Cattail Moonshine & Milkweed Medicine: The Curious Stories of 43 Amazing North American Native Plants

Cattail Moonshine & Milkweed Medicine: The Curious Stories of 43 Amazing North American Native Plants


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International Herb Association's  2017 Thomas DeBaggio Book Award Winner
2016 Silver Nautilus Book Award Winner

History, literature, and botany meet in this charming tour of how humans have relied on plants to nourish, shelter, heal, clothe, and even entertain us. Did you know that during World War II, the US Navy paid kids to collect milkweed’s fluffy white floss, which was then used as filling for life preservers? And Native Americans in the deserts of the Southwest traditionally crafted tattoo needles from prickly pear cactus spines. These are just two of the dozens of tidbits that Tammi Hartung highlights in the tales of 43 native North American flowers, herbs, and trees that have rescued and delighted us for centuries.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781612126609
Publisher: Storey Books
Publication date: 09/20/2016
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 617,878
Product dimensions: 7.10(w) x 7.60(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Tammi Hartung is the author of Cattail Moonshine & Milkweed Medicine, Homegrown Herbs, and The Wildlife-Friendly Vegetable Gardener. She has been growing and working with herbs for more than 30 years and is a frequent teacher and lecturer. She and her husband cultivate more than 500 varieties of herbs, heirloom food plants, and perennial seed crops on their organic farm in Colorado.

Panayoti Kelaidis represents Denver Botanic Gardens in educational, professional, and promotional endeavors as an expert in horticulture, science, and art. He has traveled to South Africa on seven occasions over the last twenty years. He is the recipient of the American Horticultural Society’s 2009 Liberty Hyde Bailey Medal and the 2000 Arthur Hoyt Scott Medal from Swarthmore College.

Read an Excerpt


The Wonder of Plants

"And Botany I rank with the most valuable sciences, whether we consider its subjects furnishing the principle subsistence of life to man and beast, delicious varieties for tables, refreshments from our orchards, the adornments of our flower borders, shade and perfume of our groves, materials for our buildings, or medicaments for our bodies."

— Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper. October 7, 1814

Plants play a bigger role in our lives than we might realize. They're not just the vegetables we grow or the ornamental shrubs in our landscapes. We build things from plants. We use them as medicines when we are ill. We weave them into clothing and rugs and blankets to keep warm. They become instruments for us to play music on or sporting equipment for us to play games with. We have countless uses for plants, but unfortunately, the ways in which they enrich our lives sometimes go uncelebrated.

Plants with a Past

Our North American predecessors had good reason to celebrate the plants in their lives. Since ancient times people have needed plants not only for their very survival but also to enrich their lives and make the act of living a bit more comfortable. Early hunter-gatherers collected plants as they moved from place to place. Indeed, often the route of their travels was determined by which plants grew in a certain location or when the appropriate harvesting time was near. For example, in the fall they harvested acorns to grind into flour and cook into little cakes; they also used the bark of the oak tree as medicine. They used grasses, like panic grass, and tree needles such as pine needles to weave into containers for carrying and storing things. Their lives were rich in sacred ceremonies, and they handcrafted ceremonial staffs, rattles, and drums from plants and animal bones and hides. They simply couldn't have survived without using the plants that were growing around them.

Over time indigenous people became less nomadic and began to spend longer portions of each year in one place. This allowed them to experiment with growing seasonal crops. Eventually many of them established permanent homes in one location, and they began to lead more agrarian lifestyles. This made it possible to cultivate plants for food and to raise crops that were needed to care for their livestock. They grew crops like flax for fiber, which would be woven into linen cloth for clothing. Plants such as agave were cultivated to be brewed into beverages like tequila. They still relied heavily on wild-harvested plants such as currants and blueberries, as they couldn't grow everything they needed to meet all of their necessities and wants.

Enter the Europeans

As more time passed, nonnative people began to arrive in North America. Spanish explorers, pilgrims, and colonists landed on the eastern and southern shores. These folks came with only the belongings and few supplies that could be carried on board sailing ships. They brought a few seeds, but they would need to rely mainly on native plants already growing in North America to meet most of their initial needs for food and other living requirements. Many of the Native people were generous in helping them learn about the plants growing on this continent — which plants could be used for food and healing, and where to find them.

As early colonists and explorers began to build their homes and make wagons or carts to transport goods, they came to know which trees would work well for these purposes. They realized that some plants had waxy coatings or resins, which could be made into candles or used as pitch to waterproof their boats and the roofs of their homes. The Native people introduced them to important food crops like sunflowers and persimmons. They taught the newcomers how to make syrup from maple tree sap. As these folks established themselves in their new country, they came to rely on these native plants.

Lewis and Clark

On their exploratory trip west from 1804 to 1806, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark documented a number of useful native plants and how the tribes they encountered utilized them as a resource. Captain Lewis sent the seeds of Echinacea angustifolia to President Jefferson, stating in the correspondence that the Great Plains tribes employed the root of this native plant, mashed and prepared as a tea, as a cure for poisonous snakebites.

