Plants of the Cherokee and a road trip through the Cherokee Nation

Bill and I took a trip to Cherokee country on Tuesday.

A map of Oklahoma's diverse tribal lands.
A map of Oklahoma’s diverse tribal lands.

Oklahoma may be one state, but we are many nations as Travel Oklahoma puts it. Every corner of Oklahoma is not only diverse in its topography, soil and weather, but also, in its people. Because of our history, we have native peoples from all over the United States. Oklahoma is home to thirty-nine American Indian tribes. The Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, Choctaw and Seminole tribes, often called the Five Civilized Tribes in historical documents, were removed to Oklahoma from the southeastern U.S. Other tribes, like the Cheyenne, Comanche, Apache and Arapaho, made Oklahoma their home long before.

Bill and I drove through the eastern part of the state on Cherokee tribal lands. If you look at the bottom of the red section in the map above, we were in Sequoyah County in Sallisaw where Sequoyah settled after moving here from Arkansas in 1829 long before the Cherokee Trail of Tears. The county is named for this Cherokee silversmith who developed the written Cherokee alphabet around 1809.

Two books I picked up at the Cherokee gift shop in Tahlequah.
Two books I picked up at the Cherokee gift shop in Tahlequah.

Bill and I didn’t stop at one of the many casinos that now dot Oklahoma’s landscape. Instead, we ate at the Restaurant of the Cherokees in Tahlequah before heading home. This buffet is no tacky tourist attraction. It’s a legitimate eating place for everyone working in the area. We sat next to a painting crew whose table was beside a paving company superintendent and inspectors. We ate crispy fried catfish, an extremely popular dish on many Oklahoma restaurant menus. Some places do it well, and this one did with a cornmeal crust light as a feather. All of the food was homemade. I had pickled beets and okra, along with coleslaw. Bill had the homemade rolls.

Solidago spp., goldenrod. is native to the southern U.S. including Oklahoma and was used by the Cherokee for "flux" and tuberculosis.
Solidago spp., goldenrod. is native to the southern U.S. including Oklahoma and was used by the Cherokee for “flux” and tuberculosis.

As we left, I stepped into the gift shop and found three books on native plants. One book was published entirely in Cherokee, and there was no English translation. I talked to the young woman in the gift shop, and she couldn’t translate the title. She said there once was an English translation too, but both were out of print. From the photos, I could tell it was about plants native to Oklahoma. Sadly, I placed it back on the shelf, but I bought Plants of the Cherokee, by William H. Banks, Jr. and Cherokee Plants: Their Uses–A 400 Year History, by Paul B. Hamel and Mary U. Chiltoskey. I can already tell both of these books will be great for identifying native plants throughout Oklahoma and the Appalachian area where the Eastern Band of the Cherokee still live.

Banks, who became a professor, originally wrote Ethnobotany of the Cherokee Indians, for his Master of Science Thesis at the University of Tennessee in 1951. It was studied and kept in archives before found and published by the Great Smoky Mountains Association. Although you might consider this a dry read, for those of us infatuated with plants and people, it isn’t. He interviewed Cherokee tribal elders and walked the hills of North Carolina learning about traditional medicine. Banks’ personal observations are also interesting. The photos of the Cherokee he consulted are priceless for their time warp of rural 1951. I wish the photos were larger. What excites me most about the book, is the Cherokee plant names written phonetically so they can be pronounced by English speakers. Plants names are also listed as common names and botanically. Because it was written in 1952, note that some of the botanical names have recently changed due to DNA analysis.

Baptisia sphaerocarpa 'Screamin' Yellow' with bumblebee
Baptisia sphaerocarpa ‘Screamin’ Yellow’ a selected cultivar, with bumblebee

Although this book focuses on plants used by the Eastern Cherokee, many of these plants also grow in Eastern Oklahoma. Some, like baptisia, also grow on the southern plains. There are further chapters relating to Cherokee tribal ceremonies and culture. Banks was thrilled he lived to see his thesis published. We are fortunate he had access to tribal elders who shared their vast, oral knowledge with him about Cherokee medicine and botany. If you’d like to read more about Banks’ life, his obituary is online.

The second book is more historical and less scientific. It is also based upon interviews with Cherokee elders, especially Hester Reagan. Chiltoskey interviewed Cherokee in North Carolina to write down practices and plants of the tribe. Although both books write of Cherokee culture and how plants worked within it, it appears that the authors never crossed each others’ paths. I think this is because Banks wrote his book in 1951 while Hamel and Chiltoskey copyrighted theirs in 1975. Banks’ book is listed in their bibliography, however.

Corn was treasured by Native peoples.
Corn was treasured by Native peoples.

The green corn ceremony is highlighted in both books, and it’s worth checking out. It is celebrated by several different tribes in the southeast, and the Mississippian Culture. Corn was one of the most important plants to the tribes for food. A lot of lore grew up around its use and cultivation.

