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Culturally Significant Plants


Links and Information

Culturally Significant Plants Links, and information about Culturally Significant Plant Guides, the NPDT Ethnobotany Office, or Ethnobotany and Ethnoecology.

Dichelostemma capitatum

Digging stick and blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) corms. These underground storage organs, called "Indian potatoes," are eaten raw, boiled, or baked by tribes in the Southwest, California, and the Great Basin. (Photos © M. Kat Anderson, National Plant Data Team)


Culturally Significant Plant Guides

One of the exciting tasks of the NPDT, in collaboration with Native American plant authorities, NRCS plant material centers, and university specialists, is assembling a series of culturally significant plant guides and technical notes for each NRCS region. These guides can help Native American tribes and NRCS field offices to establish and manage culturally significant plants and restore traditional gathering sites.

These guides provide information and images of plant species that play a significant role in the lives of Native Americans involved in cultural activities utilizing plants. The guides feature one native plant species each, and provide botanical identifying features, morphology, general information about the plant's reproductive biology, range, distribution, and habitat requirements. Each guide has a horticultural section with tips on how to collect seed, propagate and grow the plant, and how to maintain existing stands of the plant with standard and indigenous horticultural practices. Guides also contain cultural information about where the plant grows, when and how it is harvested, how it is prepared and used, and its general role in maintaining tribal ethnicity. There is a list of possible seed and container sources, a bibliography of references, and images if available. Pertinent links to other sites containing ethnobotanical species abstracts are also included. Sambucus mexicana

Cleaning elderberry (Sambucus mexicana) fruits by the Sierra Miwok family, which will be used in the making of jams, jellies, and pies.

Click here for a list of plants for which we have Culturally Significant Plant Guides.


Mission Statement of the Ethnobotany Office, National Plant Data Team (NPDT)

NPDT ethnoecology and ethnobotany activities are led by M. Kat Anderson, who is cooperatively located with the Department of Plant Sciences, University of California at Davis.

Cattail pollen

Rich in nutrients, cattail pollen (Typha spp.) was used to make cakes and mush by tribes in many parts of the United States.

This office develops, conducts, and coordinates field research and outreach programs that relate to ecological and cultural interactions between indigenous people and land use nationally, with emphasis in California. The findings from this research have relevance to the development of NRCS conservation initiatives, ecosystem-based management, policies, and planning, including those activities relating to the development of sustainable land uses, addressing current cultural needs of tribes, and restoration of biodiversity in natural ecosystems. Research results are disseminated through published reports, professional journals, and NRCS activities, such as plant guides and training.

Activities of the NPDT Ethnobotany Office

Ethnographic Studies

This work is based upon contacts with indigenous peoples and involves documenting different indigenous harvesting and horticultural practices and their potential effects on the maintenance of biological diversity and other indicators of ecosystem health and productivity. Tasks include interviews with Native Americans, archival research in libraries, cultural museum artifact studies, and field visits to traditional gathering sites.

Ecological Assessments

This involves assessment of the inter-relations and impacts of indigenous cultural practices on plant populations, communities, and ecosystem characteristics and dynamics. Two levels of study are employed:

Observational Studies - Design and implement observational studies of the environmental and ecological background of anthropogenic plant populations and plant communities, and of the complex of processes involved in the maintenance of long-term productivity of traditional gathering sites. This approach focuses on spatial and temporal relationships and on processes as well as potential effects on different levels of biological organization.

Ecological Field Experiments - Document the effectiveness of horticultural techniques in conserving biodiversity and/or sustaining the productivity of vegetation types by conducting of field experiments to measure the effects of simulated indigenous horticultural practices on specified features or characteristics of individual plants, populations, or plant communities.

Scirpus spp.

Baskets, such as winnowers and wokas scoops, are made with the stems of tules or bulrushes (Scirpus spp.) by tribes in California, Oregon, and the Great Basin.


What is Ethnobotany?

Ethnobotany is the study of how different cultures (usually indigenous groups) use, manage, and generally interact with plants. Major topics include ways that different cultures perceive, classify, and evaluate plant species and ways that cultures enhance native plant populations for their own needs using such techniques as pruning, burning, sowing, weeding, and coppicing. Comparative research on how plant resources are used, maintained, and changed by different societies is useful for developing general theories and methods for using, managing, and conserving these resources.

Native American Cultures and Useful Native Plants

Of the 18,000 vascular plant species in the United States, each Native American tribe traditionally used hundreds to thousands. Some of these plants are still gathered today: Sioux women still dig edible prairie turnips (Psoralea esculenta) in the wind-riffled Midwestern prairies; Western Mono women still pluck long golden flower stalks from deergrass (Muhlenbergia rigens) tufts for baskets along sandy California riverbanks; the Lac du Flambeau still harvest wild rice (Zizania spp.) and tap maple sugar from sugar maple trees (Acer saccharum).

Hidden within the simple act of gathering frequently lie complex rules that safeguard the plant stock from being over-harvested. For example, Klikitat basket makers of southern Washington dig the roots of western red cedar (Thuja plicata) every three years, giving the trees time to re-grow and replenish the supply. For many curative plants, Navajo medicine men still refrain from harvesting from the same stand two years running, granting periods of rest and re-growth between those of tillage and extraction. Other resource management techniques are practiced to augment wild plant populations in special places. The Timbisha Shoshone prune honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa), a very important food resource, keeping areas around the trees clear of undergrowth, and also of dead limbs and lower branches. The Dena'ina of south-central Alaska still dig the edible tubers of Alaska carrots (Hedysarum alpinum) with a moose leg bone or horn, cut off the thick end of the tuber, and then bury it to insure that more potatoes will grow. Salvia columbariae

Chia (Salvia columbariae) is a major edible seed still gathered by tribal families in the Great Basin, Southwest, and California. The parched seeds are ground into a meal from which cakes or mush can be made.

Traditionally, native plants were integrated into every facet of daily living among indigenous people: used for adornments, basketry, building materials, ceremonial events, clothing, cordage, cosmetics, dyes, foods, games, household utensils, medicines, musical instruments, poisons, tools, toys, transportation, and weapons. Plants were gathered from below sea level to above timberline and all vascular life forms were used, from herbs, to grasses, sedges, shrubs, trees, and vines. The vegetation was the grocery store, the pharmacy, and the hardware shop, tailored by each cultural group into its own unique ethnobotany.

Quercus kelloggii

Acorns from the California black oak (Quercus kelloggii) are harvested in the fall by many Native American families and made into a mush, soup, or paddies and eaten with beef or venison.

This collective wisdom about how to tend, judiciously harvest, and use native plants has evolved over thousands of years and gives us models of human intervention in nature that demonstrate a common ground between the conservation and utilization of plants. Some of these plants may have importance to modern society in the form of new food crops or medicines.

As populations of useful native plant species continue to dwindle on tribal and public lands, there is increasing need expressed by Native Americans to the NRCS Plant Material Centers (PMC) and field Offices to assist them in the re-establishment of culturally significant plants in various landscapes. Ethnobotanical projects involve increasing partnerships between NRCS offices, Native American tribes, public land agencies, and private landowners. NRCS Plant Material Specialists in different parts of the country have begun using their skills to assist tribes in propagating, out-planting, and managing populations of culturally significant plant species in reservation and rancheria settings. Some of the plants that the PMC's are working with are featured in PLANTS--native plants that are still vitally important to Native Americans to continue their traditions of basketry, ceremonies, preparing traditional foods, and other customs.


What is Ethnoecology?

Ethnobiology is the umbrella term for the study of human cultures and their interactions with other organisms. It includes ethnomycology (uses of mushrooms); ethnozoology (uses of wildlife); ethnoentomology (uses of insects) and ethnobotany (uses of plants), and ethnoecology.

Ethnoecology explores how human groups see nature through a screen of beliefs, knowledge and purposes. It also investigates how humans use, manage and appropriate both biotic and non-biotic natural resources. Systems of production for food, basketry, cordage, medicines, etc. are studied directly in the field. Ethnoecologists record detailed information about the human behavior in these systems, such as their actual horticultural practices and harvesting strategies, and the traditional ecological knowledge upon which these systems are based. The ethnoecologist, in addition to relying on ecological methods and concepts, draws upon linguistic, cognitive, and evolutionary theory and methods.

Salix spp.

Long straight shrub shoots of sumac (Rhus spp.), willow (Salix spp.), deer brush (Ceanothus integerrimus), and redbud (Cercis occidentalis) are harvested by weavers in the West for prized basketry material, one or two years after pruning back the old growth.