On May 8, 1805, Captain Clark wrote in his journal, "In walking on Shore with the Interpreter and his wife, Geathered on the Sides of the Hills wild Lickerish and the white apple ..." The Walla Walla Indians and other tribes living along the Missouri and Columbia Rivers used wild licorice (Glycyrrhiza lepidota) both as a medicine and a food plant. Because the root is 50 times sweeter than sugar, it must have appealed to Lewis and Clark; they purchased large quantities of it from Native Americans along their expedition route.

Westward Expansion

Eventually the people living in the southern and eastern colonies and surrounding countryside began to move westward. As they traveled across the country, they found they needed to learn about new plants and their uses. Getting regular supplies of food, medicines, and comfort items like cloth, even household items like cooking spoons or toys for their children, was difficult. Often access to these goods wasn't possible, or it happened only once or twice a year.

As a result, settlers traveling west learned how to use the native plants they found growing around them. In one example, Ester Hanna, an 18-year-old woman traveling by wagon train through New Mexico, described in her journal how to boil prickly pear cactus pads and the red cactus fruits to remove the spine and skins. The women in the wagon train then fried the pads and ate them, describing the flavor as that of green beans, whereas the fruits tasted more like a mix of cucumbers and watermelons.

Once they arrived at their final destination, the settlers had to learn how to farm in the West, which was much hotter and more arid than the eastern and southern climates they had come from. The Pima tribe of the Southwest had complex and successful irrigation systems, and the settlers were able to learn from them how to irrigate their crops. The Algonquin people of Michigan and the Woodland Indians of the Great Lakes region were growing many types of native vegetables, including beans like yellow eye beans and pinto beans, along with squash and corn. The Algonquins stored their corn in winter cribs (a structure built on stilts from wood that had gaps between the timbers to allow airflow to keep the corn dry and protected), a concept they introduced to white settlers, and a technique that is still used today by farmers.

Native plants that had medicinal properties were very important to the settlers, and much of what they learned was from Native people they encountered on their journey. One example: A Hidatsa man named Wolf Chief, from the region of what is now North Dakota, showed the white settlers how echinacea (which he called purple coneflower) could be used as a medicine plant to heal wounds.

Plants with a Future

As important as plants have been in our history, they are equally important in our lives today. Saw palmetto has traditionally been a medicinal herb for reproductive health, and today it garners accolades for its benefits in men's prostate health, just as the yew tree plays a critical role in the successful treatment of breast cancer. We continue to eat traditional foods like squash and cranberries, just as our ancestors did, but today those food plants find their way into grocery products like frozen squash raviolis or cans of cranberry spritzers — things our ancestors could not even imagine.

Although in some cases — such as the wild rice we eat for dinner or the hops we add to beer brewing — we use plants in exactly the same way we've been using them for hundreds of years, we are also learning about new ways we can put plants to use. We are discovering, for example, that milkweed seed floss is effective in helping to clean up environmental disasters like oil spills in ocean waters, and that growing cattails in the wastewater lagoons of cattle feedlots helps clean the water. We have learned how to refine plants like panic grass into biofuel for our vehicles and ways to utilize milkweed pods to generate heat for our homes. And we continue to make plants into objects for practical use, ornament, and play.

So many plants have been a part of our lives traditionally, and we continue to learn new ways to benefit from them. Medical research regularly discovers important new applications for plants, such as dispensing a botanical extract of hawthorn haws to support cardiovascular health or the potential of maple syrup to treat diabetes and cancer. We have discovered that wild roses make excellent reclamation plants on severely damaged land, such as mineral mining and processing sites. The wild roses hold and heal the soil where other types of plants struggle to survive.

Our relationship with native plants continues to evolve as we learn more about them. Drought-tolerant natives such as amaranth and mesquite could become staple food crops in our future, especially as climate change and limited water resources affect our ability to grow old favorites like wheat or corn. Who knows what kind of a world our grandchildren's grandchildren will inherit? One thing is certain: they will rely on native plants, just as humans have throughout history. Plants have been our partners every step of the way on this adventure we call life.



Here are 43 native North American plants that we have been in a relationship with for all our lives. Our ancestors knew them well and relied on them greatly. Today, life would not be possible without them. Our future will depend on many of them as well.

Some of these plants are specific in their uses. Some like passionflower are mainly medicine plants. Others such as oak or yucca can be utilized in a lot of different ways, from building furniture to making shampoo. You'll be able to see how cottonwood roots are used in Native American ceremonies and why panic grass holds great promise as our future vehicle biofuel. I have some personal stories to share, including one from a potter who uses cottonwood as a glaze on his pottery and another from a chocolate maker who crafts Mexican chocolate bars in a traditional way.

In this section, I hope you will enjoy getting to know each plant through a closer look at how people use them.


