Our Contemporary Reliance on Traditional Knowledge
Humans have always relied on plants. The fact that we have molars, designed specifically for breaking down the fibrous plant material in our diet, proves this reliance. Even in cultures where meat makes up the bulk of the diet, meat is usually cooked with a combination of plants and of course the animals humans generally eat tend to eat plants. Without plants, we would not have meat. Without plants, we would not have shelter. Without plants, we would not have medicine. As I sit writing this in my apartment, I look around and realize I am surrounded by wooden walls and furniture, linoleum floors, all sorts of colorfully dyed fabrics, and leather shoes—all products reliant upon the existence of plants.
I have always been drawn to the mysterious world of plants. During college, I dived deeper into the study of botany and did my undergraduate senior project on the ethnobotany of Northern New England, a 128-page document focused on the human uses of 50 common plants entitled Plants and People of New England: Our Contemporary Reliance on Traditional Knowledge.
Through my personal research and experience with herbal medicine and ethnobotany in general, I had a brain full of observations when I started this project:
- Most books on herbal medicine speak generally about plant uses, e.g. “rosemary is good for memory”—rarely explaining how to get this effect or what parts of the plant is used.
- Most books on herbal medicine rarely present current information, or what I call “living knowledge.”
- Herbal medicine as a subject is usually separated from botany, and botany as a subject is typically separated from traditional applications of plant knowledge.
- When people begin an interest in herbal medicine, they typically focus on European garden herbs such as rosemary, mint, lavender, and sage rather than the plethora of abundant local plants in their backyard.
- People still mow and use pesticides on their lawns despite the diversity of nutrients and medicine in the most common weeds.
- People interested in plant uses tend to focus only on the medicinal qualities.
- The amount of forests in Maine coupled with the amount of people living in rural areas in Maine creates seemingly endless possibilities for more sustainable livelihoods, especially if people can understand how to appropriately use our local resources.
I wanted to counter and/or address each of these observations through this project by preserving the living knowledge of local New Englanders, encouraging appropriate stewardship of the local flora, and presenting simple, sustainable ways of life.
The Power of Story
Humans have always had a love for stories, as demonstrated through our passion for movies, bedtime stories, and novels. Most ancient cultures (and many current ones) were based upon oral traditions, not written word. The plant I have always remembered best is yarrow, based upon the wealth of stories associated with this particular weed. We remember a person like first president George Washington not because of how he looked, but because of the stories associated with his history. For these reasons, it is more helpful for me to know the story behind a plant, not merely its visual cues towards identification. When we remember these stories that mark individuals, be they plants or humans, we recognize their value. While it is easier to recognize a human’s intrinsic value, because, frankly, we are like him or her, we care more about the individual people we know and the stories they carry. When we recognize a plant’s intrinsic value, we understand its importance to us, we care more about it, and we are more likely to protect it. To know our surroundings inspires us to protect our surroundings. My hope is that some of these stories about local plant-people relationships might encourage protection of our natural resources, protection of our plant-use knowledge, and future sustainability.
The Scope of this Project
I focused on the ethnobotany–the uses of plants by people–of 50 common plants of Northern New England based on many conversations with educators, herbalists, and native people (see their biographies at the very bottom of this page) in addition to botanical field guides and historical accounts. Each post will include a reference section that outlines my resources for each particular plant. I will post the plants in alphabetical order by common name based on where they usually live: near water, in the woods, in open areas, in the yard and on the roadside, and plants that can be found almost anywhere. I’ll update this page to link to each of these posts as I post them.
Plants Found Near Water:
Plants Found In the Woods:
Plants Found in Open Areas:
Plants Found In the Yard and On the Roadside:
Plants Found Almost Anywhere:
Disclaimer: Any of my posts by no means serve as an identification guide or recipe book alone. The identification sections simply serve to give a basic idea of a plant’s key features and supplement the existing information about plants that can easily be found in a variety of field guides, including The Plants of Acadia National Park. Do not start grazing through the forests and fields if you have not double, triple, or quadruple-checked the species of the plant and its edibility/toxicity. And remember, collecting on National Park property is illegal.
Final Note: I am hoping to get this work published in some capacity. If any of you have ideas or resources for this venture, please leave me a comment and we can be in touch.
Biographies of the People Whom I Interviewed for this Project:
“Deb Soule is an herbalist, gardener, teacher and author of A Woman’s Book of Herbs. Raised in a small town in western Maine, Deb began organic gardening and studying the medicinal uses of herbs at age 16. Deb’s faith in the healing qualities of plants and desire to make organic herbs accessible to women and families living in rural areas, led her to found Avena Botanicals Herbal Apothecary in 1985. Five years earlier, while enrolled as a student at College of the Atlantic, Deb lived in Nepal close to three Tibetan monasteries. She was deeply influenced by the Tibetan people’s commitment to ease physical symptoms and mental and emotional upsets through plants, prayer and other spiritual practices. Deb’s passion for plants, gardens and healing and her commitment to sharing herbal knowledge with others is central to her work. She frequently is a guest-lecturer at various conferences as well as an instructor for botany and horticulture students, garden clubs, and medical students. In 2005, People, Places and Plants magazine named Deb as one of the 50 most influential gardeners in the Northeast.”
