November is Native American Heritage Month, a time to celebrate the rich history and culture of indigenous people. It is also an opportunity for all to recognize the contributions and influences that Native Americans have on today’s society. The landscape at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) is no exception.
The plantings that surround the museum represent four “habitats”: wetlands, eastern meadow, upland hardwood forest, and traditional croplands. Each of these areas is planted with ethno-botanical plants meaning that the plants or their parts are used as food, medicine, dye, or fiber, or in other ways. NMAI’s plantings are all native to the Piedmont region except for those in the traditional croplands which are agronomic and food crops grown throughout the western hemisphere.
While the plants at NMAI have their individual moments to shine throughout the growing season, collectively this landscape is at its peak during the autumn months. A casual stroll around the museum grounds this time of year awakens the senses. During this change of season, SG staff harvest late season vegetables and transition to winter cover crops or cool season leafy greens in the croplands. The deciduous trees reveal their vibrant leaf colors which had been masked by green chlorophyll all season. Many of the native trees and shrubs feature maturing nuts and delicious ripening fruit. The native grasses and perennial seed heads are gracefully senescing (or withering) as birds and wildlife feed and nest on them. Aside from these most visible signs of the season, let us take a more in-depth look at a few of these plants and their varied uses.
As mentioned earlier, the NMAI landscape features ethno-botanical plants, several of which have multiple uses. One of the first trees that comes to mind is Acer rubrum, more commonly known as red maple, which has brilliant foliage in shades of deep red and orange with tinges of gold. Red maple is a dominant tree species in the lower elevations throughout the eastern United States and Canada. Did you know that Native Americans collected and boiled down its sap to make maple syrup and sugar? This practice is still carried out today, typically during the months of February and March. Maple wood is used for basketry, carvings, arrows, bowls, tools, and furniture.
Another fun and I dare say trendy fruiting tree is the common pawpaw, Asimina triloba, with its unusual deep burgundy flowers in the spring, followed by large mango-shaped fruit that matures in the early fall months. Native Americans often dried the fruit and added it to cakes, breads and sauces. Today pawpaw fruit can be found at local farmers markets and gourmet grocery websites. An often-overlooked cordage plant, the inner bark of the pawpaw is used to make rope. Don’t miss the golden leaves of this understory tree that is sure to brighten any shady corner of the forest.
The shagbark hickory, Carya ovata, has a beautiful golden fall color and produces an abundance of nuts in October. These nuts were traditionally used for soups and stews and a quick online search yields dozens of contemporary hickory nut recipes. Hickory is one of the strongest and densest woods used commercially today. Aware of its density and strength, Native Americans used hickory to make snowshoes, bows, barrel rings, and lacrosse sticks. The wood can be steamed, then curved or bent, and dried into a new shape, making it a very versatile and practical resource.
One of my favorite small trees in the landscape at NMAI is the shadbush or serviceberry, Amelanchier aborea. The delicate white flowers dance in the spring breeze and are followed by clusters of bright red fruit which take on a deep purple hue when ripe. Native people often dried its fruit and used them in cakes. Can a plant be a phenological indicator species (one that indicates a natural seasonal phenomenon)? Yes, it can, with the bloom time of the shadbush/serviceberry coinciding with the time of year when shad swim upriver to spawn. The bloom also signals when the ground has thawed, and graveside funeral services can be held.
A shrubby native tree that is often misidentified as an invasive species is the staghorn sumac, Rhus typhina. Indigenous people have several uses for distinct parts of this plant. The berries, bark, and roots are all used as a dye, while the leaves are often used in making baskets. A lemonade type of tea can be made from the fruit and the leaves are sometimes smoked.
The large panicles (or branched clusters) of cream flowers and red fuzzy clusters of berries paired with its showy red, orange, and purple fall color make it hard to miss in the landscape. A lemonade type of tea can be made from the fruit and the leaves are sometimes smoked. The large panicles (or branched clusters) of cream flowers and red fuzzy clusters of berries paired with its showy red, orange, and purple fall color make it hard to miss in the landscape.
Recently, people have been showing a renewed interest in reconnecting with nature and procuring their own food, from growing vegetable gardens to foraging for local edible plant materials and cooking with native plants. It seems quite trendy, though this is something that Native Americans have been doing for hundreds if not thousands of years. Think about how people acquired food and other items prior to big box retailers and online companies with guaranteed next day delivery. You had to grow it, make it, or get by with items you already had on hand. This arduous task was even more difficult in areas with harsh winter conditions or nomadic lifestyles.
While I’m not advocating for people to forage for, prepare, and eat wild native plants (as this is a skill that takes much careful learning to distinguish safe plants from poisonous ones), I am suggesting that we as gardeners and stewards of the land follow in these footsteps and take a closer look at our relationships with the land and ways we can utilize everything it has to offer in order to help preserve it for future generations.