Monday, January 14, 2019

Medicinal Monday - Curious Catnip

When most of us think of catnip we think of it as nature's little drug for cats because they are so attracted to it.  Most cats can't resist playing with this perennial plant. Nepeta catataria or catnip is a member of the mint family and is native to Europe, Asia, and Africa.  Settlers took cuttings of this plant with them for food and medicinal purposes when they traveled to the New World.  These early settlers introduced this handy little perennial to Native Americans who began to use it in their medicines and recipes.



About Catnip

Catnip can grow up to three feet tall and is a gray-green perennial with square stems, heart-shaped leaves, and terminal flower spikes that are similar to plants found in the mint family.  Catnip or catmint as it is sometimes called loves full sun and usually blooms from late spring to autumn and has purple flowers.  It is drought tolerant and deer resistant.  Best of all, catnip is a repellent for certain insects like aphids and squash bugs in the garden and bees love this plant.  



Medicinal Uses

Catnip is found in American folk medicine as well as in Native American healing practices.  The most common use of catnip was a tea that was given to children for an upset stomach or sleeplessness. Catnip is used by the Hoh,  Rappahannock, Delaware, and Iroquois tribes for children's complaints such as colds, fever, chills, diarrhea, stomach aches, and headaches.   The Cherokee use an infusion of leaves with honey for coughs and the Chippewa make a simple decoction of leaves that were given to someone with a fever. 


The Delaware combine the leaves with peach seeds to make a tonic for children and the Keres use an infusion of the plant for a bath for tiredness.  The Mohegans use an infusion of leaves to treat colic in children and also used the leaves in a bath to raise the temperature of the body. The Ojibwa used an infusion of the leaves as a blood purifier and the Okanagan-Colville used the top of the plants for colds.  The Shinnecock would dry the leaves and smoke them in a pipe to help treat rheumatism.




Did you know...

Not only domestic cats but also jaguars, tigers, leopards, and lions are attracted by catnip and exhibit the same behavior as domestic cats.  They are responding to the scent of nepetalactone, the aromatherapeutic element in this plant.

Nepeta catataria is thought to have taken its name from the Etrurian city of Neptic -- today the town Nepi in the province of Viterbo,  Italy.

In the 11th century, Europe catnip was prized for its ability to calm nervousness and to promote restful sleep.

About one-third of cats are not affected by catnip!  The behavior is hereditary.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Winter Survival in the Eastern Woodlands @ Institute for American Indian Studies Jan. 26


We often don’t think about the resources we use.  We are displaced from them through processing, manufacturing and shipping.  For Native people living in the Northeast, using resources and preparing for winter was vital to survival.  So how do you find shelter, make food, and stay warm when the weather is cold and your resources are diminished? On Sunday, January 26 from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. the public is invited to join the Institute for American Indian Studies educator, Griffin Kalin for a fun and informative program on how to survive in the Eastern Woodlands without twenty-first-century technology.




Participants will learn how to start a fire in the snow, how to find food in the forest, and how to make a shelter from the natural environment.  Visitors will even see examples of how Native Peoples of the Eastern Woodlands lived by visiting the replicated Algonkian village on the grounds of the Institute that is composed of wigwams and longhouses and the remnants of the three sisters garden.  It is an exciting as well as an engaging experience that is suitable for all ages to feel as though you have stepped back in time as you explore the forest and learn the ways of the Eastern Woodland Indians.




To participate in this event be sure to dress warm and wear appropriate footwear because some of this program will be outside. This program is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and $6 for children, members of the museum are free.  In addition to this program, entrance to the museum with its fascinating exhibits and wonderful gift shop featuring locally made handcrafted Native American art, crafts, and jewelry among other items is also included.




About the Institute for American Indian Studies


Located on 15 woodland acres the IAIS has an outdoor Three Sisters and Healing Plants Gardens as well as a replicated 16th c. Algonkian Village.  Inside the museum, authentic artifacts are displayed in permanent, semi-permanent and temporary exhibits from prehistory to the present that allows visitors a walk through time. The Institute for American Indian Studies is located on 38 Curtis Road in Washington Connecticut and can be reached online or by calling 860-868-0518.  New @ the Institute is an Escape Room - Wigwam Escape 1518.

