Medicinal Plants Used by the Cree Indians, Hudson's Bay Territory.


Curator of the Museum of the Pharmaceutical Society,

Mr. Walton Haydon, who has resided for some time in the Hudson's Bay Territory, recently presented to the Pharmaceutical Society a series of specimens of the drugs used by the native Indians, and with them has also contributed some information concerning their uses, which may be of interest in the future if placed on record. Only the native name of some of the drugs is known at present, but Mr. Haydon has promised to forward specimens of the plants from which they are obtained on his return to Hudson's Bay.

The remainder I have been able to identify.

Pow-e-men-artic (Fire Root, or Bitter Pepper Root).—This is the rhizome of Acorus Calamus, L., or a nearly allied species, and is used in coughs. The rhizome is rather more slender than met with in this country, being only about one-third of an inch in diameter, but seems to be quite as aromatic and pungent. It is not a little singular that there is hardly a country where this plant grows that the rhizome is not used in medicine.

Waydhash?—This is the liber of the bark of Abies balsamea, Marshall, freed from the periderm and leaving exposed the numerous vesicles in which the Canada balsam is secreted. The bark is about one line thick, has a short fracture, and is of a white color when broken; the inner surface is pale-brown and the exterior reddish-brown. The taste is astringent and bitter, with a flavor of Canada balsam.

Wakinakim, the bark of Juniperus communis, L..This is used to make a poultice for wounds. According to Mr. Haydon it is prepared for use by taking a stick and cutting it into pieces about four inches long, boiling it until the outer bark comes off easily, scraping off the inner bark and beating it between two stones into a pulpy mass, which is applied to the wound. Mr. Haydon has seen it so used, and remarks, "It certainly seems to clear a foul wound well, and is the usual remedy employed by Indians for wounds of all kinds." The beneficial action of the bark is doubtless due to its great astringency, and to the volatile oil present in it, which would naturally act as an antiseptic.

Milawapamule, Cornus sericea, Herit., (Red Willow Bark).—This bark occurs in two qualities, one being in the form of slender quills, 3 or 4 inches long, bearing a slight resemblance to the bark of Rhamnus Frangula, but free from scars. The transverse fracture is yellowish-white, the inner surface light orange brown, and the exterior of a deep chestnut brown color, but when fresh of a bright crimson; the taste is bitter and the flavor resembles that of tea. The second quality consists of fine scrapings of the young bark. The latter is the form in which the bark is used as an emetic in coughs and fevers. For coughs the bark is boiled in water and the decoction strained and given while still warm in the dose of a wineglassful every few minutes until vomiting supervenes. For colds and fevers a teaspoonful of the decoction is taken occasionally. The scraped wood is also smoked, mixed with tobacco. Boiled with rust of iron it is used as a black dye.

Nepatihe, or Green Alder.—This is the bark of Alnus viridis, DC. It consists of thin shreds which have evidently been scraped off the young branches. The inner surface is of a pale dull brown and the exterior greenish brown. It has a very astringent taste with a slight bitterness and a flavor recalling that of the leaves of Arbutus Uva-ursi. It is used is dropsy.

Metoos (Populus, Sp.?) Poplar Bark.—This bark is in the form of thin flat strips of liber about half an inch wide and half a line thick. It has a bitter, slightly mucilaginous taste with some astringency, and a fibrous texture. The color externally is dull brown and on the inner surface yellowish. Another form of the bark consists of thinner pieces torn into fine shreds. It is used in coughs, half an ounce, in the form of decoction, being the dose.

The inner bark of the poplar is eaten in the spring by the Indians, and is considered to act as a mild purgative. Mr. Haydon says he has eaten pounds of it without any effect being produced. It is at that time of the year pleasant in flavor, being sweetish and very tender.

Wetchus-y-usk-wa, or Service Tree, (Amelanchier alnifolia)—This is in the form of thin shreds scraped off the young branches. It is of a yellowish-white color on the inner surface, and of a purplish-brown on the outer. It has a slightly bitter, very astringent taste, and a strong tea-like flavor. It is used by the Indians in pleurisy and inflammatory diseases.

