Plants Used in Cherokee Medicine

The results obtained from a careful study of this list may be summarized as follows: Of the twenty plants described as used by the Cherokees, seven (Nos. 2, 4, 5, 13, 15, 17, and 20) are not noticed in the Dispensatory even in the list of plants sometimes used although regarded as not official. It is possible that one or two of these seven plants have medical properties, but this can hardly be true of a larger number unless we are disposed to believe that the Indians are better informed in this regard than the best educated white physicians in the country. Two of these seven plants, however (Nos. 2 and 4), belong to genera which seem to have some of the properties ascribed by the Indians to the species. Five others of the list (Nos. 8, 9, 11, 14, and 16) are used for entirely wrong purposes, taking the Dispensatory as authority, and three of these are evidently used on account of some fancied connection between the plant and the disease, according to the doctrine of signatures. Three of the remainder (Nos. 1, 3, and 6) may be classed as uncertain in their properties, that is, while the plants themselves seem to possess some medical value, the Indian mode of application is so far at variance with recognized methods, or their own statements are so vague and conflicting, that it is doubtful whether any good can result from the use of the herbs. Thus the Unaste´tstiyû, or Virginia Snakeroot, is stated by the Dispensatory to have several uses, and among other things is said to have been highly recommended in intermittent fevers, although alone it is “generally inadequate to the cure.” Though not expressly stated, the natural inference is that it must be applied internally, but the Cherokee doctor, while he also uses it for fever, takes the decoction in his mouth and blows it over the head and shoulders of the patient. Another of these, the Distai´yi, or Turkey Pea, is described in the Dispensatory as having roots tonic and aperient. The Cherokees drink a decoction of the roots for a feeling of weakness and languor, from which it might be supposed that they understood the tonic properties of the plant had not the same decoction been used by the women as a hair wash, and by the ball players to bathe their limbs, under the impression that the toughness of the roots would thus be communicated to the hair or muscles. From this fact and from the name of the plant, which means at once hard, tough, or strong, it is quite probable that its roots are believed to give strength to the patient solely because they themselves are so strong and not because they have been proved to be really efficacious. The remaining five plants have generally pronounced medicinal qualities, and are used by the Cherokees for the very purposes for which, according to the Dispensatory, they are best adapted; so that we must admit that so much of their practice is correct, however false the reasoning by which they have arrived at this result.

