A historically accurate review of ethnobotany along the trail does not exist. By ethnobotany I refer to the uses of plant in various ways, ranging from foods and medicines, to animal fodder and human recreation (picking flowers). There were several attempts made to try to detail this unique part of overland history for which minimal notes exist in the diaries and jounrals and such. Most of these notes add a contemporary point of view to the plants noted, and typically apply modern philosophy to items and events that are not at all what we consider them to be today. These misinterpretations are not wrong, they are just problematic, and on occasion they result in errors, some of which are amusing were they not upsetting at the time had the modern author’s claim actually been carried out. In one case a blistering medical plant was purported to be collected for ingestion as a vegetable, on another occasion a medicinal plant was suggested to be useful in a way totally inapplicable and not common to the time.
It is best to think of trail medicine and foodways as what we read them to be in the writings, and then make inferrences based on the writings then applicable for the time. This means we have to erase everything we know today as plants and try to get more intouch with what was known then. We need to ask ourselves
- How did these people behave with plants at the time?
- Did they just run into the closest forest along the river and harvest a plant based on touch, feel or smell?
- Did they even know what plants were out there?
- What about those plants that did resemble horseradish along Platte River?
- How were thjey when the old men tried to prepare them for use as horseradish with their next and perhaps last supper?
- What knowledge did pioneers have from the Midwest and Eastern States that they could bring along with them and apply to their trail life?
- What were the different philosophies about healing that they carried across with them?
- What might a Thomsonian healer do now that there were no longer any Thomsonian herbal remedies along the trail?
- How did the water cure specialist interpret his/her natural resources along the trail and adjust her treatment plans accordingly?
- How did Eclectic Medical physicians benefit from the overland experience?
- What about the homeopaths along the trail?
- Were any plants out there along the trail so deadly to the livestock that their effects could be documented by a review of trail diaries?
- Which plants were deadly to the mostly children, babies and newborns?
- What plants did the women and children pick as decoratives and typically carry with them as they made their way westward?
Believe it nor not, there are answers to all of these questions.
Aside from the primary references like journals, diaries, reminiscences, fort and government documents, there are a few secondary references that are in fact quite helpful in a review of trail ethnobotany. For this review of ethnobotany, we are focused on trail culture itself. There is of course that part of ethnobotany history that we could get into that is related to Native American history. For the most part much of this is excluded from the review.
The most important secondary referfence for part of this work is the Flora of the Great Plains and its Atlas version published earlier with just the distribution maps for Great Plains Flora. Quite a few years ago I did an extensive review of these maps and the natural history of the plants in realtion to diary and journal notes and came upon one or two plants that told us unusual stories about the Overland Trail, based simply of their obvious distribution behaviors in relation to trail geography. Another dozen or two dozen plants had relationships to the trail and to trail history that were related to dairy notes. Then there were several dozen more plants with stories that could be inferred based on a review of non-trail materials, typically the medicinal and on occasion edible plants found growing along the trail.
Another set of books applicable and valuable for this research are the two books on the ethnobotany of flora of the Great Plains. However, these books, though quite popular a few years back, consist of a lot of summaries and comments made based upon non-overland materials, including Native American ethnobotany for the time (which is quite interesting but unlikely to be a trailblazer’s choice of foods and medicines), and the contemporary viewpoints of the medicinal values of these plants for the time, uses and reasoning which may not at all be valid for the overland trail years.
There is one other book on the Overland history that is worth mentioning in passing. Food on the Great Plains is an excellent read for trail historians. This is where a major error occurs however, an item that I feel needs to be clarified. Its author accidentally refers to a local Euphorb plant as a food source. This note related to an overlander noted to be collecting and hanging up the leaves of this plant (a Croton species) to dry or preserve them before he continues on his way westward. This particular plant is an Eclectic Medical remedy then very popular. It was used to produce blistering plasters on the back of people with consumption, or sometimes to blister the skin of legs and arms in order to reduce pain and swelling beneath, like that due to rheumatism. It would not make a very useful soup, stem or side dish along the trail.
The following plants come to mind for a review of Overland Trail Flora ethnobotany (in taxonomic order, limited to grat Plains and East face of the Rockies):
- Equisetum spp.
- Typha spp.
- Quercus spp.
- White water lily – Nymphaea sp.
- Yellow water lily – Nuphar advena
- Mahonia aquifolium
- Berberis repens and allies
- Ranunculus spp.
- Croton spp.
- Populus spp.
- Polygonum persicaria
- Rumex spp.
- Salicornia sp.
- Eupatorium spp.
- Ratibada spp.
- Artemisia spp.
White water lily – Nymphaea sp.
Yellow water lily – Nuphar advena
Berberis repens and allies