Grow These Native Perennials With Pharmaceutical Properties

Throughout the annals of history, the indigenous peoples of North America possessed an extraordinary knowledge of their surroundings, harnessing the power of the land’s diverse flora to alleviate ailments that befell them. These Native Americans, with their profound understanding of medicinal plants, forged a symbiotic relationship with the natural world around them, employing botanical remedies passed down from one generation to the next.

Native perennials with a pharmaceutical past

When European settlers arrived on American shores, they, too, recognized the inherent wisdom in these indigenous practices. Eager to adapt to their new environment, these early settlers embarked on a journey of discovery, delving into the therapeutic properties of the unfamiliar plants they encountered. In their pursuit of knowledge, they often relied on a combination of trial and error—a venture fraught with risk—and the guidance of the native inhabitants, who generously shared their herbal lore.

For centuries, this intricate tapestry of herbal wisdom continued to flourish, with each passing generation preserving and expanding upon the vast repository of knowledge surrounding the medicinal uses of native plants. Before the advent of modern medicine, these plants held a place of utmost importance in the everyday lives of the people, often cultivated in home gardens not just for their aesthetic appeal but primarily for their remarkable medicinal properties.

Despite the passage of time and the rise of alternative pharmaceutical options, several of these ancient plant species still find a cherished place in gardens across the country to this day. However, it is regrettable that many individuals remain unaware of the pivotal role these plants played in safeguarding health and facilitating healing long before the advent of conventional medicine.

Among the vast array of North American flora with medicinal potential, certain ornamental trees and shrubs stand out, boasting a range of therapeutic applications. Yet, for the purposes of this article, our focus will center on the captivating world of herbaceous perennials. These exceptional plants, which possess both historical intrigue and remarkable garden-worthiness, have captivated gardeners and enthusiasts alike throughout the ages.

It is important to note that this article does not delve into the specifics of how to utilize these plants as herbal remedies, nor does it explore their medicinal efficacy. Instead, it aims to provide a comprehensive overview, shedding light on the rich tapestry of botanical heritage and serving as a wellspring of information for those seeking to uncover the remarkable stories behind these captivating species.

Commercially marketed plants with a pharmaceutical past

commercially marketed plants with a pharmaceutical past

In the realm of commercially marketed herbal remedies, few can rival the popularity and extensive research surrounding medicinal native perennials, with coneflowers (Echinacea spp.) taking the spotlight. Ethnobotanical studies have unveiled the profound significance of coneflowers in the herbal traditions of numerous Native American tribes, spanning centuries of usage.

Presently, millions of individuals worldwide turn to echinacea-based products as a means to fortify their immune system or alleviate the duration and intensity of common colds.

The primary species utilized for these therapeutic purposes include the purple coneflower (E. purpurea, USDA Hardiness Zones 3–9, AHS Heat Zones 9–1), pale purple coneflower (E. pallida, Zones 3–10, 10–1), and narrow-leaf coneflower (E. angustifolia, Zones 4–9, 9–1).

Health products labeled as “echinacea” often contain extracts derived from a combination of these species. Scientific investigations have revealed that each of these plants produces a diverse array of chemicals boasting antioxidant, antimicrobial, and immune-boosting properties.

Endemic to the eastern and central regions of North America, these coneflowers are renowned for their ease of cultivation, resilience against drought, and ability to enhance the beauty of sunlit spaces. Their striking flower heads, adorned with pink-purple rays that encircle prominently raised cones, act as beacons, attracting butterflies, bees, and seed-eating birds. These splendid perennials, reaching heights of two to four feet, bestow their vibrant blooms upon the landscape throughout the entire summer season.

Another illustrious figure among the well-known and widely used medicinal native perennials is goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis, Zones 4–9, 8–4). This plant has a rich historical legacy, particularly in addressing conditions affecting the body’s mucous membranes. For instance, Iroquois healers traditionally employed a decoction derived from goldenseal’s root to alleviate symptoms of whooping cough, diarrhea, stomach ailments, earaches, and eye irritation.

Additionally, the plant’s thick yellow rhizomes were utilized in the production of dyes. Following the plant’s exportation to Europe by early explorers, it gained popularity for its medicinal properties on the international stage.

Sadly, due to overharvesting and the loss of its natural habitat, goldenseal now faces the threat of endangerment throughout its native range, stretching from New Hampshire and Minnesota to as far south as Alabama and Georgia. However, a glimmer of hope shines through, as several reputable nurseries have undertaken the propagation and sale of goldenseal for both home gardens and commercial production.

This remarkable perennial holds a special place in woodland gardens, forming a lush groundcover adorned with large, palmately lobed leaves that rise on short stems, attaining heights of six to 12 inches. Delicate tufted flowers, tinged in white, grace the plant in spring, followed by a striking raspberry-like fruit that seems to perch upon the foliage. Optimal growth conditions for goldenseal encompass moist and moderately shady settings, with slightly acidic soil, allowing its magnificence to unfold.

