From Slavery to Freedom Garden | Plant ID Confronting the Past to Heal the Future

Black Walnut

The nuts of the tree were eaten (walnuts) and the leaves could also be used to make medicine.

Identification:

  • These trees have jagged leaves. Some leaves appear directly opposite each other on the branch, while others are staggered on either side of the branch.
  • Black walnut bark is dark gray with ridges.
  • The walnuts from this tree are round, and will be green on the tree and when they fall to the ground they will turn dark brown or black on the outside:
black walnut

Paw Paw Tree

Paw paw fruits can be eaten. They can also be used as medicine for ulcers and used to locate water sources as it grows near water and in rich soil. The fruit juice was even used when marinating meat.

Identification:

  • These plants are smaller trees, growing in the understory-so not as tall as oak/maple/beech trees etc. The bark is smooth and lighter gray, with small raised bumps.
  • The leaves on this plant are long and ovular but almost tapered at each, and are alternate, meaning the leaves will be growing staggered across the branch of the tree.
  • The fruits are green and almost the shape of potatoes, more elongated than round. The flowers of this tree are dark purple/red with greenish centers. ​

Jewelweed

This tall plant grows along and near water sources like creeks, streams, or marshes. Along with indicating water, it can also be used to soothe itches ad sin irritations using the liquid inside its leaves. This can help with irritation from poison ivy and stinging nettle.

Identification:

  • Jewelweed can grow up to five feet tall and grows in shady moist areas near streams and other wet areas.
  • These plants will grow yellow-orange or orange-red flowers beginning in late spring/mid summer.
  • The leaves are smooth and have round toothed edges. The leaves are shiny when put in water.
jewelweed

Wood Sorel

The leaves can be eaten and have a lemony taste to them. Chewing these leaves can help reduce nausea and sores in the mouth. The leaves can also be crushed and applied to sores, or brewed as tea for fever and other illnesses. It is important to not eat too many of these leaves, as too high of an amount can be dangerous.

Identification: 

  • Each stem will have three heart shaped leaves, and each plant will have many stems.
  • The leaves of this plant may look like clover leaves, but wood sorrel has yellow flowers  with five flat petals.
  • Wood sorrel will have capsules that contain small brown seeds that will be thrown when the capsule opens.
wood sorel

Fiddleheads & Ferns

Ferns are indicators of water because they often grow near water sources like streams and creeks. The fiddleheads of ferns can be harvested and cooked in a variety of ways, like other vegetables. It is possible to get sick from raw fiddleheads, so fiddleheads are cooked before eating. They also have medicinal uses, such as pain/itch relief from stinging nettle.

Identification:

  • Ferns have many leaves attached to one stem. They are wide at the bottom and  get smaller towards the top. They  have spores on the undersides of their leaves to grow new ferns from. 
  • The "fiddlehead" of a fern is the top tightly curled part. In this part of the US, fiddleheads are harvested specifically from Ostrich ferns. These ferns have a groove in their stem, giving it a "u" shape.
  • The fiddleheads will have brown "scales" of papery leaves surrounding them. 
Fiddleheads & Ferns

Lady's Thumbprint (also known as Smartweed)

The leaves can be made into tea to treat stomachaches, sore throat, and other ailments. Soaking feet in the tea can also help with foot pain. The whole plant can be made into a paste that can treat poison ivy rashes, reduce pain, and repel insects. 

Identification:

  • ​It can grow between 6in to 40 in tall.
  • The stems are red and the leaves are long ovals or ellipticals that taper to a point at the end alternating along the stem. The top of the leaf is often a darker green than the underside and can have darker brown or purple centers.
  • The pink or purplish flowers are small and grouped into a pointed cylinder. The flowers themselves look more like buds rather than flowers with petals.
lady's thumbprint

Maple Trees

Not only are maple trees where we get the sap to make syrup, but maple tree bark was used to treat different ailments related to eyes, such as cataracts or sore eyes. The sap and syrup can also be used for medicinal purposes such as a tonic or to help with liver or kidney problems

Identification:

  • Maple trees of different kinds are found in Western Pennsylvania, but the most common species are sugar maple and red maple.
  • The leaves of maple trees have many lobes - or separate points - that form the zig-zag edges of the leaf.
  • Bark for sugar maples are brownish gray and furrowed - or have grooves. Red maples have dark brown scaly bark.
maple trees

Oak Acorns & Bark

Acorns were ground and made into coffee and was useful to help with infection. To eat acorns, it is important to soak them to take out the tannins, which make the acorns taste bitter. Red oak bark was also used to treat joint pain and swelling.

