Plains Indians - Some Plants and Their Uses

And Layout of a Medicine Wheel Garden



All Native American Indian tribes were highly skilled in food and medicine collection of plants. They wasted nothing. The plants were consumed fresh, dried for later use or parts of the whole plant were utilized in making clothing and other items. Even dead leaves were used as the blackened ones at the base of sage bushes for a talcum powder for a baby's diaper rashes.

I have tried to pick plants that should be common in many places if you wish to try them. I have avoided anything that I think may be harmful to people but you know your bodies and their sensitivities best so eat with caution. I am also avoiding discussing the internal medicinal uses of any plant but the internet is full of that information. I would practice great caution in using plants for self medication without being an expert.

There are thousands of plants utilized by the Native Americans. Far too many to show and discuss here. I have included some excellent links throughout this page for you to explore.

Sage, Sweet Grass, Cedar (Red Cedar or Juniper) and Kinnickinnic (Indian tobacco) These four plants are the most important herbs or plants that are used in Native American ceremonies.


     Common Cattail - This is a most versatile plant as almost all parts of it are edible or can be used for basic needs. "In early spring, dig up the roots to locate the small pointed shoots called corms. These can be removed, peeled, and eaten, added to other spring greens for a salad, or cooked in stews or alone as a pot herb. As the plant growth progresses to where the shoots reach a height of two to three feet above the water, peel and eat like the corms, or sauté."

In fall the yellow pollen is used with other flour. Collect roots, wash and peel them to extract the starch to use in many ways. Poultices are made from the roots. The seed head fluff was used to put into cradleboards for diaper purposes or stuffing purposes. Mats, baskets and other items are woven from the long leaves.


Prickly Pear Cactus - The fruits are edible as is the interior of the leaves. Care must be used as the spines are difficult to remove. Burn them off if possible, peel the outer skin and slice the pulp to boil with soup to thicken. The sap is used for purposes like the Aloe Vera plant. The fruit is sweet, some say it has a watermelon taste.

Dandelion - the young leaves can be eaten raw and cleaned and dried roots can be crushed and used as a coffee substitute.

Lamb's Quarter (aka Pigweed or Goosefoot) - My favorite way to eat the tender leaves of these spinach like plants that taste a bit like asparagus is when its boiled with the seed heads and add a bit of butter or bacon drippings.

Peppermint - Native Americans used mint more when salt was not available but salt was not really used by Plains Indians. It is said the Sioux preferred not to use it at all. Mint was stewed with dried fruits and berries, fish were stuffed or wrapped in it and leaves added to fresh greens.


     Red Clover (shown) - The white and lavender clover has small flowers but they are just as good to use to add to soups and stews. The flower heads are good to chew on raw. Clover tea is good.


     Sheppard's Purse - The leaves can be eaten raw or cooked. The taste becomes peppery as they age and can be dried easily. Young flowering shoots can be eaten raw or cooked. Seeds can be eaten raw or cooked in soups to add a pepper taste. The root is a ginger substitute.


Watercress - Has a peppery taste that is added to stews and soups or eaten raw.


Sunflower - mature seeds were roasted or eaten raw. A flour was ground from the dry seeds.
Wild onion - This plant must be carefully gathered as some other plants look like it. If it smells like an onion it is one. The bulbs were used in all kinds of foods for seasoning. It has a large amount of vitamin C.
Some wildflowers and trees that Native Americans are very familiar with. Enlarge the photos showing pinion nuts or pine nuts if you are not familiar with them where you live.


Puffball, Oyster, Morel, and Boletus mushrooms are all safe to eat. Make sure you know how to identify them.

Gilled mushrooms should always be identified by an expert before eaten. I would suggest any with spotted tops be treated as poisonous.
Puffball - safe and edible when young. Spores used in blood coagulation. They are edible when they are all white in a ball shape with solid meat inside. No gills or tubes.

Sagebrush - all species The  pungent and fragrant smelling sagebrush is one of the most important herbs to Native Americans.  Sagebrush has a multitude of uses.  Besides being used in the ceremonies for purification purposes held by the different tribes, Nevada Indians used the plant for shelter, the fiber for clothing, dye and medicine. The leaves are edible and are used to make a tea.

Softened sagebrush is said to have been a part of a Paiute infant's swaddling along with rabbit skins and dry algae. The dead leaves were ground and used as a talcum for baby skin rashes. Ground sagebrush was used as a laxative, shampoo, and toothache remedy.  But today sagebrush is considered poisonous so do not use it for these reasons at home.

Temporary shelters could be made by pulling up the plant and piling them into a circle to block the wind and blowing sand and to reflect heat from a central fireplace.  Cord, rope, and netting were made with the bark of the sagebrush.  Shredded the sagebrush bark was used to make overshoes and leggings for cold weather.

State of Sage, by Syd Brown, article on Big Sagebrush in the Nevada magazine, September/October/November 1992, pages 22, 23 and 24.

Vegetables wild potatoes, wild onions, milkweed, and the root of the yellow water lily.
Nuts acorns from the pin oak and the white oak, hickory nuts, hazelnuts, beechnuts, and butternuts
Berries - A good rule of thumb on choosing which berries to eat is if you see animals or birds are not eating them, don't you eat them either. Berries - cranberries, gooseberries, juneberries, blueberries, black and red raspberries, grapes, cherries, and chokecherries

White - may be poisonous and probably is poisonous.
Red - may make some people ill
Black or blue - should be safe



This website is by far the most concise one I found online. It is excellent and I recommend you take a look at it if you are interested in what grows in your area.

Plant cautions:

Smoking tobacco

Mushroom warnings:

Books I have found helpful to me:

All of the many books written by author Euell Gibbons are highly recommended reading.

Eat the Weeds by Ben Charles Harris

American Wildlife & Plants - A Guide to Wildlife Food Habits by Alexander C. Martin, Herbert S. Zim and Arnold L. Nelson. The use of trees, shrubs, weeds and herbs by birds and mammals of the United States.

Common Edible and Useful Plants of the West by Muriel Sweet

Herbs and Things by Jeanne Rose's Herbal, a compendium of practical and exotic herbal lore.

Wild Edible Plants of the Western United States by Donald R. Kirk. Illustrated color and black and white.

Edible Wild Plants by Lee Allen Peterson. Illustrated black and white.


Some Graphics from while others are public domain.


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