Grounds and Landscaping
Taqwsheblu Vi Hilbert Ethnobotanical Garden

Plant Profiles

  • Red Alder 

    Alnus Rubra
    The largest species of Alder in North America, Red Alder is a rapidly growing, deciduous tree that can reach heights of up to 75 feet tall. The distinguishing features are smooth, white bark, which turns rust color when bruised; and the leaves, which are green on top and, rust colored and hairy underneath. The tree is often covered in lichen and resembles Paper Birch, but unlike that tree, the bark does not flake. The male flowers appear as hanging catkins, while the female flowers grow in short cones. The tree is useful for nitrogen fixation, and is able to grow in nitrate poor soil. This tree flourishes in clearcut areas or otherwise poor conditions, requiring only moist conditions and mineral rich soil. It is usually the first plant to begin growth in devastated areas, and can even prevent future fires, as their foliage and leaf litter does not carry flames well.

    The Comox , Coast Salish, Saanich, and Swinomish ate the membrane underneath the bark with oil or packed into cakes. The bark was utilized to treat colds, stomach ailments, scrofula sores, aching bones, dystentary, diarrhea, tuberculosis, skin infections, and open wounds. Also used as a valuable Red dye, especially for fishing nets. As a textile, the wood was used to make dishes, spoons, drills, canoes paddles, and cradles.

    In some mythology, women and Alder are deeply connected. In one of the Nlaka'pmx Transformer Tales, coyote had a wife who was a piece of firewood. Four brothers burned the wood and laughed at coyote, jesting that he can have better. The brothers cut a piece of Alder and a piece of Aspen, carved them into the shape of women, and made them alive. They became coyote's wives.

    red alder barkRed alder leaf

    Cascara

    Rhamnus purshiana
    Cascara is a small, deciduous tree or shrub commonly found in the Northwest, with an adult height of 20-35 feet. The plant grows in moist, well- drained, acidic soils, with sun or partial shade, and is hardy. Typically, it is the second generation of plant to grow in devastated and deforested areas after the Red Alder. It can be identified by Reddish-Brown bark, often covered with gray lichen, and the irregularly toothed, dark green, oblong or elliptical leaves. Small, pale green flowers grow in finely hairy clusters yielding small, pea-sized, black fruit. The berry is abundant, but not eaten often by humans.

    The bark was used as a laxative, and is an ingredient of many commercial laxatives even today. Once stripped from the tree, it is aged for a milder effect, as fresh bark causes violent vomiting and diarrhea. The plant is also reported to restore colon health, remove gallstones, and help flow of secretions from the liver, stomach, and pancreas. The Makah eat the berries in summer months, and the Skagit boil the bark for Green dye. 

    cascara fruitCascara barkcascara blooms

    Western Hemlock

    Tsuga heterophylla
    The state tree of Washington, Hemlock is a slow growing, hardy tree that can reach up to 200 feet tall. It flourishes in dense shade and damp, mineral rich soil. The seedlings proliferate by the hundreds in spaces that have just been clearcut, burned, or otherwise devastated. The tree is a conifer, easily identified by drooping tips and needles that are short, blunt, and unequal sizes. The bark is brown, thin, and creased, and cones grow in large quantities, containing up to 40 seeds.

    The Tlingit use the boughs to collect herring eggs. Fresh needles are an abundant source of vitamin C and can be chewed or made into tea. The Chehalis made a tea infusion used to cure tuberculosis and syphilis. The bark itself is a source of tanning, dye, and waterproofing material. 

    Western hemlock growing in a nurse log

    Western Red Cedar

    Thuja Plicata
    Red Cedar is a prolific conifer in the Northwest that can grow up to 200 feet tall. It thrives in moist soil, and is distinguished by cinnamon –brown bark that tears off in long, fibrous strips. Needles are glossy and fragrant, and cones are uniform with 6 distinct scales. It is not a true Cedar, but rather in the cypress family The abundance of the tree and ease of harvesting bark make it a critical resource to the lives of many Northwest Peoples.

    The Red Cedar is called 'Long Life giver' because it has provided for Native Peoples in so many ways: the wood is easily split, rot-resistant, and produces little smoke when burned. Many parts of the tree can be used for shelter, medicine, clothing, basketry, canoes, tools, and art materials. It is so useful, and so revered that many Northwest tribes refer to themselves as "people of the red cedar." The wood was used for canoes (essential for fishing and whaling expeditions of the coast people),  houses, tools, art objects, and many utility objects. The bark strips easily in sheets up to 27 feet long, and was utilized for clothing, mats, beds, cradles, plates, utensils, rope, and baskets. The boughs  are rather fragrant, and were often used for scrubbing during initiation ceremonies, a crucial method of purification. Also, boughs were used as incense during funeral rites, and interestingly cedar oil is anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and an immune-booster. Medicinally, the Klallam made a tea out of cedar limbs to cure colds and tuberculosis, and universally it was used as a tea for fevers, respiratory problems, and rheumatism. The anti-septic properties of the leaf make it effective for curing warts and other skin ailments.

