Lost Plant Medicines, part 2

Last week we started a conversation about herbal plant species that are going extinct and how important many of them are. This week I wanted to continue that and tell you a bit more about some of my favorite, endangered, and lesser known medicinal plant species.

Butterfly Weed

‘It is supposed to act specifically on the lungs.. It often acts as a mild cathartic, suitable for children… It restores the tone of the stomach and digestive powers. It  has been given in rheumatism, asthma, syphilis, and even worms…The Southern Indians employ it in dysentery, dropsy, and asthma, also as an emetic in large doses.’ (Rafinesque 76) If you are not familiar with the term emetic it refers to a substance that promotes vomiting so take care in higher doses with this herb. It is helpful for lung conditions that need something to dull the pain as well as taking care of the inflammatory aspect of asthma and other joint conditions. It can also be useful for parasitic infections.


This plant gets it’s name from its roots which appear to look like golden threads slightly under the surface of the ground. The roots when chewed are helpful for cores in the mouth and are astringent. It is commonly used in gargles. It is great as a dye, an orange color. It is a good bitter tonic to support enhanced digestion. It also helps restore ‘weakness of the system’ from fevers. Boiled root was helpful for colds and other respiratory conditions. More obscure sources  recommend it for heart disease and diabetes as well.


‘The fruit of this plant…is acidic, good to eat, but feverish. The root is a very effective poison which the Savages us when they cannot bear their troubles.’ (Sarrazin-Vaillant 1978 translation) The Cherokee use it against worms, which are expelled by its drastic effects…The leaves are said to be narcotic.’ The fruit is a ‘mild and not unpleasant purgative’(Rafinesque 60). ‘The root is used as a purgative, cathartic, cholagogue.’ (Mockle Quebec 1955 translation). With all of these harsh poisonous talks it should not surprise you to hear that another common name for this plant is Mandrake. It is best not to use the root without good supervision because it is a deadly poision that is best removed from the body through vomiting. The fruit however is also commonly used to make a jam from the wild plants.


Also known as bitter wintergreen and closely related to the spotted wintergreen, these plants are also known as rheumatism weed, giving you an idea of the uses of this herb. ‘Chimaphila is a most singular wound hearbe, either given inwardly, or applied outwardly: the laves whereof stamped and strained, and the juice made into an unguent, or healing salve, with waxe, oile, and turpentine, doth cure wounds, ulcers, and fistulas, that are mundified from the callous & tough matter, which keepeth the same from healing. The decoction hereof made with wine, is commended to close up and heale wounds of the entrails, and inward parts: it is also good for ulcers of the kidnies, especially made with water and the roots of comfrey added thereto.’ (Gerarde-Johnson 409) It is also thought to be useful for female troubles, stomach troules, colds and other chest troubles, as a ‘tonic and diuretic in scrofula and dropsy’ (Christison 761).

All of these quotes and information on many more of these plants can be found in Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants: A Historical Survey with Special Reference to the Eastern Indian Tribes by Charlotte Erichsen-Brown. This is an excellent reference which looks at the uses of medicinal plants as well as looking at how the uses have changed over time.

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