Appalachian Healing Traditions

Talk for Cleveland Symposium – April 4, 2007

My herbal training began with the plant-lore passed down through my Tennessee ancestors who settled Texas.  My great-great-grandfather is the one who said “Remember the Alamo”.  And his line comes down from Pocahontas, whose mother was Cherokee. One of the words used for her people meant “bark- eater”, because they were known for their healing remedies.  I believe that can be an inherited gene just like musical talent or mathematical ability.

More than ½ my life as been spent living and learning from Appalachian mountain people including the traditional Cherokee.  For more than 30 years I was privileged to be the student of the first writer of Foxfire, Marie Mellinger.  A true Ethnobotanist before the term was even coined.  She recently passed away at age 92.  Her former husband was an Ojibwa from Wisconsin.  I inherited all of her botanical slides and papers and among them are 40 yr old photographs of Ojibwa Chiefs in their native dress.  It seems most appropriate that these photographs should go home with these honored guests from the Ojibwa nation.

The Healing Traditions of Appalachia, or Folk Remedies, are mingled with the herbal knowledge of the Iroquois and other Woodland Indians.  When the first European colonists came to this unknown country, they brought familiar plants and seeds for food and medicines, as well as the available herb books of that age. Namely Gerard’s Herbal and Culpepper’s. This gave them a working knowledge of about 300 formulas.  They soon found that their Indian neighbors, of whom the Cherokee were the most numerous tribe, were trained in 600 formulas of the native plants and barks.  Eventually, about 250 medicinal formulas were added to the official Pharmacopoeia.

Healing then, crossed the cultural barriers, as whites adopted the use of ginseng, sassafras, wild cherry bark, sumac, black walnut, dogwood bark, yellowroot, club moss, etc.  And since this is a room full of medical people, you may be interested in what doctors used for surgical gloves before rubber and plastics. They coated their hands with lycopodium powder, the spores of club moss, which is both water repellant and antiseptic.

The native peoples adopted the plant immigrants such as mullein, catnip mint (not for a pet cat, but to soothe colicky babies), peaches, and plantain, and many others.  Plantain, Plantago major, was called “Englishman’s Foot”, because everywhere the white man put his foot down, this plant grew!  For its ability to relieve pain and swelling, it became an important snakebite poultice for the Tuscorara.

Sassafras was actually the first export from the New World to the Old, before tobacco.  The long sea voyages caused many new arrivals to suffer from scurvy.  The Natives who greeted them recognized the illness, and treated them with Sassafras root tea.  Their rapid recovery caused great rejoicing and sparked a profitable trade in the root. It was called “the Good News out of the New World”.  Though it does not cure as many aliments as once claimed, it still is a popular beverage as well as medicinal tonic in Appalachia.   It is said “that in the spring of the year when the blood is too thick, there is nothing so fine as a Sassafras stick.”  It was one of the ingredients in the first iron and vitamin tonic marketed commercially, which is still available today. SSS tonic was an Indian formula patented by a South Carolina judge in 1857.  The 3 S’s originally stood for Sassafras, Spicebush, and Sweet Birch

And another spring tradition centered on a native plant eaten for health, is taking place this month across the mountains, with the annual Ramp Festivals.  Ramps are a pungent member of the allium family, actually our North American Leeks.  For those unfamiliar with this native vegetable, they could be considered “industrial strength onions” they are so strong in sulphide compounds. Since it was once believed the family needed a good “spring cleaning” after a sedentary winter eating dried vegetables and salted meat, either sulfur and molasses was taken, or where available, you could eat a “mess o’ ramps” for a tastier alternative.  If you do eat them, everybody knows you’ve eaten them, so it became a good idea for the whole community to get together and eat them all at the same time!  And that started the fundraising Ramp Festivals for the local Fire Departments.

Shrub Yellowroot is another widely known native plant.  It is a common remedy mentioned throughout the Appalachian region.  Given for any ailment of the stomach, kidneys, liver, or bladder.  It has antibiotic properties like Goldenseal, but safer to use. Its yellow color follows the way most indigenous people figured out what to use for medicine – the “Doctrine of Signatures”.  How much of the folklore holds true?  When plants could be studied scientifically it was found that 75% contained properties that made it appropriate to the belief, and the other 25% though not what was thought, were found to be useful for something else.  Great percentages!   Who of us has not taken honey and lemon juice for a sore throat?  We now know as excellent for combating Streptococcus aureus.  Honey as well as garlic was used in wartime to heal wounds, an effective treatment it turns out.

