Native Village 
Youth and Education News

December 1, 2013

5 Native American Herbs for the Cold and Flu Season
Condensed by Native Village

Before flu shots and NyQuil, native tribes and used their own old and flu treatments — herbs.

Most early European settlers were unaware of the healing power of the native herbs that grew around them. Sadly, their own conventional medicine offered little comfort. The available options of bloodletting, mercury, and strychnine did little to help. The best course of action was often doing nothing at all.

During those dark times, Samuel Thomson—a poor, uneducated farm laborer from New Hampshire— devised a unique system of medicine that used a few native plants for healing. His patented method quickly spread across the American frontier.

By 1840, the Thompsonian method was adopted by as many as 5,000,000 Americans.


Thomson’s top herb—lobelia —had long been used by the Penobscot, Cherokee, and Wampanoag tribes for healing. He discovered lobelia's  remarkable effects as a child when he used it to prank friends (at high doses, users discovered the secret of its folk name: pukeweed).

Thomson used lobelia for a wide variety of ailments, but also found it effective in colds, and fevers. Lobelia clears the lungs and promotes the expectoration of mucus.

Thomson spent a year in jail in 1809 when a jealous doctor accused him of killing a man with lobelia. Thomson was later vindicated, but lobelia’s toxic reputation still lingers.

Today, lobelia is widely available in pills and tinctures.


Thomson’s second favorite remedy was cayenne pepper. He called it “one of the safest and best articles ever discovered to remove disease.”

Thompson discovered cayenne during a trip to Massachusetts and immediately realized its value in healing.

Unlike many other herbs, cayenne’s effects are felt immediately. Within seconds, its heat drains sinuses, improves circulation, and clears congestion.

While pills and tinctures are available, cayenne added to meals soon helps stuffy noses breathe clear.


Goldenseal was another herb that Thomson made popular but by 1910, this popularity had nearly picked the plant to extinction.

Goldenseal can be used for head congestion and sore throat. Administer small doses (a few drops). This is not only better for the patient, but for the plant as well.

Native to the American Midwest, goldenseal is now an endangered species in some states.


An important plant for Great Plains Indians, echinacea became prominent in the 1800s and has regained popularity as an immunity booster.

According to Kerry Bone, a bio-chemist turned herbalist,  misconceptions exist of echinacea's affect on the immune system.

According to Bone, echinacea works best as a preventative or in the very early stages of an infection.

Another misconception about echinacea: you can only use it for a short period of time. He suggest using echinacea as part of a daily regimen to ward off infections. He also recommends Echinacea angustifolia, the variety used by native healers.  While Echincea purpurea is easy to grow, it is also much less potent.


The last herb comes from West, far from where Thomson's travels. During the influenza epidemic of the early 1920s, the medical community discovered that whites and Indians in Nevada fared far better than the rest of the country.

Their secret weapon: lomatium root.

Lomatium has long served as a medicine and food to the Great Basin tribes. The root, available in tinctures and pills, can address minor head colds and lessen the severity and duration of strong respiratory infections.



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