  1. UNASTE´TSTIYÛ=”very small root”-Aristolochia serpentaria-Virginia or black snakeroot: Decoction of root blown upon patient for fever and feverish headache, and drunk for coughs; root chewed and spit upon wound to cure snake bites; bruised root placed in hollow tooth for toothache, and held against nose made sore by constant blowing in colds. Dispensatory: “A stimulant tonic, acting also as a diaphoretic or diuretic, according to the mode of its application; * * * also been highly recommended in intermittent fevers, and though itself generally inadequate to the cure often proves serviceable as an adjunct to Peruvian bark or sulphate of quinia.” Also used for typhous diseases, in dyspepsia, as a gargle for sore throat, as a mild stimulant in typhoid fevers, and to promote eruptions. The genus derives its scientific name from its supposed efficacy in promoting menstrual discharge, and some species have acquired the “reputation of antidotes for the bites of serpents.”
  2. UNISTIL´ÛnISTÎ8=”they stick on”-Cynoglossum Morrisoni-Beggar lice: Decoction of root or top drunk for kidney troubles; bruised root used with bear oil as an ointment for cancer; forgetful persons drink a decoction of this plant, and probably also of other similar bur plants, from an idea that the sticking qualities of the burs will thus be imparted to the memory. From a similar connection of ideas the root is also used in the preparation of love charms. Dispensatory: Not named. C. officinale “has been used as a demulcent and sedative in coughs, catarrh, spitting of blood, dysentery, and diarrhea, and has been also applied externally in burns, ulcers, scrofulous tumors and goiter.”
  3. ÛnNAGÉI=”black”-Cassia Marilandica-Wild senna: Root bruised and moistened with water for poulticing sores; decoction drunk for fever and for a disease also called ûnnage´i, or “black” (same name as plant), in which the hands and eye sockets are said to turn black; also for a disease described as similar to ûnnagei, but more dangerous, in which the eye sockets become black, while black spots appear on the arms, legs, and over the ribs on one side of the body, accompanied by partial paralysis, and resulting in death should the black spots appear also on the other side. Dispensatory: Described as “an efficient and safe cathartic, * * * most conveniently given in the form of infusion.”
  4. KÂSD´ÚTA=”simulating ashes,” so called on account of the appearance of the leaves-Gnaphalium decurrens-Life everlasting: Decoction drunk for colds; also used in the sweat bath for various diseases and considered one of their most valuable medical plants. Dispensatory: Not named. Decoctions of two other species of this genus are mentioned as used by country people for chest and bowel diseases, and for hemorrhages, bruises, ulcers, etc., although “probably possessing little medicinal virtue.”
  5. ALTSA´STI=”a wreath for the head”-Vicia Caroliniana-Vetch: Decoction drunk for dyspepsia and pains in the back, and rubbed on stomach for cramp; also rubbed on ball-players after scratching, to render their muscles tough, and used in the same way after scratching in the disease referred to under ûnnagei, in which one side becomes black in spots, with partial paralysis; also used in same manner in decoction with Kâsduta for rheumatism; considered one of their most valuable medicinal herbs. Dispensatory: Not named.
  6. DISTAI´YI=”they (the roots) are tough”-Tephrosia Virginiana-Catgut, Turkey Pea, Goat’s Rue, or Devil’s Shoestrings: Decoction drunk for lassitude. Women wash their hair in decoction of its roots to prevent its breaking or falling out, because these roots are very tough and hard to break; from the same idea ball-players rub the decoction on their limbs after scratching, to toughen them. Dispensatory: Described as a cathartic with roots tonic and aperient.
  7. U´GA-ATASGI´SKI=”the pus oozes out”-Euphorbia hypericifolia-Milkweed: Juice rubbed on for skin eruptions, especially on children’s heads; also used as a purgative; decoction drunk for gonorrhœa and similar diseases in both sexes, and held in high estimation for this purpose; juice used as an ointment for sores and for sore nipples, and in connection with other herbs for cancer. Dispensatory: The juice of all of the genus has the property of “powerfully irritating the skin when applied to it,” while nearly all are powerful emetics and cathartics. This species “has been highly commended as a remedy in dysentery after due depletion, diarrhea, menorrhagia, and leucorrhea.”
  8. GÛ´NIGWALI´SKI=”It becomes discolored when bruised”-Scutellaria lateriflora-Skullcap. The name refers to the red juice which comes out of the stalk when bruised or chewed. A decoction of the four varieties of Gûnigwali´ski-S. lateriflora, S. pilosa, Hypericum corymbosum, and Stylosanthes elatior-is drunk to promote menstruation, and the same decoction is also drunk and used as a wash to counteract the ill effects of eating food prepared by a woman in the menstrual condition, or when such a woman by chance comes into a sick room or a house under the tabu; also drunk for diarrhea and used with other herbs in decoction for breast pains. Dispensatory: This plant “produces no very obvious effects,” but some doctors regard it as possessed of nervine, antispasmodic and tonic properties. None of the other three species are named.
  9. K´GA SKÛnTAGI=”crow shin”-Adiantum pedatum-Maidenhair Fern: Used either in decoction or poultice for rheumatism and chills, generally in connection with some other fern. The doctors explain that the fronds of the different varieties of fern are curled up in the young plant, but unroll and straighten out as it grows, and consequently a decoction of ferns causes the contracted muscles of the rheumatic patient to unbend and straighten out in like manner. It is also used in decoction for fever. Dispensatory: The leaves “have been supposed to be useful in chronic catarrh and other pectoral affections.”