Century plant (Agave americana), blue agave (A. tequilana), and others

For more than 8,000 years, humans have found amazing ways to utilize this succulent plant. We've roasted it for food and made it into an intoxicating beverage. We've used it as a medicine and woven its fiber into hats to protect us from the sun in the tropical regions of Mexico and arid climates of the southwestern United States where agaves grow.

Flour from Flowers

In the Sonoran Desert, Agave deserti is considered one of the best agaves for cooking. Native groups such as the Pima, Papago (Tohono O'odham), and Cahuilla Indian tribes collect and dry agave flowers, grind them into flour, and use it to make tortillas. Each plant will provide several pounds of flowers. The Papago people also ate these flower stalks as a green vegetable, while several Native American groups baked or roasted the roots and hearts of agave to make traditional cakes and breads. Navajos used baked, dried agave heads as a soup thickener.


Agaves are often called century plants, because people came to believe that the plant blooms only once every 100 years. Although this isn't actually true, the plant does flower at a ripe old age (as plants go), blooming once in 10 to 20 years. After sending up its stunning flower spear, the mother plant will die.

A Beverage of Many Names

The Aztecs fermented agave sap into an intoxicating beverage, which they drank as an offering to their gods during sacrificial ceremonies and rituals. They called this fermented drink pulque. Today pulque is still made from a sugary nectar called aguamiel collected from the agave leaf shafts. If the plant is trimmed in just the right way, up to 2 liters of the nectar can be collected daily for about a month, then fermented.

Tequila and mezcal also come from the agave plant. Tequila is, in fact, simply a kind of mezcal that is made from blue agave (A. tequilana), which is indigenous to the region around the Mexican town of Tequila. Agave hearts, with the leaves removed, are baked and then mashed to yield agave juice. The juice is then fermented and distilled to create mezcal or tequila. In much earlier times, the White Mountain Apaches made tequila by pit-baking the heart and roots of the agave, then crushing and fermenting them into tequila or mescal.

A Fiber to Raise an Elevator or Scrub Your Fingernails

Agaves are made of some strong stuff! When their leaves are crushed and the pulp is removed, what's left behind are long fibers that can be woven into cloth, floor coverings, or hats. These same fibers can be twisted into strong, flexible rope and twine or made into nailbrushes. Sisal agave (A. sisalana) and tampico (A. lechuguilla) are two popular agaves whose leaves are harvested for their fiber.

Amazingly, sisal is strong enough to be part of the equipment used to haul elevators up and down. Sisal is coarse and super-strong cordage, which is oiled and wrapped into the pulley systems of the elevator shaft. As the elevator cables work, they move through the pulleys, where they get lubricated by the oiled sisal fibers. This prevents friction from building up as the cables move to raise and lower the elevator in the shaft.

Toxic to Fish and Livestock

Although so much of the agave plant is edible for humans, it is toxic to other animals. Livestock can become fatally ill from eating agave leaves — something they avoid except in cases of severe drought or when no other fodder is available.

People have occasionally used this toxicity to their advantage, however. One way that indigenous people in parts of Mexico harvested fish was to put agave leaves (A. lechuguilla) in a stream. Any fish swimming in that area would take in the toxic water through their gills, become paralyzed, and float to the water's surface, where they could be collected. This poison would not make the fish unsafe to eat (since the agave isn't toxic to humans), and any uncollected fish floating into clean water would revive and swim away.


After a meal of agave flower tortillas and mescal, you can wash up with soap made from agave. If you grate agave roots, press them, and add water, you'll end up with a foaming liquid soap that can be used as shampoo, dish soap, or laundry soap.

The compounds that cause the roots to foam are saponin glycosides or sapogenins. These compounds are also building blocks to reproductive hormones when prepared properly and taken in the correct dosages. The drug Crinone, which is prescribed as a progesterone hormone replacement therapy in certain situations around pregnancy, is produced from the Agave sisalana species.

A Sweet Succulent

Agave sap (the very same that is used to make pulque) has become quite a popular sweetener in recent years. It's sold as agave nectar, and is lined up on market shelves beside the honey and maple syrup. In fact, the sweet sap is sometimes called aguamiel, which means "honey water" in Spanish, and it may be used in breakfast cereal as a sweetener and binding agent. The nectar of Agave vera-cruz is most often processed into sweetener, but sap from other species is occasionally used as well.

Sweet agave sap is called aguamiel ("honey water") in Spanish.


Excerpted from "Cattail Moonshine & Milkweed Medicine"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Tammi Hartung.
Excerpted by permission of Storey Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

The Wonder of Plants
Meet Our Plant Allies
California Bay
California Poppy
Gooseberry & Currants
Horse Chestnut/Buckeye
Mexican Cacao/Chocolate Tree
North American Mint
Panic Grass
Prickly Pear & Cholla
Raspberry & Blackberry
Saw Palmetto
Wild Rice
Wild Rose
Wild Yam
Witch Hazel

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