Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum) grows up to three feet tall in roadside thickets, displaying smooth-edged, opposite leaves. The greenish-white flowers bearing five petals appear from June into August. It can also be readily identified by seedpods up to eight inches in length that sometimes appear while the plant is still in flower.
A member of the Dogbane Family, the plant produces the sort of milky-white fluids characteristic of the various species of milkweed. These fluids, which contain heart-affecting glycosides, have in the past been used in the treatment of venereal warts. But for the most part, Indian hemp has served as a source of fibrous stems used in the production of cordage and other utilitarian products.
According to Rita Buchanan’s A Weaver’s Garden (1987), “Indian hemp fibers were used by prehistoric Indians to make cords, fishing nets, bags, mats, belts, sandals and garments …. They resist weather and decay. A knotted net drawstring bag made of Indian hemp fibers was found in Danger Cave, Utah; archaeologists estimate it to be seven thousand years old. Early European colonists in eastern North America were impressed with the properties of Indian hemp and compared the fibers favorably to both flax and cotton.
“The Europeans usually did not undertake growing and using Indian hemp themselves, because they were able to obtain it by trading with local Indians. The botanist Peter Kalm wrote of colonists in Delaware who bought Indian hemp ropes at a price of fourteen yards for a piece of bread. Other settlers acquired Indian hemp storage sacks, carrying bags, and mats through similar trade.”
Buchanan also noted that Indian hemp makes an attractive, if somewhat invasive, ornamental easily propagated from seeds. And she concluded with detailed directions for processing the fibers for weaving purposes.
My wife, Elizabeth Ellison, a professional watercolorist and papermaker, prepares many of the papers she paints upon from native plant fibers. The ancient Oriental process of gathering, stripping, beating, cooking, etc., is from my point of view labor intensive, to say the least. But the end result is handmade paper of rich textures and intricate patterns that add depth, texture, and resonance to her work. Several years ago, she gathered Indian hemp in the Patton Valley section of Macon County and made a run of paper that was exquisite—perhaps the most beautiful paper I have ever seen. Its cinnamon fibers were translucent, radiating subtle hints of pink and other delicate colors.
In preparing this column, I took a look at Hamel and Chiltoskey’s Cherokee Plants (1975) and found that the Cherokees also used Indian hemp “for cords,” which wasn’t surprising. But the authors also noted, in closing, that the Cherokees harvested the plant’s fibers “to weave grave cloth material.” Little wonder that a people so familiar with the plants of their native mountains would choose Indian hemp when the situation called for lasting durability and enduring beauty.
Editors note: This is a reprint of a popular installment of Back Then that initially appeared in July 2005.