Although today's gardener tends to think of an herb garden as providing nothing but edibles, Native Americans grew herbs for a variety of purposes. Herbs figured only infrequently in cooking. While this seems very logical for hunting tribes, which would pick only wild herbs, the only-occasional use of herbs in cooking suggests that herbs were grown only where land was abundant, or the herbs that were grown were reserved for other uses. Native American medicine, in fact, relied on a wide assortment of cultivated as well as wild herbs, and herbs played an important part in ritual and ceremony as well. Grow herbs in a Native American garden with an awareness of their purposes.
Choose a sunny location for growing herbs; nearly all are strong sun-lovers. Determine what herbs were grown, and, if possible, in what garden location, by Native Americans in your area. Native American gardens traditionally used space economically; food grown in the garden was preserved and stored for the whole year. Set aside a corner for herbs, learn more about Native American companion planting, or border your garden with sunflowers and herbs to keep major space clear for food crops.
Research local tribal history to determine what herbs might have been used most frequently. Your family may well agree that the cumin, chopped red pepper and coriander you add to traditional succotash put a real zing in the dish. Northeastern Woodland Native cooks, on the other hand, would regard your additions as utterly foreign, and probably completely distasteful, tinkering. Farther south, peppers, ginger and other familiar herbs appear with greater regularity; presumably found wild, these adapted to Native American gardens. Honor the memory of local tribes by growing what they could have grown.
Reserve some space in your Native American garden for medicinal herbs, whether you plan to use them as such or not. Cherokee Messenger, cited in References, provides a highly varied list of herbs used by different tribes for toothaches, digestive problems, aches, pains and insect bites. Depending on local practices and remedies, this can mean making room in your herb garden for dandelion; boneset; bloodroot; orange butterfly weed (pleurisy root); horsemint; catnip; gentian; black cohosh. Good Native American housewives and their settler counterparts grew, brewed and dispensed their own medicines as part of caring for their families.
Reserve some space, either in your garden or your gardening imagination, for the herbs sacred to a wide number of Native American tribes. Sage; sweetgrass (known also as buffalo grass); cedar; and tobacco constituted the most frequently used in cleansing rituals, seasonal observations, sacred ceremonies and celebrations. The article on smudging cited in References provides a small window into the relationship between Native Americans, the earth and their spiritual life as expressed with herbal materials.