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THE WORLD OF HERBS
J. E. Kinghorn
American Indian Medicine
The retreat of the Great Ice Age left in its wake a green continent abounding with life, color and full of a vast array of flora. These wild plants, trees and shrubs provided the indigenous people with much more than food. They found in these plants, herbs with mysterious healing properties for just about every physical ailment to which they were vulnerable. Over time this extensive knowledge became the property of the `medicine man' or shaman, who ministered to the physical and spiritual needs of their people. Most Indians, whether a healer or not, knew the healing power of herbs and for simple remedies they would go to the fields and forests, gather the herb and prepare it themselves. The United States Pharmacopoeia, the official source book of medicinal products contained nearly 200 drugs from indigenous plant sources that were used by the American Indians
The Indians found remedies for everything from scarlet fever to colds and they had fewer physical problems to worry about. They were in good general health and physically active, therefore, neurologic, psychic problems, heart disease, and cancer were rare. The most common maladies were arthritis, rheumatism dysentery, various digestive disorders, fevers, mastoids, infections and respiratory ailments.
The practice of Indian medicine encompassed the notion that many illnesses had supernatural causes, therefore, when the Europeans arrived they were skeptical of the healing powers but this did not discourage the `newcomers' from using the herbs to gain relief.
Rheumatism and arthritis, which plagued many tribes, exposed to inclement weather, steam bathing; warm teas and sweating were used to gain relief. The most valuable treatment came from the aromatic oil of wintergreen leaves, a small tiny green perennial, which contains methyl salicylate, and integral part of aspirin.
The oil was used externally by rubbing a small amount of the affected area. This remedy was adopted by the Europeans and is still in use today. Another common remedy borrowed by the settlers was witch hazel, a large shrub. When inflammation and swelling occurred, the boiled leaves were applied using a poultice method. The leaves were boiled into a soft mass, spread on a cloth and laid over the infected area to supply warmth, relieve pain and reduce swelling. In 1850, witch hazel was given credit by the American Medical Association, for the treatment of piles, internal hemorrhages and eye inflammations.
The Indians often went through long winters without fresh vegetable or fruits. They did not recognize scurvy for what it was but did know what their bodies needed for good health. They made a tea from the leaves of a common conifer, black spruce and bulbs of wild garlic. Garlic and onion was used extensively by the Indians for the powerful antibacterial agents they possess. Used for colds, bronchitis and headache. The Seminole Indians used sassafras for coughs, gallstones and pain in the bladder. Sassafras is a native North American tree. The roots were infused in a tea. The Prickly Ash tree roots and bark were pulverized and chewed to relieve the pain from a toothache. Its berries were boiled and made into a medicine for bronchial disease.
The list of herbal remedies goes on and on and many form the basis for modern medicines. While modern Americans have exchanged natural remedies for synthetic, we must thank the American Indian for discovering beneficial plant drugs without the facilities of a modern pharmaceutical laboratory.