Native Plants and Native Peoples

10 Aug


Polygonum punctatum (Persicaria punctata)


Today John and George got soggy feet exploring a swampy  pine woods along Beeline Highway at the C-18 Canal west of Palm Beach Gardens.  We came upon a grass we seldom see, Leptochloa fusca, a toad, and a diverse display of pretty wetland species, including  lots of Smartweed (Polygonum punctatum).

Perhaps because I started my botanical career in the shadow of the largest Native American settlement north of Mexico, Cahokia in Illinois, whenever I encounter species of Iva, Polygonum, and some other pre-Maize grain genera, my imagination drifts back to when Smartweeds were on the menu.    

Polygonum punctatum (JB)

Polygonum punctatum (JB)

Something that struck me long ago is how often as botanists we fail to consider richly native peoples in relation to native plants.  Now don’t get me wrong, of course there has always been an awareness that people were here before Europeans and that they mixed it up with plants, and obviously archaeologists and anthropologists ponder native peoples all over the place.  But still, traditional taxonomic botanists tend sometimes to have tunnel vision in this area.

Polygonum punctatum flower Fl TR

Charles C. Mann, in his “1491, New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus” (Vintage Books, 2006), emphasizes the under-appreciated levels of population, activity, development, longevity, and overall impact of human activity in the New World prior to the mere 500 years of European invasion.

My Second Grade teacher Mrs. McCullough knew all that when she brought to school boxes of arrow points unearthed on her farm near the Ohio River.  My own mother found one in her flower garden.  And in Florida it is hard to forget those who came first in a state dotted with burial mounds and shell middens.

Nobody really knows how many people lived in the pre-Columbian Americas, but a glance at Wikipedia gives a range of 30-100 million.  And nobody really knows how long ago they came.  Definite dates go back over 14,000 years, with less definite evidence of far longer.  No matter how you slice it, many people spanning many millennia.

Florida details are murky.  Archaeological excavations near the St. Johns River show settlement 5000 years ago.  And a lot of pre-Europeans seem to have chosen the active Florida adult lifestyle.  One estimate of the population greeting Ponce de Leon is 350,000.  CLICK  That’s the population of Tampa, and the residents of Tampa have quite an environmental impact!

And that brings us to the gist of today’s post.  The floristic impact of hundreds of thousands of Floridians over 5000 plus years boggles the mind.  Too bad we know so few details, so this is an exercise in imagination, not in precise facts.  Among the many Florida plants probably moved around (or improved horticulturally, or brought from elsewhere) by ancient Native Americans include agaves, bottle gourds, coonties, morning glories, mulberries, papayas, peppers, persimmons, royal palms, squash and gourds, and others.

Polygonum defined broadly is a large complex  genus having many similar species distinguished by subtle characters.  About 11 species are native to Florida, with exotic additions.

Polygonums make small grainlike “seeds” (achenes) which had prominence in North American cuisine prior to Maize.  We’re not talking side-dishes, but rather staples.  CLICK   Ancient coprolites (fossil dung) from the Fort Center archeological site near Lake Okeechobee bear Smartweed seeds.  (The coprolite seeds are reportedly P. hydropiperoides, which differs from P. punctatum  by having a different distribution of glands on the flowers.  I doubt the ancient seed-gatherers cared about the distinction.)  And they’re not just for porridge:  according to the botanical literature, Polygonum punctatum was in the Native American medicine cabinet for pain relief and related ailments.

Polygonum seeds from Prairie Moon Nursery

Polygonum seeds from Prairie Moon Nursery

You can take a walk and tromp on a weed searching for the rare and marvelous species.  Just a nasty weed to spray with Round-Up.  Is it an embarrassing discredit to your pristine yard and garden, or is it  a botanical heirloom?  Maybe its indigenous values date back 5000 years.

Sometimes I feel we worry too much about “endangered species” that are not really endangered (but make good attention-getting mechanisms) and maybe too little about endangered appreciation of the species all around us.

Fried toad legs are not on the menu.

Fried toad legs are not on the menu.


Posted by on August 10, 2013 in Smartweed


Tags: , ,

8 responses to “Native Plants and Native Peoples

  1. Steve Schwartzman

    August 11, 2013 at 6:07 pm

    I like your description of people mixing it up with plants, and also your conception of endangered appreciation of species as opposed to endangered species themselves.

  2. George Rogers

    August 11, 2013 at 7:39 pm

    Thanks Steve…sure enjoyed your lil’ Miss Muffett photo. I used to be a commercial loom operator long ago and have always been mildly interested in weaving. The spider’s weaving job looks like primitive weaves, visible even in links in the native peoples post.

  3. Laurie

    August 11, 2013 at 10:08 pm

    This is a great summary…
    “Sometimes I feel we worry too much about “endangered species” that are not really endangered (but make good attention-getting mechanisms) and maybe too little about endangered appreciation of the species all around us.”

    • George Rogers

      August 12, 2013 at 8:55 am


  4. Mary Hart

    August 12, 2013 at 4:32 am

    Looking at UK Polygonums, our worst enemy in the group is Japanese knotweed Persicaria cuspidatum, which can even cause structural damage to housing, with its enormous rhizomes. Unfortunately it was introduced to UK in 19 century, as an ornamental, which escaped. I gather that it went from here to USA, again as an “ornamental” – sorry!

  5. George Rogers

    August 12, 2013 at 8:57 am

    What an amazing weed, Mary. Yes, we have it, not in S Florida, but I grew up with it. As a child, we called it “bamboo” because its hollow jointed stems look like bamboo, and use it to make spear shafts.

  6. Steve

    August 12, 2013 at 9:48 am

    Great article, and great comments. As you mentioned we have an entire recognized native habitat that is artificial, created by extinct Native Americans, Shell Middens (or mounds), some of which are many, many acres large. Shell mounds contain native species that are exclusive to them (e.g. Celtis pallida & C. iguanea), which to me suggests that they were brought in by indigenous folks. I tottally agree that we should have better communication between plant taxonomists and archaelogists/ethnobotanists..

    I think that toad is a Southern Toad (cresting horns on the head), a species that doesn’t like Neil Young..

  7. George Rogers

    August 12, 2013 at 10:04 am

    Thank you Steve. My wife still listens to Neil young, and, like the Southern Toad, I don’t dig that whiner either. Glad you mentioned Sugarberry…sure belongs on the list. I was recently up in W.Va. and climbed a magnificent mound near Charleston. Come to think of it, traditional taxonomists are becoming too endangered to communicate with anybody. If you want to study a plant group now, select and sequence a portion of the genome, build a cladogram, bemoan paraphyly, and start changing names.


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