Because the Appalachian chain was never glaciated, its flora is greater than anywhere else on the N. American continent. With its incredible diversity, Appalachia has always provided the plant material necessary for pharmaceuticals.  The Shakers were the first to publish a mail order catalog sent to physicians in 1837.  They gathered from the local woods and fields and started the first herb farms to provide enough to fill orders.

Appalachia provides to this day an income from “wildcrafting”.  25% of our prescription medicines in the U.S. still come from native plants and barks. And other countries depend on our wealth of plant diversity.  Bloodroot, once an ingredient in toothpaste and mouthwash, has now become essential for a German animal feed company after Mad Cow Disease hit Europe.  They asked Wildcrafters recently for 20 tons of material! Claiming it prevents Scours in farm animals.  Black Cohosh is in great demand worldwide for its use in such products for Menopause as “Remifemin”.  It is interesting to note however, that the most sought after root, and the most valuable, Ginseng, is almost exclusively shipped to the Asian markets. Their supply and demand determines the price paid here, which runs between $300 to $460 a dried pound. Our neighbor made his down payment for his house with a harvest of Ginseng totaling $15,000, and furnished it with another $15,000 he made selling log moss to wholesale florists.

Rural Appalachia, then, continues to hold on to remnants of its knowledge of plant uses: For some as a source of income, for others a way to keep medical costs down, and for the native people, a way to pass traditional knowledge to another generation.  Doctors were not unknown to early settlements, and could have been sent for when the situation was beyond home treatment.  Accidents with axes or knives were not uncommon and required skilled suturing, and many women risked death from burns if their clothing caught on fire at the hearth.  There were “Granny Women” in every community who were trusted to birth the babies, give advice to new mothers, and serve as the local “Herb Doctor”.

In the past 50 years there were still those who were said to “take the fire out of a burn” and “stop bleeding wounds” by saying certain bible verses.  This practice and other methods which we would call placebo effect, superstition, or ignorance today, were probably not condoned by physicians even then.  This accounts for one reason some chose not to call a doctor in, and relied on home doctorin’.  Another reason was lack of cash money. The Physician’s fee must be paid, and sometimes there might not even be anything to barter with.

One common reason was distrust.  Even when my parents were growing up, there were physicians who had minimal training in medicine.  40 years ago, my own father died because he believed that when you had cancer, “it will spread if you let them cut on you”. A self-fulfilling prophecy since people frequently waited too long to see a doctor and the despairing physician could do nothing but keep the patient comfortable until the inevitable end. Yet I would not be here today had my mother not distrusted the only doctor in the small Alabama town because he was a habitual drunk, and moved us back to Houston. Turned out I was a breach birth and an Rh factor baby, so her instincts were right.

Our family doctor believed too many people rush to the doctor’s office or emergency room too quickly. With some knowledge of symptoms, and common sense “kitchen pharmacy”, many could prevent unnecessary panic and overuse of drugs as in antibiotics. As a result, I was raised with home remedies where possible, and I did the same with my daughter.  My husband, Jerry, has benefited from alternative therapy when he had pneumonia and we could not afford the cost of a doctor or buy a prescription.  I believe he pulled through with goldenseal and honey, along with chest poultices and vapor tent. Another remedy for chest congestion we rely on was learned from our Cherokee neighbors: witch hazel and mullein tea.

There have been times when he needed to get to his doctor but we were snowed in so deep an ambulance couldn’t get to us.  And I resorted to “kitchen pharmacy”, a castor oil and warm cabbage leaf poultice, to relieve his pain until we could get out.  2 of his 5 doctors listen to what we use and write it in the chart.  They know many of their patients live in remote places in the mountains, and the information may help when a trip into town is impossible.  Any doctor who practices in a small town, gains the trust of the local people, if he takes the time to listen to his patients, and to take seriously their own trust in traditional home remedies.