The Institute for American Indian Studies preserves and educates through discovery and creativity the diverse traditions, vitality, and knowledge of Native American cultures. Through archaeology, the IAIS is able to build new understandings of the world and history of Native Americans; the focus is on stewardship and preservation.  This is achieved through workshops, special events, and education for students of all ages.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Medicinal Monday - Water Parsnip

Thriving in wetland areas this wildflower is related to carrots, celery, and parsley.  It has many medicinal uses in Native American culture from its analgesic and digestive properties to its use as a hunting medicine.  The water parsnip is found in Connecticut and other parts of New England.



About the Water Parsnip

This perennial wildflower is found in the wetlands; it is common along shallow marshy streams and is scattered throughout open wet meadows.   It is commonly called a water parsnip because of its resemblance to the parsnip and because of where it grows.  The stem of the water parsnip is light green and grows up to five feet in shallow water in a cluster of aquatic leaves.  Once the leaves have formed the water parsnip rises from the water and blooms from July to August.  This wildflower creates beautiful small white flowers with umbel inflorescences.  These flowers attract a wide variety of insects; bees seek nectar and pollen, flies, wasps, butterflies, and beetles are also attracted to this plant. 




Medicinal Uses

Edible parts of the plant include the root either raw or cooked, which is said to have a nutty flavor and is often eaten by Native Americans.  The leaves and younger stems are also edible after cooking. The Iroquois used water parsnips for their analgesic properties.  They made an infusion of smashed roots into a poultice to treat pain for a broken limb.   Iroquois women would take a decoction of the roots as treatment for epilepsy and the Lakota used an infusion of the roots to help settle the stomach.  The Ojibwa would gather the seeds of this wildflower and smoke them over a fire to drive away and blind any evil spirits that would steal one's hunting luck. The Shuswap considered the white flowers poisonous. 

Did you know...

The Latin name of the water parsnip is Sium that comes from the Latin word sion meaning "water parsley" and the word suave that means "sweet".

Extreme caution should be taken when harvesting any part of this plant in the wild because it resembles several poisonous plants including the Spotted Water Hemlock, which is the most poisonous vascular plant in North America.

Older plants and flowers should be avoided because they are toxic.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Winter Fun @ IAIS - December 27 & 28

If you are looking for fun and educational activities for your children during their Christmas break, look no further than the Institute for American Indian Studies in Washington Connecticut on 38 Curtis Road.  



On December 27 and 28 from 12 noon to 3 p.m., the Institute is offering a program perfect for kids that takes place indoors and outdoors and is sure to entertain.  

Kids will play Native American games such as snow snake, snow boat, hoop and pole, keeper of the fire, and eagle eye.  A highlight of the program is the traditional Native American Stories told by the Institute's Professional Native American Storyteller that teaches children about the cultural beliefs of indigenous people living in the United States.




In addition to the learning experiences, kids will also create a craft to take home such as a corn husk doll, buzzer or beading.  A corn husk doll is a Native American toy that is made out of the dried leaves or "husk" of a corn cob.  It is thought to be the first known doll in America.  Children will also learn the legend about why corn husk dolls are designed without facial features.

To sign up for this workshop call 860-868-0518 or visit the website.  This program is included in the price of admission - $10 adults, $8 Seniors, $6 children; members of the museum are free.

Medicinal Monday - Thorney and Beautiful - the Black Hawthorn Tree

The Hawthorn Tree was considered magical by many cultures around the world and figures in mythology.  In Native American Lore, there is a Chippewa legend, "Why the Porcupine has Quills".  The story is about a porcupine that is being hunted by a bear.  The clever porcupine used the branches of a Hawthorn Tree on his back as protection and when the bear tried to bite the porcupine, the thorns pricked the bears' mouth and he went along on his way, leaving the porcupine alone.  Nanabozho, a trickster god was impressed with the porcupine and took the branches of the Hawthorn tree and peeled the bark away making them white and put them on the back of the porcupine with clay, which is how the porcupine got its quills.  Native Americans not only told stories of the clever porcupine but also used the Hawthorn tree for medicinal purposes that are equally as clever.


