Medicinal Use of Forest Trees and Shrubs by Indigenous People of Northeastern North America

Glen Blouin[1]


The first documented use of indigenous North American medicine was the Iroquois cure of Jacques Cartier’s crew from scurvy in the winter of 1536 at Stadacona (Québec).

In northeastern North America, forest-dwelling indigenous people developed an intimate knowledge of the forest. Part of that traditional knowledge was the utilization of forest flora as their primary source of medicine. Through millennia of trial and error, they had compiled comprehensive natural pharmacopoeiae, passed down from generation to generation as part of oral cultural traditions. The efficacy of their medical practices was testified to repeatedly by early European explorers, settlers, and missionaries. By the mid-1800s, much of their medicine was recognized in the official pharmaceutical directories of the United States and Canada.

But the overpowering influence of European colonization led to acculturation of indigenous people, threatening the sustainability of this forest knowledge. While some was lost, fortunately much was documented by anthropologists.

Indigenous medicinal use of six forest species - three shrubs and three trees - is described, prescribed for a variety of common ailments by indigenous people from the Atlantic coast to the Great Lakes region. Where known, the scientific explanation is provided.

Much can still be learned by medical and pharmaceutical scientists from the medicinal practices of indigenous people. This paper explores some of those practices, evaluates their validity in the light of recent scientific evidence, and presents a case for further cooperative research into the medicinal value of North American forest trees and shrubs.


.. They had great respect for natural resources... Their whole lives were intricately woven into a pattern of plant-animal-man relationships.

Dr. Frank G. Speck and Ralph Dexter, 1952

In the winter of 1535-1536, the three ships of French explorer Jacques Cartier, the father of New France, were frozen in the thick ice on the St. Lawrence river near Stadacona, now known as the city of Québec. His crew, surviving only on their remaining rations and wild game, were rapidly falling victim to scurvy, and twenty-five had died. On learning of their plight, the local Iroquois chief arranged to have branches of an evergreen tree called annedda brought to them, with instructions on how to administer it. A desperate Cartier complied, and within days, his crew had recovered (Biggar 1924). He recounted:

... had all the doctors of Louvain and Montpellier been there, with all the drugs of Alexandria, they could not have done so much in a year as did this tree in eight days...

The Voyages of Jacques Cartier, 1536

While there is no definitive proof, and debate continues to this day whether annedda was white pine (Pinus strobus), white cedar (Thuja occidentalis) or white spruce (Picea glauca) (Fenton 1941, Rousseau 1953, Moore 1978), etymological evidence points to eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) as the life-saving tree species. The foliage of all the above conifers has antiscorbutic properties. Conifer leaves contain 3-5 times the ascorbic acid, or vitamin C, of orange juice (Hunter and Tuba 1943).

Over two centuries passed before the British medical community discovered the cause of scurvy was not foul air, as previously suspected, but lack of vitamin C (Vogel 1970). The forest-dwelling indigenous people of North America knew long before. Of course, they had no knowledge of vitamins, but they knew that the needles of coniferous trees cured the symptoms, because they had been experimenting with natural cures derived from the forest for 4,000 years (Tuck 1984).

... they have abundant means, with herbs and leaves or roots, to cure their ailments.

Nicolaes van Wassenaer, 1624

Through centuries of trial and error, North America’s indigenous people - as did those elsewhere around the world - had developed a pharmacopoeia that in most cases surpassed that of the “civilized” post-medieval medical practitioners of Europe of the time.

They are all by nature physicians, apothecaries and doctors by virtue of the knowledge and experience they have of certain herbs which they use successfully to cure ills that seem to us incurable...

Father Chrétien LeClercq, 1691
Récollet Missionary

Knowledge of the medicinal use of trees and shrubs - indeed all plants - was handed down from generation to generation as part of oral tradition. Nothing was written. After the upheaval of their civilization by the encroachment of Europeans, the decimation of their population by wars and foreign diseases, the disruption of their homelands and lifestyles, and what anthropologists refer to as “acculturation” into “white” society, much of this traditional knowledge was threatened, and some of it was unfortunately lost.