We-suk-a-pup (Kalmia angustifolia, L.), Bitter Tea.—The twigs with leaves and flowers are used in bowel complaints and as a tonic. A small handful is boiled in two pints of water, and a teaspoonful taken occasionally. A nearly allied species K. latifolia, is said to have cured an obstinate case of diarrhoea. In this instance an ounce of the leaves was boiled in eight ounces of water down to four ounces, and thirty drops of the decoction were given four times a day. When given six times a day this quantity caused vertigo. A case of poisoning from the use of Kalmia latifolia is on record, in which glowing heat in the head, loss of sight, coldness of extremities, were followed by nausea and vomiting (Edinburgh Med. Journ., 1856, p. 1014), and subsequently formication, weakness of the limbs and great prostration of the circulation, remaining for several hours. It is pointed out in the United States Dispensatory (p. 1678) that K. angustifolia most likely possesses similar properties. It is remarkable, therefore, that it should be used as a tonic by the Cree Indians. The coldness of the climate may, however, modify the development of the poisonous principle, and species closely allied to a poisonous one are not always poisonous, as in the case of Aconitum heterophyllum, or even A. paniculatum, the latter nearly resembling the poisonous A. Napellus. Among other drugs mentioned by Mr. Haydon as being in common use by the Cree Indians are—Cedar leaves (Juniperus virginiana?) and Galium boreale as diuretics; Actaea spicata, L., and Iris versicolor, L., as purgatives; Mentha canadensis, L., in the form of tea, as a stomachic; Lobelia Kalmii, L., as an emetic; Solidago Virgaurea, L., as a tonic; Fleabane (Erigeron canadensis, L.?), in diarrhoea; the herb of Prunella vulgaris L., is chewed for sore throat.

Karkar-pukwa or Country Tea (Ledum latifolium, L.).—The fresh leaves are chewed and applied to wounds. The flowering tops are used as tea, and should be gathered when in full bloom. The dried flowers have an odor between that of tansy and chamomile. According to the United States Dispensatory the leaves are esteemed pectoral and tonic, and are said to have been used as a substitute for tea during the War of Independence. An account of the medicinal uses of this plant by the Indians of the North of Michigan will be found in the Pharm. Journ., [3], viii, p. 850. By homoeopaths it is used as a remedy for tender feet, especially when associated with rheumatism, and the tincture is highly esteemed for relieving the pain of the stings of insects. (See also Amer. Jour. Phar., 1878, p. 54.)

Betula alba.—The white rotten wood of this tree is boiled in a decoction of Ledum latifolium for an hour. The wood is afterwards dried, rubbed to powder and sifted. In this state it is used for chafed surfaces, the flesh being washed with cold water and the powder then sifted on it. Mr. Haydon speaks highly of its value for this purpose, having had personal experience of its efficacy on chafed feet, etc. It is also used as a dusting powder for children.

Prunus virginiana, L..The bark is used fresh, as a rule. It is used as a cure for diarrhoea. For this purpose a handful of the bark is scraped off a young bough and boiled in about a pint of water and a wineglassful used as a dose.

Castoreum is used to make a poultice for sprains.

Other plants used in medicine by the Cree Indians are Apocynum hypericifolium, Ait., and Comandra livida, Rich.

Leaves and barks used as an application to wounds are always chewed before being used. Emetics and purgatives are taken in the form of a decoction, a wineglassful is administered occasionally until the desired effect is produced.

Vermillion is also used in medicine, and the method of using it is as follows: It is mixed with gunpowder damped and lighted, the patient sitting in a closed tent and inhaling the fumes.

Although the list of materia medica is a small one there is remarkable judgment shown in the choice of remedies. Thus, Prunella vulgaris makes an excellent substitute for sal prunella balls in sore throat, and the bark of the juniper and Canada balsam tree are doubtless as good an application to wounds as a people unversed in antiseptic applications and ignorant of the existence of bacteria could devise. The use of a Lobelia as an emetic and of Iris versicolor as a cholagogue and purgative approaches closely to the practice of more civilized nations. The simple device of bleeding from an artery by piercing it with a sharp flint and stopping it by pressure with a button of wood and a bandage shows a respectable knowledge of surgery.—Pharm. Journ. and Trans., October 18, 1884, p. 302.

The American Journal of Pharmacy, Vol. 56, 1884, was edited by John M. Maisch.