Nature on Trail: Ethnobotany
By Lace Thornberg
Warning: The purposes and uses of plants described below refer to the historic uses and purposes of plants. To prevent the risk of poisoning, taste-testing unknown plants in the woods is not recommended. Likewise, using plants for medicinal purposes without explicit knowledge of the plant is not advised. In other cases, harvesting wild plants can be detrimental to the survival of that species. Got it? Read on.
Ethnobotany is the study of the connections between plants and people. It is concerned with native plants that have a history of being used for food and medicine, and extends to those used as the raw materials for houses, clothing, ceremonial items, transportation (e.g. canoes), tools and utensils.
Looking at the native plants you’ll see on any hike from an ethnobotanical perspective can be a rewarding way to enrich your hiking experience. At the very least, it can distract you from the pain of exertion!
To make the most of your time in the field, you must first develop the ability to identify the plants you are likely to see. Thumbing through field guides and searching websites helps ground your ability to identify plants when you see them. Pojar and McKinnon’s guide to the Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast provides more ethnobotanical background than other field guides for this region. Somewhat surprisingly, the Washington State Department of Transportation maintains one of the best local online resources for ethnobotanical study. The University of Washington’s Herbarium maintains a comprehensive image library that allows you to search for plants by common or Latin name and find habitat notes and a variety of photographs of any species found in Washington.
To view living plants, you can try botanical gardens and arboretums. The Erna Gunther Garden found at the entrance to the Burke Museum on the University of Washington campus makes an excellent starting point for any student of ethnobotany. More than 100 Cascade plant species significant to Pacific Northwest Native Americans are identified in this unique garden. Their native habitats and chief uses are succinctly explained on tags located next to the each plant.
With this advance preparation, you are ready to hit the trails. As you head out on the trail, consider the pleasure today’s hiker feels when he or she spots the earliest spring flowers coming into bloom or trees with fresh new buds. These signs tell us that winter has passed and warmer sunnier days are ahead. Imagine the feeling when these emergent flowers were far more than harbingers of spring, but also provided sustenance and medicine. To maximize the variety of plants you’ll encounter in a single outing, hike trails that travel from low to high elevation. The subalpine area outside Artists’ Point is one spectacular place to start.
Over time, nearly every plant growing in any region has been
experimented with and put to use in some way. The five plants profiled
below have proved particularly useful and are easy to spot while hiking
Many of the plants you see along the trail have a long history of use by native people of the Northwest. Beargrass, a common denizen of alpine high country, was used by Native Americans for basket weaving.
Habitat: Open, moist areas, particularly those which dry by late
spring, at low to mid-elevations in the mountains
Uses: Common camas was a staple food source for numerous Native American tribes of the Northwest plains. Camas’ onion-like bulbs were generally pit-roasted first and then prepared in various ways to make everything from stews and gravies to cakes and sweet beverages. Camas was also an important item in intertribal trading, particularly trading related to special occasions.
Warning: Death camas (Zigadenus venenosus) can be confused with edible camas bulbs and is toxic.
Western red cedar, canoe cedar
Habitat & Range: Found most commonly in the bottoms of canyons or
along mountain streams. Usually occurs as single individuals in mixed
coniferous forests from sea level along the Pacific coast from northern
California to southeastern Alaska to higher in the mountains inland.
Uses: An indispensable plant, cedar has been used to make canoes, houses, helmets, armor, boxes, utensils and tools, as well as totem poles, masks, and other art. The bark was harvested from living trees in long strips that soon became mats, ropes, cord, baskets, hats, clothes, and other soft goods.
Habitat: Wet woods and bogs at low to middle elevations
Uses: One widespread use of skunk cabbage was the use of the large, waxy leaves in various aspects of food preparation. Virtually all western Washington tribes used skunk cabbage leaves like waxed paper, for wrapping food, lining cook pits, separating foods being cooked together, and as a surface for drying berries. Leaves became makeshift plates and were folded to make temporary dippers and drinking cups. Additionally, poultices made from the leaves were applied to treat a variety of illnesses and injuries.
Wapato, Arrowhead, Duck Potato, Arrow Leaf
Habitat: Marshes, ponds, lakes, wet ditches; usually emergent but often partly submerged; low elevations.
Uses: Wapato tubers could be kept for several months if left unwashed and raw. They were cooked as needed by baking in hot ashes. These tubers provided an excellent source of carbohydrates, similar to the potato in texture, but with a sweeter taste.
Habitat: subalpine meadows and coastal mountains
Uses: Beargrass was long used by Native Americans, who wove it into baskets. Its fibrous leaves turn from green to white as they dry and are easily dyed. Tough and durable, the leaves could be woven to create waterproof basketry.
This spring and summer as you venture out into the woods, take special note of the plants around you. Many of the plants that delight you today have been put to work for centuries.
Photos: Beargrass and Mount Rainier by Daniel Shoe, camas blooms by Alan Bauer, western red cedar by Erika Klimecky, skunk cabbage by Ulrich Fritzshe, Arrowleaf by Robert H. Mohlenbrock, courtesy USDA, and beargrass by "trailgrub."
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