American Indians, Dr. Enrique Salmón points out, have had 40,000 years to explore and experiment with our native North American flora. By contrast, European-descended botanists have been studying these plants for just a couple of centuries. Dr. Salmón, who is Native American himself and teaches ethnobotany at California State University East Bay, suggests that if native peoples have developed a connection with native plants that is more profound, that should not be surprising.
In his new book, ”Iwígara: The Kinship of Plants and People” (Timber Press 2020), Salmón describes the ethnobotanical traditions and the non-western science of Indian peoples across North America. A member of the Rarámuri people of the Mexican state of Chihuahua, Salmón has used his connections with Native American plant experts across the country to expand his survey across the lower 48 states and into Canada, so that his book presents a fascinating array of different traditions. When I spoke to him recently, Salmón stressed these distinctions. An Apache, he said, would find her- or himself bewildered by the plants of New England.
Yet what fascinated me about this book was a common thread that seemed to run through all of these traditions. In their fundamental attitudes toward the plant world in particular and nature more generally, all of the schools of knowledge presented here seem to have achieved a fundamental grasp of ecology that still eludes so many contemporary Americans. Indeed, the title of Salmón’s book, “Iwígara,” is a Rarámuri word that denotes the cyclical, interconnected nature of all life, physical and spiritual, and “expresses the belief that all life shares the same breath.” This seems to me a spiritual formulation of a belief that I have come to in recent years as a gardener who regards plants and the landscape through the science of ecology: All elements of the local ecosystem are indeed connected, and one cannot act on one without having an impact on the others. I base my belief on what I have learned from ecologists and their lectures and writings. Salmón’s informants based theirs on 40,000 years of personal observation and experimentation.
The heart of this book are the 80 descriptions of individual plants that range geographically from the saguaro cactus to the Oregon grape and the cranberry. The plants are identified by their common English names, as well as their scientific binomials. Following an overview of the history and significance of each plant in traditional lore are notes about its uses, whether for food, medicine or a material for crafts. Next is a guide to the identification and harvesting of the plant. When picking wild strawberry leaves to dry and powder them for use as a topical disinfectant, for example, Salmón instructs the reader not to pull the whole plant, and if digging the strawberry roots, a treatment for dysentery and diarrhea, to leave some so that the plant regrows.
Finally, for each plant there is a section about its health benefits, which can be quite unexpected. Horsetails (Equisetum spp.) for example, supply not only edible shoots and a substitute for sandpaper, they also contain substances that function as analgesics, anti-inflammatories, antioxidants, antimicrobials, antidiabetics, astringents, antihemorrhagics, and diuretics. Think of that the next time you are wrenching this persistent weed from a garden bed.
I appreciate all of the practical information and lore contained in these descriptions, which will cause me to look at familiar plants such as the stinging nettle and the staghorn sumac in new ways. The section I found most revelatory, however, was the chapter titled “All Native Knowledge is Local.” This includes “impressionistic sketches” of the principal geographic and cultural regions, as well as a sample of a creation story from the people of that place. The story that hit home most strongly for me was that of the Hopi of the Southwest. According to their beliefs, there have been a series of worlds, each one destroyed by a different means when the people failed to take care of the land. The Hopi believe that we are living in the Fourth World; I wonder if this one, too, is slated for destruction in light of our environmental misdeeds. Concerning that, Iwígara can offer no answer.
If you are interested in hearing a conversation with Salmón about his book and Native American ethnobotany, log onto Berkshire Botanical Garden’s Growing Greener podcast at: https://www.thomaschristophergardens.com/podcasts/iwigara-the-kinship-of-plants-and-people.