“My full name is Harold “John” Brooks and I am native born to New Hampshire, being born after the Great Depression and during World War II. My family, having Native ancestry, lived off the land for the most part, planting crops and hunting herbs both for medicine and food during these times. I learned the plants and herbs used for health from my Grandparents and at an early age traveled into the woods with them in search of plants. I became fascinated with what Mother Nature would provide. If only we would observe what she had laid before us; many of our modern medicines came from the earth on which we trod. I believe that the Flora and Fauna that we have today must be preserved for our children and their children’s children. Someone once said that man can tell how many seeds there are in an apple but only the Creator can tell how many apples there are in one seed.”
“My name is Patricia Chilton currently at 45 years old. I was raised in Pepperell, MA part time and the other time on a farm in Orange, MA. In Orange both grandparents loved the land especially granddaddy. My Heritage is English and Indian. Great Grand Mother Currier was ¾ breed. Knowing this and watching her I started at a young age to eat plants or things to make me feel better, whether that be a headache or stomachache. There is always something to help. I just knew what worked but did not know the name of things till I got older and had my own kids. When they became sick I started to read and do other research to relearn what my brain already knew. Now when I am sick I go to using plants; they just work best for me and my family.”
“Sue Szwed‘s fascination with wild plants was first ignited after picking up a copy of the book Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America by Merritt Fernald and Alfred Kinsey in the early 70s. After learning about and trying many of the wild edible plants growing in Northern Maine her interest spread to how wild plants have been used traditionally for medicine and many other purposes. “Once you start learning about wild plants you want to know more about who else has used them, how, and for what.” Sue studied herbalism with Norma Myers in Alert Bay, B.C. Canada working at her herbal dispensary in the mid 70s. Upon her return to Maine she continued to learn about the use of wild plants from books, other herbalists, and tribal elders, in Maine and N.B., as well as from her own experimentation. Sue has enjoyed doing illustrations of wild and cultivated herbs and plants for a variety of publications including Deb Soule’s A Woman’s Book of Herbs. Sue continues to live in Northern Maine where she cultivates a small fruit tree nursery and large gardens. She also does recreational canoe and ski guiding, and some illustration seasonally.”
Terry-Anya Hayes: “I was born in Tennessee, to a family who had not forgotten how to live richly with plants. Along with vegetables from my grandfather’s garden, we ate wild greens, nuts, berries, and the occasional squirrel. My first scent memory is the spicy fragrance of sassafras. When I was three, my stepfather brought us to Mount Desert Island. The hunter-gatherer gene had skipped my mother; to my delight, she designated me the family picker. As an adult, I nibbled my way through the New York City parks system and encouraged others to do the same. The herbals of Culpepper and Kloss sparked my interest in healing with plants, and studying with living herbalists was even more fun. Peeka Trenkle and Rosemary Gladstar have been my main teachers. A chance encounter with a savvy mycologist cured my fear of fungi; two years later, I was elected president of the New York Mycological Society. It’s my privilege to teach people to recognize, respect, sustainably gather, and deliciously prepare the food and medicine that our abused earth still offers. What we breathe out, the plants breathe in, and vice versa. The more conscious we become of our mutual dependency, the better we and the green world will fare.”
From “Earthways School of Wilderness Living” Pamphlet:
Ray Reitze, Jr. Teacher, Naturalist, and Master Maine Guide. Years ago, Ray was called to teach the skills and philosophy of the elders that have shaped him since he was a boy. Founder of Earthways, School of Wilderness Living, Ray brings to the world a gentle and humble presence that draws all who meet him towards the peace, light, and love that dwells within him. Ray is author of And We Shall Cast Rainbows Upon the Land, a book of wisdom and teachings from both Ray and Grandfather, a Mic Mac elder who greatly influenced Ray’s life direction and purpose. He speaks on wilderness survival at numerous public schools and organizations such as L.L. Bean’s Outdoor Discovery Schools and the Maine and New Hampshire Audubon Societies. Ray and Nancy co-authored a series of articles on primitive skills entitled “Grandfather’s Teachings.”
Nancy Reitze, Naturalist, Herbalist, and Recreational Maine Guide. Nancy’s life has been devoted to her family and people in teaching and guiding them back to comfortable and simple ways of life. In addition to homesteading and co-founding Earthways, she created a consultation business under the name of Sunshine Herbs. Through this vehicle, she is matching people and their individual needs with healing plants and courses that lead them to more sound physical, spiritual, and emotional health. Amongst her many travels and studies, she has learned directly from noted herbalists and authors Matthew Wood, Rosemary Gladstar, Deb Soule, and Corrine Martin.