The Medicine Man and the Herbal Medicinal Plants
The Medicine Man, or Shaman, became an expert in his knowledge of herbal medicinal plants and how they should be used during the healing process. The number of plants in North America total nearly 18,000 of which over 2000 were used as herbal medicinal plants. The Shaman, who was trained by an elder, spent his life identifying and collecting herbal medicine plants. He never took the whole plant, only taking what he needed but he would make a mental note of the location where specific herbal medicinal plants could be found. During his travels he would be acutely aware of the plants in his surroundings and their potential uses in healing, treating sickness and disease and also for the plants that would be used in rituals and ceremonies. His knowledge of plant life also extended to the medicinal properties of trees, ferns, flowers, vines, grasses, shrubs, nuts and forbs (a broad-leaved herb other than a grass, found growing in prairies and meadows.
Identifying Herbal Medicinal Plants from Toxic Plants
The Shaman had to develop the knowledge and skill to identify distinguish different types and varieties of plants and which were poisonous, medicinal plants or those with hallucinogenic properties that might be used in rituals. A pale pink or yellow plant was an indication that it might be poisonous whereas a bright violet pink color indicated herbal medicinal plants. A strong or dull white colored plant was an indication it might have hallucinogenic, amnesiac and narcotic properties, referred to as a power plant. Hallucinogenic, amnesiac and narcotic herbs and plants included Mescal, peyote cactus, thorn apple, psilocybin mushroom, green tobacco, jimsonweed and devil's weed. Toxic herbal medicinal plants produced substances that would deter insects and animals from touching them, and this would be another sign noticed by a Medicine Man or Shaman. The skilled herbalist knew that toxic or poisonous herbal medicinal plants were only dangerous when the patient was given a dosage that was too high.
Harvesting Herbal Medicinal Plants
The Shaman also had to know the right time to harvest herbal medicinal plants. The majority were best collected during the dry season. Plants were picked when the plant is about to bloom. Flowers were picked just before, or shortly after opening. Seeds were gathered after the fruits had completely matured. Once the Herbal Medicinal Plants had been harvested they then had to be sorted and all unwanted materials were removed from the cache. Some were washed and dried and they were all stored safely. Herbal Medicinal Plants could retain their healing properties fro 6 months.
Preparing Herbal Medicinal Plants
Herbal remedies are prepared in several different ways. The choice of preparation was important as each herb releases it healing powers in distinct forms. Methods in the preparation of Herbal Medicinal Plants included making infusions (hot teas), decoctions (boiled teas), tinctures (alcohol and water extracts), macerations (cold soaking), ointments, poultices, and salves.
The Application of Herbal Medicinal Plants
The Medicine Man needed to know the properties of Herbal Medicinal Plants, how they should be prepared and the quantities that were safe to administer. Herbal medicinal plants - Herbal Herbs - could be used in many ways, using different parts of the plant including the leaves, flowers, juice, bark and roots to make powders, poultices, ointments, tinctures, salves and teas.
- POULTICE: A Poultice was used for boils, abscesses, chest infections and sprains. Chopped herb or powdered seeds are mixed with boiling water to make a pulp that is piece of hide or leaves and applied to the affected area while hot.
- COMPRESS: The Compress was used to treat injuries, fevers and headaches. A material is soaked in a hot decoction of herb, with the addition of tinctures of other herbs and the compress is applied to the affected area
- INFUSION (HOT TEA): An infusion is used to treat ailments such as colds and flu. The leaf, flower or part of the plant is used and steeped in hot water (not boiled). Best used with leafy and tender herbs as opposed to roots and barks.
- DECOCTIONS (BOILED TEAS): A decoction is used to treat a variety of illnesses including to treat kidney disease, swelling, and stomach problems. Stems, roots, seeds and bark are mashed and the boiled to primarily extract oils and mineral salts, rather than vitamins.
- ESSENTIAL OILS: Essential oils are used as an eyewash, mouthwash, or to treat cuts and abrasions. Essential oils are distilled from plants or by cold extraction. Usually they are mixed with water and used as an inhalant or as a tea.
- MACERATIONS (COLD SOAKING) TINCTURES: Herbs are made soft by steeping or soaking in a water and alcohol solution. Tinctures are used for high blood pressure and heart problems
Illnesses treated with Herbal Medicinal Plants
The Medicine Man, or Shaman, required the knowledge and skills to use Herbal Medicinal Plants as remedies for the vast variety of ailments treated by modern doctors. Herbal Medicinal Plants were used to treat complaints including:
- Blood medicine, Heart medicine, abnormal blood pressure, Pulmonary aid
- Burn and skin dressings, Dermatological complaints
- Anti-diarrheal, Anti-emetic, Hemorrhoid remedy, Laxative and Liver aid
- Analgesic, Anesthetic, Anticonvulsive, Hallucinogen, Narcotic, Sedative and Stimulant
- Anti-rheumatic, cough, cold remedy, Respiratory aid and tonics
- Insecticide, Snake bite remedies
- Era, eyes, nose and throat medicine and toothache remedies