Bearberry Smoking Mixture

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Bearberry, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi

low brushy plant with very small leaves and red berries

Photo © 2000 by James L. Reveal

Hanging from a rafter in the captains' quarters of the reconstructed Fort Clatsop is a bunch of dried branches of a widespread, durable, useful, and attractive member of the heath family of plants.1

Red-osier Dogwood

Cornus stolonifera

diagram showing outerbark, inner bark, and the wood of a Red-osier dogwood

© 2002 by J. Agee

Smoking Mixture

Ever since their arrival at the mouth of the Columbia River, almost daily rains had drenched the men, soaked their baggage, and spoiled their fresh meat. The urgency of erecting a common shelter overrode nearly every other need except, for all but seven of the men, some means of stretching their dwindling supply of Turkish tobacco. On the morning of December second, deeming it advisable to spare some hands from the construction project, Clark "dispatched two men to the open lands near the Ocian for Sackacome, which we make use of to mix with our tobacco to Smoke, which has an agreeable flavour."

The captains had been introduced to the plant at Fort Mandan on February 28, 1805 by two men bearing letters and gifts from Hugh Heney (or Hené), a trader with the North West Company at Fort Assiniboin, 150 miles to the north. Recalling that gift on January 25, 1806, Lewis identified the local west coast variety as "the plant called by the Canadin Engages [Canadian engagés, or hired hands] of the N. W. sac a commis."

Cornus is a Latin name for dogwood; sericea refers to silky referring to the pubescence of the leaves. The species is foundthroughout the Northern Hemisphere, but our plant was long known as Cornus stolonifera whose name means having stolons, or shoots that grow along the ground. Osier is a French word meaning "willow bed." An alternate denomination is Cornus sericea, the latter meaning "silky." Red osier dogwood has been called kinnikinnick, too, owing to the use of its inner bark in smoking mixtures. All parts of the red osier dogwood can be toxic to humans.

Indeed, gathering and processing enough of the inner bark of the dogwood, chokecherry, or alder would be a tedious job, and it may have been that tedium, as much as the result, which made the smoking mixture personally and spiritually potent. Ponder the proto-scientific experiments that resulted in the discovery of which part of which plants, out of thousands upon thousands of different species, would help to improve the taste of the smoke of the leaf of the bearberry.

On March 26, 1806, three days after leaving Fort Clatsop, with their other trade goods reduced to a mere handful, Lewis remarked that their supply of tobacco was down to three carrots, or twists, and so he had cut off the mens' rations. The chewers were obliged to substitute the Oregon crabapple (Malus fusca), while the smokers made do with the inner bark of the red-osier dogwood (see sidebar) or else straight sacacommis. None of these contained any nicotine, but the first was sufficiently unpleasant to the taste—"it is very bitter and they assure me they find it a good Substitute for tobacco,"—and the other two were sufficiently aromatic, to suitably serve as placebos.

Lewis sent a specimen back to President Jefferson on the keelboat that spring, perhaps the very one Heney had sent him. It is item No. 33 in the list prepared by John Vaughan of the American Philosophical Society, where Jefferson sent Lewis's specimens. In Lewis's words, it was "an evergreen plant which grows usually in the open plains, the natives smoke its leaves mixed with Tobacco; called by the French engages Sacacommé. Obtained at Fort Mandan."2

It cannot be said that Lewis discovered sacacommis, for the Connecticut Yankee Jonathan Carver (1710–1780), who explored the upper Mississippi Valley in the late 1760s, reported that "a weed that grows near the great lakes, in rocky places, they use in the summer season. It is called by the Indians Segockiniac, and creeps like a vine on the ground, sometimes extending to eight or ten feet. . . . These leaves, dried and powdered, they likewise mix with their tobacco."3 Carver did not bring back any specimens.

A typical formula for a smoking mixture in the Pacific Northwest might consist of equal parts of dried bearberry leaf; the leaf of the Labrador tea (Ledum glandulosum), the inner bark of red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea), wormwood leaf (Artemisia frigida); the inner bark of the chokecherry (Prunus virginiana, var. melanocarpa), and the inner bark of any one of several species of alder (Alnus spp.).4

Important: The ingestion of some plants can be harmful or even fatal. Experimentation and/or self-medication with wild foods and medicines without advice from a physician or other qualified authority is not recommended.