    This tree was so essential to native life, and considered so powerful, that it was said a person could gain strength by standing with their back against the trunk. Great care was taken every time any part of the Redcedar was harvested. A ceremony including thanksgiving to the tree's spirits and requests that the tree not drop heavy branches on the cutter was common, and the cutting was always carried out with great respect and reverence. Indeed, this tree is almost synonymous with Northwest native life and practices. 

    Western redcedar bark

    Salmonberry

    Rubus spectabilis
    Salmonberry is a shrub that can grow up to 13 feet tall at its largest, and thrives in moist, wet places. The plant is deciduous with three dark green, sharply toothed leaflets per stem. Bark is reddish-brown, and stems are perennial, yielding vibrant, pink or purple flowers in the spring through summer months. Salmonberry fruit resembles raspberry, and is often the first berry of spring, growing in May-June. The color ranges from golden yellow to reddish, and a single bush may contain many varieties of these colors. 

    Medicinally, the plant is an astringent, used for cuts or aches. The berry was mostly an annual food favorite for natives, eaten fresh rather than dried. Great harvest feasts ensued after picking, making it an essential icon of the season. In Earth's Blanket, author Nancy J. Turner narrates a story of the relation between the coming of spring and the salmonberry:

    "One time, Salmonberry Bird invited Raven to her house for a meal. She told her kids to take their baskets out to pick berries. She started to sing her song, and as she sang, her children's baskets filled up. The children came home, and everyone had a wonderful meal of deliciously ripened salmonberries of all the different colors. Afterwards, Raven said, "you come to my house tomorrow." So Salmonberry Bird came along the next day, and Raven gave baskets to his children and told them to go out to get the berries. Raven's children went out for their dad, and Raven sang...in his croaky voice. They waited and waited, but the Raven children's baskets never got full and finally Salmonberry Bird went home without any berries."

    Salmonberry in fruitsalmonberry flower

    Sword Fern

    Polystichum munitum
    Sword Fern is a prolific, evergreen fern. Fronds are dark green and grow 50-180 centimeters tall. Each leaf extends from the rhizome 10-15 centimeters long. The plant grows well in moist, coniferous areas, and produces light yellow spores.

    In the early spring, with hardly any other food available, the Klallam, Makah, Quileute, Quinalt, and Squamish, cooked and ate the rhizomes. The leaves were frequently used to line baking pits, especially those pits used to cook camas. As a textile, the plant is useful for making mattresses. Medicinally, the Swinomish chewed the leaves to cure a sore throat or tonsillitis. The plant can also be used to cure boils or sores when placed on the affected area. 

    Sword fern unfurling

    Blue Camas

    Camassia Quamash
    Camas is a perennial herb growing up to 70 centimeters, with 6-petaled, blue-violet flowers blooming in late spring. The bulbs are edible and resemble daffodil bulbs. Camas grows in moist, grassy meadows and is often confused with its poisonous cousin, Death Camas. Death Camas commonly grows alongside Blue Camas, but has cream- colored flowers.

    Except for salmon, there was no other food so widely consumed by Northwest natives as the camas plant. The bulbs are usually cooked in a pit, dried, mashed, or served in stew. 

    Thimleberry

    Rubus Parviflorus
    Thimbleberry is a deciduous shrub that grows up to 8 feet tall. The plant flourishes in open clearings recently devastated by logging or fires, especially alongside red alder. The delicate, maple-shaped leaves grow 5-20 cm across, and white flowers that bloom in the spring grow up to 4 cm across. The fruits are red, hairy, and resemble raspberries. The young shoots and ripe berries were eaten raw by native peoples in the early springtime. The fruit is extremely soft and gritty with seeds and therefore cannot sit in a basket for too long. Medicinally, the leaves can be prepared as a tea for anemia.

    thimbleberry leafthimbleberry bloomthimbleberry berries thimbleberry in fall

    Coastal Black Gooseberry

    Ribes divaricatum
    The Gooseberry is a deciduous shrub growing up to 5 feet tall, in moist, open areas, especially along the coast. The plant has drooping stems with bristles and grey, smooth bark. Leaves are small and distinctly maple-shaped. Flowers are also small and reddish, yielding purple-black, plump, edible berries that grow in clusters. Medicinally, the Swinomish used the plant to treat sore throats and tuberculosis. The sweet berries were harvested in large quantities in early to mid- summer by native peoples. Even today the berry is popular as a jam or preserve, or with milk and sugar.