About the Hawthorn Tree

This is a beautiful tree with lovely white or pink flowers, small tart berries, and a thorny, protective trunk.  The tree has many interesting folk names including may-tree, whitethorn, quickthorn, thornapple, mayblossom, and hawberry. Its range spans most of North America and is also found in Asia and throughout Europe.  There is also a range of species and subspecies of this tree, all have a slightly different bloom, berry and ripening time. Not all varieties are trees, some are large shrubs that make good hedges.  Whatever their size is, they all have thorns.



Hawthorn Trees need full sun and well-drained soil, almost any type of soil will do.  Songbirds love these trees and will often visit them in the spring and fall to eat the bright colored berries. Most trees grow 15 to 30 feet tall and look best when grown together in a cluster. These trees are susceptible to a number of diseases including apple scab, fire blight, leaf spots, and rust.

Medicinal Uses

The flowers, leaves, and berries of Hawthorn trees have been used medicinally for hundreds of years. The Kwakiutl used a poultice of chewed leaves and applied them to swellings and the Okanagan and the Thompson used the thorns as probes for boils and ulcers.  The Okanagan-Colville would use the thorn to pierce areas by arthritic pain.  The upper end of the thorn was set on fire and burned down to the point where it was buried in the skin. 


An oral infusion of new shoots was used to wash out a baby's mouth for mouth sores and was also used to treat diarrhea in children.  The Okanagan and  Thompson used a decoction of sapwood, bark, and roots as a stomach medicine, and the fruit of this tree was eaten as a good health food to treat general sickness and build strength.  The Iroquois used the dotted Hawthorn tree used an infusion of branches without leaves for stomach problems. They also used a decoction of this tree as witchcraft medicine that was taken to prevent "breaking out like cancer", a condition caused by witchcraft.

Did You Know...

Modern scientific study has shown that Hawthorn is used for high blood pressure and that it strengthens the heartbeat.  The berries are anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant.

The name hawthorn comes from the old English word haw, which means hedge when combined with the word thorn, it literally means "thorny hedge".

Certain moths and butterflies feed exclusively on the nectar and leaves of the Hawthorn trees.



In Celtic Lore Hawthorn is a gateway tree that holds the doorway between our realm and the fairy realm. It is thought to be the tree sacred to fairies and faes.   It was also thought to have the power to put people into a deep sleep.

In the U.S. the charcoal made from burnt root wood of the Hawthorn tree was used in pig iron furnaces used to make iron ore.

The berries of the Hawthorn Tree resemble a cranberry or crabapple in looks and in taste.  Some are made into condiments and preserves.

Medicinal Monday - Magical Mistletoe

When most of us think of mistletoe we think of puckering up under this delightful evergreen around the holidays.  The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe started in ancient Greece during the festival of Saturnalia and was also used in marriage ceremonies because of the plant's association with fertility.  Native Americans used Juniper mistletoe in a variety of ways that ranged from treating the ailments of children to witchcraft.



About Juniper Mistletoe

Juniper mistletoe is a member of the sandalwood family and is native to the southwestern United States and northern Mexico where it grows in a variety of woodland habitats; in the Central Rocky Mountain region, the host trees are principally junipers.  This shrub has a woody base that attaches to a tree tapping it for water and nutrients.  The plant is an evergreen with males and females producing knobby clusters of flowers.  Flowers produced by females are shiny light pink spheres and yield light pink spherical berries.  Birds eat the fruit and excrete the undigested seeds on tree branches where they root.   When the seeds germinate a root penetrates the bark of a juniper tree and nutrients pass from the host tree to the mistletoe.  It takes two to three years for shoots to develop and another year before the plant begins to produce berries.  The life of mistletoe is limited only by that of the host tree.




