Carter County Native American Research Material

Contributed by Matthew Maley


Information provided for both Native American and some pioneer use of some plants. Note: many plants may have
toxic or poisonous elements and should NOT be used as Native Americans or “folk remedies” suggest

Begin review of identified plants at the junction of the A and B trails – just south of the parking area

Acer negundo
This tree is a “riparian buffer” (grows well along river banks).  It grows very fast, seeds early, and tolerates seasonal flooding of its roots.
UTILITY-- fire wood possibly some structural elements
FOOD—sap:  collected in spring as a source of sugar, sweet drink 
            [called mountain molasses by pioneers/settlers]
MEDICINAL—inner bark: as an emetic
CERIMONIAL: Charcoal for ritual paint.  Wood burned during some ceremonies.
[This tree grows rapidly but does not live as long as other trees, it produces large amounts of seeds that may 
result in it quickly overtaking vacant open areas.  It is planted in “riverside” environments as erosion control]
NOTE: Young growth/seedlings may be confused with poison ivy due to three leaves and red stem

[A] SILVER MAPLE (Water Maple)
Acer saccharinum
Like the Box-Elder this tree serves as a “riparian buffer”.    Studies have suggested that this tree may serve as a “bio-fuel” due to its rapid growth and soft wood.
Seeds appear early and are very large (called samara).  The spring dispersal of the seeds provides this tree the opportunity to begin new growth before other forest trees.
UTILITY--  Fire wood, wood brittle/soft, black dye from bark/twigs growth (with iron containing clay) for    hides, 
FOOD—sap: collected in spring for sugar, fermented as a drink
MEDICINAL—bark: cramps, dysentery, and as an eye wash

Celtis occidentalis
UTILITY-- bark strips from young branches for cord, bindings
FOOD--ripe berries: (dark red) eaten raw (sweet), dried and pounded to 
             season or flavor meat, pounded and molded with into “sticks” and
             baked as winter food or food for travel
MEDICINAL-- bark (inner) for sore throat
[Historically the wood was commonly used for tobacco stakes]

Prunus serotina
UTILITY-- ripe fruit: as a dye  
             -- sap used as a weak glue/adhesive
             -- wood; furniture, musical instruments, precision instruments
FOOD—berry: raw or cooked.  Sap reported to have been chewed like gum
MEDICINAL--* Inner bark: (aromatic) as a tea or syrup for cough, cold, fever,
                sore throat, diarrhea, and bronchitis
[*Caution: Bark, leaves, and seeds contain cyanide-like glycoside (prunasin) which converts to highly toxic      
   hydrocyanic acid if ingested.  Most abundant in bark in  the fall.  It is indicated that heating/boiling destroys the toxin ]
[ There may be a risk if livestock eat the leaves – removing lower limbs in a pasture reduces the risk.  Also, the leaves are a favorite of the spring “tent caterpillar.] 

Juniperus virginiana
UTILITY—Wood: for structural elements, limbs for covering, sweat lodge, posts
FOOD-- Reported that cone/”fruit” used for flavoring*
MEDICINAL-- Cone/”fruit” tea for colds, worms, rheumatism, coughs and
             to induce sweating.  Chewed or steamed for bronchitis, colds, rheumatism (poultice),
             and purification ritual.  Used like incense.
[This tree is “sacred” to some tribes and is used in ceremonial activities.  Some refer to it as the “tree of life”.  This association may be why many people in the past planted this tree on graves or in grave yards.]
(Historically used for wood in closets, chests (moth control), pencils, and fence posts) 
 This tree is indicative of calcareous (limestone) soils.  The cone seeds are relished by birds)
* Caution:  All parts are considered potentially toxic 

Juglans nigra.  [J.cinerea  Butternut Walnut – rare]
UTILITY--  Wood:  for fuel, tools, other.  Bark, roots, and nut husk 
             for brown or black dye. Male flowers produce brown dye.
FOOD—Nut: provides very good source of food and can be stored 
             for long periods. Ground as flour, pressed for oil
MEDICINAL-- Contains “Juglone”: Husk juice topically for fungal 
             infection (ringworm), poultice for inflammations.  Inner 