  10. ANDA´NKALAGI´SKI=”it removes things from the gums”-Geranium maculatum-Wild Alum, Cranesbill: Used in decoction with Yânû Unihye´sti (Vitis cordifolia) to wash the mouths of children in thrush; also used alone for the same purpose by blowing the chewed fiber into the mouth. Dispensatory: “One of our best indigenous astringents. * * * Diarrhea, chronic dysentery, cholora infantum in the latter stages, and the various hemorrhages are the forms of disease in which it is most commonly used.” Also valuable as “an application to indolent ulcers, an injection in gleet and leucorrhea, a gargle in relaxation of the uvula and aphthous ulcerations of the throat.” The other plant sometimes used with it is not mentioned.
  11. Û´nLE UKI´LTI=”the locust frequents it”-Gillenia trifoliata-Indian Physic. Two doctors state that it is good as a tea for bowel complaints, with fever and yellow vomit; but another says that it is poisonous and that no decoction is ever drunk, but that the beaten root is a good poultice for swellings. Dispensatory: “Gillenia is a mild and efficient emetic, and like most substances belonging to the same class occasionally acts upon the bowels. In very small doses it has been thought to be tonic.”
  12. SKWA´LI=Hepatica acutiloba-Liverwort, Heartleaf: Used for coughs either in tea or by chewing root. Those who dream of snakes drink a decoction of this herb and I´natû Ga´n’ka=”snake tongue” (Camptosorus rhizophyllus or Walking Fern) to produce vomiting, after which the dreams do not return. The traders buy large quantities of liverwort from the Cherokees, who may thus have learned to esteem it more highly than they otherwise would. The appearance of the other plant, Camptosorus rhizophyllus, has evidently determined its Cherokee name and the use to which it is applied. Dispensatory: “Liverwort is a very mild demulcent tonic and astringent, supposed by some to possess diuretic and deobstruent virtues. It was formerly used in Europe in various complaints, especially chronic hepatic affections, but has fallen into entire neglect. In this country, some years since, it acquired considerable reputation, which, however, it has not maintained as a remedy in hæmoptysis and chronic coughs.” The other plant is not named.
  13. DA´YEWÛ=”it sews itself up,” because the leaves are said to grow together again when torn-Cacalia atriplicifolia-Tassel Flower: Held in great repute as a poultice for cuts, bruises, and cancer, to draw out the blood or poisonous matter. The bruised leaf is bound over the spot and frequently removed. The dry powdered leaf was formerly used to sprinkle over food like salt. Dispensatory: Not named.
  14. A´TALI KÛLI´=”it climbs the mountain.”-Aralia quinquefolia-Ginseng or “Sang:” Decoction of root drunk for headache, cramps, etc., and for female troubles; chewed root blown on spot for pains in the side. The Cherokees sell large quantities of sang to the traders for 50 cents per pound, nearly equivalent there to two days’ wages, a fact which has doubtless increased their idea of its importance. Dispensatory: “The extraordinary medical virtues formerly ascribed to ginseng had no other existence than in the imagination of the Chinese. It is little more than a demulcent, and in this country is not employed as a medicine.” The Chinese name, ginseng, is said to refer to the fancied resemblance of the root to a human figure, while in the Cherokee formulas it is addressed as the “great man” or “little man,” and this resemblance no doubt has much to do with the estimation in which it is held by both peoples.
  15. ÛTSATI UWADSISKA=”fish scales,” from shape of leaves-Thalictrum anemonoides-Meadow Rue: Decoction of root drunk for diarrhea with vomiting. Dispensatory: Not named.
  16. K´KWE ULASU´LA=”partridge moccasin”-Cypripedium parviflorum-Lady-slipper: Decoction of root used for worms in children. In the liquid are placed some stalks of the common chickweed or purslane (Cerastium vulgatum) which, from the appearance of its red fleshy stalks, is supposed to have some connection with worms. Dispensatory: Described as “a gentle nervous stimulant” useful in diseases in which the nerves are especially affected. The other herb is not named.
  17. A´HAWI´ AKA´TA´=”deer eye,” from the appearance of the flower-Rudbeckia fulgida-Cone Flower: Decoction of root drunk for flux and for some private diseases; also used as a wash for snake bites and swellings caused by (mythic) tsgâya or worms; also dropped into weak or inflamed eyes. This last is probably from the supposed connection between the eye and the flower resembling the eye. Dispensatory: Not named.
  18. UTISTUGI´=Polygonatum multiflorum latifolium-Solomon’s Seal: Root heated and bruised and applied as a poultice to remove an ulcerating swelling called tu´sti´, resembling a boil or carbuncle. Dispensatory: “This species acts like P. uniflorum, which is said to be emetic. In former times it was used externally in bruises, especially those about the eyes, in tumors, wounds, and cutaneous eruptions and was highly esteemed as a cosmetic. At present it is not employed, though recommended by Hermann as a good remedy in gout and rheumatism.” This species in decoction has been found to produce “nausea, a cathartic effect and either diaphoresis or diuresis,” and is useful “as an internal remedy in piles, and externally in the form of decoction, in the affection of the skin resulting from the poisonous exhalations of certain plants.”
  19. AMADITA’TÌ=”water dipper,” because water can be sucked up through its hollow stalk-Eupatorium purpureum-Queen of the Meadow, Gravel Root: Root used in decoction with a somewhat similar plant called Amaditá´ti û´tanu, or “large water dipper” (not identified) for difficult urination. Dispensatory: “Said to operate as a diuretic. Its vulgar name of gravel root indicates the popular estimation of its virtues.” The genus is described as tonic, diaphoretic, and in large doses emetic and aperient.
  20. YÂNA UTSESTA=”the bear lies on it”-Aspidium acrostichoides-Shield Fern: Root decoction drunk to produce vomiting, and also used to rub on the skin, after scratching, for rheumatism-in both cases some other plant is added to the decoction; the warm decoction is also held in the mouth to relieve toothache. Dispensatory: Not named.

Cherokee, Medicine,

Mooney, James. Sacred Formulas Of The Cherokees. Published in the Seventh Annual Report, Bureau of Ethnology, pp. 301-399. 1886.

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