Wild Plants of Eastern North Carolina

The crest of the "Cittie of Ralegh" shows a St George's Cross (red cross on white field), representing England, with a deer in the upper left corner, representing Sir Walter Ralegh.

Selected from Thomas Harriot's Briefe and True Report (1588)

1. "Merchantable commodities"

"Silke of grasse, or grasse Silke," which Harriot described as "a kind of grasse...vpon the blades whereof there groweth very good silke in forme of a thin glittering skin to bee stript of[f]. It groweth two foot and an halfe high or better: the blades are about two foot in length, and half inch broad." He probably referred to bear grass (Yucca flaccida), found in dry open areas around the coastal plain. The spoon-leaf yucca (Y. filamentosa), Spanish bayonet (Y. aliofolia), and mound-lily yucca (Y. gloriosa), are common in the region, but less likely. The settlers took a sample back to England and found it useful in the making of grosgrain, a coarse fabric made of silk, mohair, and wool, or all three. Though Harriot found that "there is great store thereof in many places of the countrey," he suggested planting it in good ground to increase yields.

"Flaxe and Hempe." Admitting that neither was common, Harriot nevertheless advocated cultivating both for "cordage and linnens." No hemp is native to eastern North Carolina, but several species of wild flax (Linum spp.) occur in low, damp spots throughout the region. Three kinds (L. virginianum and L. medium), all with yellow flowers, have been found on the Outer Banks.

Pines. Harriot noted that on Roanoke Island "there are few trees els...the whole Iland being full," and hinted at their value as a source of "Pitch, Tarre, Rozen and Turpentine." Loblolly pine (Pinus taeda), longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) and pocosin pine (Pinus serotina) are the most common of many species growing in the area.

"Sassafras, call by the inhabitants Winauk": a shrub or small tree " of most pleasant and sweete smel; and of most rare vertues in phisick for the cure of many diseases," evidently including syphilis. Sassafras albidium common in maritime forests and well-drained spots elsewhere and notable for its four different leaf forms, which may all appear on the same tree at the same time. In his narrative of the 1584 reconnaissance, Arthur Barlowe reported that the Indians drank water "sodden with...Sassaphras, and diuers other wholesome, and medicinal hearbes"-a practice that may have been unique on the continent. Returning from a search for gold in the interior, Ralph Lane and his hungry party "had nothing in the world to eat but pottage of sassafras leaues." Indians of the Gulf coast taught European settlers to use powdered sassafras leaves as a seasoning and thickener in stews. (This is the file powder still used in gumbo.) The Indians of this region may have used the leaves in like manner. Sassafras tea and most brands of root beer are made with the roots. In 1602 Samuel Mace, hired by Ralegh to look for the colonists, gathered sassafras and other valuable goods for sale in England, but apparently made no attempt to complete his mission.

Grapes: " There are two kinds of grapes that the soile doth yeeld naturally: the one is small and sowre of the ordinarie bignesse as ours in England: the other farre greater & of himselfe luchious sweet." The latter kind is Vitis rotundifolia, usually called scuppernong if the fruit is greenish-amber when ripe and muscadine otherwise. The former may be V. labrusca (fox or plum grape), V. aestivalis (summer, pigeon, or bunch grape), V. vulpina (fox, sour, or frost grape), or all three. Harriot saw wine as a "principall commoditie" of the region.

Cedar— red cedar (Juniperus virginiana or silicicola), Atlantic white cedar (Chamecyparis thyoides, locally called "juniper"), or (less likely) a variety of cypress. Harriot thought the native cedar "fitted for...fine bedsteads, tables, deskes, lutes, virginalles & many thinges else." In 1585 one of Ralegh's ships, the Job, fetched up in France with a cargo of "Cedar wodde."

Oilseeds. Harriot included in this category "two sortes of Walnuttes," probably the black walnut (Juglans nigra) and one of the hickories (Carya spp.) and "Oke akornes," which also perhaps included not only acorns from genus Quercus, but also hazelnuts (Corylus americana and chinquapins (Castanea spp.).

Dye plants. Harriot listed "Shoemake," probably one of the sumacs (Rhus spp.), whose leaves dye black and berries dye red; "the seede of an hearbe called Wasewowr," perhaps pokeweed (Phytolacca americana, whose berries dye purple; "little small rootes called Chappacor," perhaps New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americana), which dyes red; and "the barke of the tree called... Tangomockomindge, perhaps bloodrot (Sanguinaria canadensis).

"Sweete gummes of diuers kinds" probably included the exudations of the sweet gum tree (Liquidambar styraciflua), a relative of witch-hazel, and may have included the sap of the rarer sugar maple (Acer saccharum) or even pulp from the seed pods of the honey locust (Gleditsia thiacanthos).

