Interest in natural remedies and the medicinal properties of plants is growing, including here in the United States. We are curious, in particular, about Native American remedies as many of the plants they used still grow here today. But, research into the history of pharmaceuticals reveals that we are already using more of these natural remedies than we realize.
Native American Remedy: Poplar Bark
Modern Medicine: Aspirin
Native American history tells us that poplar tree bark was chewed to relieve headache pain. This bark contains a chemical called salicin. According to Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, in a 2013 article written for The University of Maryland Medical Center , use of barks containing salicin “dates back to the time of Hippocrates (400 BC).” By the late 1800’s, scientists in Europe isolated salicin from the bark and administered it as a powder called aspirin, according to The Bayer Company . Mr. Ehrlich tells us, however, that there are other compounds in the bark, such as flavonoids and polyphenols, whose benefits you miss when taking modern aspirin.
Native American Remedy: Pacific Yew Tree
Modern Medicine: Taxol
According to the USDA Forest Service , several Native American tribes used the Pacific Yew Tree for purposes ranging from removal of armpit hair to preventing pregnancy and getting high. Reports of this tree having physiological effects on humans prompted researchers to study the plant for ways to cure cancer. Dr. Monroe E. Wall and Dr. Mansukh Wani (highlighted here by the National Cancer Institute) found that paclitaxel, a compound in the bark, had cytotoxic properties. That compound became the active ingredient in the widely used cancer-fighting drug Taxol.
Native American Remedy: Mint Leaves
Modern Medicine: Menthol
A quick search of The University of Michigan-Dearborn’s Native American Ethnobotany database reveals that hundreds of varieties of mint leaves were used by Native Americans for medicinal purposes, many related to stomach and respiratory ailments. The aromatic properties of mint leaf oil are well known and the effect is popular. Although not an actual treatment for illness, the compound menthol, common among many mints, creates a cooling sensation on mucus membranes and even a brief numbing sensation. Because of these properties, modern pharmaceutical companies synthesize menthol and add it to many products such as cough drops, throat sprays, and ointments.
Native American Remedy: Jimson Weed
Modern Medicine: Scopoderm
Jimson Weed, when made into tea, is a powerful hallucinogen. Native American shamans drank it before ceremonies of spiritual healing. Inhaled fumes of jimson tea are still used to relieve asthma; however, any use of the plant is strongly discouraged because it can be extremely dangerous, even deadly. Albert Ladenburg discovered how to isolate scopolamine, which we now know is the active compound in jimson weed, from similar plants in Germany in 1880. According to the Nation Institute of Health’s Medline Plus , scopolamine is routinely prescribed as Scopoderm, a patch for use against motion sickness.
Native American Remedy: Red Alder
Modern Medicine: Lupeol and Betulin
In Edible and Medicinal Plants of the West , (1997) Greg Tilfod mentions that teas made from the bark of red alder were used by the Blackfeet Indians to treat lymphatic illness and tuberculosis. The bark was also beneficial in treating dermatological problems. Multiple recent clinical studies have shown that compounds in the bark, lupeol and betulin, are effective at inhibiting tumor growth. (Sati, 2011)
This is just a sampling of the many drugs we use today that we discovered thanks to knowledge passed down from generations of Native Americans. For more information about Native American medicine, please visit the National Institute of Health’s American Indian Health website .