Root has long provincial history

Happy New Year, gardeners! We wish you health and happiness in the coming year! The Yorkton and District Horticultural Society sends you the best of the season, and reminds you that our brand new year of interesting speakers and presentations is just around the corner! You are always welcome to join us!

Last week at a family holiday gathering, the conversation turned to stories from the past, and how someone used to collect seneca root. I've heard of seneca root, but had absolutely no idea of what it looks like or what it was used for; but the idea of I sounded fascinating, so here is what I learned from a very informative site from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

Seneca root, also called seneca snakeroot or polygala senega, grows in a broad swipe across the map of North America, extending from Saskatchewan and Manitoba through to Ontario, Quebec, and down and across the Midwestern and eastern United States. If you and I were out hiking on the open prairie or in light bush, looking for seneca snakeroot, we would be looking for a perennial about two feet high with narrow leaves, small white flowers, and several stems coming out from the centre of the plant. Pictures that I have seen of the seneca snakeroot remind me somewhat of a veronica plant, so let's keep that in mind as we continue our hike.

Seneca root is used primarily for pharmaceutical uses, and most of it is collected in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The root of the plant would be dark brown, and about six or seven inches long and an inch or so wide. The root was first collected by the Seneca tribe of Indians who used it as a cure for snakebite. But it was thought to have other medical benefits as well, such as for respiratory problems, and the wisdom of various First Nations peoples on how to use the seneca snakeroot made the healing powder a valuable commodity that travelled to Europe as early as the 1800's.

People were eager to make the plant a cash crop, and while experiments showed that the seeds weren't fussy about their soil and could be grown in dry conditions, making the dream a reality was not so easy. The seeds are very difficult to germinate, the new plants have to be protected over the winter, and it takes several years for the plants to become mature enough to harvest their roots. So with all these hurdles, it seems that seneca snakeroot is best harvested in its natural habitat. Here's an interesting little factoid, about three quarters of the wild harvested seneca snakeroot comes from the Interlake region in Manitoba. But of course, it is very important that progress be made to find ways to grow this special plant, because harvesting the root in the wild means that the plant is taken. Luckily, experienced harvesters know how to leave part of the root for regrowth. Responsible harvesting will insure a crop in the future.

I've heard that a special implement is used to harvest the seneca snakeroot, but I wasn't able to find a picture of it to describe it to you, so my homework will have to continue on that! As I read about this amazing plant, it made me once again realize how vital so many plants are for our daily lives. We can take a lesson from the long ago First Nations gardeners who had a deep respect for Mother Earth and the gifts that the earth gives us in the form of plants that feed, heal, and sustain us.

Respect and appreciation of nature is a good way to start the new year! Good luck with all the plants that you have brought in for the winter, hope they're all doing well! Have a good week!

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