6 Extraordinary Past Uses for Ordinary Plants

Travel back in time to discover unexpected uses for everyday plants.

  1. Acorns were a huge staple among California tribes, and at one point accounted for us to 45 percent of their diet.
  2. It takes 40 years for hickory trees to produce nuts, and Cherokees use those nuts to make ku-nu-che soup and celebrate holidays.
  3. Indigenous North Americans have woven cattails into everything from roofs to baskets for more than 12,000 years.
  4. Amaranth was an important food among the Mayans, and it’s eaten in Mexico on Nov. 2 to celebrate Day of the Dead.
  5. Cacao beans were used as currency among the Aztecs and Mayans. For example, one cacao bean was worth a tomato or avocado, and 100 of them would get you a turkey hen.
  6. A golden spike was driven into the final tie of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869. The tie was made from a California bay laurel tree, which has a rare color and grain.

Stuff We Love

For more historical tidbits about some of your favorite plants, check out Cattail Moonshine & Milkweed Medicine: The Curious Stories of 43 Amazing North American Native Plants by Tammi Hartung. “History, literature, and botany meet in this charming tour of how humans have relied on plants to nourish, shelter, heal, clothe, and even entertain us.”


Kaitlin Stainbrook
Kaitlin Stainbrook, Associate Editor, Birds & Blooms Although Kaitlin is a newbie when it comes to birding and gardening, she loves getting to learn on the job. (She's already impressed a few friends by being able to identify a couple songbirds!) Previously, she worked on other Reader's Digest magazines like Reminisce and Country Woman. Hidden talents include playing the ukulele and speaking Japanese.