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Development of the Ethnobotany Program at SDSU was undertaken to create an umbrella under which we could form a broad collaboration across Departments, Colleges, and regional Land Grant Institutions. The primary contribution of my lab to these efforts has been the study of native plants. Our program takes a broad view of Ethnobotany and has three primary foci that include Anthropology, Horticulture and Economic Botany (i.e. the uses of native plants - both traditional and modern).


The role of native plants in the region's American Indian cultures was initially introduced to my lab by Mr. Joseph Flying-Bye, a Tribal Elder from Little Eagle, SD, and became a central focus of my program after I received an NIH-DNAS grant to team teach the Traditional Plants class at Sisseton-Wahpeton College. Three Elders, Mrs. Dorothy Gill, Mrs. Clara Eagle and Mr. Nathan Thompson, taught the cultural and historical uses of the plants and I provided the basic botany training and the plant materials that were used to teach the class. These efforts led to my involvement in the SDSU Prairie PhD program, where we are training graduate students from Tribal Colleges in ND, SD and NE, who are already faculty or staff at their respective institutions. For most or all of these students, development of culturally significant approaches to teaching science is seen as essential to attracting American Indian students into the sciences.

Surveys conducted by my Graduate Students have led to an understanding of what plants are important to tribal members and how access to plants that have become limited in distribution o­n the reservations can lead to a better transfer of knowledge through the generations. The consequences of these studies and collaborations between SDSU and the Tribal Colleges are o­ngoing projects to re-establish important food crops such as Juneberries, the restoration of prairies around the colleges and development of outdoor classrooms.


A large portion of my effort in Ethnobotany o­n the SDSU campus has centered o­n the study of the horticultural aspects of native plants and has generated collaborations with the members of the Horticulture research faculty, Extension faculty, Landscape Architecture faculty, and the McCrory Garden Directors. This project began with the collection of seeds, photographs and voucher specimens from throughout the upper Great Plains. The central focus of this work is the identification of native plant species for use in alternative agricultural applications including plants for xeriscaping, the horticultural trades and for reclamation/restoration projects.

Seed quality and dormancy has provided research topics for several graduate and undergraduate students and led to research support and cooperation with Mid-West Seed Services Inc., Brookings, SD. Students have developed germination protocols and are working o­n methods to rapidly screen seed viability to help growers effectively market seeds from native plants. This is essential if there is to be enough seed of these wild plant species available for gardening, niche markets of specialty crops, reclamation and highway plantings.

Planting of test gardens, demonstration plots and landscaping of museums and other public buildings in SD have aided in understanding the potential horticultural value of many of the species that we have collected. Evaluation of methods of propagation, cultivation practices, growing requirements, suitability for gardens, and disease/pest problems have been made for several species and are in progress for many more. The data generated for each of the plant species is being made available through our website (http://biomicro.sdstate.edu/nativeplants).

Horticulturally, o­ne of the most important uses of native plants in the coming decades will be their use in xeriscaping. Studies in Fargo, ND and Denver, CO have shown that 30-50% of a city's water usage can be eliminated if bluegrass lawns are replaced, in whole or part, by native perennials. The upper Great Plains contains a large selection of grasses, forbs, shrubs and a limited number of trees that are adapted to seasonal droughts and can withstand the harsh climate. Many of the species, especially grasses, are already available to the public, but their use requires much stronger promotional efforts. There are also many species that we are evaluating that will be valuable additions to the landscape. The website and our participation with the SDSU-Extension Master Gardener's Program are being used to expand the acceptance of these new additions to the horticultural trades.

Food and Medicinal Uses

Traditional uses of plants by American Indians encompassed all aspects of life. A majority of the plants fit along a continuum of food to medicine, with consumption of the proper balance keeping you healthy. Many of the plants that o­nce grew o­n the reservations have been lost to agricultural practices, extensive use of herbicides and the damning of rivers. Knowledge of these plants and their use as foods or medicines has diminished as a result of these events.

Increasing the utilization of many of the common foods (i.e. juneberry, chokecherry, wild plum) just requires making them available, as they are extremely palatable. For more obscure plants that were o­nce staples (i.e. prairie turnip, biscuit root, milkweed) descriptions of methods of preparation and production of new recipes are being developed o­n many of the region's reservations. These plants will need to be grown in gardens and we are developing these protocols. Nutritional analyses are also underway for many of these species. Collaborations with Nutrition faculty and utilization of the Olson Biochemistry Laboratory o­n the SDSU campus have allowed us to characterize several foods and additional studies will proceed as new students join our program. We are also interested in antioxidant and nutriceutical contents of many of these plants. Identification of potential health benefits and the marketable compounds found in the native plants makes up a substantial portion of the research that is conducted in our laboratory.

The examination of potentially valuable medicinal plants is more complex. Because American Indian healing practices are based upon a spiritual approach and so many of the medicinal plants are held sacred, we have chosen to study the medicinal aspects of plants using a western biochemistry-oriented approach. Potentially interesting plants are collected and extracted following standard pharmacognosy protocols. Screening of extracts has been conducted through a series of collaborations with Biology, Microbiology, Animal Science, Chemistry and Pharmacy faculty. Much of this work is still in progress, but we have identified o­ne group of potentially valuable antibiotics. Plants that may provide treatment for porcine diarrhea have also been identified. Characterization of newly identified, biologically active compounds will be conducted using the new SDSU mass spectrometry/ NMR facilities.

Our research has also led to a collaboration with researchers at the Ohio State University and the University of Akron, where o­ngoing clinical studies of the use of Black Raspberry extracts to treat oral and esophageal cancers have shown that the benefits of the treatments result from the synergy of many of the fruit's chemical components. We are currently working o­n the use of NMR spectrometry in conjunction with statistical modeling to identify the biologically active components in complex mixtures.


The creation of the SDSU Ethnobotany and the Native Plant Research program has brought together several aspects of the study of plants under a unified theme. It has proven to be useful in stimulating interest in science education at SDSU and the region's Tribal Colleges. The research has stimulated the formation of several successful collaborations with faculty at SDSU, the region's 1994 Land Grant Institutions and researchers in Ohio. The results of the research will eventually have a positive impact o­n the health and well being of the residents of South Dakota and should be an impetus to economic development in the state.

By R. Neil Reese, PhD.
Department of Biology & Microbiology, South Dakota State University, Brookings, SD 57007

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