Good for what ails you

Suffering from a cold or a zit? Ethnobotanist Lynda Nelson can point you to some elderberry or yellowdock.

Ethnobotanist Lynda Nelson finds herself in a patch of lavender.

Ethnobotanist Lynda Nelson finds herself in a patch of lavender.

Photo By David Robert

It’s fitting that horticulturist/ethnobotanist Lynda Nelson’s passion for plants began with her own roots. A Great Basin native, Nelson is one-eighth Oglala Sioux; her mother grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Nelson’s grandmother and great-grandmother created traditional bead work and foraged for wild plants, but by her mother’s generation, these tribal skills had been largely forgotten. For Nelson, ethnobotany is one way to help preserve a valuable cultural heritage.

“A lot of cultures are being lost,” explains Nelson in her office at the May Arboretum. “A lot of information isn’t being passed down.”

Nelson is casually dressed in a T-shirt and jeans and wears a bracelet etched with Native American symbols; a no-nonsense braid pulls her hair back, showing a few laugh lines at the corners of her eyes. Around her, shelves are stuffed with horticultural and botanical reference books.

“There’s something called traditional botanical knowledge (TBK), and that’s the information that a lot of tribes base their knowledge on. You know, ‘This is what my grandmother did with this plant, and this is what my mother did, and now this is what I do with that plant.’ So there’s a lineage that is passed down from generation to generation … and in many of those tribes and indigenous cultures, that linkage has been broken.”

Which is where ethnobotany comes in. The United States Department of Agriculture defines it as “the study of how different cultures (usually indigenous) use, manage, and generally interact with plants.” This includes understanding how cultures classify and name plant species, how they tend and grow them, and how the plants are used for food, medicinal and ritual purposes. By interviewing tribal elders and creating oral histories to document traditional plant uses, ethnobotanists hope to preserve indigenous cultures and keep them alive for future generations.

Nelson’s work as an ethnobotanist involves collecting this traditional botanical knowledge and passing it on to younger generations. She works with the Pyramid Lake Paiutes and the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony.

“We’ve taken the tribal members out and have ethnobotany field trips and one-on-one [classes] with tribal members,” she says. “And it’s not just me always teaching them—I’d say 90 percent of the time, it’s me learning from them.”

Many Native Americans know some of the traditional uses and properties of plants, and Nelson knows the scientific names and classifications, so they have plenty to teach one another.

Nelson started out studying horticulture at the University of Nevada, Reno. While earning her bachelor’s degree in horticulture and her master’s in plant ecology, Nelson took classes in anthropology and ethnobotany. Working with Archaeological Research Services in 1976, Nelson helped to excavate a Native American winter village on the banks of the Truckee River. She also performed archaeological surveys for the Nevada State Museum, hiking and mapping terrain.

Later, Nelson spent 10 years working with the Forest Service. “I was spending a lot of time in the Great Basin,” she says, “mapping native plants and studying native plants, plant ecology—why is this plant here and not there?”

A strong background in botany was essential, and Nelson learned a lot about the vegetation in the area. By her own estimate, she now knows hundreds of different species of plants.

Nelson currently works for Washoe County’s Parks Department as a horticulturist. There, she helps to maintain the grounds, cares for plants, and oversees the daily operations of the arboretum and botanical gardens. She also conducts edible- and medicinal-plant walks, often with Tom Stewart, owner of Truckee Meadows Herbs. Nelson says understanding local plants and their uses is important both for Nevada’s residents and the health of the landscape.

Tom Stewart, owner of Truckee Meadows Herbs, points to some wild rose, which is a good source of vitamin C.

Photo By David Robert

People moving to Reno “are moving to an area that they’re not familiar with,” Nelson says. “We do try to teach a lot of the people who are moving here about the native plants—how to preserve them, how to use them, and how to grow them—so they can gain appreciation for the native flora that is rapidly disappearing because of development.”

Walking through the botanical gardens, Nelson and Stewart pause to point out plants with medicinal properties. There’s wild rose (Rosa woodsii), whose edible rose hips are an excellent natural source of vitamin C. Stewart pulls a rose hip apart to reveal a thick cluster of seeds clinging to the pulp. Native Americans used a tea brewed from the rose hips as a strengthening tonic, traditionally consumed in springtime. Once deseeded, the pulpy part of the hips can be made into jam or jelly.

Echinacea, or purple cone flower (Echinacea purpurea), is well-known for treating colds and flu. The entire plant can be used to make a healing tea that stimulates the immune system.

“People tend to think that it’s dangerous after 10 days,” explains Stewart, “but that’s a misconception that I try to clear up. … It effectively stimulates the immune system for 10 days. At the end of that time it stops working, but it’s not dangerous. In fact, it’s probably one of the safest plants out there.”

Nearby, Nelson stands in the shade of an elderberry tree (Sambucus caerulea), also used for colds and lung disorders. The flowers can be made into tea, and the berries (a source of vitamins A and C, calcium and potassium) are harvested by local tribes, either to be dried for later use or pounded into pemmican, or fruit leather. The hollow stems were also used by Native Americans to make flutes.

Yellowdock (Rumex crispus), a native to the Great Basin area, grows in water. Stewart actually wades out into the water to get a better look as he discusses its properties. When made into tea, the root cleanses the blood and is beneficial in treating acne, boils, scurvy and other skin eruptions. It’s a good source of iron and also a cure for venereal disease.

“When you start to read [plant guides],” Nelson says, “you think, ‘They must have had a lot of VD, because everything is a treatment for VD!'”

Stewart kneels down to the ground to stroke the fuzzy leaves of a large, vaguely cabbage-like plant. That’s mullein (Verbascum thapsus), and the dried leaves, brewed as tea, help ease respiratory and bronchial problems by moistening the lungs. But that’s not the only use for the large, soft leaves.

“I call it ‘Nature’s toilet paper,'” says Stewart, laughing.

It’s important to remember that plants can be easily confused, and Nelson strongly advises beginners against going foraging without an expert along.

“If you don’t know what the plant is, you shouldn’t touch it,” she warns. “I would really stress that you need to know exactly what the plant is, and you really need to know the genus and species.”

Still, Nelson encourages everyone to learn more about the plants in their area: “I try to teach respect for nature, and I try to give people insight into the indigenous tribes and what plants are found in the area and what they’re used for, so people can gain the knowledge and appreciation.”

If you’re interested in studying edible and medicinal plants, the May Center offers an online slideshow at Stewart and Nelson also recommend the books Native Plants of Southern Nevada: An Ethnobotany by David Rhode and Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West by Michael Moore.

"[Ethnobotany] is really to pass on knowledge and learn knowledge," says Nelson, as sunset illuminates the botanical gardens. "On every walk, whether it’s with native people or other people, you learn more than you give out, so there is an exchange. And I think that’s really the best part, the learning."