CUSHION BUSH INFORMATION IN THE GARDEN
The term “cushion bush” refers to any small shrub or tree with succulent leaves and woody stems. They are commonly found in the southern United States, but they are also common throughout much of North America. These plants have been used medicinally for centuries because their bark has analgesic properties.
The bark of these plants is often chewed, crushed and smoked as a form of pain relief.
The medicinal uses of the cushion bush are not limited to its use as a medicine. Many people enjoy using them as houseplants, especially in warm climates where it’s difficult to grow other types of plants. There are many different species of cushion bushes native to the Americas, though most are members of the genus Calotropis (pronounced kuh-lo-piz).
Most species have long slender branches that produce edible fruit. Some species have large clusters of tiny white berries that taste like blackberries. Others are smaller and produce only seeds.
There are several varieties of cushion bush, each with its own characteristics. The following is a list of some popular types:
Calotropis microphylla – A small tree growing up to 10 feet tall with succulent leaves and woody stems. Leaves are glossy green, oval to oblong, smooth and hairy at the base. The plant grows small white flowers, followed by large hairy pods.
Calotropis gigantea – A shrub that grows 6-12 feet and has greenish-gray leaves. Its thick, woody stems are swollen at the base and taper toward the top. The leaves are oval with saw-toothed edges.
It grows small clusters of creamy-white flowers from late spring through fall, followed by hairy pods.
Calotropis procera – Also known as the African milk tree, this shrub grows 6-12 feet and has oval leaves with jagged edges. The leaves are a glossy green in color and feel fuzzy to the touch. It does not grow any hairs on its stems, rather it has a light brown skin that feels like rubber.
It bears white flowers from early summer through fall, followed by hairy seed pods.
TROPICAL SHRUBS FLOWERING IN WINTER?
Some people find it difficult to believe that plants such as the cushion bush can bloom in the winter. However, it is not unusual for plants to bloom at this time of year. Plants in colder climates often go into a dormant state during the winter months and resume growth when spring arrives. The cushion bush belongs to a group of plants known as “hemi-parasites,” which means that although it does produce its own food through photosynthesis, it also taps into the food sources of other plants through a process known as “haustotrophy.” In the case of cushion bushes, their root systems have special organs that allow them to tap into the root systems of other plants. This allows them to access nutrients that would otherwise be inaccessible to them.
The cushion bush is also known as the “Indian Rubber Plant” because of the rubbery nature of its stems. The stems are so pliable that they can be cut and made into rubber. Some Native Americans used to make blowguns out of the stems, while early European settlers used them for whips.
THE PLANT IN MEDICINE
Native Americans have used the cushion bush for centuries as a pain reliever. The Cherokee, for example, used a poultice of the plant to treat headaches and applied it to cuts and wounds to prevent infection. Chewelah, a settlement of North Central Washington, was named after this plant because the Chewelah band of Native Americans used the plants in their medicinal recipes.
The Makah, a coastal tribe, used the wood to make bows and treat back pains.
THE PLANT IN FOOD
The berries of the plant are edible but have a fairly bland taste. In times of famine the berries were often eaten by tribes such as the Ojibwe, whose name translates as “bean eaters.” Native Americans would also crush the seeds and use them as flavoring for other foods.
The Lakota and the Klamath used the roots as a substitute for coffee, and still others would steep the roots and use the liquid as a syrup.
THE PLANT AS A FIBER
The stems and inner bark of the plant are covered with fine fibers that can be removed to create a strong rope-like material. The Pomo, a tribe of Native Americans who settled in what is now California, were well-known for their weaving skills, and often used the fibers to make fine clothing and blankets. The softness of the stems also made them suitable for making bedding for children and the elderly.
THE PLANT IN WARFARE
The uses of the cushion bush are not limited to medicinal and daily use – Native American tribes have also used it in warfare. The Zuni tribe of New Mexico, for example, would dip their arrows into a mixture of water and the juice of the fruit to make the arrows slippery. This prevented the arrows from becoming stuck in the victim and also slowed their recovery.
YOU SHOULD KNOW
The Zuni people used a fruit-based ink for writing and tattooing themselves and others. The fruit was also used as a substitute for salt.
The cushion bush is not the only member of the genus, far from it. There are over 400 different plants in the genus, all with different medicinal and practical uses for Native Americans.
In the 1700s, European settlers in North America noticed that the Native Americans were fond of using a wide variety of plants for various purposes. Some, such as sarsaparilla, were used for flavoring; others, such as the common plantain, which is widely distributed and has many medicinal uses. It was not long before enterprising settlers realized they could turn a profit selling these “new” plants back in Europe.
These ventures were rarely successful for a number of reasons. For one thing, since the Europeans had no need for the plants themselves, they had no interest in them, and the ones that were interested could simply go out and collect the plants themselves. For another, diseases carried by the settlers, such as smallpox and measles, decimated the Native American population before any benefits could come from these ventures.
Still, the fact that some of these plants did provide a benefit to the settlers is a testimony to how important plants are to human civilization as a whole.
Finally, you should know that the Native Americans did not see themselves as “environmentalists.” While they were certainly aware that certain plants were crucial to their survival, they had a religious and spiritual relationship with all aspects of nature. They believed that all living things contained a spirit, and thus it was considered taboo to kill unnecessarily or wastefully.
Even though the Native American tribes had no “ecologists” amongst them, there is evidence that they lived in balance with their surroundings.
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