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Thursday, January 23, 2014

Native Plants of the Peninsula and Their Uses through History


May I introduce to you to another wonderful presentation at the December Tea and Tour Presentation:  Dr. Dave Martin

Native Plants of the Peninsula and Their Uses through History
By Dr. Dave Martin, December 19, 2013, Tea & Tour at the Harbor History Museum

Greetings!   We live in a wonderful plant-filled environment here in the Pacific Northwest.  Plants have served us well to clothe, feed, house, and medicate us over the years.  A description of the early use of native plants tells us a wonderful story of what it may have been like without a supermarket or clothes store nearby.    The first human dwellers of this region were without such amenities.  So what did they do to survive, given the trees, shrubs, berries, and herbs found nearby?   

Native Americans, like the Puyallup, Chehalis, Quileute, Skokomish, and other tribes have told their stories to ethnobotanists who study the traditional uses of plants by cultural groups.  Such information is available in publications like “Ethnobotany of Western Washington,” by Erna Gunther, and “Native American Food Plants,” by Daniel Moerman.  These books along with my experience with recipes of plant use has helped serve as a guide for my talk today. 


Gig Harbor and the surrounding Peninsula were first inhabited by Native Americans, primarily the Puyallup Tribe, who also passed this information about plant use to early settlers who depended on the natural world to supply them with food and shelter.  You see wonderful evidence of several uses in our museum as you look at woven baskets, early utensils, and canoes.  Let us take a look at a few of the most common plants that you probably have already encountered in your daily life.

Sword fern is common on the floor of our forests and has starch-rich root bodies known as rhizomes that can serve as food.  The root bodies were roasted then peeled to eat.  The leaves were used by coastal Indians as a protective layer in baskets and for bedding and flooring.  Young Indian boys would play a game with the fronds by holding one end and taking the opposite hand to pull off each “petal” on the stem while holding their breath to show their bravery and manhood. 

Maidenhair fern is a delicate beauty with slender black stems that are used along with its roots for basket weaving.  You can look for these examples in the small baskets along the hall display in the museum. 

Licorice fern is appropriately named for the anise taste of its rhizome (root body) which is imbedded in moss along the bark of bigleaf maple trees.  You can chew on the rhizome, which will be bitter at first then give way to a sweet taste, just as our early Americans did.  They used this for colds and sore throats too.  

Horsetail may be a weed in your yard, but to the Native Americans and settlers, this plant was very useful as an emery cloth or scouring rush for polishing wood or cleaning pots and pans.  The fine silica particles in the stem make it an ideal fine-grit sander.  The fertile heads of horsetail were used by some tribes to eradicate diarrhea.

Huckleberries are the prima donna of the edible plant world.  We have twelve species in the northwest that are found in the lowlands to mountains.  Two kinds in our sea level woods are the red huckleberry and evergreen huckleberry, both a delight to the taste buds.  A written account of Anna Jerisich, a Vancouver Island Indian married to Sam Jerisich, describes her gathering the many wild berries and drying the excess for use later in the year.  

Salmonberries & Thimbleberries are found in damper areas of our forests and often streamside.  They provided a mainstay for the Native Americans who made pemmican, a dried mix of berries, often eaten with salmon.  Settlers followed the example of what berries to eat when seeing these abundant and valuable shrubs in fruit.  The young stems were often used as a steamed vegetable as well. 

Kinnikinnick is a trailing plant with small evergreen leaves and bright red berries that is found circumpolar as a food source for the Inuit to Laplanders to our Northwest Indians.  The berries store well and are often found in winter when other berries are not seen.  The Chehalis, Quinault, and Clallam peoples smoked the leaves as a tobacco substitute. 

Willow trees are common along our waterways and were important for basketry and string from the bark.  Harpoon lines were made from the stringy bark by the Snohomish and Quinault.  Rough furniture, like chairs and stools, was woven with the pliable branches by early settlers.  The inner bark and leaves of willow have salicylic acid in them, a natural form of aspirin, and of course, used to treat pain and headache.

Red alder trees are common as fast growing stems in cutover of burned areas.  It is the favored wood for smoking salmon.  The wood has been used to make spoons, bowls, and other implements.  The bark was used to dye materials red to orange.  

Western or Pacific yew is a scruffy small tree with flat needles that grows well in shade.  Its red berries (arils) are toxic as well are the leaves and bark.  Yet it is a source of cancer medicine, taxol.  The strong and pliable wood of the branches were used for making bows, clubs, paddles, wedges, and pegs.