Identification:

  • Red oak trees have leaves that will have lobes that are pointy and it's bark is dark bark.
  • White oak leaves will have rounded lobes and bark with ridges that look almost scaly.
  • The acorns of red oak trees are bigger than white oak acorns.
red oak

Cornelian Cherry Dogwood

Medicine made from this small tree (including it's leaves, fruit, and flowers) can be used to help with sore throats, help with digestion, chickenpox, anemia, and more. The juice from this fruit is also used to treat other wounds on the skin such as boils. The fruit is also said to help with colds due to having Vitamin C.

Identification:

  • Cornelian cherry dogwoods are shrubs or small trees.
  • The leaves of this tree grow opposite each other on branches, are oval shaped and has smooth edges. In the spring and summer the leaves are dark green, and turn deep red/purple in the fall.
  • The fruit are red ovals which turn bright red in the summer. Flowers grow in clusters on the stem, which the fruit will then grow from.
Cornelian Cherry Dogwood

Wild Senna

It can be used to make a replacement for coffee by roasting the seeds. The plant can also be used in salad, in soup, or in stews. Wild senna can also be used as a laxative. This plant can be found along riverbanks, helping to locate that water source.

Identification:

  • Wild senna can be a few feet tall or up to 6 feet tall.
  • Each stem will have many leaves on it, all long ovals tapering to a point, that grow opposite to each other until the top two point forward instead of out. The leaves are flat with a smooth edge.
  •  Wild senna grows yellow flowers at the stem in bunches of multiple flowers and it's seed come in long seed pods.
Wild Senna

Sunk Cabbage

This plant is eaten after being cooked to eliminate any danger of eating the raw plant. It grows in moist and wet areas, and are used as a sign that water is nearby. The leaves can be turned into a paste to apply to cuts and to reduce swelling. The roots can be made into a tea helping to reduce coughs, help reduce labor pain, and assist in blood and kidney health. It can be used like wax paper to dry other foods or made into containers to collect food or water.

Identification: 

  • Skunk cabbage grows out of the ground as a group of leaves with a reddish and yellow spotted patterned (called a spathe) surrounding a spike of bud flowers called a spadix.
  • Once the flowers die, green leaves will grow.
Sunk Cabbage

Lamb's Quarters

Once cooked, multiple parts of the plants can be eaten, including shoots, leaves, seeds and flowers. The plant can be used as a sedative and to treat livestock wounds.

Identification: 

  • Lamb's quarters are small plants with alternate triangular or diamond shaped leaves (leaves growing staggered off the stem), and can have a toothed/jagged, rounded wavey, or smooth edge.
  • The flowers on this plant will be greenish, small, and in clusters in a spike shape at the top of the plant. The flowers don't have flat petals, instead they are small and round.
  • Lambs quarters can look like many other plants, such as other species of plants in the same family. It can look like Black nightshade, which can also be eaten if prepared and harvested correctly, and can look similar to but not identical to belladonna, which is a poisonous.​
Lamb's Quarters

Curled Dock or Yellow Dock

This flower can be eaten and used as medicine. When the leaves are young, they can be made into a salad. The roots can help treat itches, swelling, bacterial infections, constipation, and other ailments. However, eating the plant raw and when the plant is older can be dangerous.

Identification: 

  • The name "yellow" in yellow dock comes from the yellow color inside of the root.
  • Yellow dock can be up to 4 feet tall with leaves will be larger at the bottom of the plant, and get smaller closer to the top. Leaves are dark green and oval shaped ending in a point. The edges of these leaves are curled, which gives it the name "curly" or "curled" dock.
  • Yellow dock flowers grow in stalks with clusters of light greenish flowers. These flowers will dry and turn brown. Rubbing the dried flowers in your hands will dislodge the dried petals and seeds from the plant stalk.  ​
Curled Dock or Yellow Dock

Wild Raspberry

The fruit of this plant, raspberries, are eaten and turned into marmalade, jelly, preserves, and wine. The leaves were used as an astringent, which can reduce bleeding or oil on the skin. It was also used to prevent the illness dysentery.

Identification: 

  • Wild red raspberry plants are bushes that have leaf groups that are alternate (staggered) along the stem. Each leaf groups will have 3-5 leaflets on one branch with one of the leaves at the tip of the branch.
  • The bottom side of the leaves are a silver color, and the top can be light or dark green, with brownish edges at different times of the year.
  • The stems and branches are thorny. The flowers of this plant are white and clustered together.
  • Fruits of this type of raspberry will be red, but there are other types of different colors. ​
Wild Raspberry

Mulberry

Red mulberries were eaten, made into syrup, or used as medicine.

Identification:

  • In Western Pennsylvania, two kinds of mulberry trees are found, white and red/black.
  • Mulberries produce a fruit similar looking to blackberries, growing on their own instead of in clusters.
  • The leaves of mulberry trees can look like the spade suit in a deck of cards. However, mulberry leaves can be more than one shape, including round with a tapered point that looks like the spade suit, one looking like a mitten with a thumb, and the leaf that has three lobes/finger and looks like the clubs suit in cards.