Honoring Indigenous Herbal Medicine

The holiday long-recognized as Columbus Day is formally celebrated as Indigenous Peoples' Day by Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Virginia, Wisconsin, Washington DC, and Indigenous communities all across the US.

In honor of the occasion, we want to recognize the substantial herbal medicine tradition that originated in pre-colonial America. Herbs like Echinacea (Zhi Zhu Hua), St John’s Wort (Guan Ye Lian Qiao), and American Ginseng (Xi Yang Shen) were used in a complex and evidence-based medicine system that developed similarly to TCM and was used all over North America.

Echinacea, St. John's Wort, Yarrow L-R: Echinacea, St. John's Wort, Yarrow; images courtesy of Unsplash

According to a paper in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition by A.T. Borchers et al.(1), 7 of the top 10 most common dietary supplements sold in the United States at the time of publishing were used by Indigenous Americans for their medical properties.

Common name (Latin names) Native American peoples who used the botanical Native American indications Marketed indications
Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba None  Not used  Memory and circulation 
Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius, Panax ginseng, Eleutherococcus senticosus (P. quinquefolius only) Cherokee, Creek, Delaware, Fox, Houma, Iroquois, Menominee, Mohegan, Pawnee, Penobscot, Potawatomi  Tonic, expectorant; for fevers, tuberculosis, asthma, and rheumatism; of mental powers  Immune function and stress as a strengthener 
Garlic (Allium sativum Cherokee diuretic, expectorant, mild cathartic; for scurvy, asthma, and prevention of worms  Stimulant, carminative, and cholesterol  Cardiovascular health lowering 
Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea, Echinacea angustifolia, Echinacea pallida Cheyenne, Choctaw, Dakota, Delaware, Fox Kiowa, Ponca, Sioux, Winnebago  Pain relief; for coughs and sore throats, fevers, smallpox, mumps, measles, rheumatism, and arthritis; antidote for poisons and venoms  Immune function 
Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis Cherokee, Iroquois, Micmac  Tonic; for fever, whooping cough, and pneumonia  Immune function 
St John's wort (Hypericum perforatum Cherokee, Iroquois, Montagnais  For fever, coughs, and bowel complaints  Antidepressant 
Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens None  Not used  Prostate health 
Grape seed extract (Vitis vinifera None  Not used  Antioxidant status 
Evening primrose (Oenothera biennis Cherokee, Iroquois, Ojibwa, Potawatomi  For premenstrual and menstrual pain, obesity, and bowel pains  Antioxidant status; premenstrual and menstrual pain 
Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon Montagnais  For pleurisy  Health of urinary tract 

Table curtesy of A.T. Borchers et al. (1)

Further, research by W. Setzer (2) in the Medicines Open Access Journal, a peer-reviewed periodical covering a number of medical disciplines, Cherokee herbs like Black Cohosh (a relative of Sheng Ma), Blue Skullcap (a relative of Huang Qin), Common Rush (Deng Xin Cao), and Yarrow (Ya Luo) have traditional usages that are backed up by evidence and by chemical analysis.

(1) https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/72/2/339/4729391