Plants with a Purpose

News // May 02, 2023

By Ruffian Tittmann, Executive Director

As stewards of the Wissahickon Valley Park, Friends of the Wissahickon spends considerable effort removing invasive plant species and replacing them with native ones throughout the park. Native plants support a healthy habitat for hundreds of wildlife species that call the park home and a healthy urban tree canopy that improves the city’s air quality and reduces the urban heat island effect in neighborhoods surrounding the Wissahickon Valley Park.

Native plants have always been essential elements in the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania’s way of life. Their use in everyday customs and ceremonies passed down for generations will be the subject of our next Valley Talk on Tuesday, May 9, when the Lenape Nation presents “Native Plants in Lenape Language, Legend, and Practice.”

Register here!

Clan Mother Dr. Ann Dapice, Clan Mother Shelley DePaul, and Chief Adam Waterbear will discuss the use and significance of specific plants in Lenape culture. Topics will include Lenape language names of plants, food justice, medicinal plants, cooking customs, dietary concerns, and cultural stories surrounding plants and agriculture. The Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania is a tribal entity of Lenape People who are dedicated to revitalizing Lenape culture and traditions.

As a preview, Chief Adam, Tribal Storykeeper and Director of Education, told me about three common plants that in Lenape culture hold special meaning and are often used together.

Cedar: We usually think of the wonderful smell of this beautiful wood in terms of lining closets to keep moths away, but in Lenape culture it is the traditional native wood used to burn for the Eastern woodland tradition of smudging. It is used at official ceremonies or gatherings to generate positive energy among participants and help clear their minds of the day’s cares. Since it dries easily and stays green for a long time, it stores well for ceremonial use throughout the year.

Maple: Every March the Lenape Nation holds a maple ceremony to celebrate the coming of spring. As with most Lenape ceremonies, the people gather around a particular story or legend. This one involves the legend of how Woodpecker Flicker had once used his beak to dig in and relieve the discomfort of an itch that Grandfather Maple couldn’t scratch. During an especially harsh winter when the people could find no food or water, Woodpecker Flicker offered his help. Grandfather Maple asked the bird to dig in and release sap that would sustain the people and end their suffering. After the storytelling, drumming, and smudging, prayer tie bundles are wrapped around a designated maple tree to thank it for the gift of sap. The tree’s whereabouts is kept a secret to ensure that the bundles, which are made of cloth in the Lenape’s colors of red and black, remain undisturbed until the next year’s ceremony. The event ends with a pancake feast with lots of maple syrup!

Tobacco: The bundles at the maple ceremony are filled with tobacco, which, Chief Adam explained, was given to the Lenape people by Creator in time of conflict. Not to be smoked recreationally or abused, tobacco is considered sacred medicine for ceremonial purposes. Whenever the Lenape gather to discuss important issues affecting their people, they bring tobacco. It is believed that when the smoke is inhaled and exhaled at the same time, the smoke co-mingles to bring about the best thoughts in everyone’s hearts and minds so that they can make decisions that are good for everyone. The Lenape use tobacco for many other purposes and most individuals carry it with them (American Spirit is a favorite brand because it’s organically grown). For example, if you were to come across a dead animal by the side of the road, you would sprinkle tobacco on the body to thank it for its time on earth and wish it well on its next journey.

If you would like to know more about the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania’s deep and spiritual relationship with native plants, join FOW for our Valley Talk on May 9.

Sponsored by our friends at Prentiss Smith & Co., the free hybrid presentation takes place in person at the Valley Green Inn and online via Zoom from 6 – 7:30 p.m. The Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania will also have a table display with items for sale including Lenape books filled with enlightening information about medicinal plants and language, and recipes, as well as other educational and cultural items. In-person registration is at capacity, but you can still register for the virtual installment of the Valley Talk here.


Photo courtesy of The Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania