Notable Native Herbs
The definition of a native herb. for purposes of the Herb Society of America's Native Herb Conservation Committee, follows:
The term ‘native herb' refers to mostly seed-bearing, generally fleshy annuals, biennials, and perennials, aromatic or useful shrubs, vines and trees that grew naturally in this country, without the influence, accidental or intentional, of man, prior to European settlement. The defining characteristic for these plants is their usefulness, past or present, including their value for flavoring, medicine, ornament, economic, industrial, or cosmetic purposes. Spices, traditionally defined as aromatic parts derived from the bark or seeds of a plant, are also included depending upon their history and uses. Excluded from this definition are crop vegetables and hardwood trees used for lumber.
First, a few recommendations for native herbs in gardens...
Bride's feathers or Goats's beard, Aruncus dioicus.
This lovely shrub, growing from 4' to 6' tall in partly shady spots, was used by a number of Native Tribes, including the Cherokee, for medicinal purposes.
In the garden, it is perfect at the back of a bed, serving as a backdrop for a wide variety of plants.
Pink root, or Indian pink, Spigelia marilandica
Bright red and yellow flowers are truly eyecatching. Sun or even a little shade are fine for these perennial show-stoppers that grow to about 20" tall, with multiple blooms on each plant.
This was also used by Cherokee a a general vermifuge, an infusion taken for worms.
Enjoy it for it's unusual flowers and dark green foliage.
Wood lily, Lilium philadelphicum
This perennial grows to about 2' tall in full sun, blooming in from mid-late summer. A gorgeous red that that adds an instant spot of color.
Used by a number of Native Tribes to treat stomach disorders, coughs,for bruises, and for fever. A few boiled the bulbs in soup, but you lose your plants that way! Besides, we do not recommend using this plant for either food or medicine. The historical uses are not confirmed.
And now, on to those native herbs selected as Notable Natives:
Notable Native Herb
Linnaeus named the genus to honor John Clayton (1686-1773), who came to Virginia from England in 1705. The specific epithet recognizes the area, Virginia, from which Clayton collected the specimens which found their way to Linnaeus via his friend, English naturalist Mark Catesby (1863-1749).
The leaves of Claytonia virginica, usually one pair per stem about half-way up the stem are shaped like a blade of grass but with a petiole (leaf stalk), though it is not clearly defined. The leaf veins are difficult to see as well. The flowers have five white petals with pink veining guiding to the center of the flower. The five stamens have white or pink filaments and pink anthers.
Notable Native Tree/Shrub
The genus Hamamelis (from the Greek hama = together and melon= fruit, ie, flowers and fruits at the same time) comprises three North American species (H. virginiana, H. vernalis, H. ovalis) and two Asian species (H. mollis, H. japonica). The genus received its name from Linnaeus who noted its habit of blooming and fruiting at the same time.
Witch hazel is a deciduous shrub or small tree with a short trunk, often multi-stemmed, with numerous spreading, crooked branches. At maturity, it is
15 to 25 feet tall. It has thin bark and shallow roots. The fruit is a woody capsule containing two seeds.
An inflorescence usually consists of 3 spicy sweet flowers, each with 4 slender strap-like yellow petals with 4 short yellow stamens in the center. The petals range from neatly flat to charmingly crumpled.
The flowers of witch hazel open in late Autumn at about the same time the fruits from the prior year ripen. Some Native Americans believed witch hazel was a magical plant because it defied the usual order of nature, blooming just when other plants are preparing for winter.
Equisetum spp., or horsetails, are related to a similar plant growing 350 million years ago, at which time, based on the fossil record, they reached heights of 16 to 60 feet. Today, most US species are in the range of 1 to 4 feet tall.
Rather than producing flowers and seeds, Equisetum spp. reproduce in the sporophyte stage in which a stem with vertical ridges is topped with a cone-like tip that produces spores for the next generation. The dark green stems are whorled at nodes with dark brown scale-like microphylls (single leaf veins) fused at the base and that lack chlorophyll; they bleach out with age.
Photosynthesis takes place in the stems.
Support for the stem is from the epidermal cells or outer layer of cells on the stem. These cells contain silica, from which comes the plants use for “scouring.”
Notable Native 2019
Ceanothus species have foamy, white, greenish or blue sprays of flowers. The shrubs or small trees have simple, usually serrated, alternate or opposite leaves and thorns depending on species. There are 54 species and 10 hybrids in the US. Of those species, 46 appear only in the state of CA.
Ceanothus americanus is native in the eastern half of US and CA. It is an upright, rounding deciduous shrub growing to 3.5’ with gray-green, oblong, serrate, somewhat glossy leaves with puckering along the veins. Tiny white, fragrant flowers open May–July in rounded panicles visited by bees, beetles, hummingbirds and butterflies. It has a sturdy, deep taproot adapted to fire. The dried leaves are used as a caffeine-free tea substitute.
ADDITIONAL NATIVE HERBS
Yellow root, Xanthorhiza simplissima
Grows up to 3' tall in full sun to partial shade. Often found growing on steam banks, it will actually tolerate drought and dry soil too.
Beautiful dark maroon flowers with yellow center. Pale green leaves.
The roots are a deep, bright yellow and very bitter. The root has been used as an astringent and blood tonic. A tea made from the roots is used to treat mouth ulcers, stomach ulcers, colds, jaundice and more. Caution is advised in the use of this plant as large does can be toxic (check to determine what "large doses" means before consuming!). The root contains the alkaloid 'berberine' which is anti-inflammatory, astringent, antispasmodic, immuno-stimulant, uterine tonic and antimicrobial.
The NC Unit of The Herb Society of America, Inc. does not recommend consuming plants from the wild, nor from your garden if you cannot absolutely identify the plant to genus and species. Also, many reported uses are historic and reflect a time when little was known about toxicity.
Photo: c.Katherine Schlosser