    Author Nancy J. Turner references the increasing loss of native plants, especially gooseberry in The Earth's Blanket, sharing the anecdote that "Where we used to pick berries, oh, they were really plentiful!...Now there are no gooseberries near us…We named other grounds of ours around here; called them 'The Picking Places' because that is where we went to pick berries. Now you will not find one single berry there" (158)

    close up of stem

    Indian Plum

    Oemlaria cerasiformis
    Indian Plum is a deciduous shrub growing up to 15 feet tall in moist, open woods and roadside thickets. The plant is notable for its distinct, sharp odor, earning it the nickname "Skunk Bush." Some other common names for the plant are "Bird-cherry" and "Oso berry." The leaves sprout the earliest in the year of any other shrub, beginning in early spring. The bark is reddish-grey and smooth, leaves are oblong and tapered, and small white flowers grow in clusters that appear before the leaves are fully mature. The flowers yield tart, pale, red berries that resemble small plums. Although edible, the fruit is not very palatable, so was not heavily used by native peoples.

    nice multicolored fruit clusterOsoberry in full bloom

    Evergreen Huckleberry

    vaccinium ovatum
    Evergreen Huckleberry is an evergreen shrub growing up to 6 feet high in shady, moist areas. Leaves are distinctly shiny and vividly green with serrated edges and tapering tips. Often, new leaves are bronze or golden. Flowers begin bloom in March and are urn-shaped, pale pink blossoms. Berries are edible and high in vitamin C. They are distinctly dark purplish-blue, almost black and grow in dense clusters. 

    Evergreen huckleberry close upEvergreen huckleberry bronze new growth

    Tall Oregon Grape

    Mahonia aquifolium
    Tall Oregon Grape is an evergreen shrub growing up to 8 feet tall often in rocky, dry, open habitats. Leaves are distinctly thick, spiny, and tough, flowers are yellow and tightly clustered, and berries are vibrantly blue with a waxen coating. Bark is pale grey and smooth.The fruit is extremely bitter and sour, but was eaten nonetheless, especially when mixed with other berries. Medicinally, the root was made into a tea for coughs, stomach ailment, tuberculosis, and kidney problems. The roots and twigs can be mashed and made into a yellow dye.

    tall Oregon grape

    Vine Maple

    Acer circinatum
    Vine Maple can grow up to 25 feet tall and has distinctly long, tough, haggard stems that resemble vines. It is a notably small tree with small, star-shaped leaves, and grows best in the understory. The tree has characteristically beautiful foliage in autumn months and is useful for its ability to prevent erosion.
    The Quinalt referred to it as 'basket tree' since they used the stalks for basket weaving. Often the boughs would be formed into a tight, checkered pattern and used for holding wood, fish, and clams. Many natives used the stalks as fish nets or traps. Saplings notably bend easily, often causing the tree to bend back into the ground creating an arch and new root development.

    Vine maple in bloomVine maple showing beautiful fall colorpruned vine maple trunksvine maple leaves in spring

    Western Flowering Dogwood

    Cornus Nuttallii
    Western Flowering Dogwood grows up to 60 feet tall in moist areas and often flourishes in the understory. Leaves are oval and small, and flowers are a large 4 to 6 inches wide, with white petals (which are technically leaves) and pale green centers. The tree produces a small, bitter, gritty pink berry in the spring. The Lummi people peeled and boiled the bark as a laxative.

    Pacific dogwood in bloomPacific dogwood in flower

    Douglas Fir

    Pseudotsuga menziesii
    Douglas Fir is a large conifer that is pervasive in the Northwest, grows up to 300 feet tall, and lives up to 800 years. It is not a true fir, but is in the pine family nonetheless, and thrives in recently cleared or burned environments with moist soil. Besides great height, it's most distinguishing characteristics are cones with three-pronged leaves protruding from them, deeply textured bark, erratically placed needles, and a distinct scent. It is the plant most commonly used for modern day Christmas trees, firewood, and paper.

    Often, Douglas-fir was used as firewood; it is unwieldy to split, so was most desirous for this purpose. Many native peoples also used the wood for spears, harpoons, fish nets, poles, caskets, and salmon weirs. The bark can also be boiled to make a brown dye. The sap was highly prized but only collected rarely, when conditions permitted. Boughs were often chewed as a form of chewing gum. Medicinally, twigs and needles could be boiled into a tea as a general tonic, cold medicine, and diuretic. Often, Douglas-fir tincture was used as an antiseptic for sores and minor ailments. The boughs were fragrant and used often for sweat lodges and ritual purification. In ceremony, the Chehalis and Cowlitz would warm cones by a fire to urge the rain to stop.