The medical establishment of North America ultimately recognized the value of indigenous drugs. When the first Pharmacopoeia of the United States, the official reference text of the pharmaceutical industry, was published in 1820, it included 170 indigenous plant cures (Vogel 1970). Likewise the Canadian Pharmaceutical Journal of 1868 listed as official medicines over twenty species of forest trees and shrubs prescribed by First Nations (Erichsen-Brown 1979).

In the late 19th century a generation of anthropologists known as ethnobotanists began to live with, observe, and interview elders and shamans (medicine people) in order to document their traditional use of medicinal plants. If not for the foresight of these social scientists, much more would have been lost.

The hemlock cure of Cartier’s crew is arguably the most widely-known example of native medicine, but there are literally thousands of others (Moerman 1998). They derived medicines from the leaves, buds, bark, roots, flowers, and cones of trees and shrubs, as well as the ground vegetation. They boiled, baked, steamed, steeped, smoked, dried, shredded, and powdered medicines from virtually every forest species which grew around them.

A second well-known example is aspirin, or acetylsalicylic acid, which until its synthesis in the 19th century, was derived from various willow (Salix) species. Of the over thirty species of Salix in Canada, the leaves, bark, and roots of almost all were prescribed by indigenous people to relieve pain or reduce fever, centuries before the Bayer Company of Germany patented the synthetic commercial product.

They were not subject to diseases, and knew nothing of fevers. If any accident happened to them... they did not need a physician. They had knowledge of herbs, of which they made use and straightaway grew well.

Nicolas Denys, 1672
Lieutenant-Governor of the Acadian Coast

From all early historical accounts, indigenous people - today called First Nations in Canada and Native Americans in the United States - were a very healthy people. Their most common ailments, aside from wounds, were rheumatism, bowel and urinary disorders, colds and other lung afflictions, childbirth complications, menstrual disorders, and irritated eyes (from smoke in confined areas). For each of these maladies they had one or more cures.

That is, until European immigrants introduced into their population smallpox, diphtheria, venereal disease, scarlet fever, typhoid, cholera, and measles. Because they had neither natural immunities nor traditional medicines to combat these new infectious diseases, thousands perished.


It is not within the scope of this brief paper to describe all the forest-derived medicinal remedies of the indigenous people of North America. Only six examples - three shrub and three tree species - will be highlighted. These examples relate to the most common ailments suffered by indigenous people in pre-Cartier times, represent a geographic and ethnological cross section of the indigenous people who inhabited the primarily-forested region from the Great Lakes east to the Atlantic coast, and provide a representative sample of the forest trees and shrubs they utilized as medicinals.

The region was inhabited by two distinct linguistic and cultural groups: the Algonkians, who dwelt in the forest in winter and on the shore in summer - and the sedentary Iroquois, who practised subsistence agriculture. Between them there were some forty distinct tribes or Nations, but their exact pre-colonization populations will never be known (Geographic Board of Canada 1912). The following examples are derived from both these groups.


Canada yew (Taxus canadensis), commonly called ground hemlock, is a metre-high spreading evergreen shrub found in the shaded understorey of a variety of forest types, usually on moist fertile sites (Soper and Heimburger 1982). Teas steeped from the foliage were consumed by native women for a variety of ailments, from post-childbirth complications to irregular menstrual cycles. But by far yew’s most common use was to treat rheumatism: Abenaki in Maine, Algonquin in Québec, Ojibway in Minnesota and Ontario, and Menominee in Wisconsin all used it for this purpose, the needles steeped into a tea for internal consumption, or steamed in their sweat baths (Smith 1923, Gilmore 1933, Rousseau 1947, Black 1980).

The chemical structure of yew needles is extremely complex (Appendino 1995). Within the last decade, after thirty years of research and clinical testing, an extract from yew needles generically called paclitaxel, has been successfully employed in chemotherapy to treat ovarian, breast, and several other forms of cancer (Blouin 2002a). To date, scientists have been unable to commercially synthesize paclitaxel; the various species of yew worldwide remain the sole source of the drug.

A similar but unrelated shrub, ground juniper (Juniperus communis), grows on sterile rocky soils, often on abandoned pastures. Mi’kmaq, Maliseet, Cayuga, and Ojibway, as well as the Woodlands Cree of Saskatchewan, drank decoctions of juniper bark, roots, or needles to treat a variety of lung-related disorders, from colds to asthma to tuberculosis (Waugh 1916, Gilmore,1933, Mechling 1959, Leighton 1985).

