3 February 2013 Blog
It is the day after Groundhog’s Day. No shadow was seen by Punxsutawney Phil, so it will be an early spring. This was backed up by Will and Wiley, OKC zoo grizzly bears who act the part of two groundhogs. The zoo has no groundhogs, and the bears stepped up to the plate to go for the shadow. They probably thought it was a dinner plate. At this time is also celebrated Imbolc, a pagan/Wiccan celebration that comes between the winter and spring equinoxes. Start your spring cleaning real early and sweep out the mid-winter doldrums.
Yesterday, 2nd of February, was the Oklahoma Native Plant Society 2013 Indoor Outing, held at the Tulsa Garden Center. It was a clear, cold morning as people entered the building ready for a day of learning about “Oklahoma Natives: Plants and People.” Vendors were set up, offering plants and educational opportunities. As quoted from their brochure, The Oklahoma Centennial Botanical Garden is taking root in the Osage Hills 8 miles northwest of Tulsa. One hundred and seventy acres of Cross Timbers terrain already has a 7 acre lake and visitor center. They plan to develop 60 acres in gardens and educational facilities (buildings). It will eventually become a place for people to go to see the very nature their houses, stores and roads eliminated. It might just inspire people to stop developing every inch of land, and encourage them to bring it back into the Cross Timbers fold!
The first speaker, Jay Walker, presented “The Quantitative Role of Vascular Plants in Western Medicine.” Don’t let the title scare you. Up to 25% of all pharmaceuticals are plant-based, utilizing the alkaloids or steroids present in some plants. The Fever Tree (Cinchona pubescens), found in South America, has quinine-laced bark. Not only effective for malaria, but good in tonic water. Madagascar Periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) has alkaloid compounds that tackle leukemia. The North American Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) treats certain cancers. Dr. Walker spent years in Belize studying medicinal plants with an emphasis in Ethnobotany.
Ethnobotany is a blend of anthropology and botany. Every speaker today emphasized the importance of Ethnobotany. Dr. Walker’s studies of plants turned into working with native healers to target specific plants. The Belize Association of Traditional Healers was formed in 1992 with a focus on land preservation. Belize is a secondary forest, and has been inhabited for thousands of years, with large populations of humans and their trappings. In the wake of the collapse of the society over a thousand years ago was left the plants the people had cultivated. Often groups of plants were used in medicines. Healers found the complex formulas were much more effective than single plant preparations, an idea not shared by the current day pharmaceutical world. They prefer single compounds. The upshot was to be wary. Carefully consider who is commercializing and marketing your pharmaceutical drugs as well as herbal preparations.
The Mvskoke Food Sovereignty Initiative Program was introduced by Rita Williams. The role of eldership in the Muscogee (Creek) people is very important. What the Earth means and grows and the knowledge passed on is an integral part of their heritage. Respect for family and nature go hand-in-hand.
The Muscogee people were a cane clan from the mound culture. In the southeastern part of the US they maintained cane breaks that extended miles long. River cane (Arundinaria gigantea) is a native bamboo, and can tower well over 30 feet high with 2+ inches in diameter stalks. The cane supported the clan in several ways, from being incorporated into baskets to the trading market. The Muscogee were moved to Oklahoma and lost their reliance on the cane. Plants here were brought into use, such as Osage Orange trees used for bows. Elder Mike Berryhill, a traditional bow maker, described the uses of all things in nature and their importance in the culture.
Stephanie Berryhill talked about Possum Grape (Ciccus incisa) use. I am using scientific nomenclature as many plants, especially wild grapes, go by dozens of common names. Possum grapes are used by the Creek nation, but there is a concern over the loss of traditional food uses, indigenous languages and cultural way. These losses fuel additional losses of knowledge systems. The shift from farm to market economy has affected the traditional approach to the land. The Creek nation is banding together to teach the young people and revive the traditional systems of knowledge while building important value systems. Practice leads to behavior which leads to culture through family and community.
Not only that, we attendees were all treated to small cups of possum grape juice from grapes harvested from tribal lands in the South Canadian River bottom area. Better than commercial grape juice!
Julia Jordan, author of “Plains Apache Ethnobotany”, had a discussion of the Southern Plains Indians. She brought some of her books to sell, and I have an autographed copy. It is a delightful walk with the Apache as they collect, prepare and use particular plants.
The final presentation was by the Cherokee Native Art and Plant Society. Pottery was displayed by Lisa Rutherford, and several people alternated in discussing plants and animals eaten or used. Box turtles were harvested and their shells filled with pebbles. These were tied on as leggings and referred to as Daksi. Long Buckbrush (Ceanothus cuneatus) shoots are used to weave the bottom of baskets. The Cherokee also used river cane in baskets, but it was said only about 2% of river cane is left in the country, and the huge plants and their ecosystems are no longer here. A point of note: when the cane break turns purple, it is going to seed. River cane juice was consumed for its laxative properties. Elderberry (Sambucus Canadensis) leaves, twigs and seeds contain cyanide-producing compounds. But the purple Elderberry berries, as well as red oaks and black walnuts provided sources of dyes. Ripe Elderberries and the flowers can be used in jams, jellies and juices. Watch out for the rest of the plant. Dandelion can reduce blood pressure. Last, but not least, mullein. The mullein plant (Verbascum sp.) can be used in an herbal preparation for dealing with asthma, phloem or pneumonia.
One member of the tribe was a translator of Cherokee, and could decipher the old Cherokee language before Sequoyah’s alphabet as well. He had a very old book with written descriptions of plants, harvesting techniques and properties handed down to him from his uncle, all based on ancient knowledge. The man was at home in the woods, and a short film clip was shown with him digging plants and roots for various usages.
The day ended with a trip out to the Creek Council Oak Park. The highlight was The Council Oak (Quercus stellata) surrounded by a wrought iron fence. Russell Studebaker presided over our get-together of a few dozen plant enthusiasts as we wandered around looking at the native plants in the park. The Council Oak was the site chosen by the Creek after their involuntary migration from Alabama in 1836. Here they placed the ashes from their last fires burned at their homes before being forced to move. Until 1896 the Lochapoka clan gathered together under the tree every year. The tree still stands, testimony to the strength and resiliency of the Creek Nation.