Tree Notes is about trees -- especially native trees, trees for wildlife, and trees in history.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Trees used by Native Americans

A tree index for a classic of ethnobotany

Recently, I discovered a fascinating little book: Uses of Plants by the Indians of the Missouri River Region. Melvin Randolph Gilmore researched and compiled this report for the Smithsonian Institute in 1911-1912. It was published by the Washington Government Printing Office in 1919.

This great reference can be downloaded free of charge from Google Books or from the homepage of the Southwest School of Botannical Medicine (SWSBM). The download is under 2M in size, and the book is about 120 pages long. It is also available for purchase at various online bookstores.

The book describes how trees and other plants were used by Plains Indians for food, medicine, tools, weapons, shelter, rituals, apparel, personal care, etc. The body of information is far too complex to summarize here, but I'm sure I will be referring to it in the future when I write about individual tree species.

I grew up in the Sandhills of northern Nebraska. We didn't live in the Missouri River valley, but all our rivers flowed to the Missouri. I found this book particularly interesting because I know many of the prairie plants that are mentioned in the book.

Chokecherry leaf, blossom, & fruit
I downloaded and printed the report, punched the pages, and put them in a nice document binder. The version I downloaded from the SWSBM is not indexed, so I created my own little index of the trees that are mentioned, and included it at the end of the report.

My index appears at the end of this post. If you add Uses of Plants by the Indians of the Missouri River Region to your own nature library, perhaps the index will be useful to you, too. If the list seems short, remember that the prairies didn't have many trees!

Please note that some of these trees are not native to the Missouri River regions. However, the Indians used various parts of these trees when they could obtain them through travel or trade.

The first name for each entry in my index is a common name that I have assigned. It is not always the same as the common name cited by Gilmore. The second name (italicized) is the Latin name as it appears in the book. This may or may not be the same Latin name the plant goes by today.The third notation is the page on which that tree is mentioned.

Image credit: USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / USDA NRCS. Wetland flora: Field office illustrated guide to plant species. USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

Index to the trees mentioned in Melvin Randolph Gilmore's Uses of Plants by the Indians of the Missouri River Region

Ash, green -- Fraxinus pennsylvanica -- 78
Ash, prickly -- Zanthoxylum americanum -- 64
Basswood, American -- Tilia americana -- 70
Birch, paper -- Betula papyrifera -- 33
Black walnut -- Juglans nigra -- 32
Boxelder -- Acer negundo -- 68
Chinaberry -- Melia azederach -- 64
Chokecherry --Padus nana (Prunus virginiana var. virginiana) -- 51
Chokecherry, western -- Prunus melanocarpa (Prunus virginiana var. melanocarpa) -- 52
Cottonwood -- Populus sargentii -- 29
Crab apple -- Malus ioensis -- 48
Dogwood, redossier -- Cornus stolonifera -- 77
Dogwood, roughleaf -- Cornus asperifolia (Cornus drummondii)-- 77
Elderberry, American black -- Sambucus canadensis -- 87
Elm, American -- Ulmus americana -- 34
Elm, rock -- Ulmus thomasii -- 34
Elm, slippery -- Ulmus fulva (Ulmus rubra) -- 34
Hackberry -- Celtis occidentalis -- 35
Hawthorne, fireberry -- Crataegus chrysocarpa -- 49
Hazelnut -- Corylus americana -- 32
Hickory, shagbark -- Hicoria ovata (Carya ovata) -- 32
Highbush cranberry -- Viburnum opulus -- 87
Kentucky coffeetree -- Gymnocladus dioica -- 52
Maple, silver -- Acer saccharinum -- 67
Maple, sugar -- Acer saccharum --67
Nannyberry (Black haw) -- Viburnum lentago -- 87
Oak, bur -- Quercus macrocarpa -- 33
Oak, red -- Quercus rubra -- 33
Osage orange -- Toxylon pomiferum (Maclura pomifera) -- 35
Pine, lodgepole -- Pinus murrayana -- 18
Redcedar -- Juniperus virginiana -- 18
Sumac, smooth -- Rhus glabra --66
Wild plum -- Prunus americana -- 49
Willow -- Salix sp. -- 31

4 comments -- please add yours:


What a nice find! Thanks for the info on downloading the book. Always interested in native American culture. I might even go looking for the book on Amazon -- Thanks -- barbara

Genevieve said...

Hi, Barbara. There is a companion volume of photographs on the SWSBM website that can also be downloaded.

Maybe if you purchase a modern reprinting of the report, it will contain a complete index. That would be nice.

Suzi Smith said...

What a fascinating find... i'm always fascinated to see traditional uses of plants & trees! Came via fott, but can see i will spend a while here looking around!

Georgia said...

Found your blog via FOTT. Began to explore it and will definitely add it to my reading list.

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Enrich your life with the study of trees.

"The power to recognize trees at a glance without examining their leaves or flowers or fruit as they are seen, for example, from the car-window during a railroad journey, can only be acquired by studying them as they grow under all possible conditions over wide areas of territory. Such an attainment may not have much practical value, but once acquired it gives to the possessor a good deal of pleasure which is denied to less fortunate travelers."

Charles Sprague Sargent (1841-1927)

Print references I frequently consult

Benvie, Sam. Encyclopedia of North American Trees. Buffalo, NY: Firefly, 2000.

Brockman, C. Frank. Trees of North America: A Guide to Field Identification. Ed. Herbert S. Zim. New York: Golden, 1986.

Cliburn, Jerry, and Ginny Clomps. A Key to Missouri Trees in Winter: An Identification Guide. Conservation Commission of the State of Missouri, 1980.

Collingwood, G. H., Warren David Brush, and Devereux Butcher. Knowing Your Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1978.

Dirr, Michael. Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs: an Illustrated Encyclopedia. Portland, Or.: Timber, 1997.

Elias, Thomas S. The Complete Trees of North America; Field Guide and Natural History. New York: Book Division, Times Mirror Magazines, 1980.

Grimm, William Carey. The Book of Trees;. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole, 1962.

Hightshoe, Gary L. Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Urban and Rural America: a Planting Design Manual for Environmental Designers. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1988.

Little, Elbert L. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees. New York: Chanticleer, 1996.

Martin, Alexander C., Herbert S. Zim, and Arnold L. Nelson. American Wildlife and Plants. New York: McGraw Hill, 1951.

Mitchell, Alan F., and David More. The Trees of North America. New York, NY: Facts On File Publications, 1987.

Randall, Charles E. Enjoying Our Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1969.

Settergren, Carl D., and R. E. McDermott. Trees of Missouri. Columbia: University Extension, 1995.

Sternberg, Guy, and James W. Wilson. Native Trees for North American Landscapes: from the Atlantic to the Rockies. Portland: Timber, 2004.

Wharton, Mary E., and Roger W. Barbour. Trees and Shrubs of Kentucky. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1973.

Wyman, Donald. Trees for American Gardens. New York: Macmillan, 1965.

Photos and text copyright © 2006-2010 by Genevieve L. Netz. All rights reserved. Do not republish without written permission. My e-mail address is