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Get to know the plants of Mashkikiiaki’ing

Toronto’s Davenport Road holds historic and spiritual significance for Indigenous peoples, as it was the site of the portage route (Gete-Onigaming) used for thousands of years to connect the Don and Humber rivers.

Located on Davenport and Christie Street, the Mashkikiiaki’ing (Medicine Earth) garden at Hillcrest Park is Toronto’s first Indigenous community garden. It seeks to address at a community level the reality that Indigenous people have been forcibly disconnected from their land and heritage sitesparticularly in urban settings.

The Stop has collaborated with Indigenous men’s organization NaMeRes to steward the garden since 2009. Over the last decade, hundreds of people have come together at Mashkikiiaki’ing to grow native food crops, share traditional knowledge, and forge new understanding.

On Wednesday, September 18 from 5pm-7pm, Mashkikiiaki’ing staff and volunteers will be holding an open house in the garden as part of Toronto Urban Agriculture Week. All are welcome to observe the garden, talk with its growers, and learn about its plants and sacred medicines. View the event poster, or contact Nah-Hak Hartmann at [email protected] for more information.

Before your visit, here’s a list of the plants that you might see in the garden. Every plant grown is utilized as medicine, or is harvested as food to improve food security.


The Three Sisters:
Consisting of corn, beans, and squash, The Three Sisters were one of the first domesticated crops for many Indigenous societies in North America.

The three plants help each other grow. Corn has a high need for nitrogen, which the beans produce a high amount of. The corn stalks in turn provide a natural pole for the beans to climb. The squash provides natural shade cover for the beans, and spreads to prevent weeds from sprouting.

Together, The Three Sisters are a nutrition powerhouse. Corn provides valuable carbohydrates and is a source of energy, beans provide protein and fibre which helps release sugar into the bloodstream, and squash is rich in nutrients such as vitamin A. The Three Sisters also provide nutrients to the soil which allows for long-term soil fertility.


Tobacco – Semah:
One of four important sacred plants for many Indigenous societies in North America (along with sage, sweetgrass, and cedar), Tobacco is used for many different cultural, spiritual, and health purposes.

Some common uses include during ceremonies, as an offering, as medicine, as a gift, and for prayer. It’s also used for purifying spaces, the mind, and spirit.


Sage:
Sage is often used to purify the mind, body, and spirit, as well as sacred articles and dwellings. It is burned for smudging to create a barrier from negative spirits and energy from entering a space and individuals. In doing so sage improves the mental, physical, and spiritual health of those involved.

Sage contains polyphenols which are a natural antioxidant which protects cells from toxins and organisms that cause infection. It is anti-fungal, antiseptic, and an astringent.


Sweetgrass:
Sweetgrass is commonly used for braiding, basket-making, and ceremonial purposes. The three sections of the sweetgrass braid represents the mind, body, and spirit, and is used for smudging, healing, and talking circles due to its healing properties.

For many Indigenous cultures the smoke made from burning sweetgrass is thought to purify thoughts, the environment, body, and negative thoughts.


Cedar:

Cedar is burned during prayers, can be spread across sweatlodge floors, and burned to drive out negative energies from homes. Cedar contains anti-inflammatory agents, which makes it useful in dressing wounds and in cleansing baths. Cedar is used in making longhouses, canoes, baskets, rope, cooking utensils, medicines, and ceremony.


Burdock:

Burdock is a diuretic, which means it helps to purify the blood by clearing it of toxins. Can also be used externally to address skin issues such as eczema and psoriasis. Burdock is helpful in treating soar throats, tonsillitis, colds, and muscle pain. Burdock has also been shown to help with liver damage, digestion.


Goldenrod:

Goldenrod traditionally was used on the skin to address wounds. It is also a diuretic, making it helpful in fighting infection and purifying the blood. Goldenrod has been used in treating symptoms of diabetes, tuberculosis, hemorrhoids, internal bleeding, asthma, and arthritis. Goldenrod contains antiseptic, antimicrobial properties making it useful in soothing sore throats. It is also helpful in relieving allergy symptoms.


Motherwort:

Motherwort contains antioxidants and leonurine (which promotes relaxation of blood vessels and uterine contractions). It helps to relax heart cells and can prevent blood clots that cause heart attacks.

Motherwort has been approved in other nations (e.g. Germany) as a prescription to treat heart palpations, and as a treatment for overactive thyroid disorders which can cause irregular heartbeats. It has also been shown to help with anxiety disorders and inflammation.


Nettles:

Nettles contain many beneficial nutrients such as vitamins A, C, K, and B,  minerals like calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, and sodium, and beneficial fats and amino acids.

Many of these nutrients act as antioxidants in the body, which help defend against free radicals (related to symptoms of aging, cancers, and other diseases). Other beneficial health effects include treating inflammation, enlarged prostate, fever, high blood pressure, and may assist in controlling blood sugar levels.


Yarrow:

Yarrow has been a common medical herb for thousands of years due to its excellent ability at relieving blood flow, inflammation, fighting infection, and pain.  Yarrow is a styptic herb, which means it stops bleeding by helping blood coagulate (thicken) and close wounds. Yarrow activates blood platelets in the affected area which form a protective layer to keep the body protected from infection. It also contains analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties which make it ideal for small cuts and burns.

Yarrow is also used to treat diarrhea, excessive gas, and other stomach issues. It is an excellent digestive stimulant that encourages proper bile secretion from the gallbladder.


Mint:

Mint soothes upset stomach, improves digestion, treats bad breath, and combats cold and flu symptoms. Mint improves circulation allowing white blood cells to travel faster. Mint also has antibacterial properties, and contains essential vitamins and nutrients that boost the immune system.

Mint also helps prevent nausea, promotes healthy skin and hair, improves irritable bowel syndrome, relieves indigestion, and may improve brain function.


Curled Dock:

This entire versatile plant can be used as food and as medicine. The leaves are edible and are high in vitamin C, vitamin A, protein, and iron. The roots can be used to treat issues in the gall bladder and liver.

Curled dock’s seeds are also edible and are related to buckwheat, and when ground can be made into a flour. They contain high amounts of fibre, which aids digestion.


Marshmallow:

The root of the marshmallow plant can be used made into a powder, dried and used as a tea, and is used in cough syrups. In these forms, the root can be used to help treat various ailments including coughs, skin irritation, and digestive problems such as ulcers.

Marshmallow leaves can also be used to treat ulcers, diarrhea, constipation, and inflammation. Historically, marshmallow was used to treat irritation of the mouth and throat.

Note: The plants described are just a fraction of the medicines grown within Mashkikiiaki’ing. It’s also important to remember that the medicinal and cultural uses of each plant vary between the many Indigenous cultures throughout Turtle Island (North America), and that this is only a general description of the medicines.