avid herb gardener, reader, learner and supporter of local efforts in reestablishing natural areas that promote native plantings.