Use of plants by indigenous people

Ethnobotany of Northwest Coast

•Reference: Pojar and McKinnon, page 24-27

•Traditional use of plants for











Plants in Northwest Coast diet

•Bulk of diet for Northwest Coast peoples was meat

–salmon, elk, etc.

•Plants added variety, nutrition

•130 species known to have been used

•Northwest Coast people more settled than many Native Americans because of wealth of resources

•Some used seasonal camps for collecting away from permanent villages

Four kinds of plant parts used


–fleshy berries, drupes, nuts, seeds etc.

•Green vegetables

–leaves, shoots

•“Root” vegetables

–rhizomes, tubers, bulbs, corms, true roots

•Inner bark of trees

–phloem and sap

Early Spring

•Tender young shoots

•Important for vitamins (esp. Vit C)



–cow parsnip

–giant horsetail

Later spring

•Sap starts flowing

•Inner bark of trees become nutritious

–western hemlock

–sitka spruce

–black cottonwood

–red alder

Late May, June

•Berries begin to ripen

•Sequence through summer


–wild strawberries

–red elderberries





–salal berries

–Oregon grape berries



–choke cherries if east of Cascades

Late summer and fall

–Pacific crab apple

–highbush cranberries

–bog and mountain cranberries

–more huckleberries



Underground “root” vegetables

•Mid-summer, fall, winter, early spring

•Many plants in Lily family have bulbs

•Common Camas

–among most important foods from plants

Other “root” vegetables

•Other Lily family plants with bulbs

–chocolate lily, tiger lily, wild onions, northern riceroot

Other “root” vegetables

•Tubers: wapato (arrowhead)

•Rhizomes: bracken fern, springbank clover

•True roots: pacific silverweed, lupines, yampah (a wild carrot)

Processing foods

•Most plants were processed and stored (except for fresh shoots and leaves in spring)

•Usually combination of cooking and drying


–placed in bentwood cedar box

–added red-hot rocks to boil

–cook like jam

–dry into cakes in frames set on skunk cabbage leaves

•some berries dried singly in warm weather


Processing foods

•“Root” vegetables cooked in large pit

•Fire built at bottom of large pit

•Rocks heated in fire, spread around bottom of pit

•Covered with layer of grass or leaves

•Food layered on top between layers of ferns

•Covered with more leaves, sealed with sand

•Water poured in channels periodically to steam

Processing foods

•Pit opened after overnight or longer cooking

•Food ready to eat or store

•Dried food keeps through winter

Land Management

Northwest Coast people did not domesticate plants or animals, but did some basic management of resources

•selective harvesting

•burning to keep out woody plants and enhance hunting, camas or berry-picking areas

•stewardship of patches

–camas, Pacific crab apple, salal




•Often harvested or at least marked during spring when flower color present, distinguish from death camas

•Camas beds owned and inherited in some areas (stewardship)

•Cleared of stones each spring, weeds and brush in summer (often with controlled burns)

•Harvesting may last several weeks

•Only larger bulbs taken, others left to grow (selective harvesting)

•Cooked by steaming in pits for >24 hours, bulbs become sweeter and more digestible (taste like baked pears)

•Dried cakes of camas bulbs were staple food through winter, often traded