1. The heath family is known by students of botany as the Ericaceae (eri-CAY-see-ay, meaning "evergreen shrubs"). Consisting of about 4,000 species, Ericaceae comprise the largest family of the order Ericales, which includes such food plants as blueberries and cranberries.

2. Moulton, 3:464. This information probably was taken from Lewis' seemingly incomplete written report about his collections. During the winter of 1804-1805 Lewis drafted "A List of specimines of plants collected by me on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers" but the extant copy lists plant specimens 1 through 32 and 100 through 108. The first 32 numbered specimens gathered by Lewis are also missing.

3. Jonathan Carver, Travels Through the Interior Parts of North-American, in the years 1766, 1767, and 1768 (London: 1778), p. 31. Carver was a Connecticut gentleman, shoemaker, soldier, self-taught surveyor and cartographer, traveler and bigamist. He held a deep conviction, shared by few others in his day, that the Mississippi River would eventually become a North American Nile or Volga, and dreamed of exploring its upper reaches. In 1766 a similarly star-crossed visionary, Major Robert Rogers, hired him to explore a portion of the territory Great Britain had gained from its victory in the French and Indian War, namely that west of Michilimackinac, a major fur-trade post at the straits that separate Lake Huron from Lake Michigan. Carver was to record its geography, describe and count its Indians, and inventory the remains of French trading posts. Rogers also dreamed of finding the Great River of the West. Rogers, beset by political misfortunes, was unable to pay Carver, and he had to abandon his expedition. In 1769 he sailed to London, hoping through appeals to the Lords Commissioners of Trade and Plantations to recoup his personal losses and resume his travels in North America. Failing in that, in 1778 he finally published his journal, which instantly became a bestseller, rocketing through some 32 printings in nine years. But its success was short-lived, for the author was accused of plagiarism, and of perpetrating a hoax. Penniless, Carver died of starvation in 1780. Not until the early 1900s was it discovered that, insofar as the charges were ever true, the guilt lay with Carver's unscrupulous editor, who evidently had felt the explorer's original journals needed a little extra color. Nevertheless, Carver's Travels may have further stimulated Thomas Jefferson's long-held ambition to sponsor an expedition to the West. See "The Adventures of Jonathan Carver," by Ann K.D. Myers of the James Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota.

Carver noted that the Chippewas mixed red-osier dogwood bark with their tobacco in wintertime, and harvested sumac bark for the same purpose at the end of September. He concluded: "By these three succedaneums the pipes of the Indians are well supplied through every season of the year; and as they are great smoakers, they are very careful in properly gathering and preparing them." Ibid., p. 32.

4. Terry Willard, Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Rocky Mountains and Neighbouring Territories (Calgary, Alberta: Wild Rose College of Natural Healing, 1992), 164–65. In the Great Lakes region the Labrador tea is Ledum groenlandicum, from Ledum, a Greek word for "evergreen shrub," and groenlandicum, for Greenland, which is east of Labrador across the North Atlantic. Chokecherry is Prunus virginiana, literally, "Virginia plum," and the var. virginiana is the common form in Eastern North America whereas the var. melanocarpa (Greek, meaning "black fruit") occurs in the American West including the Great Plain. The alder of the Great Lakes region is Alnus viridis subsp. crispa (alnus is the Latin name for alder, viridis is Latin for green, and crispa is Latin for crooked). In the Pacific Northwest, the common alders are the speckled alder (Alnus incana; from the Latin incanus for gray or hoary), white alder (Alnus rhombifolia; from the Latin rhombus for a spinning-top but botanically used to mean twisting or turning as in the wind, and folium, for leaf), and red alder (Alnus rubra; Latin for red). Any one of these species could have been used by Native Americans and travelers alike.(Indian legend relates that Coyote, the notorious trickster and fool, couldn't hit a target with his bow-and-arrow because he made his arrows of the alder's crooked branches.)