Plants with a pharmaceutical past in the Mint family

Within the vast realm of native plants boasting herbal properties, a prominent family stands out—the mint family, scientifically known as Lamiaceae. These plants, united by shared characteristics such as square stems, opposite aromatic leaves, and charming two-lipped flowers arranged in clusters or whorls, hold both ornamental allure and medicinal significance.

However, caution must be exercised with species that spread through rhizomes, as their exuberance may require diligent management to prevent them from overstepping their bounds.

Among the illustrious genera within this family, Salvia emerges as a noteworthy contender, harboring several North American species renowned for their medicinal properties and aesthetic appeal. Hailing from the enchanting West Coast, the hummingbird or pitcher sage (S. spathacea, Zones 8–11, 10-7) finds its natural habitat nestled within the coastal hills of central and southern California. Indigenous peoples of the region have long utilized this sage to combat common colds and soothe throats, and scientific exploration has unveiled its wealth of antimicrobial compounds.

Gracefully reaching heights of about two feet, this resilient plant stretches its foliage to encompass a width of approximately three feet. Its spikes, adorned with magenta blooms, exuding a delightful fruity fragrance, grace the landscape from winter to summer, particularly in milder regions.

As its common name implies, the enchanting allure of hummingbirds is irresistibly drawn to these blossoms. While partial shade serves as its preferred abode, the adaptable nature of the hummingbird sage allows it to flourish even in full sunlight. Exhibiting commendable drought tolerance, a modest amount of irrigation prolongs the flowering season and ensures its evergreen presence in mild winter climates.


Another captivating member of the mint family, hailed for both its ornamental allure and medicinal prowess, is the pink skullcap (Scutellaria suffrutescens, Zones 6–9, 9–6). Revered by certain Native American tribes for its efficacy in treating female reproductive conditions, and employed by early settlers in their battle against nervous system disorders and inflammation, the pink skullcap has a rich heritage of healing. Recent studies conducted over the past decade have further shed light on this plant and its fellow skullcap species, identifying them as sources of potent anti-tumor compounds.

Endemic to northern Mexico, possibly extending into Texas, the pink skullcap presents itself as a low-growing perennial, punctuating the landscape with its perpetual blooms from May to November, braving both heat and drought with unwavering resilience. This vibrant beauty bestows a profusion of cherry-pink flowers upon its diminutive stature of eight inches, accompanied by a slightly broader spread, captivating all who gaze upon it.

Venturing into the realm of moisture-laden environments, the scarlet beebalm (Monarda didyma, Zones 4–10, 10–1) thrives in the verdant meadows and woodland edges that grace the landscapes of North America. Revered by various Native American tribes, including the Oswego, this remarkable member of the mint family has long been relished as a tea and utilized as a remedy for an array of afflictions, ranging from colds and stomachaches to insomnia. Its alternative moniker, Oswego tea, is a testament to its historical role as a substitute for imported tea during colonial America.

Reaching heights of two to three feet, with a graceful spread of about two feet, the scarlet beebalm adorns itself with whorls of deep pink or red flowers, captivating both bees, and hummingbirds alike, during the mid- to late-summer period. Adaptable to both sunlit and lightly shaded environments, this resilient perennial serves as a vibrant beacon of natural splendor, casting its spell upon all fortunate enough to witness its floral symphony.

The mint family’s embrace encompasses a multitude of captivating and medically significant native plants. From the enchanting allure of coneflowers to the splendid beauty of Salvia species, and the delicate charm of pink skullcap to the vibrant elegance of scarlet beebalm, these plants not only bestow ornamental grace upon their surroundings but also harbor a wealth of healing potential within their very essence.

By delving into their stories, we uncover a tapestry woven with the threads of traditional wisdom and botanical marvels, reminding us of the timeless connection between nature and well-being.

Pharmaceutical herbs for shade

pharmaceutical herbs for shade

Within the realm of North American perennials with medicinal properties, many of the plants discussed thus far have exhibited a preference for sun-drenched environments. However, a distinct group of captivating species thrives in the embrace of shade, showcasing their resilience and healing potential in woodland realms.

Embarking on a journey through the woodlands that stretch across eastern North America and extend westward to the majestic Rockies, one is greeted by an enchanting sight—the emergence of pure white flowers heralding the arrival of spring.

These delicate blooms belong to the bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis, Zones 3–9, 9–1), a charismatic woodland dweller. Each three-inch blossom, adorned with narrow petals that encircle a cluster of vibrant yellow stamens, graces the landscape for only a fleeting moment. However, the glossy, lobed leaves of bloodroot possess an enduring allure, captivating the eye and persisting until the arrival of autumn.

Among certain Native American tribes, bloodroot was held in high regard for its crimson sap, coveted for its diuretic, emetic, and antiseptic properties. As a close relative of poppies (Papaver spp.), bloodroot harbors opium-like alkaloids that exhibit inhibitory effects against specific bacteria. Yet, caution must be exercised, as the ingestion of large doses can prove toxic to humans, and contact with the roots may cause rashes in sensitive individuals.

