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Medicinal plants of the prairie.

Medicinal plants of the prairie

A rich variety of drought-resistant grasses and wildflowers carpets much of the North American prairie. But botanists, having long focused on woodlands as nature's chief source of medicinal plants, have assumed that most herbal remedies developed by Plains Indians traced instead to the prairie's more wooded sections.

Now, a historical review indicates that these tribes' traditional medicines sprouted mainly on the plain, in the form of the drought-adapted species rather than forest plants. "This indicates that prairie, rather than woodland, was the original predominant vegetation type of their native homelands, and that these peoples should be considered to have affinities with prairies, rather than woodlands," asserts ecologist Kelly Kindscher of the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Kindscher's analysis reveals that 20 prairie tribes--including the Arapaho, Blackfeet, Comanche, Osage and Sioux -- developed their medicines from 165 plants found on the open prairie.

At the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, Kindscher observed healers treating wounds by burning certain plants above the injury site. In addition, he says, traditional beliefs hold that green milkweed and snow-on-the-mountain--both of which exude a milky sap--encourage new mothers to produce more breast milk.

Some traditional plant remedies may have a biological rationale, Kindscher says, noting that 28 of the 165 species examined in his study have at one time been listed in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia. Although medicinal plants could be vitally useful in Third World nations, scientists so far have tested only about 5 to 15 percent of the world's species of higher plants for biomedical activity, he adds.
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Author:Cowen, Ron
Publication:Science News
Date:Apr 7, 1990
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