By Kate Keith-Simms
Plants provide invaluable insight not only to the spaces they inhabit, but also to those who live upon the land. Since time immemorial, Native American communities have foraged, hunted, and thrived on the resources the land offers. This is a short pick of a few plants of Washington used by specific Native American communities. While this post gives brief descriptions of native plants- some edible- this is not sufficient information to be used as a foraging guide. Foraging is a serious activity that requires extensive plant knowledge, the ability to identify poisonous plants from look-alikes, as well as sustainable foraging practices. If you are interested in learning more about the native plants of the PNW and their uses by Native American tribes, please visit the Native American Ethnobotany Database
Western Red Cedar
A vital plant for many tribes, the Western Red Cedar has numerous recorded uses. This tree has been used historically to build canoes, paddles, and bailers for boats. The wood is also used to build totems, masks, and ceremonial drums. Its strong fibers have been used in weaving baskets, clothing, rugs, and also used for fire tinder. The cambium (growth layer of the tree trunk) has been dried and eaten in the Spring.
Stinging Nettle is a widely diverse plant that has been an integral piece of Native American life for centuries. This plant has edible and medicinal properties, as well as utility in its stem and fibers. The strong fiber has been utilized for weaving baskets, nets, and ropes, the roots made into pulp for medical purposes. Click here to read Muckleshoot tribe member Valerie Seagrest’s article on her first experience with Nettle tea and her connection to PNW native foods.
Whitebark Raspberries have long been a part of Native tribe’s diets. Berries are collected, often dried or stored into the winter season to be consumed while foraging opportunities are scarce. These plants grow prolifically throughout Washington, they make for a sweet trail treat but beware of the thorny stems!
Many Pacific Northwest tribes have used a decoction of bark or inner bark to treat coughs, colds, influenza, tuberculosis, skin bruises, sprains, weight loss, loss of appetite, and as a tonic. The seeds and inner bark have been used as a food source. A poultice of pitch (resin or sap) has been used to treat skin cuts and sores. The cones have a history of being sold as a cash crop. The wood has been used to make furniture and insect-proof storage boxes as well as fuel to make fires.
At the bottom of this blog post, see a Muckleshoot recipe shared with us for Fir Tip Lemonade!
Trailing Black Currant
Black Currant has been used by native communities both as a food source and as a cold remedy. The berries are collected and dried to be eaten during the winter months when foraging becomes scarce. A decoction of the bark has been taken as a cold remedy.
Salmonberry plants have a wide variety of uses from their edible berries and sprouts to their medicinal properties. Tribes have harvested the bark as a poultice for dermatological aid, especially burns. The sprouts are edible but also have a history of being used in courting ceremonies. They closely resemble raspberries but do have a wider range of colors, some orange to a deep purple!
The Red Alder has a long list of medicinal applications from gastrointestinal ailments to dermatological poultices. The bark has been boiled to make a reddish brown dye that is used to color fishnets, baskets, and head rings. The wood has been used to make dishes, spoons, and platters for cooking needs.
Commonly known as Bear Berries, this versatile shrub contains small red berries or pink flowers depending on the season. These berries have been used as an emergency food, often dried or mashed into patties that can be eaten for basic sustenance. The berries are slow to spoil and often last throughout the winter when other berries and foods have wilted for the season. The leaves of the plant have long been smoked in lieu of tobacco, this is often utilized during religious ceremonies. The leaves have also been used medicinally to treat sores.
Fir Tip Lemonade/Fir Tip Infused Water
Fir tip infusions are amazingly beneficial- they have been harvested by Native communities for centuries as a natural electrolyte and high source of Vitamin C. They store well, whether used fresh, dried, or saved for later being frozen. Infusing Fir tip with water or a lemonade mixture brings a unique pine taste- as well as being a beneficial electrolyte recovery tool for outdoor excursions.
Gather 1 cup of Fir tips per gallon of water or lemonade
Place only bright green new growth tips into water or lemonade mixture- allow to infuse overnight (24 hrs)
Strain from liquid- infusion is ready to drink!
Fir tips can be stored frozen to use when out of season, they can also be used fresh or dried.