Native American ethnobotany

This is a list of plants used by the indigenous people of North America. For lists pertaining specifically to the Cherokee, Iroquois, Navajo, and Zuni, see Cherokee ethnobotany, Iroquois ethnobotany, Navajo ethnobotany, and Zuni ethnobotany.





  • Delphinium nudicaule, the root of which was used as a narcotic by the Mendocino.[38]
  • Devil's club, traditionally used by Native Americans to treat adult-onset diabetes and a variety of tumors. In vitro studies showed that extracts of devil's club inhibit tuberculosis microbes.[39] The plant is used medicinally and ceremonially by the Tlingit people of Southeast Alaska, who refer to it as "Tlingit aspirin". A piece of devil's club hung over a doorway is said to ward off evil. The plant is harvested and used in a variety of ways, including lip balms, ointments, and herbal teas. Some Tlingit disapprove of the commercialization of the plant as they see it as a violation of its sacred status.[40]


  • Echinacea, Echinacea angustifolia was widely used by the North American Plains Indians for its general medicinal qualities.[41] Echinacea was one of the basic antimicrobial herbs of eclectic medicine from the mid 19th century through the early 20th century, and its use was documented for snakebite, anthrax, and for relief of pain. In the 1930s echinacea became popular in both Europe and America as an herbal medicine. According to Wallace Sampson, MD, its modern-day use as a treatment for the common cold began when a Swiss herbal supplement maker was "erroneously told" that echinacea was used for cold prevention by Native American tribes who lived in the area of South Dakota.[42] Although Native American tribes didn't use echinacea to prevent the common cold, some Plains tribes did use echinacea to treat some of the symptoms that could be caused by the common cold: The Kiowa used it for coughs and sore throats, the Cheyenne for sore throats, the Pawnee for headaches, and many tribes including the Lakotah used it as an analgesic.[43] Native Americans learned of E. angustifolia by observing elk seeking out the plants and consuming them when sick or wounded, and identified those plants as elk root.[14] The following table examines why various tribes use echinacea.[44]
Tribe Uses
Cheyenne Sore mouth/gums
Choctaws Coughs, dyspepsia
Comanche Toothache, sore throat
Crow Colds, toothache, colic
Dakota (Oglala) Cool inflammation
Delaware (Lenape) Gonorrhea
Kiowa Coughs, sore throat
Meskwaki Cramps
Omaha Septic diseases
Omaha-Ponca Eye wash
Sioux (Dakota) Bowels, tonsillitis

The entire echinacea plant is used medicinally, both dried and fresh. Common preparations include making a decoction or infusion of the roots and leaves, making a poultice of parts of the plant, juicing the root or simply using the leaves as they were.[45]

Echinacea contains essential oils and polysaccharides that boost the immune system, leading to a faster recovery from various illnesses. Due to this property, echinacea has been commercialized and has had clinical trials support that it reduces the duration of a cold by 1–4 days and reduces the chance of developing a cold by 58%.[46]



  • Hamamelis virginiana, also known as Witch Hazel. Native Americans produced witch hazel extract by boiling the stems of the shrub and producing a decoction, which was used to treat swellings, inflammations, and tumors.[66] Early Puritan settlers in New England adopted this remedy from the natives, and its use became widely established in the United States.[67] It is a flowering plant with multiple species native to North America. It has been widely used by Native Americans for its medicinal benefits, leading white settlers to incorporate it into their own medical practices. An extract of witch hazel stems is used to treat sore muscles, skin and eye inflammation and to stop bleeding.[68][69][70] Witch hazel is utilized by many tribes, including the Menominee for sore legs of tribesmen who participate in sporting games, the Osage for skin ulcers and sores, the Potawatomi in sweat lodges for sore muscles and the Iroquois in tea for coughs and colds.[71][72]
Tribe Uses
Cherokee Pain relief, colds, skin issues and fever
Chippewa Skin issues, emetic, sore eyes
Iroquois Confederation Antidiarrheal, blood purifier, arthritis, appetite stimulant
Menominee Predictor of future healing
Potawatomi Sore muscles
Mohegan Dowsing

Witch hazel works as an astringent, a substance that causes the constriction of body tissues. The tannins and flavonoids found in witch hazel have astringent and antioxidant properties, respectively, which are thought to contract and protect blood vessels, thereby reducing inflammation. However, modern witch hazel extracts are often distilled and do not contain tannins due to health concerns.[73]



  • Jeffersonia diphylla – the Cherokee reportedly used an infusion of this plant for treating dropsy and urinary tract problems, it was also used as a poultice for sores and inflammation.[81] The Iroquois used a decoction of the plant to treat liver problems and diarrhea.[81]
  • Juniperus communis – Western American tribes combined the berries of Juniperus communis with Berberis root bark in a herbal tea. Native Americans also used juniper berries as a female contraceptive.[82]
  • Juniperus scopulorum, the leaves and inner bark of which were boiled by some Plateau tribes to create an infusion to treat coughs and fevers. The berries were also sometimes boiled into a drink used as a laxative and to treat colds.[80]