I find our history as its woven with the history of the southeastern and southwestern states fascinating. If you’re interested in native plants, Native American tribes and their history or ethnobotany, I think these books might be of some value to you. Taking trips and learning about one’s culture is all part of being human. Also, I had a great-grandmother who had Cherokee heritage. At that time, she wouldn’t admit it because of her own reasons, but now I celebrate her and my family history any way I can. You might take a trip through your state and learn its living history too.

Even though I missed Wildflower Wednesday, I am including this post in Gail’s Clay and Limestone links as I have highlighted a few native plants here. We forget how much native plants played a role in the survival of people before “modern medicine.” I still use natural therapies for many of my winter complaints.



  1. Les says:

    It’s great that this heritage is something to be proud of now, and not something to hide. I have been to Cherokee NC several times, my grandparents were fascinated with it. I wish I could thank them now for making us visit the cultural center and to see “Unto These Hills”, but at the time my brother and I only wanted to see the tacky stuff in the tourist trap that has arisen there.

  2. Dee what a fabulous trip….there is so much to learn from out native tribes and native plants…I have been including lots of native folklore in my WW and other posts…it is our country’s heritage and I love to learn about it and pass it on.

  3. Lea says:

    Very interesting, and beautiful photos, too!
    We have a Mississippi Visitors Center about 40 miles from us. I should go there and look for books on native Mississippi plants and our Indian cultures.
    Hope you are having a great week-end!
    Lea’s Menagerie

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Thank you so much Lea. You should. I always learn a lot.

  4. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    I find this fascinating Dee. I would love to read these books and I know others that would appreciate them too. I have friends that are part Osage and are very into their heritage. When I was at the Grand Canyon in one of their gift shops they had a framed piece with native plants and their uses along with the medicine bag that those might have been kept in. If I had a way to get them home safely I would have bought one. Thanks for highlighting these books.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Lisa, I would have been tempted to buy that too. I love learning about our heritage and native plants. I should also say that my great grandmother was “some Cherokee.” She wouldn’t talk about it though. Different days back then.

  5. Rose says:

    These books were a great find, Dee! I enjoy history, and am fascinated by Native Americans’ use of plants– it seemed like every plant had a useful purpose. I remember when I was younger, my dad would sometimes find arrowheads and other artifacts after he had plowed a field; it always made me want to know more about those who had walked on this land before us.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      It is interesting. So many medicines are derived from plants even now.

  6. Hi, Dee —
    I can’t tell you how much I enjoy reading your blog. I’m always thrilled when I get a new post in my in box. I’m originally from Oklahoma, so your posts help ease (but sometimes increase) my homesickness for my beloved state. This post, however, was especially poignant and wonderful. I did follow the link to Mr. Banks’ obituary. What a wonderful life! What an inspiration!
    Thanks so much for your big, kind heart, your gorgeous photos, and your truly wonderful blog!
    Most sincerely,
    Laura Bigbee-Fott

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Gosh Laura, you made my day with your comment. I was just wondering if anyone even reads my blog anymore. Thank you so much.

  7. VP says:

    What a fascinating trip and post and I love the look of those books 🙂

    You’ve reminded me of our trip to Vancouver Island post Seattle Fling, where one of the gardens we visited had a display of native Indian plants also spelled phonetically so we could get our tongues around the names 😉

    I love what you said about trips and learning is part of being human. We’re off to a local show today – it’s only a few miles away, yet we’ve never been, not even to the village where it’s held. The village has the country’s oldest allotments, so we will be learning more about rural life and history today, as well as having a good time 🙂

    1. Dee Nash says:

      VP, that sounds so interesting. You have such a long and varied history. Our country is so young, but of course, the native peoples were here first. They have long histories mostly oral. We know more about the Cherokee because they had a written language, and Sequoyah’s alphabet allowed taking it down.

  8. Fascinating, Dee. How wonderful to have those books! Sounds like you had a great time, too.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      They are very interesting. I can also look up plants and think about their uses.

  9. Ann says:

    Sounds like you had a wonderful and educational trip. Those books sound so interesting. . .I must look them up. You visited one of my favorite parts of my home state and I don’t get up there enough.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      I love that part of the state too. I get to speak in Tulsa in September. I’m pretty excited.

  10. Frances says:

    Dear Dee, thank you, thank you, thank you for featuring these books and telling us about the plantings of the Cherokees. Having been born in Tulsa and learning Indian history in school, some of it anyway, and now living in the area of Tennessee where the Cherokee were gathered to begin the forced march to Oklahoma, I am extremely interested in these books and plan on trying to locate them. I am in your debt, my friend.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Hi Frances, I’m glad I could help. 🙂

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