Nature’s Fleeting Yet Vital Beauty: Ephemerals Used by Indigenous Communities

In this month’s Relearning Highlands History, HHLT’s Stewardship Fellow Joseph Moonjely explores the ecology of spring ephemerals. Treasured by many for the beauty they bring to the start of spring, these fleeting yet vital wildflowers have been used by many Indigenous communities for generations in healing and medicine traditions.
The Mohegan Tribe’s museum is the oldest Indian owned and operated museum in America. Gladys Tantaquidgeon along with her brother, Harold and father John, built the museum in 1931 as a place to keep Mohegan treasures.

        As maple sap stops flowing and buds start to form, nature offers many clues to the arrival of a new season. While recently hiking through HHLT’s enchanting Granite Mountain Preserve, I noticed a flowering perennial peeking through a thin remaining layer of snow on the ground. On closer inspection, I observed a knob-like structure inside the mottled maroon hood-like leaf. There were more of these perennials nearby; one was slightly crushed, emitting a slight skunk-like aroma. I wasn’t surprised when HHLT Preserve Manager and Ecological Restoration Specialist, Carmela Buono, informed me that I was looking at a spring ephemeral called Symplocarpus foetidus, commonly known as skunk cabbage.

        Granite Mountain Preserve is home to a variety of native forest flowers called spring ephemerals. Between March and May, these wildflowers bloom briefly to take advantage of the sunlight before disappearing underground and becoming dormant for much of the year. Spring ephemerals have an early and short growing cycle, with their leaves and flowers quickly withering and disappearing after they bloom. Ephemerals are typically found in deciduous forests, blooming in spring sunlight that reaches the forest floor before the trees leaf out. While skunk cabbage is one of the first plants to emerge during the early days of spring, other charismatic plants, such as mayapple, bloodroot, spring beauty, trout lily, trilliums, and Dutchman’s breeches, are quick to follow. These early-blooming flowers provide pollinators such as bumblebees and other solitary native bee species with their first source of nectar as they emerge from their overwintering habitats and wake from their winter slumbers. Ephemerals are essential to the ecology of the forest floor and are critical in helping pollinators regain their energy after a long hibernation season. Spring ephemerals are significant in indicating the health and biodiversity of forests in the Hudson Highlands, since they require specific soil conditions and microclimates to grow. 

        Fleeting yet vital, ephemerals also have a deep-rooted history of use by Indigenous tribes in our region, ranging from medicinal purposes to spiritual practices. Indigenous knowledge and practices regarding spring ephemerals continue today thanks to the persistent endeavors of long lines of medicine women like Gladys Tantaquidgeon. Tantaquidgeon, a ninth-generation granddaughter of Sachem Unca, was a Mohegan anthropologist, author, historian, and medicine woman who played a pivotal role in preserving and promoting Indigenous culture and traditions. Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel (Melissa Jayne Fawcett), author of Medicine Trail: The Life and Lessons of Gladys Tantaquidgeon, offers wonderful insight into the life and legacy of her great aunt. Tantaquidgeon was raised under the tutelage of her great-aunt Fidelia Fielding, or Jeets Bodernasha (Flying Bird), the last fluent speaker of the Mohegan-Pequot dialect, who taught Tantaquidgeon the complex aspects of Mohegan magic and medicine. However, Gladys received formal Mohegan herbal remedy training from her great-aunt Medicine Woman Emma Baker, her maternal grandmother Lydia Fielding, and a Nehantic woman named Mercy Ann Nonesuch Matthews. Tantaquidgeon lovingly referred to them as her three “grandmothers,” and they first took her into the medicine fields in 1904 before ultimately choosing Gladys to become a medicine woman. According to Tantaquidgeon, “Sometimes they gathered as many as ten different plants to effect a single cure. They taught me never to gather during the hot dog days of August and never to pick more than you need. They always practiced conservation. In the spring, early plants were referred to as weeds, and they were gathered and cooked as greens-a spring tonic: dandelion, poke, milkweed, plantain, and dock, to name a few. Other plants were more important as sources of healing ingredients, such as bloodroot, boneset, motherwort, ginseng…”

        By 1919, Tantaquidgeon’s three “grandmothers” had passed away, but she continued following her destiny on the medicine trail they had set out for her. During the spring of 1930, Tantaquidgeon met Witaponoxwe, a Delaware medicine man who provided the opportunity to explore her Lenni Lenape roots and hidden knowledge of medicinal plants. Considering that the Mohegans were one of the three original Lenni Lenape clans, many Mohegan customs were similar to those of the Delaware tribes. Tantaquidgeon continued to build upon her growing knowledge and to expand her Mohegan pharmacopeia by visiting other east coast tribes, such as the Nanticoke Tribe of Virginia and the Cayuga of Ontario. Gladys authored a culmination of her experiences and efforts, A Study of Delaware Indian Medicine Practice and Folk Beliefs, which was published in 1942 and remains her best-known work. In 1977, the book was reprinted as Folk Medicine of the Delaware and Related Algonkian Indians. It provides the same treasure of knowledge regarding the power of plants and their native medicinal practices. Tantaquidgeon’s work is still recognized today in the Native American Ethnobotany Database. It is one of the few resources available to learn about spring ephemerals in the context of Indigenous cultures and their medicinal practices.

        The skills and knowledge associated with harvesting spring ephemerals for their medicinal value symbolize the connection and history between Indigenous people and their stewardship of the land across generations. Folk Medicine of the Delaware and Related Algonkian Indians dives deeper into which ephemerals can be used for health, wellness, and nourishment. Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) has been used to make tonics that cleanse the body of toxins and shed excess water. Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) has been used as a stomach remedy and, when taken in pea-sized pieces for thirty days, was known to help aid with general physical weakness. Blue Cohosh root (Caulophyllum thalictroides), which was considered rare, was used for kidney-related disorders, and crushed leaves of Eastern skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) was used for pain relief, treatments for epilepsy fits, and cooked and used for food. Despite the short blooming period for these plants, Indigenous people found a variety of uses for spring ephemerals. [Please note: While various plants are still used for medicinal purposes today, many plants look alike, and some can be toxic if not prepared properly. Also, the survival of each species (as well as the species that rely on them) may be at risk if over-harvested. And finally: It is illegal to harvest plants and fungi from parklands and preserves without a permit.]

        Tantaquidgeon, like the medicine women and men before her, understood that all people suffer from “bad medicine” when anything destroys or contaminates the natural resources of Mother Earth. Tantaquidgeon strived to inspire concern for the natural world and to promote Indigenous beliefs of living in deep connection with the land. Certain tribes, such as the Lenape, believed that the first spring ephemerals to bloom were gifts from the Great Spirit that signified the return of warmth and abundance. As life awakens in the forest, we can take time to remember all the gifts nature provides and appreciate everything we can learn from past and present stewards of the land. 

Fawcett, Melissa Jayne. Medicine Trail The Life and Lessons of Gladys Tantaquidgeon. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2000. Print.

Tantaquidgeon, Gladys. Folk Medicine of the Delaware and Related Algonkian Indians. N.p., DIANE Publishing Company, 2007

To learn more about Gladys Tantaquidgeon and the Mohegan Tribe, visit their website here:  https://www.mohegan.nsn.us/about/our-tribal-history/in-memoriam/gladys-tantaquidgeo

To read Folk Medicine of the Delaware and Related Algonkian Indians, visit: https://www.google.com/books/edition/Folk_Medicine_of_the_Delaware_and_Relate/-xlxH4_nufQC?hl=en&gbpv=1&kptab=overview