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Native Americans share wisdom about backyard botanicals

“Green Roots, Red Resilience” workshop participants learned from local tribal members about the usefulness and importance of native plants.

People around a table.
"Green Roots, Red Resilience" drew 60 attendees in Reeves Auditorium at the N.C. Botanical Garden and 44 participants on Zoom. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

While weaving cattail mats, sipping sassafras tea and pulping persimmons, participants in a recent North Carolina Botanical Garden program learned valuable lessons about often overlooked native plants.

Take the persimmon. It has the largest fruiting tree range in North America — from northern Vermont to northern Florida — and the longest fruiting season. And it’s resilient, with strong, flexible wood that can ride out hurricane-force winds. But the small, tough-skinned fruit of the southern trees tastes best when it falls, shriveled and ripe, to the ground. When it’s ripe, it tastes like a sweet cross between a peach and a mango.

“It is not going to be shipped. It can’t be commoditized,” said Dr. Linwood Watson, a family medicine physician and amateur orchardist who is a member of the Haliwa-Saponi tribe. “It kind of reminds you of the culture. You have to meet the persimmon where it is. That’s the local lesson from the persimmon.”

Wisdom keepers

Watson was one of several tribal representatives from across the state who explained the uses of native plants and how important they are to the environment and to the cultural identity of local Native Americans.

“I want to say how honored we are to have these wisdom keepers in the room,” said Jesalyn Kezia, community engagement program officer for the UNC American Indian Center. The center co-sponsored the free Nov. 12 “Green Roots, Red Resilience” symposium as one of several events in honor of American Indian Heritage Month.

Vickie Jeffries of the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation led a session on the uses of pine needles, cedar, sumac and sassafras and invited participants to taste teas made from white pine needles, sassafras roots and red sumac berries. Be mindful in gathering native plants, she advised. “Plants have spirits, too. Only take what you need.”

Darlene Graham and Sue Jacobs of the Waccamaw Siouan tribe shared stories from the Healing Green Space they have established in Columbus County, west of Wilmington. In it, they grow native plants as well as those brought to the area by early European settlers, such as mullein (used to treat earache and respiratory problems) and catnip (a natural bug repellant).

For the day’s activity, they distributed cattail strips used to weave mats and baskets. Cattails grow on the Waccamaw Siouan tribal homeland on the edges of the Green Swamp, and to keep them from being mistakenly destroyed, Graham said she told the group, “I’ll do the Weed Eating myself.”

Future generations

Along with information about plants, the presenters also shared their concerns about the wisdom of their elders not being passed along to future generations. Many are involved in the North Carolina Native American Ethnobotany Project, which collects plant knowledge from elders and shares it back with the community through blog posts, publications and local workshops.

Watson encouraged the audience, in person and on Zoom, to share traditional knowledge with their children through “little lessons done frequently,” with a hands-on component, if possible. The participatory part of his presentation was persimmon pulping, in which symposium participants used plastic knives to separate the fruit’s bright orange flesh from its tough skin and flat seeds.

The Waccamaw Siouan tribe uses the Healing Green Space for hands-on learning workshops for youth led by elders, where the lessons are environmental and cultural. The Three Sisters Garden, for example, teaches how corn, beans and squash complement each other horticulturally and nutritionally. But it is also the source of a valuable life lesson about good and bad companions, Graham said. “It shows that you need to be careful who you plant yourself beside.”

In keeping with the sharing theme, participants were encouraged to take home seeds from a “seed swap” table that included seeds for wildflowers, herbs and corn as well as sunchokes and elderberry cuttings.

They also took home a recipe for one of the lunch desserts, “Take Back the Youth Persimmon Cookies,” which Watson shared in a handout. Apparently, lessons for youth go down better with sugar and cinnamon, with the addition of raisins or nuts.

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