  • Sage is a small evergreen shrub used to treat inflammation, bacterial or viral infection and chronic illness. Commonly treated conditions include abdominal cramping/pain, bloating, bleeding, bruising, skin disease, cough, excessive sweating, menstrual cramps and flu as well as depression, obesity heart disease and cancer. Sage can be administered in tea, food, as a poultice or in smoke. Sage contains multiple essential oils as well as tannins and flavonoids, which have "carminative, antispasmodic, antiseptic, and astringent properties".[108] In addition to being used in modern food preparation, sage is still utilized for herbal and pharmaceutical medicines with strong evidence supporting its impacts. The following table examines why various tribes use sage.[71][108]
Tribe Uses
Cahuilla Colds, shampoo, deodorant, cleanse hunting equipment of bad luck
Costanoan Eye cleanser, fevers
Dakota (Oglala) Disinfectant, stomach ache
Diegueno Colds, poison oak treatment, general strengthening
Eskimo Inflammation
Mahuna Heal damage from birth
Tübatulabal Consumed seeds as food
  • Salvia apiana, several tribes used the seed for removing foreign objects from the eye, similar to the way that Clary sage seeds were used in Europe. A tea from the roots was used by the Cahuilla women for healing and strength after childbirth. The leaves are also burnt by many Native American tribes, with the smoke used in different purification rituals.[109] A study performed at the University of Arizona in 1991 demonstrated that Salvia apiana has potential antibacterial properties against Staphylococcus aureus, Bacillus subtilis, Klebsiella pneumoniae, and Candida brassicae.[110]
  • Salvia mellifera, the leaves and stems of the plant were made by the Chumash into a strong sun tea. This was rubbed on the painful area or used to soak one's feet. The plant contains diterpenoids, such as aethiopinone and ursolic acid, that are pain relievers.[111]
  • Senegalia greggii, the fresh pods were eaten unripe by the Chemehuevi, Pima, and the Cahuilla. The Cahuilla dried the pods then ground it for mush and cakes, the Havasupai ground it to make bread flour, and the Seri ground it to meal to mix with water and sea lion oil for porridge. The Diegueno used it as food for domesticated animals. The Cahuilla and Pima used it for construction material and firewood. The Havasupai split the twigs to make as basket material and used bundles as a broom for dusting off metates. The Papago broke the twigs in half to make baskets, and were curved to make difficult weaves in the baskets. The Pima piled dried bushes for a brush fence, and used the branches for cradle frames too. The Papago deer hunters wore the branches as a disguise as a deer, and the buds and blossoms were dried for perfume pouches. The branches were used to dislodge saguaro fruits from the body, and the rods were used to remove flesh from animal skins. The Pima used the wood for bows.[92]
  • Silene latifolia, subspecies alba: Infusion used by the Ojibwa as a physic.[112] Note that this plant is not native to the Americas and was introduced by Europeans.



  • Poultices of Umbellularia leaves were used to treat rheumatism and neuralgias.[116] A tea was made from the leaves to treat stomach aches, colds, sore throats, and to clear up mucus in the lungs.[117] The leaves were steeped in hot water to make an infusion that was used to wash sores.[116] The Pomo and Yuki tribes of Mendocino County treated headaches by placing a single leaf in the nostril or bathing the head with a laurel leaf infusion.[117]


  • Viburnum prunifolium, a decoction of which was to treat gynecological conditions, including menstrual cramps, aiding recovery after childbirth, and in treating the effects of menopause.[118]
  • Virginia irisCherokee and other tribes in the southeastern United States are known to have used Virginia iris for its medicinal properties. The root was pounded into a paste that was used as a salve for skin. An infusion made from the root was used to treat ailments of the liver, and a decoction of root was used to treat "yellowish urine". Virginia iris may have been one of the iris species used by the Seminole to treat "shock following alligator-bite".[119]


  • The inner bark of willow trees has been used by Native American groups for health issues including headache, bleeding cuts, skin sores, fever, cough and hoarseness, menstrual cramping, stomach pain and diarrhea. The inner bark is most often made into tea and drank, though it is also made into a poultice to cover the skin over broken bones or used to wash skin and hair to promote skin repair and hair growth.[71]
Tribe Uses
Keres Analgesic
Hualapai Antirheumatic
Alabama Antidiarrheal
Abnaki Cough Medicine
Navajo Ceremonial Medicine
Thompson Orthopedic Aid (i.e. broken bones), colds, coughs, laxative
Seminole Analgesic

Willow bark contains salicin, a compound similar to aspirin that has anti-inflammatory, antipyretic, and analgesic properties.[120] The following table examines why various tribes use willow.[71]

One reason for the vast differences in the use of the willow is that there are many ways to prepare it and these different preparations allow for it to be utilized in different ways. For example, the Thompson people would make a concoction of wood, willow, soapberry branches and "anything weeds" to treat broken bones. If they wanted to treat a cold, however, the Thompson people would make a decoction of red willow branches and wild rose roots.[71]



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