Practical Knowledge: Medicine from the Wilderness

Frog leaves
Nicknamed “frog leaves” by members of the Sinixt Tribe, this medicinal plant can be found growing in deep, shaded forest litter in Washington state and British Columbia.

If one is used to finding all their food and supplies in a supermarket the wild places can seem very bare! Practical knowledge can unlock provision where the ‘grocery store’ mentality sees nothing. One can look at the wilderness and yearn for a Yokes, Rosauers, Walmart or Fred Meyer; or, one could discover what is already out there for harvest and use.

Several interesting examples come to mind. A native orchid called Western rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera oblongifolia) whose uses include a reproductive aid, chewing gum, pain reliever during childbirth, tea, tonic, poultice, toy, perfume to attract the opposite sex, and, most surprising to me, a bandage!

Last fall my Sinixt (Lakes) friend from Inchelium, Nancy Michel and I were walking along a woodland trail in the upper Columbia region across the border in British Columbia. She noticed a low growing plant colony in the shaded, deep leaf forest litter and told me it was called “Frog leaves” by the Indians, and that it was used to cover small wounds, both for protection and for its antiseptic quality. I recognized the plant immediately as a member of the wild orchid family from its leaf structure and bloom. I knew nothing about its practical applications.

As I was photographing it and listening to her explain how her ancestors used it, a second Sinixt man named Rick Desautel, Colville Tribes Fish and Wildlife (CTFW) game management specialist, joined us and said it was also called “Indian bandaid.” They showed me how a leaf was picked and rubbed between the fingers to soften it and then split in two along its flat plane. The moist inner surfaces could then be adhered directly onto surface wounds for protection.

Western rattlesnake plantain
The leaves of this native orchid (Goodyera oblongifolia) known variously as ‘Western rattlesnake plantain’ or ‘Indian bandaid ‘ have many medicinal uses.

The name for this plant in one Interior Salish dialect is “splitting open easily.” Since the plant has a widespread range throughout North America, it has other aboriginal names as well: coastal Indians used words in their dialects meaning “it’s got spots,” and “medicine for childbirth.” East of the Cascade mountain range it has been called “Indian bandaid” and “frog leaves.”

Early settlers called it Rattlesnake plantain – the pattern found on its leaves resembled the snake’s skin. It is not of the plantain family. Its leaves can be harvested year-round and stored in the refrigerator to be immediately available when needed (I kept a few leaves in a plastic bag in my fridge for 5 months just in case I needed to cover a wound – and to test the practice. I found the leaves to be very fresh up to that long, and as the photo shows, when applied one to a cut on my husband’s hand it adhered beautifully).

Patti Bailey, another member of the Lakes tribe, one of the 12 tribes of the Colville Confederated Tribes, says the approximate Salish word for the plant is Inceyouse and that its leaves were used extensively and commonly by her tribe’s elders to draw infections out.

The list of provisions, both food and non-food ‘products’ available for our benefit is expansive. For example, the cattail (Typha latifolia), a plant found in abundance around wetlands and lake margins throughout the northwest can be made into bread by using the starch in its rhizomes. The tender white portions at the base of the shoots can be eaten raw or cooked; the seeds, pollen, and leaves are edible. The leaves have been and are still used in basketry, while the brown female flower head, whose downy puffs blow so easily in a wind to every child’s joy, has been used for diaper material as well as stuffing for winter moccasin insulation.

And finally, although I am barely touching on the subject of available foodstuffs and products, there is “Indian spaghetti”, a botanical clover root which has been commonly gathered both on the tidal flats along the Salish Sea – and even ranging to alpine meadows. The harvesters fondly call the roots “Indian spaghetti.” In scientific circles the native plant is named “Perennial clover (Trifolium wormsijoldii). For a people with a diet rich in proteins sourced from salmon, deer, and mountain goat flesh foods, edible plant matter broke the dietary monotony and brought carbohydrate balance and variety to the diet. The roughage introduced to the digestive system made them a natural dietary laxative, although these plants were not considered medicine.

Both native and non-native experts in the field of ethnobotany, have contributed grocery-carts full of practical botanical information to the storehouse of practical knowledge. They have provided a wonderful connection to our region’s natural resources.

Here is a small sampling of excellent books on the subject for your consideration:

  • Plants of Southern Interior British Columbia
  • Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast
  • Native American Ethnobotany
  • Ethnobotany of the Okanagan-Colville Indians
  • Ancient Pathways, Ancestral Knowledge
  • Ethnobotany of Western Washington
  • Food Plants of Interior First Peoples
  • The Spokane Indians

By Tina Wynecoop, forest landowner, north Spokane County

This article first appeared in the October issue of North Columbia Monthly

Photo credits Tina Wynecoop