Below is information about both the plants featured in the video interviews and additional plants found
in the Great Lakes Region. The names displayed go in order of common, scientific, and Anishinaabe.
The lowbush cranberry, also known as mountain cranberry, is a small plant growing about six to eight inches in height. Lowbush cranberry grows best in peat bogs. The plants produce an abundance of fruit only when well-pollinated and when growing in full sun. An indication of insufficient pollination with cranberry plants is the flower coloring: the flower petals change from white to pink if the flower is not pollinated. 1
Berries and leaves were gathered by Native Americans, and a traditonal way of preserving the fruit was by boiling and mixing them with oil. Cranberry leaves are important browse for moose in the winter, though rarely sought in the summer. The berries are eaten by many types of birds, such as grouse, pheasant, and various songbirds, and small mammals and black bears rely on them as well. Berries remaining from the previous year provide food in early spring when snow is melted and nothing is yet blooming.
The red raspberry plant grows throughout many of the temperate regions of the world and is common in forests, but it flourishes in areas recently cleared, often by fire or logging. Its height depends upon the climate in which it lives, but other identifying characteristics are the stems covered in sharp prickles, leaves that alternate along the stem, small white clusters of flowers in spring, and the red berries that grow in groups of drupelets in late summer.
The raspberry is traditionally an important food for Native Americans; the berries are eaten fresh or preserved for use in wintertime. Leaves are used for tea. The fruits of the raspberry are also eaten by many birds and forest mammals and the entire plant serves as nesting habitat for small birds. The raspberry flowers are a nutritious source of food for bees.
Within its ecosystem, red raspberry is useful in controlling erosion and in re-vegetating bare soils. It is a hardy plant, able to grow in a wide range of soils (poor to well-drained, infertile to nutrient-rich, even acidic). Young plants are able to establish on harsh sites such as tailing depositories. Raspberry is generally shade-intolerant and declines after the forest canopy above them closes. The plant’s life cycle is biennial, producing fruit only in the second year. Although raspberry stands rarely last beyond ten years, the seeds remain viable for sixty years or more and will germinate if another disturbance occurs.
The sugar maple tree is deciduous and well-known in the Great Lakes region for spectacular color in the fall. It grows twenty to forty meters in height and the leaves and branches are dense and provide good shade. It grows well in many types of habitat and is usually (co)dominant within the hardwood forests of the region. It cannot tolerate compacted soil, air pollution, and road salt, thus unsuited for planting in most urban areas.
The wood is strong and good for carving and is used to make highly utilized objects like paddles, bows, utensils and furniture. The sap of the sugar maple tree can be turned into maple syrup and sugar through a process of boiling. The sugar was used as a seasoning in place of salt. The time of gathering sap is late March, called onaabani-giizis (hard crust on the snow moon) in Ojibwe or early April, called iskigamiige-giizis (maple sugar moon). Maple syrup is called zhiiwaagamizigan, and the sugar cakes are ziiga’iganan. 2
Northern White Cedar
Cedar leaves can be steeped to make a tea beverage. The stringy inner bark can be twisted and used as fiber for bags and rugs. 2 The wood is instrumental in canoe construction: it is used for the inner ribs that provide structure and support. Videos with traditional knowledge holder Nick Hockings are soon to come; check back soon to hear, in-depth, how to use cedar wood.
Betula papyrifera Marsh
Historically, wiigwaas has been intricately involved with Anishinaabe people. It was used in everything from food, food storage, and cooking to housing and transportation.
Birch bark can be removed from the tree in a way that does not harm the tree. If you know how to separate the outer bark from the inner bark while it is on the tree during the right time of year the bark will actually grow back.
Giiwe Martin, historic preservation officer at Lac Vieux Desert, speaks to the declining health of birch trees:
“It’s hard to find birch bark that’s usable, and when you do, you have to look long and hard and go a long distance from here. Where it used to be abundant here. . . I would say it’s not healthy right now. I talked to my mom [another traditional knowledge holder] and some other elders, and [they said] that all the pollutants and the different things are causing the trees to not develop like they used to, not as quickly or as healthy. It seems like they’re getting to a certain point, the ones I see are small and they’re dying.”
Vaccinium angustifolium Aiton
The lowbush blueberry is a deciduous, perennial twiggy plant growing eighteen to twenty-four inches from the ground. Small off-white flowers bloom May-June, round blue berries are produced in the summer (whether in the middle of the season or late depends upon location), and in the fall the green foliage turns a brilliant red.
Blueberry plants grow well in areas that have recently experienced forest fires; the soil is enriched by the ash, and more sunlight is able to reach the floor of the forests. One elder attributes the lack of controlled burnings traditionally practiced by Natives to the decline in size of size and abundance of wild blueberries.
Historically, blueberries were a staple food for the Anishinaabeg. The berries were preserved by drying; now they are usually frozen. In the last century they also became a source of income when Native families picked enough blueberries to sell to other areas. To keep the blueberries fresh while out in the field, pickers covered their produce with fresh ferns.
All information is sourced from interviews or from the USDA PLANTS database unless noted otherwise.
1. K.S. Delaplane and D.F. Mayer. Crop Pollination by Bees.
2. Daniel E. Moerman. Native American Ethnobotany. Timber Press.