Robinia pseudo-acacia
UTILITY --  Wood for posts, rail ties, mine supports – very strong, hard & durable
MEDICINAL – root: to induce emesis (vomiting)
                     -- bark: held in mouth for toothache
                     -- “folk use”” purgative, emetic, rheumatism
                     -- flowers contain glycoside “robinin” – studies suggest use as diuretic
[Note: All parts of plant are considered toxic]

Ulmus thomasi
(See [R] for possible uses) This tree is not common in our area

Cornus florida
UTILITY—wood:  loom shuttles, handles, & golf club heads.  Very hard wood
              -- twig:  used at tooth brush (end pounded to make a “brush”)
MEDICINAL -- bark: tea for backache, chewed for toothache
                      -- root bark: poultice, tonic, stimulant, antiseptic, astringent

Fraxinus americana
UTILITY – wood: tool handles, snow shoes, structural elements, “splits” braided into baskets,
                  pipe stems, bows, arrows (saplings) 
              -- currently used for baseball bats, furniture, doors, veneer, paddles 
BARK -- strips & sheets made into vessels.
MEDICINAL -- leaves, buds, & seeds for teas: laxative, tonic, diuretic, styptic, fevers
                     --inner bark: itching scalp, lice, snake bite, sores,  chewed to make poultice for sores &              
                        treating hemorrhoids.
[Considered to have “mystical powers”—connected with beneficent natural powers and used in ceremonies.  
Some of European descent attempted to use these “mystical powers” when they produced a “glider/flyer”
 and attempted to fly by using ash struts covered with canvas – didn’t work]
[Emerald ash bore is attacking the White Ash causing many trees to weaken and die]

Liriodendron tulipifera
UTILITY – wood: light, soft & easily worked and used in furniture, structure elements & wood pulp
              -- tree trunk: dugout canoes
              -- bark: fiber used to make rope, cord and binding material
MEDICINAL—root bark: tea for fever; pounded for poultice
                     -- bark: dysentery, rheumatism, cough
[Tallest hardwood (deciduous) tree in the US]

[J]  PERSIMMON  [opposite side of trail]
Diospyrus virginiana
UTILITY—wood for handles, loom shuttles, center of old trees is black & was used for piano keys
FOOD --ripe fruit 
MEDICINAL—inner bark: tea for dysentery, gargle for sore throat & mouth sores
                     -- unripe fruit: very astringent – boil & use liquid for sore throat, diarrhea 
                     -- seed: ground and used for kidney stones
                     -- root: boiled and used for dysentery
[Member of Ebony family- very old trees develop a black center]

Ilex opaca
UTILITY—wood: canes, scroll work, furniture, stained and used as Ebony inlay substitute, hedges
MEDICINAL – *berry: chewed for colic, indigestion, emetic
                     -- leaf: boiled/tea for measles, colds, flu, pneumonia – external for sores and itching
[Holly trees are “dioecious” meaning that male and female flowers are on different trees – only trees with the female flowers will have the red berries]
[*Note: Berries considered poisonous]

[L] WILD GRAPE   [both sides of trail]
Vitis species
UTILITY—Vine: for binding, structural elements
FOOD—Fruit:  (tart) when fresh but sweet when dry.
             Leaf: as cooked green, wrap to bake meat
             Vine: as source of clean/pure/sweet water in spring
MEDICINAL-- Leaf : tea for diarrhea, stomachache, fevers, analgesic, headache, other
             Poultice (wilted leaves) for rheumatism, headache, fever
             Seeds – Oligomeric procyanidins: microcirculatory disorders (seeds triangular shaped)

[Historically for making jelly, cold drink, wine, cooked green]
 [caution:  a poisonous plant (vine) called “moonseed” looks like wild grape, however, the seed looks like a half moon- the fruit forms in clusters]


