Adam Mackie will never look at a red maple the same way. “Native Americans made an infusion from the tree’s bark to treat gunshot wounds,” says Mackie, a senior majoring in biology. “It was also used to treat bug bites.”
Mackie is one of six Emory students who spent a recent alternative spring break in the field in rural South Florida. The students looked for plants used in indigenous medicine in the past, and collected specimens for the Emory Herbarium, under the guidance of medical ethnobotanist Cassandra Quave. They learned to identify endemic plant species in the wild, how to dig deep roots out of the thick mud of a marsh – even how to harvest and cook a swamp cabbage and make a mean guacamole.
"The best part was learning about plants from local people who knew how they were traditionally used," Mackie says.
Florida rancher Bob Brewer spent several days with the students in the field, introducing them to the gopher tortoise, a keystone species, and pointing out plants such as a thorny vine of smilax, which the locals call pipe briar.
We kept pulling and pulling on the stem," Mackie says, "and finally we got to this big tuber. He told us that old-timers used to hollow out these tubers to make pipes for smoking tobacco."