Medicinal Uses

Many Native American tribes in the southwest used mistletoe for medicinal purposes. Among the Zuni, Tewa, and Hopi people, an infusion of the whole plant was made and used for stomachs and an infusion of the plant was taken for muscular relaxation after birth.  A compound of twigs was infused and used after childbirth to stop blood flow.  Mistletoe was also used in witchcraft as a "bad medicine for wizards."  The Western Keres crushed the plant and made a tea to give to children as an antidiarrheal, they also used the crushed leaves externally as a rub for sore muscles. The Navajo used the plant to treat warts and also made a cold infusion from this plant to treat distress caused by eating too much meat.  



Did you know...


During the Roman era, enemies at war would reconcile their differences under the mistletoe, which to them represented peace.

The tradition of hanging mistletoe in the house goes back to the time of ancient Druids.  It is supposed to possess mystical powers which provide good luck to the household and keep away evil spirits.

Mistletoe although poisonous to us provides a great source of food for many animals, butterflies lay their eggs on it and use the nectar, bees get important pollen from mistletoe and birds rely on the plant for food. 

Mistletoe is used as a treatment for cancer in Europe according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

Mistletoe is hard to get rid of once it infects a tree because it invades the tissues of the tree and if you cut off visible portion chances are a new plant will grow from inside the host.  The most effective way to get rid of mistletoe is to remove the infected part of the host tree.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Medicinal Monday - Winterberry Brightens a Winter Landscape

The winterberry is one of the few plants in New England that are at their prettiest after their leaves have fallen. A scarlet mass of these red berries brings a spot of color to the dreariest winter landscape.  Today, we often see the fruit ladened bare branches of this plant used as a colorful component in holiday decorations.  This plant has limited but fascinating medicinal uses in Native American culture and, we would like to think it had decorative uses as well.



About Winterberry

The genus llex is from the holly family of some 400 species of trees, shrubs, and climbers found throughout the world.  There are about 15 species found throughout North America including Connecticut where the species, llex verticillata grows.  Most holly shrubs have glossy prickly evergreen leaves studded with bright red colored berries, the winterberry has neither.  Dark green simple ovate shaped leaves with small teeth that are smooth and slightly glossy above and fuzzy below are characteristics that identify the winterberry found here along with the beautiful red colored berries.  The male plant blooms in the summer with small clusters of white flowers, the female plant has fewer but showier flowers.  Only the female plants produce fruit, and only if there is a male plant nearby that provides pollination. 



The winterberry plant is most often found in wetland habitats, but, it can also be found on dry sandy dunes and grassland.  This plant is referred to by a variety of names including black alder, Canada holly, coralberry, brook alder, fever bush, and Michigan holly.  The berries are poisonous to humans, dogs, cats, and horses, but more than 49 species of birds eat the berries as well as waterfowl, game birds, raccoons, and even mice.  When food is scarce whitetail deer,  rabbits, moose, and snowshoe hares will eat stems and bark.


Medicinal Uses

Native Americans use the bark and leaves of the winterberry plant to treat a variety of ailments.  Winterberry earned its nickname fever bush because Native Americans use the bark to treat fever, internal parasites, and liver ailments.  They also used the bark externally to treat cuts and bruises.  The bark is 4.8% tannin and was harvested before the first frost.  A tea is made from the bark and used as an emetic, a tonic and remedy for diarrhea and a preparation is made from the roots to treat hay fever. The Iroquois make a tea from winterberry bark and berries and used it as a laxative and to induce vomiting.  



Did you know...


A Confederate doctor, Francis Porcher used this plant to treat fevers, diarrhea, ulcers and as a medicinal wash to treat gangrene.

Oriental Bittersweet is sometimes confused with winterberry.  To tell them apart, look at the leaf margins and berries. Winterberry has serrated leaf edges and smooth red berries. Oriental Bittersweet has rounder leaves and red berries with loose yellow skins.

Winterberry leaves when dried can be made into a tea that contains no caffeine.

Swallowing the berries can cause vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, and drowsiness and is considered poisonious to humans, cats, dogs and horses.