Gardeners must also remain mindful of a caveat when cultivating bloodroot—the plant may undergo sudden thinning and, within a few years, even vanish entirely. This phenomenon appears most prevalent when bloodroot is grown in deep shade. Therefore, experts advise planting it in moist, well-drained soil with a slightly acidic composition within partially shaded areas.

While bloodroot can be cultivated west of the Rockies, it presents certain challenges. The plant thrives poorly in the company of firs, redwoods, or pines but flourishes magnificently beneath the sheltering canopy of maples, fruit trees, oaks, and other hardwoods.

Under ideal conditions, bloodroot gradually extends its reach through rhizomes, forming a neatly arranged groundcover standing approximately one foot tall and spanning a width proportional to its stature.

Venturing further into the realm of shaded gardens, we encounter the Western wild ginger (Asarum caudatum, Zones 5–8, 8–5), an alluring groundcover with a rich historical legacy of medicinal use. Revered for its infection-fighting properties and wound-cleansing abilities, this woodland wildflower boasts a remarkable tale from the annals of the Voyage of Discovery. Meriwether Lewis chronicled how the pounded roots and leaves of wild ginger (A. caudatum) provided immense relief to an expedition member suffering from a swollen and inflamed leg wound.

Nestled within the redwood and pine forests spanning from British Columbia to California and western Montana, the Western wild ginger stands adorned with shiny, evergreen, heart-shaped leaves. Late winter and early spring grace this captivating plant with purple-brown flowers, distinguished by their elongated tails. Every part of this remarkable species exudes a distinct ginger fragrance, adding an olfactory charm to its captivating presence.

Its slightly taller counterpart, the Canadian wild ginger (A. canadense, Zones 3–8, 8–1), commands attention with its stature ranging from six to eight inches. Flourishing amidst rich woodlands stretching from New Brunswick and Alberta, southward to the realms of Georgia and Louisiana, this species has been employed in the treatment of respiratory and digestive ailments. While it hosts an array of antimicrobial compounds, it also produces a potentially carcinogenic chemical, thus rendering ingestion of any part of the plant inadvisable.

Nonetheless, the Canadian wild ginger unfolds as a carefree groundcover within the realms of woodland gardens, harmoniously coexisting with mayapples, goldenseal, and native ferns. Thriving in moist soil and seeking solace in the dappled shade, this deciduous spreader adorns woodland landscapes, even in partially sunny locations beneath the nurturing presence of garden phlox.

Amidst the tapestry of North American woodlands, another shade-dwelling luminary reveals itself—the false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum syn. Smilacina racemosa, Zones 4–9, 9–1). Considered a veritable panacea, this enchanting species has captured the attention of the Native Medicinal Plant Research Program at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

Among the 922 plant species documented in the program’s Prairie Ethnobotany Database, false Solomon’s seal stands tall, revered among the ten species with the most extensive range of medicinal applications, as recounted by over 250 Native American tribes. From constipation and coughs to rheumatism, stomachaches, and headaches, its repertoire of healing potential spans an impressive spectrum of ailments.

Standing proudly at heights ranging from one to three feet, false Solomon’s seal spreads its rhizomes, gradually forming substantial clumps. Its arching stems, adorned with light green leaves that metamorphose into a golden hue during fall, command attention. Clusters of petite, fragrant, creamy white flowers grace the ends of these resilient stems, adorning the woodland landscape from mid to late spring. As the seasons progress, the flowers give way to green berries that gradually mature into a vibrant red, adding an exquisite touch of color to nature’s harmonious palette.

Thus, the shade-loving perennials of North America unfold as an enchanting ensemble, defying the notion that sunlight alone is the gateway to vitality. From the ethereal blooms of bloodroot to the intricate beauty of Western and Canadian wild ginger, and the panacea-like qualities of false Solomon’s seal, these resilient species beckon us to explore the hidden realms of woodland gardens. Within their nurturing embrace, they offer both solace and healing, a testament to the remarkable diversity of nature’s pharmacy, concealed beneath the verdant canopy of shade.

Looking beyond their beauty

lbor12The assortment of plants showcased in this collection serves as a reminder that native perennials encompass depths beyond their aesthetically pleasing exteriors. Even the most captivating species, now embraced in gardens worldwide, possess rich histories woven with the medicinal practices of Native Americans and other cultures. In addition to their undeniable allure, these plants infuse our gardens with a cultural essence.

Although scientists have only begun to explore their vast pharmaceutical potential, for gardeners, these plants forge a profound connection to the generations past who have nurtured the flora of this bountiful land.

Useful resources to check out:

The five best herbal antibiotics you should use

Knowledge to survive any medical crisis situation during a major disaster

Top five plants for urban foraging

A few survival food recipes everyone needs to learn

Leave a Comment