Arundinaria gigantea
FOOD-- Spring shoots: vegetable
             Seeds: as a cereal or flour*
UTILITY-- Cane for making tools, weapons, baskets, mats, fish traps, whistles/flutes, 
             pins, needles, punch, structural elements, for torches  (1,000 yr. old torches found in 
                 Mammoth and Salts Caves in KY.)
*[Caution:  a pink or purplish fungus (ergot) may be present on seeds – avoid – very dangerous
Two species of fern: Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) and Spleenwort (Asplenium resiliens)

The orange sandy soil with some pebbles is a remnant of the Pre-Illinoian glacier that covered this area about 1.8 million years ago.  This band of soil covers the central-south western part of the park and continues west across Pontius Road.  Remnants of a sand/gravel pit exists on Pontius Road south of the entrance to Story Woods.  Sand had been mined there and on the bluffs above Sayler Park for many years.

Sambucus canadensis
UTILITY-- Hollow stems used as “blow guns”. Stems, roots, and berries
               used for dye.
FOOD—Flowers: in pancakes and fritters as a “nibble”. Berries cooked.
MEDICINAL*-- Leaves: as a poultice for bruises and to stop bleeding
               Fruit : as a syrup for colds. Inner bark as a tea – diuretic, strong
               laxative, emetic and as poultice for cuts, headache, swelling.
[*Caution: Bark, root, leaves, and unripe fruit considered toxic]

Apocynum cannabium.           
UTILITY-- Fiber used  for cordage, nets, bow strings, bindings, woven items, yarn, and fabric.

Currently native women on the west coast use dogbane fibers for their [Itatamat] “counting the days” which is like a diary.  When a woman is married she begins to record events in her life by placing knots, shells, beads, and other items on a cord of dogbane that is rolled into a ball.  When the ball becomes too large she begins another.
[Plant parts are poisonous so any reported “medicinal use” may be dangerous]
Acer saccharum
UTILITY-- Furniture, tool handles, cutting blocks, bowling pins, gun stocks
FOOD—Sap: for  “maple sugar”, sweetener, drink, vinegar, bark dried pounded to 
            make flour.
MEDICINAL—Sap: as eye wash, inner bark for cough, expectorant
[Trees 30-40 years old bear minimal seeds; those older than 60 yr.= maximum 
seed production.  Some trees live to 500 years.  May have male and female 
flowers on same tree but on different branches.]

Tilia americana
UTILITY—fiber: bark: cord, rope, bags, blankets, mats, fish nets, footwear, snowshoes.
              -- wood: soft, light weight, easily worked – a favorite of wood carvers (jewel wood).                             
FOOD – buds: eaten raw or cooked – dry flowers: mild tea.  Sweet sap next to bark
MEDICINAL -- Native Americans used parts of the tree for medicinal purposes
                         bark: dysentery, poultice, worms
                         leaf: eyewash, poultice
                         “sap”: coughs
                         Roots: worms

[R] ELM, RED ELM, SLIPPERY ELM            
Ulmus rugra & species
UTILITY-- inner bark:  and bark from twigs used for rope, bindings, bags, cord, roof elements, sandals,    
FOOD-- inner bark: tea, dried/ground to flour
MEDICINAL-- mucilaginous inner bark: laxative, skin conditioner, poultice
PLEASE NOTE: The information provided here is associated with reviews related to Native American (Indian) uses of the listed plants.  There may be no data associated with how the plant was prepared, how much of the plant is safe to use, or what side effects may be associated with use of the plant.  Thus, it is NOT recommended that any of these plants be considered as a “folk” medicine.

It is important to know how a plant must be prepared before it is used as a food, thus, some of the Native American “food” uses may be interesting but should not be utilized.


"This photo is one of the displays I use to demonstrate useful plants -- in this case, Cattail."

Matthew Maley

Return to main Carter County page