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Ethnobotany Woodland Trail Walk MBG

By Linnea West, MBG Tree Team
Photos by Taylor Herndon

Humans are inventive, omnivorous animals. To survive, we experiment with different food sources and ways to create shelter, clothing, tools, weapons, and medicine. Native Americans and early Colonists (bringing herbal knowledge from across the ocean) were continually trying new ways to use the plants around them. Join us on a walk along the main Woodland trail and see some of the native plants used for medicine by earlier people. (Tree signs are placed along the trail.)

Celtis laevigata, Hackberry – Native Americans used this tree for food, medicine, tools, and fuel. A concentrate from the bark soothed sore throats. Boiled leaves and branches produced red and brown dyes. 

Around the world, people consumed hackberries for thousands of years, fresh off the tree as well as dried for winter stores, travel food, and the afterlife. Hackberry fruit is high in vitamin C and antioxidants. The geographic spread of this tree covers most temperate regions of the world. Celtis is present in the fossil record at least since the Miocene of Europe and Paleocene of North America and eastern Asia. The oldest known foraged food, hackberry fruit, has been found in food caches around the world, including from 500,000 years ago in the burial site of Peking Man.

Ilex vomitoria, Yaupon Holly – Native Americans used a strong infusion of the leaves for tea consumed as a ceremonial cleansing beverage, drinking large amounts to induce vomiting or act as a purgative. Yaupon Holly may be the only caffeine-containing plant native to North America.

Sassafras albidum, Sassafras – Native Americans used sassafras oils in tonics as medical panaceas. Culinary uses include sassafras tea from the bark, root beer flavoring from root oil, and file’, gumbo flavoring and thickening powder made from dried, ground stem pith.


Tsuga canadensis
, Eastern Hemlock – Tea from leafy twig tips was used for colds, coughs, and kidney ailments. Essential oils from the twigs and needles were used in steam baths for rheumatism and congestive coughs. Inner bark tea was taken for fever, colds, digestive troubles, and scurvy. The astringent bark was used as a poultice on open wounds – (and in tanning leather).

Aralia spinosa, Devil’s Walking-stick –A tincture of the purple-black berries was used for toothaches and rheumatic pain. Root poultices were applied to boils, skin eruptions, and to reduce swelling. (Ingesting a large quantity of berries is toxic. Handling roots may irritate bare hands.)

Hamamelis virginiana, Witch-hazel – Leaf tea of witch-hazel has long been used for colds, sore throats, and coughs. It was used in the past to treat asthma, cholera, and dysentery. Twig tea was rubbed on legs to keep muscles limber and treat lameness. Astringent witch-hazel bark tea can be used externally for bruises, sore muscles, and itching. (Tannins in the bark and leaves give the astringent properties.)



Juniperus virginiana, Eastern Red Cedar – The blue-gray, berry-like fruit was used to make a tea for colds, worms, rheumatism, coughs, and to induce sweating. Berries were chewed to heal canker sores. Needle and scale-like leaves were boiled, and the steam inhaled to treat colds, bronchitis, rheumatism, and for purification rituals. Smoke from smudged foliage was also used for purification.

Eastern Red Cedar may have anti-tumor properties.

Cornus florida, Flowering Dogwood – Root-bark tea or tincture was used to treat malaria (as a substitute for quinine) throughout the south, especially during the Civil War. Root bark tea was poulticed on external ulcers. The red dogwood berries, soaked in brandy, were used as a tonic for ‘acid stomach’. Twigs served as “chewing sticks” to clean teeth.

Salix nigra, Black Willow – The bark of this tree is one of the willow sources of salicin, from which salicylic acid is derived, the precursor to aspirin. The very bitter, astringent bark of these willows has long been recognized as a treatment for fever, pain, arthritis, rheumatism, and a poultice or wash for cuts, corns, poison-ivy rash, and ulcers. Flexible young stems have been woven into baskets and shelters for thousands of years. 

Morus rubra, Red Mulberry – Native Americans drank a tea from the roots of Red Mulberry to overcome weakness, combat dysentery and tapeworms, and as a general cure-all. Sap was applied externally for ringworm. 

The delicious berries, which are ripe when they are black, were used for lowering fevers. 

(Note: Eating the berries when red can cause stomach-ache and vomiting.)

Choctaw women wove clothing from the inner bark of Mulberry trees. The fibrous inner bark was peeled and pounded to extract thin under-fibers for weaving or, in another method, soaked in hot water with ashes. Roots of the Mulberry were often used to dye this clothing yellow.

Quercus species, Oaks –Highly astringent inner-bark tea was used for dysentery, as a gargle for sore throats, and a topical wash for skin eruptions, burns, and poison ivy. 

The tannic acid in oaks is recognized as being antiseptic and antiviral, but also, potentially carcinogenic. Acorns of the White Oak group are more palatable than those of the Red, but all are bitter and require many rinses to leach out enough tannin to make them palatable. Acorns have enough protein and fat to have made them an important survival food for humans for thousands of years, as well as an important annual protein source for bears, squirrels, blue jays, turkey, deer, opossum, woodpeckers, wood ducks, chipmunks, hogs, mice, and raccoons.

Oak Galls, the growths on twigs caused by wasps laying their eggs, have been used for dyeing and tanning, as well as medicinally. Ground gall was poulticed on sores, burns, and cuts, and used in a tincture treatment for diarrhea and cholera.

Fagus grandifolia, American Beech – The 3-sided nuts of Beech are edible and delicious.

Native Americans chewed them as a worm expellant, and a tea made from the bark was used for lung ailments. A wash from the leaves treated burns, frostbite, and poison ivy rash.    
(1oz. to 1 pint salt water) *                      

* Note: Please do not harvest plants at MBG. We leave our woodland plants for the visual enjoyment of all and to support our native wildlife. Plants may be toxic if used incorrectly. Thank you!

If you are interested in learning how to grow and safely use native plants for food, tea, and medicine, please take one of the wonderful Herbal Work Study classes offered on the 2nd Saturday of every month by Sherri McCalla, Herb Garden Curator. Please check the Memphis Botanic Garden website or Facebook page for more information.

Posted by Memphis Botanic Garden at 8:03 AM


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