    Douglas-fir trunkDouglas-fir cones

    Red-Osier Dogwood

    Cornus sericea
    Red-Osier Dogwood is a deciduous shrub growing up to 15 feet tall in very moist areas. The bark is distinctively bright red, and leaves are oval, tapered, and purplish-green. Flowers are white and notably smaller than other dogwood species, and berries are small, clutered, gritty, and pale. The plant was often used for baskets, or made into a tea for fevers and colds. 

    Red-osier dogwood with fruit and flowersred twig dogwood flower cluster

    Serviceberry

    Amelanchier alnifolia
    Also called Juneberry or Saskatoon berry is a deciduous shrub growing up to 20 feet tall common in dry forests and open hillsides. It has smooth, delicate, reddish bark, and round, bluish-green leaves. The flowers are clustered, white, and elegant, with 5 large petals, covering the height of the stalk. Fruit is dark blue, gritty, and resembles blueberries.

    The berries were eaten by almost all coastal groups. The stalks were often used as digging tools, spreaders for halibut fishing, and pieces in a gambling game. Medicinally, a warm mixture was used as a wash tonic after childbirth or as a general tonic. 

    Serviceberry berriesserviceberry flower

    Wild Strawberry

    Fragaria virginiana
    Wild Strawberry is a perennial woodland groundcover. It grows low to the ground and propagates easily. The small flowers have five petals and yellow centers, and the leaves are deep green, serrated, deeply creased, and sprout in threes. The berries are soft, round, and round resembling commercial strawberries. The berries were eaten fresh by all native peoples, especially in the summer months. 

    Canoe Birch

    Betula papyrifera
    Also called Paper Birch, Canoe Birch can grow up to 90 feet tall. The tree is most easily distinguished by its slender trunk and white, peeling bark with distinct bronze or brown scrapes. Leaves are up to 3 inches long, serrated, and deeply toothed. Birch also notably has flaky, hanging catkins. The papery bark was used for paper, water-proofing, and canoe construction.

    young paper birch bark and leaf (older trees bark is white)mature paper birch barkpaper birchpaper birch catkins

    Nodding Onion

    Allium cernuum
    Nodding onion is a low-lying, perennial groundcover that thrives in rocky soil and open areas. The stalks are long and slender with smooth bark. The flowers droop in wide, pink clusters on stems that can be up to 50 cm long, giving the plant the appearance of a nodding head. The onion bulbs were often steamed and eaten, and were sometimes chewed raw for pain. 

    nodding onion flower

    Snowberry

    Symphoricarpos albus
    Snowberry is a deciduous shrub that grows to about 5 feet tall. Leaves are small, scattered, and rounded and flowers are pale pink. The fruit is the most notable distinction of the plant; it is oblong, plump, and white with small, woody nubs at the tips. The berry is an important food source to birds, but poisonous to humans in large quantities.
    The berry was rubbed in hair and used as a type of shampoo by the Chehalis. Medicinally, a tea of roots and leaves was used to cure ailments, tuberculosis, and venereal diseases. In legend, the Green River Tribe made a direct correlation between the bounty of the snowberry and the bounty of the salmon runs. 

    snowberrySnowberry new growth with flowers

    Special Thanks

    • Greg Rabourn and the Northwest Native Plant Guide Website for use of images.

      Rabourn, Greg. "Northwest Native Plant Guide." Department of Natural Resources and Parks. 20 Feb. 2009 <http://green.kingcounty.gov/GoNative/Index.aspx>.

    Resources

    •  Arno, Stephen F., and Ramona P. Hammerly. Northwest Trees. Seattle: Mountaineers Books, 1990.
    • Deur, Douglas and Nancy J. Turner. Keeping it Living: Traditions of Plant Use and Cultivation on the Northwest Coast of North America. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005.
    • Gunther, Erna. Ethnobotany of Western Washington : The Knowledge and Use of Indigenous Plants by Native Americans. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003.
    • Hunn, Eugene S., comp. Bernie Whitebear Memorial Ethnobotanical Garden Teacher's Guide. Unpublished, 2003.
    • Hunn, Eugene S., comp. Guide to the Bernie Whitebear Ethnobotanical Garden. Unpublished, 2003.
    • MacKinnon, Andy, Jim Pojar, and Paul B. Alaback. Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast : Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Alaska. Grand Rapids: Lone Pine 2004.
    • Turner, Nancy J. The Earth's Blanket : Traditional Teachings for Sustainable Living. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005
    • Turner, Nancy J. Plant Technology of First Peoples in British Columbia (Second Edition). Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1999
    • Turner, Nancy J. Food Plants of Coastal First Peoples. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1995