How to Find, Use, and Identify Common Sacred Plants

Almost every culture and religion out there make use of sacred plants. People revere these sacred plants for their medicinal qualities, culinary use, healing power, or cultural purposes. Learning about the history and culture of plants is part of the study of ethnobotany.

It’s easy to Google lists of sacred plants, either in general or in relation to a specific culture, religion, or geographic area. However, it can be challenging to find those sacred plants in the wild.

Many sacred plants are easy to purchase online since they are generally useful in some way. However, it’s important to do more research before finding and harvesting sacred plants in the wild. Some sacred plants are illegal to use or harvest, have dangerous lookalikes, or can be culturally offensive to harvest.

While there are too many sacred plants in the world to list them all here, we can break down the common types of sacred plants. Once you know more about what sort of sacred plants may be near you, you can go find plants that look like them. Then you can use an app like PlantSnap or a field guide to help identify the sacred plant.

For the purposes of this article, we will consider plants sacred if they are extremely culturally important, considered to be magical, or routinely used in ceremonies for a given culture. We will focus on North and Central American sacred plants for this article.

While this definition is not perfect, it allows for a wider examination of the world’s sacred plants.

 

Edible Sacred Plants

Many cultures consider the plants that they eat to be sacred. While this technically does not include the American worker’s obsession with coffee, perhaps future anthropologists will disagree.

In any culture where a single plant provides (or provided) the vast majority of their food, that food is likely to be a sacred plant. We see two excellent examples of this in the Great Lakes Region of the United States and northern Central America.

  • Wild rice, also known as manoomin, is a sacred plant for the Ojibwe people of the Great Lakes Region. According to legend, a prophet in a dream told the people to travel west from the East Coast to “the place where the food grows on water.” When they arrived at the Great Lakes, they found vast beds of the tasty and nutritious wild rice growing in the shallows.
    • You can identify wild rice by looking for floating, ribbon-like leaves in shallow, murky water near the Great Lakes region. The edible grains are yellow to red and show up in August.
  • Corn is an extremely important sacred plant for the Maya, Aztec, and other Native American Tribes from Central and North America. This sacred plant has been a dietary staple for over 5,000 years. It’s hard to imagine life for these tribes, or even for the rest of us, without corn. Many cultures have a specific Goddess or God associated with corn and the harvest.
    • It’s difficult to find corn in the wild since the plant has been fully domesticated for over 5,000 years. However, you can easily identify planted corn by its tall stalks. It grows best in large groups, so you are unlikely to find just a few stalks of corn in an area.

 

st johns wort sacred plant

 

Medicinal Sacred Plants

Plants are at the root of almost all medicine known to man. It’s no surprise that many healing plants are considered sacred by various cultures. Many of these plants can be identified and used to help with mild illnesses or discomfort.

As we said earlier, do not consume any sacred plants without first ensuring that it is not disrespectful to do so and that it is not a dangerous lookalike plant.

    • St. John’s Wort has a long history as a sacred plant. Early European pagans used St. John’s Wort in midsummer celebrations. Later, Christians dedicated the plant to St. John and continued to use it for its medicinal and symbolic properties. Many believed that St. John’s Wort protected you from witches and evil. It also has some use as an antidepressant, even performing well in some clinical trials, but should not be used in conjunction with other antidepressants. It works by modifying serotonin levels, which may be dangerous when used alongside other drugs. St. John’s Wort is a good calming agent, but should not be used to replace more modern treatments for depression.
      • Find St. John’s Wort by looking for an upright, sunshine-yellow plant. It has a woody stem and leaves with transparent dots. St. John’s Wort grows to just over three feet high and prefers dry, gravely open areas. It grows in many parts of the world and thrives in amateur gardens.

 

    • Epazote is a strong-smelling plant with thin, serrated leaves. Native to the Yucatan, epazote is commonly used to flavor beans as it can help reduce their gassy effects. It is also well-known for reducing intestinal parasites and repelling insects. Epazote can be dangerous for pregnant women to eat in large quantities, though is safe as a flavoring for expecting mothers. It goes by many, many names – finding it by its scientific name of Dysphania ambrosioides will help ensure that you’re looking at the right plant.
      • Find epazote by looking for a plant that’s about one meter high in the southern United States, Mexico or Central America. Leaves are long, thin, and sharply serrated. It has multiple branches coming off from a reddish stem. Yellow flowers grow in bunches, then give way to a multitude of small, black seeds.

 

    • Mullein is an easy plant to find in most of the United States. Incredibly hardy, this plant quickly takes over roadsides and other disturbed areas. Mullein can treat mild breathing conditions such as asthma, earaches, and mild swelling. Different species of mullein grow around the world, generally in temperate climates.
      • Find two-year-old mullein by looking for tall stalks (up to eight feet tall) with yellow flowers or dried brown seeds. The one-year-old plant and base of the mature plant have soft, large leaves without lobes. Some people call mullein’s velvety leaves “lamb’s skin” or “bunny ears.” Mullein grows in open areas and does well in both arid and moderate climates.

 

    • Sweetgrass is a widespread plant with many uses. Its aroma is sweet and very pleasant, making it popular in homes as well as for medicinal uses. Sweetgrass also is an anticoagulant and can prevent blood clots. Used in excess, sweetgrass damages the liver. Sweetgrass also repels mosquitos and adds flavors to foods and drinks. It is a sign of goodwill at entryways to homes or churches.
      • Identify sweetgrass by its strong, rich smell that reminds some people of vanilla. Sweetgrass is very hardy and grows in northern Europe and the Americas. It does not have a stiff inner stalk, so the long leaves grow outward horizontally. The leaves grow up to three feet long in good growing seasons.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, more plants that can help with everything from nausea (ginger, papaya) to bee stings (pineapple, garlic). With a bit of research and some help from field guides or PlantSnap, you can quickly start to build up a store of medicinal plants from your backyard.

 

sacred useful plants baskets

 

Other Sacred Plants

Sacred plants may have many uses beyond medicine and food. Many plants have noteworthy cultural significance thanks to their hallucinogenic properties. These plants are often incredibly important for religious ceremonies and may be illegal outside of strict ceremonial parameters.

Take the time to research the laws and traditions surrounding these plants. You can easily cause yourself serious harm, get yourself into legal trouble, or offend local cultures.

It’s easy to identify many sacred plants. You can also grow lots of common sacred plants in your garden. Learn what sacred plants are, what they are used for, and where to find them as a first step. It’s important to do more research before picking or eating sacred plants.

 

 

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