From the beginning of human history, man has considered plants “useful.” Of course, the most obvious use is as a food source, but in all cultures, plants have also figured prominently as medicines. From prehistoric rites to modern medicine, plants have been shown to possess curative properties. Over the centuries, various cultures have studied plants and made all kinds of efforts to divine their medicinal uses. Some experiments have proved disastrous, even fatal. Others seemed miraculous. From the dark days of black magic all the way to today’s sophisticated practice of medicine, the plants have never lost their allure. In fact, today we live in a time of renewed interest in herbal remedies. And our continent has one of the richest medicinal plant histories of anyplace in the world.
Below, you’ll find just a few of the wildflowers that man has used from ancient times forward to aid in his health and provide cures for his illnesses and diseases. It is provided as a source of information and not intended for prescriptive purposes. In fact, many of the same plants used as medicinals are also poisonous if not used properly. (Wildflowers mentioned that pose a serious danger are noted.)
Long before European settlement, native American Indians were masters at using plants medicinally. And today’s modern medicine proves many of their ancient cures. Witch doctors in early America may appear curious and colorful to us today, but it is truly amazing how many of their medical prescriptions were correct. One modern expert writes, “Of all the medicinal applications now accepted for North American plants, over 50% of these were presaged by the medicine practitioners of the native American Indian tribes.”
Meanwhile in Europe, during the Middle Ages, the Herbalists worked to advance the plant studies that had been going on there since the time of the ancient Greeks. During the Middle Ages, with more superstition than science, the herbalists offered their cures, sometimes with disastrous consequences.
The famous Doctrine of Signatures. One of the more bizarre pseudo-sciences that flowered during the early medieval period was medical treatment based on plant structure and appearance. Certain herbalists decided that one could prescribe an herbal cure or treatment based on a relationship between plant parts and body parts. This wild course of the study noted, for example, that parts of the plant Hepatica could be made into a curative concoction for liver ailments. Why? Because the plant has three-lobed leaves that reminded the herbalists of the human liver. Today, Hepatica , the beautiful early spring wildflower we enjoy still carries the name based on its connection to the human liver, yet it’s been shown to have no medicinal value. (Hepatica is the Latin word for “liver”, as is hepatitis.) Most prescriptions based on the Doctrine of Signatures probably only made people sick, since ingesting various non-food plants is usually upsetting. However, others, when poisonous plants were unknowingly used, were fatal.
As medical science progressed and Europeans settled North America, the advancing European medical knowledge of plants was combined with the traditions of Native American medicine. This led to an active exportation of plants from North America, as the settlers learned the new plants’ “secrets” from the Indians.
But this was only the beginning. As modern medicine evolved, plant values were studied and tested, and the results have been amazing.
Today, flowering plants provide almost 25% of the basic ingredients for our modern drugs. This little-known fact makes the study of medicinal plants even more interesting today than ever before. North America has tens of thousands of native plants that have yet to be studied. As Lady Bird Johnson has said, “Surely there are others like digitalis waiting out there.” She was referring to the famous English medicinal wildflower commonly known as Wild Foxglove, but botanically, “Digitalis purpurea.” This is the now-famous plant that is widely used today to treat heart disease. The medicine derived from this plant is usually called, simply “Digitalis”, and has saved untold lives worldwide through its modern applications.
How at least one medicinal plant was “discovered.” The story of the Foxglove is a classic. In 1775, an English physician and botanist named William Withering were asked to treat a patient suffering from dropsy, a broad term that at the time meant “fluid retention.” He had heard of an “old woman in Shropshire” who knew a secret cure which included the foxglove plant. Dr. Withering, after using the secret remedy, which was a concoction of over twenty herbs, found it amazingly successful, but also quickly perceived that only one plant in the mix was working the cure. The whole stew was said to be a diuretic, but Dr. Withering knew that the major cause of dropsy was congestive heart failure. He also knew that foxglove, with its powerful toxic properties in the proper quantity, could strengthen cardiac contraction and enable the heart to pump more efficiently, delivering blood to the rest of the body. Ten years later, Dr. Withering published “10 years of clinical data on patients treated with foxglove.” The rest, as they say, literally, is history–medical history.
From an old woman’s secret cure, through the careful work of an early physician, we have a “wonder drug” direct from a plant that is used today to treat almost every kind of heart disease.
