Can a plant change the course of history? Indigo, saffron, rubber, poppies, corn, potatoes…. there is a seemingly endless list of plants that have been instrumental in the development of human culture; the shifting of paradigms, wars fought, poetry written, and individual lives saved. Journalists and authors have explored the symbiosis of man and plants and examined the many facets of how human culture and plants have evolved simultaneously. Some, such as Michael Pollan in ‘The Botany of Desire’ allude to how plants have utilized humans to proliferate around the world and that as our societies spread, share and propagate plants, that connection becomes both more complex and becomes part of our cultural identity. A great example of this is the phrase, ‘as American as apple pie’. In fact, apples originate in central Asia (near modern day Kazakhstan) and were carried by traders to Europe along the silk road. The first evidence of apple domestication in Europe comes from Italy around six thousand years ago. The modern apple looks and tastes much different from its ancient progenitors, wild apples are often pithy and bitter, but the horticultural technique of grafting led to the tasty apples of today. The proliferation of apples in the United States can be credited to one key figure in history… Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman) who spent years touring the frontier providing apple seeds to homesteaders. These apple trees were not intended for food but rather, provided a necessary safe-to-consume beverage, hard cider. Indeed, if you follow most popular fruits, spices, vegetables back to their common ancestor, you will find that the individual plants have changed significantly, as well as our uses for them. As human populations have shifted and grown, so too have our plant counterparts, often to their evolutionary advantage.
Florida has several plants that are deeply connected to the native peoples and settlers that influenced human cultures here from the pre-colonial era through early settlement and into the modern era. The name itself La Florida, translates to ‘land of flowers’. In the following article we identify and share the economic importance, legends, cultural, medicinal and culinary uses of five native plants that humans used extensively in Florida and are still important to this day. Maybe you have them in your garden or see them when you visit a park or nature reserve but never knew the stories and history they carry in their roots, stems, bark, leaves or berries.
Florida’s state tree is more closely related to a grass. The cabbage palm is a useful and common plant found throughout Florida and the Southwestern US that often goes unnoticed in our environments. While the Cabbage Palm is Florida’s state tree, it is more closely related to a grass, but this does not diminish its important functions. In the early summer, the petite fragrant white flowers are abuzz with the work of native bees and European honeybees. In the past, humans in Florida have used nearly every part of the palm and the plant served a key role in their lives. Harvesting whole trees for their tender and edible ‘hearts’ or young green shoots (swamp cabbage). Societies also utilized cabbage palm leaves to thatch roofs, and leaf and stem fibers for the production of rope, baskets, and other textiles. In Seminole culture the seeds and berries of the sabal palms were used to reduce fevers and treat headaches. The trunks of Sabal Palms were used as poles in traditional huts and the half-split stems were utilized as flooring.
In the case of coontie the usefulness of this plant was more of a discovery based on necessity for sustenance than an obvious occurrence of the bounty of nature. The edible root of the plant must be very carefully mashed and strained to leach the poisonous (hydrocyanic) acid and separate and dry the starch. The resulting dried powder was utilized as a flour and starch base for native cultures and early settlers. The plant was once extensively harvested with starch production plants in several locations throughout the state to keep up with demand. However, due to coontie being such a slow growing plant it became less and less prevalent due to overharvest and many of the commercial starch factories had to stop operating.
This well used landscape plant with attractive berries utilized by wildlife but inedible to humans has a very motivating secret. One of the only native plants to North America that contains caffeine, the leaves of the Yaupon Holly contain 2/3 the caffeine of coffee. The leaves also contain antioxidants and theobromine, a diuretic that is good for your heart, lungs and central nervous system. In traditional Florida cultures Yaupon Holly was used as a daily tonic and as a part of ceremonial drinks to purify the body prior to important events. This drink was referred to as ‘black drink’ and would induce vomiting due to its extremely concentrated nature. When Europeans first came to Florida, they observed this practice hence the Latin name for Yaupon, Ilex vomitoria. Early settlers to Florida began to incorporate Yaupon tea into their daily routines, relying on the drink as a cheaper alternative to coffee. As coffee became more readily available to the public, the drinking of Yaupon fell out of favor but has recently reemerged as a niche tea market.
Dangling from dappled limbs, the grey-green filaments of Spanish moss serve as an iconic image of the American South. Often seen on mature live oak trees, Spanish moss is both loved and misunderstood. Despite its name, Spanish moss is actually an epiphytic (air-loving) plant more closely related to a pineapple than moss. Questions frequently appear in extension offices concerning Spanish moss and its impact on the trees upon which it resides. While it may be concerning, this lovely plant has no documented detrimental impact to trees.
The new green growing tips of Spanish moss are edible (though it would take immense patience to make a meal) and several medicinal uses have been documented in various historical texts including use as an antiseptic wash after boiling, a tea to treat fever and chills and as a gauze-like absorbent. The fluffy nature of the plant makes it an excellent choice for bedding and stuffing. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s there was an industry around harvesting Spanish moss with long picking poles, hanging it to cure for many months in a ‘moss yard’ and then commercially ginning the material to remove the core. In fact, the first Model-T had Spanish moss in the seats!
Once, prolific columns of pine marched steadily from the Carolinas through the peninsula of Florida, groundcover dotted with various grasses, wildflowers and legumes. No one plant species has shaped the interior landscape of Florida (or the entire Southeast US for that matter) like the Longleaf pine, foundational to the ecosystems that are unique to Florida. Panthers and black bears once prowled the needle strewn floor of the Longleaf Pine forests in abundance. Native inhabitants of Florida would use the prevalence of fire to cultivate land, funnel prey animals and increase the desirable areas for building permanent or temporary settlements. The young needles of Longleaf pine are high in Vitamin C, anti-septic, diuretic, and expectorant. The thin white cadmium layer underneath the bark can be consumed and the pine nuts can be harvested from the pinecones albeit with quite a lot of effort and extraordinarily little reward. Tribes from across the Southeastern U.S. used Longleaf pine needles to create intricate woven baskets. Many of these tribes continue this practice and use pine needle baskets as a source of income and for education. Early colonists discovered the value of Longleaf as lumber and eventually began harvesting the sap for distillation into turpentine. The logging and turpentine industry formed some of the first major urban centers throughout the state. Houses as far away as Maine contain pine from our Florida forests. The boom and bust of the logging industry were responsible for shifting populations throughout the state, concentrating growth in major urban areas and contributing to modern day population distribution.
The ebb and flow of these five plants helped define and shift how human cultures interacted with the natural environment in Florida. Intrinsic in the plants with which we are surrounded, our personal landscapes contain stories, lessons. These lessons inform our past interactions about what to use, what to protect and preserve, and why we should be aware of the connections of individual resources to the greater systems of which we are a part, our natural ecosystems, built environments, and to a greater degree our capability to inhabit the places we love. We can listen, observe or ignore, it is a choice that is connected to our happiness and wellbeing. The more we look, the more we learn and the more we share, the closer we get to each other and the world we live in, together.
For more information on these plants or any other plant information please contact your local UF/IFAS Extension office. your local UF/IFAS Extension Office.