Program: Living in Paradise

Medicinal & Edible Plants of the Tocobaga and Calusa Indians

Presenters: Hermann Trappman, Elizabeth Neily

From the Windover Pond Archaeological Site, near Titusville, we know that Native Americans were heavily involved in medicinal plants over 8,000 years ago. As a park ranger, Hermann learned to identify native plants and their uses. Hermann with his wife, Elizabeth, and sometimes with their friend Holly Harriman, bring samples of some of these plants for participants to see.

The American Indians recognized that there were plant communities, plants which supported and helped each other. The one that most people are familiar with is called the “three sisters,” corn, beans and squash. Corn takes nitrogen out of the soil, beans are nitrogen fixing, and squash flowers draw insect pests away from the beans and corn. Squash is unharmed by most insect pests. And so, the three sisters work together to make a healthy garden.

In fact, the three sisters milpa is much more complex than this. Sunflowers are planted around the garden in order to draw rats and mice away form the main crop plants. Dead trees are left in place because they provide perches for hunting birds, hawks, which hunt rats and mice. Snakes were never molested because they eat rabbits, rats, mice and insects. Farmers were careful observers of plant growth and the connections plants form. A garden wasn’t a desert, it was designed to encourage life. A part of the field was always set aside for the forest animals. That love of life entered the plants, and from them, came back into the family.

An investigator, observing a modern Indian farmer, was surprised that some of the corn kernels to be planted were deformed. The farmer looked at the investigator for a while then said, “When you have children that are not perfectly formed, do you throw them away? These are my children. I love each of them.” Of course, it was this attitude that led American Indian farmers to develop varieties of corn and potatoes to begin with.

European agriculture, on the other hand, comes out of the Middle Eastern deserts and other harsh landscapes which produce fewer species of plants that must be hardy to sustain themselves. Each time Europeans create crop lands, they till the soil to kill the weeds and expose the earth to sunlight. The sunlight kills the bacteria in the soil, as well as, certain seeds. So in other words, a desert is created in in which only certain crops may be planted. They weed out or and spray with herbicides all unwanted plants. Insect pests are killed with pesticides. What was once a rich soil with a huge variety of plants is replaced by a man-made desert.

Milpa_AgricultureAmerica had an incredible lushness to this landscape. In the great planes a wide variety of plants formed wonderful mixed communities that were drought resistant. There were tall grass prairies as well as short grass prairies, which sustained millions of buffalo as well as mule deer and prong horn. Our desert agriculture has turned that part of the country into the “dust bowl”. I counted a listed 300 varieties of grass that are native to Florida. That’s an amazing amount of grasses.

In Central America, as many as 80 different plants were grown in community. The farmers realized that plants have different depths of root growth. They grew plants beside each other, which did not compete for the same depth of water resources. Some plants were grown to specifically attract certain animals, which were then hunted.

When American Indians saw the way we gardened they wondered why we pull up or kill the weeds. “Those weeds,” they pointed out, “kept the sun off the soil and held the soil during rains and floods.” Many of those weeds actually helped build nutrition into the soil.

The problem is that we killed the original Floridians before we learned any of their lessons. They were just Indians, and that meant they knew nothing.

Elizabeth and I believe that amaranth, prickly pear cactus, sunflowers, bottle gourds, coonti and ground nut were definitely native plants under agriculture here in Florida. What was the community of plants that they were a part of? It took thousands of years of careful observation for the Tocobaga and other Florida Indians to identify and understand those plant communities.

Elizabeth and I have been on this path for a long time. I have spent most of my adult life just realizing, identifying the challenge. In that time I have come to leave my European heritage behind. Although I am not as skilled as the American Indians were at understanding this environment, I have come to think of myself as Tocobaga. It’s odd, that although I see myself as Tocobaga, I’m absolutely smitten by the Calusa to the south. I believe that the Calusa hold the key to understanding the Tocobaga. The school of the Tocobaga is our attempt to help folks who have recently moved here, or long time residents, who want to reach deeper into this Florida soil and its amazing story, to find a human path. Our choice, is a human choice. Until we open our hearts we cannot give. Until we open our eyes, we cannot see.

Time: 45 minutes plus 15 minutes Q&A Performance

Fee per performer: $150.00 Additional Charge for Travel, Accommodation, and Meals 60 miles 


with Hermann Trappman and Elizabeth Neily