The Friends of the Wild Flower Garden
by Gary Bebeau
The Native American peoples of Minnesota were very knowledgable about the uses of our native plants. For the preservation of that knowledge we owe a debt to Frances Densmore of Red Wing, Minnesota. When her work was ultimately published in 1927 under the title of Uses of Plants by the Chippewa Indians, it spread over 122 pages of text with 33 plates in Volume 44 of the "Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology” published by the Smithsonian.
Nearly 200 plants are listed in the study with their uses separated into categories of food, medicines, charms, natural dyes and decorative arts. For three decades Frances gathered plant information from both men and women (although women were more inclined to talk to her), at White Earth, Red Lake, Cass Lake, Mille Lacs and a few out-of-state locations.
The general effectiveness of certain plants for medicinal uses in native culture is substantiated by the later inclusion of a number of species in the U. S. Pharmacopoeia and National Formulary, in some instances, up to as late as the 1950s. These species included Black Bugbane, Swamp Milkweed, Prickly Ash, Pasque Flower, Highbush Cranberry and Wild Sarsaparilla.
Some specific examples are: The Chippewa were well aware that Spreading Dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium) could be used for heart palpitations. It was later determined to contain the most powerful cardiac stimulant of any plant in Minnesota, baring only Prairie Dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum).
For stomach cramps and dysentery the inner bark of Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) was cut into small pieces pieces and boiled in water until they produced a strong black solution with an astringent bitter taste which was then consumed a pint at a time. William Clark wrote on June 11, 1805 while in what is now Northern Montana that Meriwether Lewis who was suffering severely, took that treatment and recovered the next morning.
Would you believe that the root of the dainty blue Harebell (Campanula rotundiflora) was used to treat earache by adding one root to a half cup of water, steeping it, straining it and then dropping a little of the lukewarm solution in the ear.
To color yarn, the inner bark of Speckled Alder (Alnus incana) makes a yellow dye and Gold Thread (Coptis trifolia) makes a bright yellow dye. Mahogany is obtained from Red Cedar bark (Juniperus virginiana).
Below: Frances Densmore, ca.1900 at a Chippewa encampment. Photo courtesy MHS
In her lifetime Frances Densmore also recorded the songs and music of a number of native groups, most importantly the Chippewa and the Teton Sioux. She published 14 monographs on those topics alone. Then there were the customs and languages which also reached publication. For 50 years, from 1907 until her death in 1957, she was associated with the Bureau of Ethnology.
Frances was born and died in Red Wing where her family maintained a home. Even today, the house at West 3rd and Fulton is known as the "Densmore House".
Her monograph as originally published by the Smithsonian is available from Dover Books, but with a slightly different title - How the Indians Use Wild Plants for Food, Medicine & Crafts.
Many of her plant notes are used in our plant information sheets on this website.