Friday, December 22, 2017

The Edible World Around Us: Plant Use in the Past and Present

There is an edible world around us that was expertly known and used for millennia before the arrival of the first Europeans to North America. Even the early settlers had an acute knowledge of plants and their culinary and medicinal uses. Today, much of the knowledge once considered essential for life has been traded for easily accessible and neatly packaged foods and medicines. It can be easy to forget that much of what we take for granted, both in cuisine and medicine is deeply rooted in the past.

Indigenous knowledge of the natural world has been passed from generation to generation through a rich oral tradition. The study of plants and their uses through cultural knowledge is called ethnobotany. Beyond the staples corn, beans, and squash, famously referred to as the three sisters, a multitude of other plants were utilized by the prehistoric people who thrived in North America. In many parts of the world, similar traditional knowledge persists to this day out of necessity or tradition.

A indigenous man and woman sitting on a rush mat eating fruit(?).
(Image: White, John, 1906,0509.1.20,, 1585-1593, Online. Accessed 12/21/2017.)

Plant remains are relatively rare in Pennsylvania’s archaeological record due to the poor preservation of organic material, but plant use is well documented in ethnographic accounts of historic tribes and knowledge held by modern indigenous communities. Some indigenous groups have been reluctant to share traditional medicinal knowledge with outsiders out of concern that it will be used by pharmaceutical companies wishing only to profit from the information without respect or acknowledgement to the indigenous communities and their intellectual rights.

In North America, many species which we today consider to be weeds or nuisance plants had culinary or other importance to indigenous people. The plants most often used by Native Americans were also the most common and in many cases, are still common today. Plants were collected with respect and attention to conservation to ensure its survival. The time of year in which the plant was collected could determine its intended use. Some plants collected for culinary use as sprouts may be collected for their flowers or roots once mature, other plants become poisonous. It is important to know and understand the plants which are being collected.
A depiction of Native Americans harvesting bark and fruit from trees near a settlement.
(Illustration: Jonathan Frazier)
The study of medicinal plants and substances through cultural knowledge is called ethnopharmacology.  It is not secret that many over the counter and prescription drugs find their roots in nature. Aspirin’s pain relieving ingredient has its history in willow bark, which could be steeped in water and drunk as a tea. Beano, another common drug and anti-flatulent, gets its effectiveness from an enzyme found in the fungus responsible for black mold. Surprisingly, around 50% of cancer treatment drugs approved in the last 30 years are derived either directly or indirectly from nature. The most common ailments treated by medicinal plants were those of the gastro-intestinal system. Today, many natural teas can be found in your local grocery store intended to treat the same issues and using some of the same plants, such as mint and ginger.

Although many native plants have fallen out of favor for culinary use, others have been elevated to such high status as to collect a hefty price tag at modern markets. In many parts of North America, spring brings an abundance of desirable wild foods including morel and chanterelle mushrooms, ramps (a wild leek with a mild garlicy onion flavor), and fiddleheads (fern sprouts).
Foods (meat, maize, etc.) cooking in a pot over a fire.
(Image: White, John, 1906,0509.1.11.a,, 1585-1593, Online. Accessed 12/21/2017.)

Pennsylvania is fortunate to host an abundance of wild plants. Modern foragers, much like those of the past, look forward to Spring when nature’s bounty abounds. With the shortest day of the year now behind us, we can look forward to Spring and all it brings.

You can explore more Native American foodways at the State Museum of Pennsylvania’s booth at this year’s Pennsylvania Farm Show, taking place Jan 6-13, 2018 in Harrisburg, PA. The State Museum will host an exhibit space featuring information on native American foodways and the history of the development of agriculture in Pennsylvania. Prehistoric artifacts on display illustrate the transition for native groups from primarily hunters and gatherers to farmers.  The changes in stone tools including spear points and atlatl weights during the Transitional Period (2900 BP- 4850 BP) to stone hoes and pestles in the Woodland Period (1550 AD- 2900 BP) reflect this culture change. A corn grinding station utilizing stone tools allows visitors to experience the process used by native peoples. Our booth will be located opposite the carousel in the Main Exhibition Hall of the Farm Show Complex.  Mark your calendar and plan your visit to the 102nd Pennsylvania Farm Show (

Densmore, F. (1974). How Indians Use Wild Plants for Food, Medicine & Crafts. General Publishing Company, Ltd.

Medve, R. and Medve, M. L. (1990). Edible Wild Plants of Pennsylvania and Neighboring States. The Pennsylvania State University.

Uprety et al. (2012). Traditional Use of Medicinal Plants in the Boreal Forest of Canada: Review and Perspectives. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, 8(7).

Veeresham, C. (2012). Natural products derived from plants as a source of drugs. Journal of Advanced Pharmaceutical Technology & Research, 3(4), 200–201.
For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

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