Medicine in your backyard: How Indigenous peoples have used medicinal plants

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A program available at Wanuskewin Heritage Park shows people plants that are native to the land and explains how people

You may not need a trip to your local pharmacy to find the medicine you need for aches, pains or trouble sleeping.

Medicine is all around us. For centuries, Indigenous peoples found all of the medicine they needed on the land, using plants to treat a variety of ailments and conditions.

Those medicines are the focus of a program available at Wanuskewin Heritage Park just north of Saskatoon. Guides take groups on a walk, showing people plants that are native to the land and explaining how people have traditionally used those plants.

Here is a look at some of the plants featured on the tour.

Trembling aspen

  • When the leaves of the trembling aspen turn upside down, rain is coming.
  • When young men would go hunt, they would peel off the bark and boil it. The water would be combined with bison fat. The hunters would then apply the mixture to their skin as a way to mask their scent.
  • A white powder will come off the bark when you rub it with your hand. You can then wipe the powder on your skin to be used as a sunscreen.

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The trembling aspen is a good weather predictor.

Cattails

  • The root can be applied to burns and skin infections.
  • The male pollen can be crushed and made into flour.
  • The fluff from the cob was used in mattresses, for feminine hygiene and for diapers.
  • When the cob is still green, it can be cooked like corn.
  • The leaves can be weaved into a mat. When combined with the fluff, the mat can offer insulation.

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Cattails have a variety of uses, from their root to their leaves. (Courtney Markewich/CBC)

Stinging nettles

  • The little hairs on the stem will give you a rash, much like poison ivy.
  • If you pick the plant when it's young, you can eat the root, which is high in iron and minerals.
  • It can be used to stop nose bleeds or interior hemorrhaging.
  • When someone was suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, the stem would be used to whip the spot on the hand where the pain was as a way to encourage blood flow.

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Stinging nettles will give you a rash, like poison ivy does. (Courtney Markewich/CBC)

Plantain

  • If you crush the plantain and wrap it onto cuts, it will act as a disinfectant. It also helps to stop bleeding.
  • This will help with bug bites and skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema.
  • If you get a rash from the stinging nettle, chew the plantain and put it on the rash.

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The plantain is a natural disinfectant. (Courtney Markewich/CBC)

Yarrow

  • This plant can act as an insect repellent.
  • The leaf can be chewed and put on a cut to stop the bleeding. Once wet in your mouth, it can also be applied to stings or bug bites to relieve the pain.
  • Brewing the leaf in tea can help with fever, colds and the flu.

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Yarrow provides relief for stings and bug bites. (Courtney Markewich/CBC)

Creeping juniper

  • This plant can be dried and used in a tea to treat back pain.
  • You can lay the plant around your home to keep out rodents and snakes.
  • The berries were used for birth control. 

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Laying creeping juniper around your home will help keep out rodents and snakes. (Courtney Markewich/CBC)

Chamomile

  • Consumed as a tea, it can help with insomnia. 
  • The green pods can be eaten.

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Chamomile, once dried, can be steeped as a tea to help a person sleep. (Courtney Markewich/CBC)

Manitoba maple

  • The sap can be used as not only a sweetener, but to soothe a sore throat.
  • The tree itself was used to make snowshoes and spears.

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The sap from the Manitoba maple can be used as a sweetener and to soothe a sore throat. (Courtney Markewich/CBC)

Hawthorn

  • The berry, known as the haw, contains magnesium and calcium, and is good for the heart.
  • The thorn can be used for fishing hooks and sewing needles.

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The berry of the hawthorn is best picked after the first frost for both flavour and medicinal purposes. (Courtney Markewich/CBC)

Female sage

  • It can be used as a deodorant or mosquito repellant. Animals will often rub against the plant to protect themselves from mosquito bites.
  • It can also be used in tea to detoxify your body.

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Animals will rub against female sage to protect themselves against mosquitoes. (Courtney Markewich/CBC)

Fleabane

  • Steeped as a tea, it can be applied to get rid of red, itchy, sore eyes.

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This flower can help relieve itchy, red eyes.

Rose hips

  • ​High in citamin C, three of the berries contain as much of the vitamin as one orange.
  • While the berry is edible, the seeds have tiny fibres that can cause irritation leading to "itchy bum."

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Rose hips can be made into tea. (Courtney Markewich/CBC)

Lichen

  • Lichen is high in vitamins and minerals. Ideally you would want to scrape it off the rock or bark and boil it, but if you don't have any water, you can eat it as is.
  • Blue or green lichen is edible. Orange or black lichen is not.

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Lichen that is orange or black in colour is toxic. (Courtney Markewich/CBC)

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