The study of direct interrelationships between humans and plants is called ethnobotany. In Canada systematic ethnobotanical studies have been few, but with contributions from researchers in various disciplines, much has been learned. The roles of plants in traditional cultures are summarized below.
Cultivation of food crops was practised by the Native peoples of Canada before the arrival of Europeans only in southern Ontario and the St Lawrence lowland. Crops included the "three sisters" - corn, beans and squash - as well as sunflowers, tobacco and, possibly, Jerusalem artichoke. Over 500 species of wild plants provided foods for native peoples in Canada. Some of these foods are similar to those eaten today: root and green vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and MUSHROOMS. Others, eg, some types of LICHENS, marine algae and inner bark tissues of some trees, are not normally part of the modern diet. Plants were also used as sweeteners, flavourings and beverages. Many wild plants provided more than one type of food. Today, maple syrup, wild rice and many wild fruits are enjoyed by native and non-native Canadians.
Plants were, and still are, an important component of aboriginal medicine. Curing of disease and maintenance of health were usually carried out by herbal specialists. Although administering herbal medicines was sometimes associated with ritual and "magic," and in many cultures herbal curing and magical curing were virtually inseparable, the specialists were not necessarily SHAMANS who invoked supernatural powers in healing. Sometimes, special curative and spiritual organizations existed, eg, the Ojibwa MIDEWIWIN (grand medicine society) in which initiates passed through stages, eventually learning the ritual and herbalism for curing disease.
More than 500 plants were used in aboriginal medicine. These were administered as herbal teas, preparations to be chewed and swallowed, poultices, or inhaled vapours, although a variety of more exotic modes of application (eg, pouring a concoction in the patient's ear) were also used. Any part of a plant, alone or in combination with other HERBS, could be prescribed.
Although aboriginal herbal cures have been alternately rejected as superstition or embraced as cure-alls, an objective assessment by medical authorities indicates that treatments of certain ailments (eg, wounds, skin sores, gastrointestinal disorders, coughs, colds, fevers and rheumatism) were rational and effective. In many cases, pharmacological constituents of plants can be correlated with the aboriginal application. A famous example is the curing of CARTIER'S men of SCURVY (winter 1535-36). They were treated by the Iroquoians of STADACONA with a conifer tea of high vitamin C content (probably eastern white cedar).
For other plants, the "ritual" or "magical" element may be more important, an example being the use of spiny or thorny plants as protective agents to ward off "spirits" associated with illness and death. This approach was probably effective for psychosomatic ailments, and it may have improved the outlook of patients with organic complaints as well. Aboriginal practitioners were skilled in selection, preparation and dosage of herbal medicines. The reader is cautioned that many plant species used as medicines are highly poisonous and should not be used except under qualified supervision.
Various plant materials from several hundred different species were used by Canadian native peoples. Woods were of prime importance as fuels, and as major components of utilitarian items: buildings, DUGOUT CANOES, boxes, TOTEM POLES and implements (eg, paddles, digging sticks, spear shafts, bows, arrows, snowshoe frames, etc). Sheets of bark, especially birch, were made into containers and canoes. Bark was also used to cover roofs and line storage pits.
Fibrous tissues from stems, roots, bark and leaves served for twine, rope and weaving materials for baskets, mats and clothing. Tree resin was used as glue and waterproofing. Plants provided dyes and pigments, scents, absorbent materials, abrasives, linings and wrappings, insect repellents, toys and recreational items, and personal adornment.
Plants have provided varied and abundant resources for native peoples for thousands of years. A vast traditional knowledge of plant foods, medicines and materials has enabled Native and Inuit peoples to thrive in Canada's diverse environments. Many plants they depended on have been adopted into our modern lifestyle. Others have potential as nutritional supplements, future food resources, and sources of new pharmaceuticals and other useful compounds.
Author NANCY J. TURNER, J.T. ARNASON, R.J. HEBDA AND T. JOHNS
Links to Other Sites
Traditional Plant Use in the Hazeltons
About the plant life of the Hazelton region of NW BC and the variety of uses the plants have been put to. From Library and Archives Canada.
The website for "Davidsonia," a journal that provides original, review, discussion or summary work that is of interest to the botanical and botanical garden communities at large. Offers full text articles online. From the University of British Columbia.
The Plant List
Search this online database for information about one million plant species from around the world. Also, click on "major plant groups" at the bottom of the page to browse descriptions of species of interest. Fungi and algae are excluded. From the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in the UK and the Missouri Botanical Garden in the US.
Native Technology in the Fur Trade
This teacher's guide highlights innovative native technology. From the York Region District School Board.
Four Directions Teachings
Elders and traditional teachers representing the Blackfoot, Cree, Ojibwe, Mohawk, and Mi’kmaq share teachings about their history and culture. Animated graphics visualize each of the oral teachings. This website also provides biographies of participants, transcripts, and an extensive array of learning resources for students and their teachers. In English with French subtitles.
Healing Power of Plants
Learn about some of the plant-based tonics, traditional remedies, and patent medicines popular with Canadians in years past. See "Canadian Case Studies" in the "Past Remedies" section for related information about famous Canadian historical figures. From the Virtual Museum of Canada.
Scurvy and Canadian Exploration
An article about various historical remedies for the prevention and treatment of scurvy and the impact of scurvy on various exploratory expeditions in North America. From the Canadian Bulletin of Medical History (Wilfrid Laurier University Press).
Flora of North America
The FNA website features information on the names, taxonomic relationships, continent-wide distributions, and morphological characteristics of all plants native and naturalized found in North America north of Mexico.
A brief profile of Carl Linnaeus and the binomial naming system he devised for living organisms. From the website for the Linnean Society of London in the UK.
The Healing Power of Plants
Find out what plants are hiding in your medicine cabinet, how new medicines are discovered in plants, and more! From the Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives.
Aurora Research Institute
Check the website for the Aurora Research Institute for news about their latest research projects.
Tree of Life
Explore the diversity of Earth's life forms at the Tree of Life website. Also includes beautiful photographs, an extensive glossary of biological terms, and "Treehouses" for younger readers.