Plants & Ethnobotany

Ethnobotany is the study of how plants are used by people. The indigenous peoples of the Chesapeake developed a rich understanding of plants. They knew which were edible and which could treat various illnesses. To understand how American Indians used plants hundreds and thousands of years ago, we also need archaeobotany. An archaeobotanist studies the remains of plants from archeological sites. These remains tell the story of that culture’s diet, technology, and the region's natural history.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge of plants has led to many of the foods we know and love today, as well as some of our most important medicines. A well-known example from the Americas is quinine, a chemical used as a treatment for malaria. Quinine is synthesized in a lab today, but it originated from the bark of the Peruvian cinchona tree. The bark was long used by indigenous peoples as a fever-reducer.

Below are examples of plants used by American Indians of the Chesapeake Bay. Some are still in use today, and some have been found at archeological sites. This list focused on some lesser-known species that have long been native to this region.

DISCLAIMER: This information is for educational purposes only. Do not consume or otherwise introduce wild plants to the body without an expert’s advice. Plant identification can be tricky, and some plants listed contain chemical compounds we now know to be harmful.
Tuckahoe plants grow in a cluster in the water.

NPS Photo

Aquatic Plants

Tuckahoe Peltandra virginica
Tuckahoe is also known as arrow arum due to the arrow-like shape of its leaves. American Indians harvested the roots of tuckahoe, and the plant was an important source of food. The root is toxic, and must be boiled for a long time before it becomes edible. After boiling, tuckahoe is a starchy vegetable that can be prepared in various ways.

Grains of rice viewed up close.
Grains of wild rice

Steve Hurst, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

Wild Rice Zizania aquatica
Wild rice grows in the Bay’s brackish marshes. It is another important food source for American Indians, who gather edible wetland plants using canoes. The grain is still harvested by American Indians in the US today, and it is even grown commercially. In the Chesapeake Bay, wild rice is a food source that draws migratory birds to the estuary every year.

Watershield leaves floating on the water.

Aaron Carlson

Watershield Brasenia schreberi
Watershield is a flowering aquatic plant with floating leaves. It grows in slow-moving waters, lakes, and ponds. Its leaves are oval shaped, but unlike a generic lily pad, do not have a notch. Watershield can also be identified by the thick layer of slime that coats the underwater parts of the plant. This layer probably exists to protect the plant from being eaten by snails and other animals. Watershield is an astringent that American Indians used to treat abscesses – bacterial infections on the skin. Watershield is edible, and it is thought that American Indians harvested the roots of the plant, similarly to tuckahoe. In Japan, the stems and leaves of the plant are eaten in salad.

Fruit and leaves of the Paw Paw tree.
Paw Paw fruit

Virginia State Parks

Trees & Shrubs

Paw Paw Asimina triloba
The paw paw is a small tree native to the eastern United States and Canada. In the late fall, it produces a large green fruit. The flavor and texture has been described as a cross between a mango and a banana. You may have passed by paw paw trees on hikes through the woods and never noticed that there was a delicious fruit ripe for the picking. Look for almost ripe paw paws that can be removed from the stem with little resistance.

Illustration of the staghorn sumac branches and berries.
Staghorn Sumac

Biodiversity Heritage Library

Sumac Rhus sp.
Sumac is a shrub that produces a large, brightly colored cluster of flowers and berries in the summer. There are a number of different sumac species in the genera Rhus. These species are not the same as poison sumac, or Toxicodendron vernix. For example, Rhus typhina, or staghorn sumac, produces red berries that some people today mix into lemonade. This is another drink that was invented by American Indians centuries ago. Sumac was also a smoking material.

Sassafras leaves
Sassafras leaves have three different shapes

NPS Photo

Sassafras Sassafras albidum
Sassafras is another small tree common in the forests surrounding the Chesapeake Bay. It is easy to identify sassafras from its unique leaves. Sassafras has three different leaf shapes all growing on the same plant, including a basic oblong leaf shape, a double-pronged or mitten shaped leaf, and a three-pronged leaf. Additionally, cutting the bark with a knife releases a scent akin to root beer. And that smell is no coincidence: sassafras is the traditional ingredient in root beer. Today, it is no longer used to make root beer due to concerns from the FDA about its safety. But the idea to use sassafras as a beverage comes from American Indians, who make a tea from the twigs and leaves of the plants.

An acorn on a branch.

NPS Photo

Oak Quercus sp.
Many trees in the Chesapeake Bay produce nuts that are edible to humans. Probably the most recognizable nut is the acorn, which comes from different species of oak tree. How do you eat an acorn? While you can certainly eat them raw or roasted, a popular way to eat acorns is to grind them into a meal. The meal can be used to make things like bread and soup. Acorns can also be made into a coffee-like beverage.

A dark green fern.
Christmas Fern

NPS Photo

Herbaceous Plants

Ferns misc.
Many species of fern grow along rivers and creeks in the Chesapeake Bay. Ferns and other plants were used by American Indians to line cooking pits. To cook vegetables in a pit, a version of these steps is followed. First, a pit is dug and stones are placed inside. Then, a large fire is lit over the stones. As the fire burns down to ashes, the stones become very hot. The ashes are swept aside, and the stones are covered in fireproof leaves, such as ferns. The food is placed on top, water is poured inside, and the pit is quickly covered to trap the steam. A few hours later, the vegetables are uncovered and are fully cooked!

A purple flower.
Wild Geranium

USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab

Wild Geranium Geranium maculatum
Wild geranium is a small purple flower that is used medicinally. To do so, the plant is made into a tea. This tea can treat digestion issues. It can also treat problems in the mouth, like swollen gums, sore throat, and ulcers. The roots of the flower can be dried, crushed into a powder, and applied to wounds to help the blood coagulate.

A stem with small purple and green buds
Chenopodium album, an edible member of the Amaranth family

R.W. Smith / Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

Amaranth misc.

Amaranthaceae is a family of flowering plants, some of which are edible. The leaves and shoots, rich in vitamins and minerals, can be cooked and eaten like spinach. The seeds can also be harvested and boiled as a grain much like quinoa. Amaranth was an important grain in the diets of indigenous peoples throughout the Americas.

Allen, Lee. “The Age of Acorns: Sustaining Life for Generations.”
Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center. “Geranium maculatum.”
Llyod, T. Abe. “Earthen Pit Oven.”
Sharp, Shannon. “Watershield (Brasenia schreberi).”
Strickland, Scott et al. Defining the York River Indigenous Cultural Landscape. St. Mary’s City: St. Mary’s College of Maryland, 2019.
Taylor, David. “Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina).”

Last updated: November 22, 2022

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