When blended with cedar leaves in a tea, ground juniper has had recent anecdotal, but not yet scientifically proven, success in treating the symptoms of multiple sclerosis (Blouin 2002b).

A common pioneer deciduous shrub found predominantly bordering watercourses or invading poorly-drained abandoned farmland is the nitrogen-fixing speckled alder (Alnus rugosa), a visually unattractive but ecologically important species. The Mi’kmaq of the Maritime provinces scraped the thin astringent bark, boiled it, and applied it to wounds and bruises. In cases of severe fever, the patient’s body was wrapped in alder leaves, whereupon the fever subsided (Speck and Dexter 1951). The Woods Cree in the northwest bathed irritated or sore eyes with an alder bark decoction (Leighton 1985). The Seneca of New York boiled the bark into an emetic and laxative decoction they drank to cleanse and purge the body, especially in springtime (Herrick 1995).


Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) is a shade-tolerant conifer of moist fertile sites, with the potential to live four hundred years or more to form an old-growth forest. As well as the previously-noted use of its foliage by indigenous people as an antiscorbutic, an astringent tonic brewed from the red inner bark, which contains up to 12% tannin (Mockle 1955), and therefore has strong astringent properties, was consumed to control diarrhea by the Ojibway, Maliseet, Mi’kmaq, Cherokee, and Potawatomi (Gilmore 1919, Wallis 1922, Smith 1933). An infusion of the foliage was steeped by the Abenaki and Algonquin in Québec, and taken internally for rheumatism (Rousseau 1947, Black 1980). The Seneca of New York and the Delaware of Ontario steamed rheumatic limbs with the hemlock infusion (Waugh 1916, Tantaquidgeon 1972).

White cedar, or arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis), a conifer with scale-like foliage usually found on moist sites rich in calcium (Marie-Victorin 1935, Blouin 2001), was a prime source of medicine to native people. An infusion of the leaves or inner bark was consumed by Ojibway and Mi’kmaq people as cough medicine (Speck 1917, Densmore 1928, Smith 1932). It was also commonly steamed and the vapours inhaled in native sweat lodges to combat colds, headache, fever, and rheumatism (Smith 1923, Smith 1932, Rousseau 1945, Black 1980, Herrick 1995).

Today, cedar oil distilled from the foliage is a principal ingredient in many commercial and alternative medicines, in particular cold remedies. Its primary active ingredient is thujone.

Choke cherry (Prunus virginiana), a small deciduous tree of open areas such as roadsides, riparian zones, and fencerows, is the most widely distributed tree in North America. It was also the fifth most widely used drug plant on the continent; according to Moerman (1998), it had 132 medicinal uses. Indigenous people from coast to coast gathered the inner bark, boiled it, and drank the decoction to cure diarrhea (Holmes 1884, Speck 1917, Smith 1923, VanWart 1948, Herrick 1995). Choke cherry tea was also consumed for indigestion, a tonic during pregnancy, and a gargle for sore throat (Blouin 1993).


Until recently, investigation into the phytochemical constituents of North American forest species has been insufficient (Arnason et al 1981). Yet the limited research that has taken place has proven conclusively the pharmacological validity of many of the drugs prescribed by First Nations and Native Americans. The active ingredients (e.g., astringent tannins, antibacterial alkaloids, anti-inflammatory terpenes) in many of the native drugs correlate to the uses originally prescribed by native people (Chandler 1983).

For example, Canadian researchers have recently proved, through phytochemical analyses, that plants used as antibiotics by North American indigenous people do contain anti-microbial chemical compounds (Jones et al 2000). The precedent of Canada yew cited above as a proven anti-carcinogen should be sufficient incentive to investigate the health and healing potential of other trees and shrubs.

At the very least, we can not dismiss the traditional medicinal knowledge which indigenous people gleaned over millennia of experimentation and practice. At the most, it behooves the forestry community and the medical and pharmaceutical communities to cooperate to enhance research into the chemical composition of all forest species, in order to evaluate their potential as life-enhancing, or perhaps life-saving, drugs.

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[1] Former Executive Director of the Canadian Forestry Association, 7 Val D’Isère, Cantley, Québec, Canada J8V-3B2. Tel: (819) 827-2436; Fax: (819) 827-8083; Email: [email protected]