2. "Svch commodities as Virginia is knowne to yeelde for victuall and sustenace"

Roots. Harriot listed six wild roots eaten by the Indians. Openauk was probably a generic term for roots, but Harriot seems to have identified it with the ground nut or the Indian or marsh potato (Apios spp.)-which is not the Irish potato, a native of South America dispersed all over Europe by the Spanish. Okeepenauk "of the bignes of a mans head," may have been the wild potato (man-root), a relative of the morning glory and the sweet potato. The English identified coscushaw as cassava. If it was arrow arum (Peltandra virginica or golden club (Orontium aquaticum), it was not poisonous like raw cassava; but the Indians' elaborate preparation probably removed the unpleasant peppery taste. Harriot thought that tsinaw (probably some kind of smilax) was similar to the "China root" imported to England from the East Indies. Its name may be nothing more than a native's attempt to mimic the English pronunciation of China. Harriot had little liking for kaishucpenauk, perhaps duck potatoes (Sagittaria spp.) and the spicy habascon, possibly the cow parsnip, which is rare on the coast.

Fruits and nuts included

Chestnuts, probably both the chinquapin and the true chestnut (Castanea spp.).

"Medlars, a kind of verie good fruit...not good vntill they be rotten" — undoubtedly the persimmon (Diospyros virginiana).

Metaquesunnauk, the fruit of several prickly pear cacti (Opunia spp.), the Algonquian name of which seems to mean "eaten raw." Harriot knew a little about how the Spanish extracted the valuable red dye-stuff cochineal from cacti and noted that the species growing on and around Roanoke Island held little promise of supporting an industry. He evidently did not know that the dye comes not from cacti themselves, but from the parasitic scale insects.

Strawberries (any of several Fragaria or Duchesea spp.).

Harriot confused the native red mulberry (Morus rubra) with the European black mulberry (settlers introduced the oriental white mulberry a century or so later while trying to start a silk industry); the native crab apple (Malus angustifolia) with European Malus species; and the native blueberry (Vaccinium spp.), huckleberry (Gaylussacia spp.), or cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon) with the European whortlebery (Vaccinium myrtillis).

To this category Harriot added "Sacquenummener, a kinde of berries almost like vnto capres," but edible only if "boiled eight or nine hours"-perhaps from the plant that yielded coscushaw (see Roots, above)-and five kinds of "fruite or berrie in forme of Acornes" — only one of them from a tree that Harriot recognized as an oak. Eastern North Carolina abounds in oaks (see below), but Harriot may also have had other trees in mind (see Oilseeds, above).

3. "Svch other thinges as is be hooful...to know of"

"Commodities for building and other necessary uses" included

"Okes...as faire, straight, tall, and as good timber as any can be, and also great store, and insome places very great." Among the larger species: basket or swamp chestnut oak (Quercus michauxi), laurel oak (Q. Laurifolia), the post oaks (Q. stellata), red oak (Q. rubra), scarlet oak (Q. coccinea), Spanish oak (Q. falcata), water oak (Q. nigra) and the ubiquitous live oak (Q. virginian).

Walnut trees (see Oilseeds, above), some "aboue fourescore foot streight without bough."

"Firre trees fit for masts of ships"-perhaps the short-leaf pine (Pinus echinata) or bald cypress (Taxodium distichum); Harriot probably would not have called the latter a cypress, for unlike the Old World cypresses it is not an evergreen.

Rakiock, a tree from which the local Indians evidently preferred to fashion canoes. Harriot described it as "great, tal, streight, soft, light & yet tough enough I thinke...to be fit also for masts of ships." This is a good description of Atlantic white cedar, a remarkably rot-resistant species (see Cedar above) still favored for boatbuilding; but scholarly opinion favors bald cypress (see immediately above) or the much less suitable tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera).

"Holly, a necessary thing for the making of birdlime." Harriot probably meant the American holly (Ilex opaca), but yaupon (I. Vomitoria) and other, less common species are not out of the question. (The Indians seem not to have used birdlime, a sticky concoction used to catch small birds.)

Willows (Salix spp.), which Harriot thought useful for making for fish wiers. (He said nothing of basketry.)

"Beech (Fagus grandifolia) and Ashe (Fraxinus spp.), good for caske, hoopes: and if neede require, plow worke..." Both trees were used to make plows in England.

Quotations from the 1590 edition of Harriot's Briefe and True Report, in Part I of Theodor De Bry's America.
Annotated by lebame houston and Wynne Dough.
Illustrations: Vicki Wallace

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Last updated: April 14, 2015

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