WORC October 2023 Program Recap: Medicinal Botany

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President Linda Gary introduces our speaker Maisie Wiler.


WORC October 2023 Program Recap

Medicinal Botany: Exploring traditional ecological knowledge and western laboratory science

Over sixty people came to Calvin’s Bunker Interpretive Center on October 16 to hear Maisie Wiler, a recent graduate of GVSU and a masters candidate, speak on Medicinal Botany.

In her presentation, Maisie talked about the role of plants in our society. Agriculture, food and related industries create over 5% of the U.S. gross national product. Studies show urban forests can help reduce stress and anxiety for residents and reduce violent street crimes.

She went on to say that 50% of medications in the last 40 years are derived from plants or the active compounds found in the plants are synthesized. Swiss chemist and physician, Paracelsus wrote about the basic principle of toxicology “…the dose makes the poison.” Meaning a substance that has toxic properties can cause harm only if it is present in a high enough concentration. For example, native plant Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) causes liver damage if used over a long period of time.

Maisie believes people have lost their connection to nature. People should be:
A part of nature” rather than “Apart from nature.” 

She clearly stated that she is not affiliated with any Indigenous nation but she is very interested in the study of Indigenous culture and reciprocity—for everything we take, we need to give back something. Part of loving nature is observing it.

Maisie Wiler explains Indigenous peoples uses of Tamarack.

Seven Indigenous groups use parts of the Tamarack or Larch tree (Larix larcina) for medicinal purposes:

  • respiratory illnesses
  • rheumatic fever
  • nerve disorders
  • whooping cough and TB (roots and needles)
  • burns (water soaked bark for burn dressings)
  • diuretic (bark, sap & leaves)

Tamarack stimulates insulin uptake and could possibly help treat diabetes. She hopes it will be researched. Diabetes affects much of the indigenous population.

Why does modern Science ignore indigenous knowledge? Maisie says it is because of the history of the eraser of their culture and ambivalence. 

Some other trees/plants that Maisie talked about:

  • Birch trees contain many organic compounds. It was valuable to Indigenous groups for disinfecting wounds. They make tea from the birch bark. 
  • Cottonwood trees contain salicin which can be used to make salicytic acid for acne and other skin irritations. Traditionally, the salicin from Willow trees is used to make salicylic acid. 
  • Fringed sage (artemisia frigida) is by Indigenous peoples for coughs, colds, heartburn, indigestion, headache, fever and for treating treating wounds.

Maisie hopes that modern scientists will collaborate with Indigenous people. Much of the Indigenous groups’ medicinal knowledge is not written down—but passed on as oral narrative—so it may be lost at some point. 

We thank Maisie Wiler for sharing her knowledge of medicinal botany with us, and we wish her well in her future studies.