Drawing of a leafy plant with tall stalks

Beyond Food: Technological Use of Plants

Plants are not just an important source of food- but also an essential raw material for making cloth, baskets, tools and houses.  The plants that Indigenous people used to make their cloth and baskets include rattlesnake master, milkweed, dogbane, pawpaw, willow and cane. These were not just rough, coarsely made pieces of fabric but finely woven items with a variety of weaves and dyed in a variety of colors and designs. Indigenous people used wood and bottle gourds to make a variety of containers for storage and serving food. People used wood to make other tools such as handles for axes and knives, mortar and pestles, digging tools, and utensils. Wood and cane were the main raw materials that Indigenous people used in building houses and other buildings.



(Apocynum cannabinum)

New young shoots in early May.

Dogbane has a reddish stem and elongated leaves.

Dogbane spreads extensively.

Dogbane has nice white blooms that attract a large number of polinators.

The inner bark of dogbane plants was used by Indigenous Arkansans to make cordage for weaving bags and cloth.


(Asclepias sp.)

Beginning of milkweed flower.

There are many different species of milkweed. The ones that are best for using as fiber are those that grow tall, have thicker stems and less branching. Common milkweed and swamp milkweed are good for this purpose.

Butterfly weed is technically a type of milkweed, but it is pretty low to the ground and branches so much that it is not terribly efficient for getting fiber.

Pink flower of a common milkweed.

Pink flower of common milkweed.

Milkweed pod. Milkweed seeds are dispersed through the air thanks to the fluff attached to them.

Rattlesnake Master

(Eryngium yuccifolium) 

Newly emerged rattlesnake master plant, early May.

Rattlesnake master leaves are thick and tough. They resemble yucca leaves, hence the scientific name of the plant.

Rattlesnake master grows a long stalk on top of which its round, green flowers grown.

Rattlesnake master flowers are attractive to many pollinators.

The tough leaves of rattlesnake master were used by Indigenous Arkansans to make bags and sandals. For more information about this woven sandal, see the Arkansas Archeological Survey’s June 2018 Artifact of the Month.

Bottle Gourd

(Lagenaria siceraia)

Bottle gourd plant with emerging fruit.

Vining bottle gourd plant with several maturing gourds.


(Asimina triloba)


Pawpaw trees are fairly small and like shade.

Pawpaw trees flower in spring (April to May). Their flowers are not very showy but still pretty, dark marroon in color. Pawpaws are polinated by flies and beetles. The flowers have a smell like something roting- a very attractive scent for flies, but not so much for people. 

The leaves of pawpaw trees are alternate and fairly long with smooth edges.

Pawpaw fruit and green in color and bean-shaped. You can start to see the fruit forming in June, but they do not become ripe and ready to eat until near the end of August or September. The fruit is yellow, sweet and custard-like.

Pawpaw fruit has a pleasant, sweet flavor. They are a nutrious fruit- a good source of vitamin C, magnesium, potassium, iron, and other essential vitamins and minerals.

The pawpaw seeds are fairly large, flat, and bean shaped.

Red cedar

(Juniperus virginiana)


Red cedar was used by Indigenous Arkansans in the construction of buildings.

The flaky bark of red cedar was also used for making cordage.

Cedar bark.

Cedar bark fiber.



Horton, Elizabeth T.

2010     The Ties that Bind: Fabric Traditions and Fiber Use in the Ozark Plateau. Ph.D. dissertation, Washington University, St. Louis.


Scholtz, Sandra Clemments

1975    Prehistoric Plies: A Structural and Comparative Analysis of Cordage Netting Basketry and Fabric from Ozark Bluff Shelters.  Research Series No. 9. Arkansas Archeological Survey, Fayetteville.