Skunk cabbage is a beautiful plant often seen in standing water in early spring.  The roots were used as a good starch source and the leaves are used as a drying liner for baskets and drying racks, a “wax paper,” for drying berries and salmon.  The leaves are also used as a poultice over open sores or areas of the body that ache.  There is a Cathlamet legend about how the salmon was introduced to streams and rivers of the Northwest by the skunk cabbage people.  The salmon were so happy to find the clear waters of the NW that they gave a bright yellow cape and a war club to the skunk cabbage that you see today. 

Western redcedar was the most important tree to the Northwest Indians.   It provided planks for shelter, logs for canoes, poles for totems, boards for containers, plates, utensils, paddles, arrow shafts, harpoons and bentwood boxes, and, bark and roots for clothing.  The bark was stripped from the standing tree beaten into fine strands and used along with root threads to weave mats, baskets, and clothing.  The peaked rain hat was a good object made from the woven bark.   Many Indian groups revered the redcedar so much that they believed if they could stand next to it with their back touching the trunk, they could derive great strength from it.  

Ocean spray shrubs have very straight and strong wood, ideal for arrow shafts, consequently its other common names of arrow wood and ironwood.  The stems were heated over fire, and then polished with horsetail stems to be made into digging sticks, harpoon shafts, and arrows.   The dry fruit cluster was boiled in water to treat diarrhea. 

Nettle or stinging nettle is a plant you don’t want to touch because of the microscopic spines that break on contact and release formic acid that causes the rash.  Makah Indians would rub this plant on their bodies to keep them awake at night when seal hunting.  The Squaxin crushed the leaves and put them in water to give to a woman having trouble with childbirth, “to scare the baby out.”  The plant is made harmless after a short time in boiling water and is used as a good source of nutrients.  It is rich in protein.  The stems are fibrous and have been used to make fishing line and fine string. 

Oregon grape is an evergreen plant with spiny pinnate leaves, a cluster of yellow flowers, and dark blue berries in summer.   The young leaves, flowers and berries were eaten by Native Americans; the berries being acrid were often mixed with other berries.  The shredded bark of roots and stems produces a yellow dye. 

Indian plum is a favorite fruit of birds and is difficult to find as a mature fruit because birds beat you to the punch.  It is a small drupe that is blue when ripe and was eaten by most western Washington Indians.  The bark was boiled and used as a medicine for purgative to free the bowels. 

Poison hemlock is a plant to know because of its extreme toxicity and is found easily along roadways, fields, and ditches.  It has killed people and livestock with even small doses.  So in this world of edible wild plants it is one to consider.  It is tall up to 3 7 feet tall when full grown, purple blotches on the stem, and lacy leaves.  It resembles a larger version of Queen Anne’s Lace which has no purple blotches and has a somewhat hairy stem.

Wild rose certainly is a nice flower to see in the landscape.  Its leaves and petals have been used as a tea by settlers.  The fruit which is a rose “hip” is rich in vitamin C and has long been eaten by Native Americans.  The Samish combine the hip with dried salmon eggs for a meal.   A fine jelly or wine can be made from the hips. 

Fireweed is common on cutover land and is a showy red to pink flower on a vertical stem.   The fluffy seeds have been used to stuff pads and blankets by the Haida and Salish.  The inner stem has been a food source and the outer stem as a fiber for cord.

Salal is a very common evergreen shrub desired by florists today.  The “hairy” berries were prized food and eaten by most Indian groups and settlers.  They can be substituted for blueberries in recipes.  The Quileute and Makah dried and pulverized the leaves for smoking.  

Cattail is a very important plant with flat long leaves ideal for weaving.  Mats and baskets woven from the leaves served useful for bedding, ground cover, and carrying packs respectively.  An example can be seen in the hallway of the museum.  The roots and fresh stems, when peeled were used as a food source. 

Sitka spruce is a coastal tree with bluish, sharp pointed needle-like leaves.  The pitch and buds were chewed for sore throats and coughs by coastal Indians who also wove baskets and tight rain hats from the smaller peeled roots.  Spruce pitch was also used to caulk the canoes.  Ceremonial dances were carried on with the sharp leaved branches to scare away the evil spirits. 

Western hemlock bark was used to make a reddish dye on spears, fish nets, and paddles to preserve the wood, and also to attract salmon.  The boiled bark has long been used by Indians and settlers for tanning hide.  The Quinault hollowed out a small section of a hemlock log and place objects in it to manipulate it with the desire to cause a storm by magic. 

Douglas-fir is the most common tree of the Peninsula region and has been the source of early prosperity for the settlers and lumbermen.  The wood is strong, and with care long lasting.  It has been used in ship building as the primary wood.  The pitch was put on sores by Cowlitz, Quinault, and Skagit.  The leaves were used as a tonic tea, which is now known to be a good source of vitamin C.  

So with that explanation, enjoy your tea and try some Doug-fir tea, and look for evidence in museum of Native American uses of plants! 
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