The American Indians pharmacy was the woods and weeds around them. Food and drink came from the same sources. They shared their knowledge of plant uses with the settlers, who adopted some of the uses and disregarded others. Among the plants used by both groups were pokeweed, sassafras, pecans, persimmons, and mulberries. Several interesting local plants are described below.
Without dentists on the frontier, the toothache tree (Zanthoxylum clava-herculis) was the settlers’ recourse when suffering from a toothache. Also called Hercules club, the leaves and bark of this unique small tree contain a mild anesthetic. American Indians and pioneers also used it to sooth their babies’ teething pains.
Yaupon (Ilex vomitoria) was a sacred shrub to American Indians throughout the Gulf Coast region, where it grows. The leaves contain caffeine and, when used in small amounts, can be made into a mildly stimulating drink. The local American Indians, however, used it in great amounts to induce vomiting during their rituals. Europeans, observing these purging ceremonies, gave the plant its species name.
The greenbrier vine (Smilax sp.) has large underground tubers that were important as food and drink to southern American Indians. Some tuber clusters can weigh nearly 100 pounds! The tubers were chopped and ground into meal for use in bread and soups. Greenbrier tubers and sassafras root boiled together created the original root beer.