18. Introduction to Magical Plants

Let’s face it, shamanic hunter gatherers are the definitive plant experts. They know where specific plants can be found and in what season to harvest them, they know what plants remedy which ailments, and how to prepare them as medicine. But the things lacking in our western traditions are the very things tribal people excel at, spirit handling and ritual magic. Medicine in their world is not limited to biology, and even when biology is impaired treatments most often take place in ritual settings. Due to the nature of this particular study I have acutely limited the species used by Indigenous Americans to those associated with ceremony and witchcraft. There are literally tens of thousands of others used for medicine, shelter, food, and clothing not included in the Appendix that follows. The entries in the Appendix are limited to the plants handled by the few tribes mentioned in this study. Tragically, of those tribes included, less than a dozen and a half of what had been thousands before the European invasion, even fewer have memories of their ancestors’ pharmacology. So what was once thousands of tribes handling tens of thousands of plants, the list is severely reduced to seven tribes and only several hundred plants.

In my years and years of study what I have found most intriguing is the Native willingness to examine new resources. Europeans introduced numerous foods to the American continents such as carrots, lettuce, kale, spinach, parsnip, turnip, pea, apricot, nectarine, peach, apple, cherry, lemon, orange, and quince. Europeans brought grains such as wheat, rye, oat, and millet. Introduced herbs include parsley, mint, thyme, marjoram, rosemary, dill, dandelion, plantain, and nettle to name a few. Europeans brought produce from every corner of the world: rice, bananas, and tea from Asia, coffee and yams from Africa, sugar from New Guinea, peanuts and cocoa from South America. It didn’t take long before Indigenous Americans found uses for some of these plants and incorporated them into their medicine. I found several European introductions in the limited Iroquois list of ceremonial and witchcraft plants included in the Appendix. Both the Iroquois and the Cherokee pharmacologies are impressive so of course only a few plants will be catalogued in the Appendix by comparison. As a means of understanding the pharmacology of the extinct Florida tribes I have drawn on the Seminole pharmacology for insight. It is huge as well and the entries are limited to ritual and witchcraft uses.

I am going to end this brief introduction with a wonderful quote from Daniel Moerman, the ethnobotanist that compiled Native American Ethnobotany. It is the single most valuable book in my world and has provided all the plant information included in the Appendix that follows.

“But our deepest debt is to those predecessors of ours on the North American continent who, through glacial cold in a world populated by mammoths and saber-toothed tigers, seriously, deliberately, and thoughtfully studied the flora of a new world, learned its secrets, and encouraged the next generations to study closer and to learn more. Their diligence and energy, their insight and creativity, these are the marks of true scientists, dedicated to gaining meaningful and useful knowledge from a complex and confusing world. That I cannot list them individually by name in no way diminishes my sense of obligation to them.”

Thank you, Daniel Moerman, for your extraordinary work.

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