The Alsea people lived near the Beaver Creek marsh before the 1850’s and the coming of European and Asian settlers. Drucker (1939) recorded plants that Alsea used for food, shelter, and tools. Carrying baskets were made of spruce root, willow bark, and grass fiber and smaller baskets were decorated with fern. Cordage was made from beach grass, willow inner bark, and tule. Digging sticks and bows were made of vine maple and yew. Camas and roots of black fern and skunk cabbage were dug for food. Berries and greens were picked. Acorns and camus were gathered from inland and eaten. Houses were constructed of cedar and mats of grass or tule were used throughout houses for door, wall, and floor coverings. Summer camps had huts constructed with grass and tule thatch tied to roof and wall poles. Canoes were constructed from cedar, with hardwood paddles, spruce and fir poles, and vine maple fittings. Yew was used to make wedges for splitting logs into planks. Clothes were made of shredded bark or grass. Cooking vessels were carved from maple or alder. Tobacco was grown in small plots and kinnikinnik was gathered for smoking. Pipes were made of hard wood or a stone bowl with an elderberry stem.
Clearly, the Alsea people used plants that were available in their environment for all aspects of their lives. Their uses were not much different from other coastal cultures with access to plant materials. Zobel (2002) made a study of the people who lived in the Salmon River estuary which is approximately 60 miles north of the Beaver Creek marsh. The Salmon River people were a subgroup of the Tillamook. Zobel’s study is a useful summary of available information about use of plants by aboriginal people of the Oregon coast. He summarized plant types, species names, uses, and origin: Ferns-7 species; Trees-9 species; Shrubs-17 species; Forbs-18 species; Grass-like-12 species; Algae and Moss. Recorded uses included containers, clothing, food, housing or bedding, implements, medicinal uses, recreational use, ceremonial use, and firewood. Origins included trade, cultivated, alder forest, dunes, estuary, headland, marsh, spruce-hemlock forest, and ocean. Plants from all available habitats were used. There was a close correspondence between the percentages of species gathered and recorded or probable uses in the landscape.
In a study that included the peoples of coastal Washington state, Gunther (1973) surveyed plants used by five coastal people: Makah; Quileute; Quinault; Chehalis; and Chinook. Their use of coastal ecosystem plant material would be similar to the Alsea people uses. Gunther included more species than did Zobel, suggesting a richer environment for gathering and trade.
In our gardens next to Beaver Creek marsh we have maintained native vegetation and planted other species that are found in Gunther’s list of plants used by coastal aboriginal people. In this way we have a relationship with the land, the people, and the plants that sustained them. Slowly we can understand the qualities that these plants have and the ways in which they interact with each other and with their habitats. Observations of plant habits begins the story of how plants and people interact to benefit. After 1850, settlers came to the marsh and brought their own plants in gardens and these changed the story again, something we can study in depth from historical records of farms and forestry.
Here are some examples of indigenous plants used by coastal aboriginal people and listed by Gunther, that are in our gardens: licorice fern, sword fern, wood fern, lady fern, maidenhair fern, brake fern, deer fern, horsetail, yew, lodgepole pine, spruce, hemlock, fir, cedar, juniper, cattail, rye grass, sedge, tule, skunk cabbage, rush, hellebore, fairy bells, false lily-of-the-valley, trillium, plantain, willow, alder, nettle, wild ginger, dock, spring beauty, water lily, anemone, buttercup, larkspur, columbine, Oregon grape, bleeding heart, alum root, gooseberry, current, ninebark, ocean spray, spirea, wild rose, thimbleberry, salmonberry, blackberry, strawberry, crab apple, lupine, clover, giant vetch, geranium, wood sorrel, maple, vine maple, cascara, yellow violet, fireweed, cow parsnip, rhododendron, huckleberry, salal, kinnikinnick, mint, self heal, hedge nettle, horehound, mullein, speedwell, bedstraw, elderberry, twinberry, honeysuckle, pearly everlasting, yarrow, ox-eye daisy, coltsfoot, thistle, and burdock.
The names invoke pictures, smells, tastes, textures, medicinal actions, and a host of cultural uses. The history of plant uses by humans is long and rich with tradition and ingenuity.
Posted by michael