Native American Uses of the Forest

By Bruce Rottink, Volunteer Nature Guide and Retired Research Forester

 

For thousands of years before settlers from the eastern United States or Europe arrived in the vicinity of what is now Tryon Creek State Natural Area (TCSNA), Native Americans called this forest home. The Native Americans used resources ranging from rocks to trees to animals. However, the basis for much of the Native American life was the plant life of this area. They relied on the forest and waterways for everything; food, medicine, tools, clothes, everything!

What kinds of plants did they eat?

There were lots of plants and fruits the Native Americans ate. Some of the more tasty items were the berries from the forest, like the salal (Gaultheria shallon) berries. Pictured below are the plant and berries. I’ve planted salal in my front yard, and they are delicious on my morning cereal!

1

Salal plant, with salal berries in the inset at lower left

 

Another food the Native Americans sometimes ate were the berries of the Oregon grape (Mahonia nervosa). In the photo below, the blue-colored berries are almost ready to eat, while the greenish ones have a way to go before they are ripe.

2

Oregon grape berries starting to ripen

 

I’ve tasted Oregon grape berries too. My taste buds’ response was, o-o-o-o-kay! I think they’re about half way between yummy and yucky. According to ethnobotanists, people who study how different groups of people use plants, the Native Americans would sometimes mash the fruits of the salal and Oregon grape together. In this way, they had a greater total quantity of food, which still tasted “kind of” good.

 

Another category of food plants is represented by the skunk cabbage (Lysichitum americanus) pictured below. This plant has a large underground tuber (note: potatoes are also tubers). Unfortunately, the skunk cabbage tuber tastes awful. It had to be specially prepared to become even edible. Ethnobotanists refer to this as a “starvation food” meaning that you only ate it when the alternative was starvation. If you’ve ever smelled a skunk cabbage in the spring, you understand why it wouldn’t necessarily pop into your mind as a good food item!

4

Skunk cabbage plant and flower

What kind of medicine is in the forest?

For the Native Americans, the forest was their drugstore. Just one of the many medicinal plants used by some Native Americans was the licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza). The pictures below show the licorice fern growing on the side of a tree at TCSNA and the second photo shows a cleaned-up licorice fern plant that was growing on a branch that was blown down during a windstorm. The rhizome can be thought of as a perennial stem, while the leaves come and go with the seasons.

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Licorice fern growing on a tree trunk

 

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Licorice fern after removing the surrounding moss

 

The Native Americans cleaned up the rhizome of the licorice fern and chewed it as a cough and sore throat remedy. Once when I was not at TCSNA, I cleaned up a licorice fern rhizome and chewed it a bit. It does taste faintly like licorice. Within 30 seconds of starting to chew the rhizome, I got a tingle right in the back of my throat. Although I was perfectly healthy at the time, the fern was definitely affecting me. It would have been interesting to see the effect if I’d had a cold or sore throat.

 

What kind of tools did they find in the forest?

One of the tools the Native Americans found in the forest was the horsetail (Equisetum spp.), pictured below. This primitive plant contains a lot of silica crystals. Silica is the most common material found in sand. The Native Americans used this as a “natural sandpaper” for finishing their wooden tools. The effectiveness of this tool can be demonstrated by using it to polish a penny.

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Equisetum and polishing a penny with Equisetum

 

The effectiveness of polishing is shown in the “before and after” photos below.

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Two unpolished pennies (left)        Far right polished for 2 min. with Equisetum.

 

What kind of clothes did they make from forest plants?

The western redcedar tree (Thuja plicata) had many uses. To give just one example, its bark is very fibrous. With careful harvesting and care it can be used to produce everything from rope to clothes. Pictured below is a cedar bark rain hat. These were widely made and used by the Native Americans on the Pacific coast. According to some sources, they would sometimes treat this hat with pitch to make it even more water repellent.

 

9

Native American cedar bark rain hat

 

But of all the clothing that the Native Americans made from forest plants, the one that always intrigued me was that they used moss for baby diapers. I wondered how well those would work. Strictly as a public service, I decided to run an experiment and find out.

You personally tested moss as diapers? Seriously?

Before your imagination runs wild (it may already be too late), let me explain. I took samples of five water-absorbing things:

  • A major brand of modern disposable diaper
  • A sponge
  • A pile of moss
  • A traditional cloth diaper
  • A bunch of paper towels

 

I weighed each item dry, making sure I had between 60 grams and 90 grams of each material (this is about 2 to 3 ounces). I then soaked each item (separately) in water completely covering the test material with water for 15 minutes. Then I put each material on a sheet of screen to drain. When the drops of water falling out of the material were 10 or more seconds apart, I considered the material to be completely drained. I then weighed each item wet. I calculated “absorbency” by dividing the weight of water absorbed by the dry weight of the material.

 

The results are displayed in the chart below.

10

 

Modern diapers with their SAP (Super Absorbent Polymer) ingredient can absorb more than 80 times their weight in liquid! But let’s cut to the chase. I was fascinated to see that moss, the key ingredient in the Native American diaper could absorb 7.4 times its dry weight in water. In contrast, a classic 100% cotton, all-cloth diaper can only absorb 3.5 times its own dry weight in water. So the Native Americans were using the superior diapering material! Wow!

 

At home in the forest!

To the Native Americans, the forest was their home, their grocery store, their pharmacy, their hardware store, their everything! They adapted to their environment to meet all their needs.

 

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Posted on January 31, 2016, in Plants & Wildlife and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Another scientific and very interesting article by Bruce including his experiments !! Fascinating, esp the 2 experiments: the moss diaper and the chewing of the licorice rhizome. Great job!!! Judy Sybyl, the true family licorice lover.

  2. Good basic info, Bruce. Loved the diaper study, though, unfortunately, it strengthens the argument for disposables which are environmentally BAD. Guess nearly evyrone uses them anyway.

  3. A couple of thoughts on your article, which I loved (and read every month) If you’ve read “Ethnobotany of Western Washington”, (out of print but findable on Amazon), its amazing all the uses found for about every species. One caveat; when I gave a talk recently on the Atflati people I mentioned use of Licorice fern as cough medicine, One listener said it contains potassium and can affect heart rate! So don’t swallow.Apparently the pioneers used the roots to flavor boiled sugar to flavor candy like a true licorice.

    Also it is said the natives used the seed heads of cattails for diapers; wish you would have tested those also!

    Last point, a holistic veterenarian says that the roots of Oregon grape are used in healing salves for animals as they are antibiotic, antifungal and antiinflamatory! Wow! Of course, the golden roots make a great dye for native weaving. I mix the berries with blackberries, to cook, then strain which make a wonderfully lemony-tasting blackberry jelly.Ginny Maffitt

  4. One of the challenges of the Naturalist Notes is keeping them readably short. Thus, some things that are topically appropriate get left out. My purpose in this note was to touch on just a few Native American uses of Tryon Creek’s plants. I have no doubt an exhaustive review would require a whole book.

    Ginny, thanks for your comment on licorice fern. I have no doubt that every medicine, natural or synthetic, has certain drawbacks and limitations. I hadn’t heard this one before. Your comment on Oregon grape roots touches on the topic of the next Naturalist Note I’m working on.

  5. It is such a pleasure to read your detailed Naturalist Notes! They make me feel like I’m in Tryon Creek State Park!

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