Abenaki Wild Harvests for Food & Medicine

With the waxing of Sogalikas, the “sugarmaker” moon, the traditional Abenaki season for gathering wild edible and medicinal plants begins. Abenaki subsistence practices have been handed down through countless generations. This glimpse into the traditional wild harvest draws upon extensive first-hand observations, oral tradition, archaeological site reports, observations recorded in the journals of early explorers, and other historical books and records.

Traditionally, during the early spring, maple sap was gathered in birchbark buckets. Sap was boiled down in clay pots until it formed syrup. Much of the syrup was made into maple sugar—an energy source that stored well and provided sustenance on long journeys. Maple sugaring remains an important cultural tradition and source of food in today’s Abenaki communities, even as contemporary methods have been adapted.

Sap from winsak, the “sweet birches” of yellow and black (Betula alleghaniensis and B. lenta), is also boiled down to form an elixir with a wintergreen essence. Tea extracted from the boiled twigs and inner bark can be used as an astringent and a wintergreen mouthwash.

When Kikas, the “planter” moon rises, activity shifts to gathering early greens, groundnuts, other edible roots, and tree barks flush with vital nutrients. Food from wild plants offers greater nutrition than many domesticated varieties, including more energy, fiber, trace elements, and essential vitamins and minerals such as vitamin C, vitamin E, calcium, iron, and folate. 

A nutritious native harvest is foraged from woodlands, wetlands, meadows, and fields. The prolific, earthy-tasting roots of groundnut (Apios Americana) lay exposed along eroded vernal riverbanks, revealing strings of inch-wide nodules. These are cleaned, pealed, and boiled or roasted for about 30 minutes to make bite-sized, potato-like tubers.

Familiar spikes of cattail shoots (Typha latifolia and T. angustifolia) and the lance-like leaves of arrowhead or duck-potato (Sagittaria latifolia) sprout  in neighboring marshes. The swellings on arrowhead roots are dug and cut away, then processed and cooked like groundnuts. A tough, fibrous covering surrounds the starchy cattail roots, which are difficult to gather but have a tender, nutritious center.

Wild leeks or ramps (Allium tricoccum) are harvested from dark riparian soil; scallion-like roots bearing intense onion flavor. This plant is so prevalent along the banks of one waterway in north-central Vermont that it is still known by the Abenaki name Winooski, “Onion” River.

The inner barks of many species contain medicines. Dried willow bark contains salicylates, which metabolize into salicylic acid (aspirin). Willow-bark tea is a painkiller and anti-inflammatory used for treating colds, diarrhea, and rheumatism, without irritating the stomach like aspirin. Bark from basswood (Tilia americana) and slippery elm (Ulmus rubra) are used to treat infected wounds, and that of striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum) to create a poultice that reduces swelling. Slippery elm bark tea coats and sooths the throat and stomach and eases gas, heartburn, and diarrhea.

In the forest understory, newly melted snow reveals the tiny teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens)—also known as wintergreen or checkerberry. The roundish, evergreen leaves and red berries from last summer emanate the ambrosia of wintergreen. Tender spring leaves are nibbled raw. When eating the leaves and berries, saliva and digestive juices transform the wintergreen compound into salicylic acid—nature’s chewable aspirin.

As the season progresses, the scent of wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) wafts from underfoot—crimson gems of sweetness and flavor. The berries are eaten raw, put into food for flavoring, and dried for later use.

If someone contacts poison ivy while foraging, he or she simply rubs the stems of jewelweed (Impatiens sp.) or the leaves of sweetfern (Comptonia peregrina) onto the skin to quell inflammation. Sap from milkweed sprouts is applied directly for treating warts. 

Historically, the Abenaki viewed edibles as forming a continuum that transitioned from formal vegetable gardens into wilderness. When soil became depleted after 10 to 15 years of gardening, villages were moved to new ground where piles of acorns, butternuts, chestnuts, hazelnuts, dried blueberries, and seeds of other important foods were placed around the lodges. Squirrels gathered this largess and buried the fruits and nuts in secret caches. The forgotten stores became seeds of the groves of “wild” fruits and nuts that surrounded many villages. Many other desirable species were encouraged by cultivating those seeds and plants, such as rose, dock, choke cherry, grape, chenopodium, wild beans, false buckwheat, hog peanut, hawthorn, false Solomon’s seal, dropseed, bramble, and grass.

Showing respect is a strong part of Abenaki tradition. Permission is asked of the plant and of the Great Spirit, Kici Niwaskw. Patches are thinned, leaving some plants behind to continue the next generation. The tallest “Grandmother” plant is not picked—it is left out of respect for that progenitor of all others and to assure regeneration. Finally, thanks is offered, and a gift of seeds from that plant is left for future propagation, or a symbolic gift of sunflower seeds or tobacco to complete the circle and restore the balance. 

Michael J. Caduto is the author of A Time Before New Hampshire: The Story of a Land and Native Peoples (Brandeis Univ. Press/Chicago Univ. Press).

The waxing Sugarmaker Moon (Sogalikas). Photo: Michael J. Caduto.


Learn more about our Vermont Standard articles.