Medicinal Plant Traditional Uses

by Doris Ames

Acorus calamus - Sweet Flag

  • Sweet flag is used as a medicinal plant by First Nation people. Also known locally as "ratroot", it is an all-round panacea for many complaints.
  • The dried root is used by Ojibway in southeastern Manitoba to treat high cholesterol, and in combination with White Water Lily(Nymphaea odorata) to treat diabetes. For more information on this interesting plant see our December 2003 newsletter.
  • Arctostaphylos uva-ursi - Bearberry

  • this herb is used in several ways. The leaves are mixed with tobacco and smoked during ceremonies. The stems and leaves were boiled to treat diarrhoea, and the plant is also used to treat kidney infections.
  • Asarum canadensis - Wild Ginger

  • the pleasant-tasting root can be chewed plain or candied, and is used to treat chest colds and heart disease. Sometimes added to meat to prevent spoilage, tests reveal the plant has antimicrobial properties. This plant is not very common anymore, in the southeast, and those that we did find were growing in rich mixed hardwood forests.
  • Chimaphila umbellata - Pipsissewa

  • used by First Nations people to treat urinary tract and kidney problems. Studies have shown it to be a mild urinary antiseptic. It is also used as one of the flavourings in root beer. We find it once in a while in dry, coniferous forests in eastern Manitoba, more often in Jackpine forests than in Spruce.
  • Coptis trifolia - Goldthread

  • the root of this herb is used by some First Nation healers to purify the blood, treat liver problems and combat alcoholism. It has many powerful medicinal properties and was listed in the United States Pharmacopoeia from 1820-1882.
  • Cypripedium reginae - Showy Lady's-slipper

  • all species of Cypripedium were used as a sedative and a cure for insomnia by F.N. people. They added one teaspoon of the ground root to a glass of water. Roots were dug in the fall and dried in the shade. Orchids in general with tuberous roots were used as emergency food.
  • Drosera rotundifolia - Round-leaved Sundew

  • dried or fresh, this insect-eating plant has long been used to treat respiratory problems such as asthma. The plant also has a long standing reputation, in Europe, as a love charm or aphrodisiac.
  • Gaultheria procumbens - Teaberry

  • a tea made from the flavourful leaves was used to treat headaches and upset stomach. The plant was used externally and internally to treat arthritis and rheumatism. A few berries were eaten, or a poultice made from crushed leaves could be applied to the site of the pain. The plant contains methyl salicylate closely related to Aspirin. The plant is usually found on acid soil in dry, coniferous forests.
  • Heuchera richardsonii - Alumroot

  • this plant is used by F.N. people to treat diarrhoea by chewing the roots or boiling them to make a medicinal tea. A milder form of the tea was used cold for an eyewash. Chewed roots were applied to wounds to stop bleeding and to speed healing. This plant's astringent properties have long been recognized by Europeans as well.
  • Hierochloe odorata - Sweet Grass

  • we didn't find any new locations as yet for this sacred herb. We have seen it growing on moist meadows at the edge of the road on the Brokenhead Ojibway First Nation and in the Manitoba Tall Grass Prairie Preserve near Tolstoi. It is included here, because it is such an important traditional medicinal herb. It is used in ceremonial smudging and is thought to keep evil away from the home. Attractive dried braids of this grass, are much in demand.. A tea can be made from it, to thin the blood, and the smoke is inhaled to treat colds. It is an all around panacea. The sweet smell comes from the anticoagulant, Coumarin, it contains. Sweet grass is used in some aromatic pipe tobacco mixtures. Usually found in damp sloughs and moist prairies, it's not something we are likely to find when surveying timber sale areas. It is easy to grow. Small, greenhouse-grown plants are available from some wildflower nurseries and they do very well. Coming into bloom easily in June, it will spread quickly if the ground is suitable.
  • Humulus lupulus - Common Hop

  • Hops have a long history of inducing sleep and Europeans put the seed cones in their pillows for that reason. American Indians also believed in their tranquilizing properties. The English learned that hops preserved beer in the 1500's and have been using it ever since. It also gives a nice bitter taste to the beer. Charles Darwin was said to have entertained himself while sick by observing a hop plant on the windowsill. He noted that the tip of the stem completed a revolution in 2 hours.
  • Ledum groenlandicum - Labrador Tea

