There are many plants, both native and introduced, that have been used at one time as an herbal folklore remedy. From the early settlers and Native Americans, many have shown their success and failure in laboratory testing. These three plants have all been used at one time or another as herbal remedies, and all are native to the New York area.
Common Name: Sweetgum, American Sweetgum
Lifespan: Long-lived Perennial
Description: A tree that can grow up to 130 feet high in the wild and up to 75 feet tall in landscapes, sweetgum is an open-crown and straight trunk tree. It is aromatic with glossy green deciduous leaves and a horny woody ball fruit. Leaves turn purple and red in the fall. Bloom season is March through May for the white or green blooms.
Planting Guide: Liquidambar styraciflua prefers partial shade and moist acidic soil. It is not drought tolerant.
Propagation: Sweetgum is propagated by seed or by cuttings. Seeds can be either untreated when planted for stratified. If stratified, do so for 30 to 60 days with temperature slightly above freezing. Cuttings should be rooted in summer and taken with a heel.
History: This was an old tribal herbal remedy used to treat wounds with a leaf tea. Sweetgum bark balsam was used for an astringent.
Sweetgum timber has been used to make barrels, cabinets and plywood.
The resin-like solid that is scraped off when the bark is peeled back was once used by pioneers as a type of chewing gum.
Warnings: Can get iron chlorosis when the soil is too basic in pH and may get out of control in moist sandy soils.
Distribution: Liquidambar styraciflua is found in AL, AR, CT, DE, FL, GA, IL, IN, KY, LA, MS, MA, MD, MO, NJ, NY, NC, OH, OK, PA, RI, SC, TX, TN, VA, WV and DC.
Common Name: Sweetgrass, Vanilla Grass
Description: Sweetgrass grow 12 to 20 inches high with erect slender leaves and small seed heads. It has a sweet scent to both the gray-green leaves and the yellow June blooms. It will have bronze spikelets. It has hollow hairless stems and flat leaf blades. The spikelets have three flowers and the inflorescence is an open panicle.
Planting Guide: Hierochloe odorata is hardy in USDA hardiness zones of 3 through 11. It prefers a sunny location and wet or moist soil. Soil pH should be between 5.7 and 7.4 with at least 130 frost-free days for best growth.
Propagation: Sweetgrass is propagated by seed. There is no cold stratification required on the seeds. It can also be propagated by rhizome cuttings or bare rootstock. Cuttings have a better success rate for germination than seed.
History: Sweetgrass has been used as a ceremonial incense or smudge for purification and to bring prayers to the Great Spirit. Many Native Americans still use sweetgrass for this. Another Native American use is as a perfume sachet. It is also a Native American basket-weaving material and used in baskets and bags.
Sweetgrass herbal remedy uses include a Blackfeet Native American use as a tea for ceasing vaginal bleeding after a birth. The tea was also said to remove venereal infections in Blackfeet men. The tea could be used for men and women as a cough remedy and for sore throats.
Warnings: The sweet smell of sweetgrass comes from Coumarin, a natural anticoagulant. It can be potentially toxic and may cause liver hemorrhages and injury.
Distribution: Hierochloe odorata is found in CT, DE, ME, MA, NH, NY, RI and VT.
Common Name: Paper Birch
Lifespan: Short-lived Perennial
Description: This deciduous tree grows 50 to 75 feet high with either a single trunk or multiple trunks. Bark is white and peeling. Leaves are bright green and simple, turning yellow in the fall. It will have an irregular crown. Flowers are yellow, green, or brown and occur in April.
Planting Guide: Betula papyrifera can grow in any lighting and moist cool soil. Soil should also be fertile.
Propagation: Paper birch is propagated by cuttings and by seed. Collect seed while the catkins are still green and put into bags. Sow in the fall in sandy moist soil with the seed not buried deep. Cuttings will need rooting hormone and allowed to go dormant before transplanting.
History: It is a larval host plant for the Luna (Actias luna) moth and the Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) butterfly.
Its sap has been used as an herbal remedy for colds while the wood has been used for cradles, baskets, snowshoe frames and canoes.
Paper birch’s wood is often used to make clothespins, ice cream sticks and broom handles.
Warnings: There is some disease and insect trouble with this tree. Bronze birch borers are especially trouble, as is birch dieback.
Do not prune until the sap has stopped flowing sometime in summer.
It is a short-lived tree.
Distribution: Betula papyrifera is found in AK, CO, CT, ID, IL, IN, IA, ME, MD, MA, MI, MN, MT, NE, NH, NJ, NC, NY, ND, OH, OR, PA, RI, SD, TN, VT, VA, WA, WV, WI and WY.
Paper birch, sweetgrass, and sweetgum are all native to the United States and found in New York. They have had many different uses in herbal remedy folklore, and so far have not been proven to be effective.