skip to Main Content

Photo credit: Missouri Botanical Garden

Imagine living in the woods and having to rely on what you can forage for survival. Today it would be impossible for most people because we are so removed from nature and the knowledge of how to interact with it. Four hundred years ago early explorers were in the same “boat”, sailing to this continent from Europe with no understanding of the ecosystems they were about to embark upon. Envisioning how this scenario played out for the early explorers isn’t difficult; many of them starved and suffered from diseases, a similar fate today for anyone attempting to live off the land without understanding it. (Christopher McCandless, the subject of the book Into the Wild comes to mind.)

University of Vermont ethnobotanist and cultural geographer Dr. Kit Anderson discussed the importance of people-plant relationships in order to survive and thrive 400 years ago in a lecture entitled “Early People and Plants”, on April 21 at the ECHO Aquarium and Science Center. This presentation was part of the ECHO “Indigenous Expressions” lecture series, leading up to the Quadricentennial celebration (400th anniversary) of the arrival of Samuel de Champlain to the lake that now bears his name.

Ethnobotany is the study of relationships between people, plants and environments. In most places in the world 60 to 100 percent of plant species are useful to people as food, medicines, construction materials, fibers, dyes, resins, latex, and so forth. Eighty percent of the world’s population depends on traditional medicine.1

Dr. Anderson began her discussion by posing several questions relating to human survival on the land so many years ago: What can plants tell us about the earliest people? How were people’s diets changed by the weather? What plants were used as exports or adopted by First Nations people? To answer these questions, Kit relied on historic accounts, archaeological finds, oral histories and the plants themselves to tell the story. She told the story of the French explorers Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain, both of whom suffered, along with their crews, the disease of scurvy after arriving on the Canadian Atlantic coast during the 1500’s and 1600’s. For Cartier, luckily a native of the Mi’kmaq tribe gave them a tea of arborvitae leaves—which is high in vitamin C—that cured their scurvy. For Champlain, his island settlement of St. Croix was not a favorable location to wait out a harsh winter. The island soils were very sandy so their gardens planted with rye, barley, cabbage and peas dried out, leaving them with little food to make it through the winter. The people in this settlement developed scurvy during the harsh winter and many died. Champlain’s journal does describe a well-adapted group of native people who wore furs for warmth, walked on top of the snow with their wide snowshoes, and hunted for game and ate shellfish. The native people understood their environment and survived because they knew the land and the seasons intimately.

Archaeological digs have discovered ground pits dug by native people to preserve foraged food and game over the winter. The pits were dug and organized precisely, with birch bark as an outer lining (birch bark has astringent properties that may have delayed microbial growth on the stored food). Layered in the pit were corn cobs, loose corn, dried fruits, vegetables and meat, then covered with leather. The empty storage pits were used to discard animal bones and other food waste.

The native people adapted to their environment by developing migratory patterns that followed the seasons. They moved from the inner forest in winter to ocean, lake and river shores during warmer seasons to forage. In spring, maple sap, arrowhead tubers and wintergreen were gathered: in summer it was berries and roots, artichokes and sunflowers, along with cultivated beans, squash and corn (seeds of which may have traveled with natives from Mexico hundreds of years before the French explorers arrived). Fall meant the gathering of roots, fruits, grains and nuts for winter storage. Although foraging and minimal cultivation were important food sources, hunting and fishing were the staples for their survival, so they hunted during all seasons.

As the French and other European explorers arrived, they brought with them the plants and seeds they grew in Europe such as wheat, peas and cabbage. These plants eventually became established, hence the introduction of non-native species to this continent. Native people began to adopt the cultivation of these introduced species, which eventually changed their cultural habits forever. European botanists took many plants back to Europe that they learned about from the native people such as wild rice, groundnut and sugar maple. A Jesuit priest who traveled to China and learned about the uses for ginseng there, found that this plant also grew in the newly discovered regions of North America and began exporting it to China. (The exportation of ginseng is purported to have given the economic jump start to this country because it was such a valuable commodity).

And so the story unfolds as European settlers arrived and cultivated the land to grow corn and other grains, and the knowledge about foraging and use of native plants declined with the destruction of native cultures. There has been a resurgence of this native knowledge as more plants are discovered to have properties that can manage and cure diseases or provide resistance to pests, among other uses. This is especially true in tropical regions where many species have yet to be discovered, but the native people and their knowledge of these plants is declining. However, another philosophy is becoming prevalent because this knowledge is considered important for reasons beyond economic, as a way to reconnect with nature and preserve it, and to rekindle a way of life that is almost forgotten.

Two sources of information on ethnobotany and plant properties:

1. Native American Ethnobotany database from the University of Michigan-Dearborn: A Database of Foods, Drugs, Dyes and Fibers of Native American Peoples, Derived from Plants:

2. An Introduction to Ethnobotany from the Access Excellence Resource Center at the National Health Museum:

A book recommended for additional reading by Dr. Anderson:

  • Penobscot Man, by Frank G. Speck – This book is ethnographic classic, written by an anthropologist trained to reconstruct traditional native american lifeways. The author attempts to reconstruct the lifestyles, or cultures, of the native american before the arrival of Europeans upon the continent.


1. Missouri Botanical Garden,

This Post Has One Comment
  1. An interesting article. Perhaps the time will come, and not very far away either, when we will need this knowledge, not just as an intellectual exercise, but as a survival strategy.

Comments are closed.

Back To Top