The cure for spider bite becomes environmental monitor. Other stories in herbal and medicinal plants take various paths, as the scientific use of a species is accidentally discovered. Spiderwort, Tradescantia virginiana, a common North American native wildflower with three-petaled purple flowers, was once considered a cure for the bites of spiders, but during modern times has offered scientists other advantages. Botanically, the plant is unusual, being a historic link between the sedges (grass-like wetland plants) and lilies. Moreover, the plant has relatively large chromosomes, making it useful for lab studies in cytology (the structure of cells).
Modern scientific studies of Spiderwort recently rendered an unexpected discovery. Attentive botanists noticed that the plant is extremely sensitive to pollution and radiation which cause its blossoms to change color from blue to pink in a very short period of time! What happens is that the number of cells mutating when in contact with severe pollutants, correlates directly to the level of pollution. So this plant is now used as an inexpensive, but a very accurate device for testing pollution. Where dangerous pollution is expected, spiderworts are planted, and their flower color is closely monitored for changes.
Of course, man cannot exist without plants (since they provide the very oxygen we breathe), so it is no wonder that this interdependence has produced a very long and fascinating history which continues today.
Here are a few examples of various wildflowers and how they’ve been used over the centuries for herbal and medicinal purposes. Plus a few that are stars of the very active boom today in herbal remedies and supplements.
Turtlehead (Chelone glabra)
The genus name, Chelone, of this rather odd wildflower, means “head of a tortoise” which refers to the flower’s shape. Glabra means smooth and refers to the leaves. Turtlehead’s natural habitat is moist areas and-and eastern woodlands, where it blooms from August to September. It’s one of the hundreds of native plants that were used for medicinal purposes by American Indians. They used preparations made from Turtlehead for “eruptive maladies” such as skin disorders.
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)
The genus here, obviously, refers to blood (“sanguine”), and that’s because of the brilliant reddish-orange juice that is emitted from this beautiful wildflower’s root. Bloodroot, with its magnificent, snow-white poppy-style blooms and large waterlily-like leaves, is found in rich, moist woods and blooms from March to June. It is more famous as a source of Indian face paint and dyes, but they also used the plant medicinally. It was a treatment for rheumatism and lung ailments. Though this wildflower has been shown to possess some potential as an anesthetic and antiseptic, it remains an experimental work in progress. Warning: This plant is toxic and should not to be ingested.
Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)
This relatively common native plant blooms over most of the east during August and September, mostly in wet sunny meadows. It is tall and rather coarse, with fluffy, grayish-white flower heads. It’s been used medicinally throughout the history of the United States. Its name is probably derived from the famous “Doctrine of Signatures”, used by early physicians when medicine was more superstition than science. The idea that the physical appearance of a plant bore witness to its potential ability to cure human maladies, cures or body parts that resemble it. On Boneset stems, opposite leaves are joined together around the stem, so it was believed that a poultice could be applied to assist the fusion of broken bones, much like the fused pair of leaves. The species name, perfoliatum, also reflects this oddity, since the stems seem to pierce these pairs of leaves. (folium means leaves, and of course perf reflects the same word derivation of words such as “perforation.” Boneset was also supposedly used with some success during the flu epidemics of the 19th century. Warning: This plant may contain potentially harmful alkaloids which adversely affect the liver.
Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum)
Also called Adder’s Tongue.The leaves and juices of the Trout Lily have had many medical uses while the young bulbs have been used for culinary purposes.The leaves also can be cooked and eaten as a vegetable.A tea was made to help cure hiccups.
Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustrus)
Its natural habitats are wet meadows, marshes, and swamps where it blooms from April to June. Another popular name is Cowslip s. The species name is Latin for “swamps”.In medieval times the leaves were rubbed on insect bites. The Ojibwa tribe mixed a tea made from this wildflower which they mixed with maple sugar for use as a cough syrup. It can cause skin irritations.It has been used as a potherb.
Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis)
Most of the wildflowers in this group open their blooms after sunset This tall plant, widely distributed over North America as a roadside weed, blooms with yellow flowers from June to September. American Indians used it for many medical purposes including treating obesity and sore muscles. Today, we know Evening Primrose oil is a natural source of gamma-linolenic acid, and this plant is one which is under intense research for its true medicinal properties today.
Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
Perhaps the most famous medicinal species among North American native plants, this brilliant purple to pink, daisy-like wildflower is a native of the American plains, and quite common in fields and thickets. It is also so handsome, that it’s now popular in perennial gardens nationwide. The American Indians used this wildflower medicinally more than any other, recognizing the properties we value today from the plant. The Indians chewed on the roots for snake and insect bites and also used it for burns, toothache, sores, colds, and flu. Today, better known by its Latin genus name “Echinacea” this is the No. 1 medicinal plant among those used for the current boom in herbal remedies and supplements. Modern research claims to have proven that some of its extracts stimulate the immune system, and even ward off the common cold. All parts of the plant contain medicinal potency—leaves, buds, stems and roots. But the most potent value is found in the thick black roots, which, along with other parts, are ground and formed into tablets, liquids, and other preparations.
Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata)
One of our wildflowers with a very long and rich history, Vervain is a quite common roadside plant over most of the continent. The flowers, while small, are a deep vivid blue, blooming up stems in a candelabra shape. The Druids used this wildflower in their rites of purification. The Romans used it as a ceremonial herb and fashioned it into torches, often placed on their altars. Roman ambassadors once carried Vervain as a peace symbol on their visits to other countries. But yes, with all this ceremony, it had ancient medicinal uses, too. According to the early herbalist, Culpepper, it was used to help “bodily swelling” and “cause a good color in the face and body.” It was also used in medieval times as a tranquilizer.
Self Heal (Prunella vulgaris)
One of our very common “weeds” with small purple flowers, Self Heal thrives in fields and woods, largely unknown for its incredible history. This herb was used in medieval times to heal warrior’s wounds, thus the common name. Medicinally, it was once used for mouth and throat diseases as well. The most famous medieval herbalist, Gerard, in his landmark work, “Gerard’s Herbal” declared that there is “not a better wound herbe in the world.” Culpepper, another herbalist, said of it, ”The juice used with oil of roses to anoint the temples is very effectual to remove a headache.” Self Heal is one of the many common wildflowers that traveled to North America from Europe as weeds in the crop seed sacks of early colonists, and even today, it is the focus of medicinal research. Today’s scientists report it may have potential antibiotic capabilities.
St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum)
This now-famous European native plant is a common naturalized wildflower in North America. St. Johnswort is a common roadside weed in most states, unknown and anonymous. Its “frothy” yellow flowers are lovely, but the whole plant is what gardeners call “weedy.” It is not a beauty, but of all the wildflower histories, this lowly weed has one of the most glamorous. And it’s still making history today.
First of all, about the name. St. Johnswort blooms in summer; in fact, it’s always in bloom in late June. That’s when “the Day of St. John” happens, June 24th. And that’s why in medieval Europe, this plant was all-important. The herbalists, who offered a wild mix of religion and natural medicine, decided it was good for almost everything, and not just medicinal cures. For example, a young girl could toss a sprig over her shoulder, and soon know the name of the man she’d marry.
But most of all, when St. John’s Eve rolled around, everyone had to have some of this plant. It was hung in windows to ward off evil spirits. It was burned to protect livestock and farms from “devils, goblins, and witches.” And it was central in religious festivals and services. The herbalist, Bankes, wrote in 1525: “This is called saynt Johannes worte. The virtue of it is thus. If it be put in a mannes house, there shall come no wicked spyrte therein.” Later in 1863, a Dr. Porcher wrote that the plant “was greatly in vogue at one time, and was thought to cure demoniacs.” Dr. Porcher would be stunned at how the plant is used today!
Medicinally, during the medieval period, it was prescribed for practically everything, but mostly as a “healing herb.” This meant hapless soldiers used it to try to heal their wounds. Though it surely did not work, this reputation led to another common name for the plant: Balm-of –Warrior’s-Wound.
But after centuries of crazy magic and imagined cures, this lowly weed has become one of the mainstays of today’s herbal medicine. Check any drugstore, and you’ll see it available in elixirs, tablets, and more. St. Johnswort today, is often called the natural Prozac, after the popular tranquilizer. Because modern herbal studies have shown that the medicinal properties of St. Johnswort actually do have a relaxing effect when ingested. So today, after a couple of centuries of forgotten existence, this once-again-famous plant is produced commercially, and its medicinal derivations are valued once more, worldwide.