  • the leaves are used by First Nation people to make a tea rich in Vitamin C. This tea is also used to treat stomach and kidney complaints. It was exported to England, in the 1800's, by the Hudson Bay Company. The Bay employees used it as a tonic and it sometimes appeared on the menu at fancy dinner parties, in the early years of the Red River settlement. It is still common today in the moist, coniferous bogs, of the boreal forest.
  • Monarda fistulosa - Bergamot

  • the leaves are used to make a peppery-tasting tea that was used to treat bloating and stomachache as well as bladder and blood problems. This pretty plant is usually found in waste places and at the edge of poplar groves. The seed head is a nice, flat button, often seen in dried arrangements. We found this specimen along the road through an old gravel pit.
  • Monotropa uniflora - Indian Pipe

  • the juice of this strangely beautiful, ghost-like plant, has been used by First Nations people to treat eye inflammation. The dried seedpods are highly valued as a ceremonial smudge. It is connected by fungi to the roots of nearby trees, from which it gets nourishment. We usually find it growing in the shade in rich, moist, coniferous forests but it is not common. The brown seedpods are much harder to see. They seem to blend into the forest.
  • Polygala senega - Seneca Root

  • the dried root of this plant is used to treat coughs, colds and asthma. It is also used by some healers in the treatment of diabetes. Although dropped from the National Formulary in 1960, it continues to be used in some cough preparations because of its expectorant qualities. European herbalists still use it today in cough syrups. It can be found growing in moist prairie and at the edges of aspen groves. We found this specimen at the edge of the road in a gravel pit, among poplar trees.
  • Sanguinaria canadense - Bloodroot

  • Bloodroot was used by North American Indians to treat rheumatism, asthma and bronchitis and in larger doses as an expectorant. It can be very toxic in large doses and is seldom used today although traces can be found in some commercial cough syrups sold in Canada. It has been shown to have anti-tumour and anti-fungal properties. The juice from the root is very caustic and is said to have been once used to treat ringworm, eczema, warts and skin cancer. The early settlers referred to it as tetterwort for this reason. The plant latex yields a beautiful orange red dye used by First Nation people as body paint and to dye woven baskets. Settlers used it to dye cloth. In later years it was hunted almost to extinction by people who wanted this dye. This plant is rare here and if you come upon this pretty flower please don't pick or dig, just enjoy it.
  • Sarracenia purpurea - Pitcher Plant (Frog Pants)

  • this carnivorous plant is used to treat kidney and bladder complaints. Highly regarded by the Cree, they often added it to other medicines to treat the very sick. We find it growing in the moss, in coniferous bogs and fens. It is an indicator of habitat that may contain, native orchids and other rare plants.
  • Valeriana dioica - Northern Valerian

  • Valerian has been used by Cree Indians and others for thousands of years to treat insomnia, hysteria and depression. The leaves and the roots are the parts of the plant that are used to prepare teas and decoctions. Plants that have not yet flowered are preferred. It has a tranquilizing effect with few of the side effects found in many of the synthetic sedatives but as with all wild plants the concentration of the active ingredient is extremely variable. Large doses can cause vomiting, stupor and dizziness. The Woods Cree sometimes chewed the root, wrapped it in a cloth and placed it in their ears to relieve earache.

  • SOURCES

    Ames, Doris   Notes on a lecture by Gary Raven on Aboriginal use of Medicinal Herbs   1999.

    Elias, Thomas S. and Peter Dykeman   Edible Wild Plants: a North American Field Guide   Outdoor Life Books   c.1982.

    Johnson, Derek, Linda Kershaw, Andy MacKinnon, Jim Pojar   Plants of the Western Boreal Forest and Aspen Parkland   Lone Pine Publishing   1997.

    Mark Mitchell & Associates   The Harvest, Market and Availability of Special Forest Products in the Manitoba Forest Project   95-04-09.

    Marles, Robin J., Christina Clavelle, Leslie Monteleone, Natalie Tays and Donna Burns   Aboriginal Plant Use in Canada's Northwest Boreal Forest   Natural Resources Canada UBC Press   2000.

    Medicine and Magic of Plants   The Reader's Digest Association Inc. Pleasantville NY.

    Small, Ernest and Paul Catling   Canadian Medicinal Crops   NRC Research Press Ottawa   2000.

    Walshe, Shan   Plants of Quetico and the Ontario Shield   University of Toronto Press   1980.