Asheville Citizen Times

Asheville, North Carolina
April 6, 2001
Videos offer bounty of plant facts
by George Ellison
Special to the Citizen-Times

My area of competence in regard to plants is teaching methods of identification. I do have an interest in their medicinal, edible and utilitarian uses, but I never offer specific workshops on those topics because I don’t know enough. Whenever queried as to who is competent in this regard, I recommend Ila Hatter.

Hatter is a veteran wildcrafter, herbalist, and interpretative naturalist who resides in Graham County. Unlike all too many would-be herbalists these days, Hatter knows her technical botany. She can readily identify this region’s plants down to species level. And unlike the wannabe herbalists, she knows that even closely-related species can vary considerably in regard to medicinal or toxic properties.

Her unusual competence has led Hatter to be in demand as a teacher for the Smoky Mountain Field School, Native Plant Conference at Western Carolina University, Tennessee Aquarium, John C. Campbell Folk School, The Mountain Camp & Conference Center at Highlands, and numerous other facilities. On May 20 (for families) and May 24 (for adults) she will conduct afternoon workshops for the North Carolina Arboretum.

A few weeks ago Hatter and I were teaching at the same site. I was pleased to spot two videos on her display table that she has recently produced. Titled “Wild Edibles & Medicinals of Southern Appalachia,” these videos contain a wealth of information she has collected through the years. They are the very best I have ever viewed and so I recommend them to you. Not only is the content of the videos first rate -as anticipated – but so are the videography, music, and other materials. For each plant Hatter considers, its medicinal or edible aspects are concisely but carefully enumerated. For many plants like shrub yellowroot, basswood, bloodroot, etc., utilitarian properties are also mentioned. When a plant has a medicinal reputation, Hatter cites the active ingredient in the plant that current research indicates may be responsible for its curative effects.

The plants Hatter depicts are New Jersey or “Revolutionary” tea; lamb’s quarters (a potherb); common mullein (a sedative); basil balm (an antiseptic tea); mountain mint; spearmint; purslane and broadleaf plantain; (as wild greens); jewelweed (for rashes); shrub yellowroot (for jaundice and as a dye); ginseng (for energy); blackberry; elderberry (for making pies and curing flu); sassafrass (for tea and rootbeer as well as an early cure for vitamin-deficiency problems); basswood (mainly for carving); bloodroot (used in Viadent toothpaste as anti-cavity ingredient and for making reddish-orange dyes); Joe Pye weed or gravelroot (for kidney stones); white boneset (for high fevers); horse nettle;ground cherry; and blueberry.

The presentations are full of interesting anecdotal asides. Volume 2 includes a visit with famed Cherokee potter Amanda Swimmer (who explains the differences between hominy and flour corns and shares her family’s way of preparing hominy soup) and Clayton, Georgia, wildcrafter and herbalist Marie Mellinger, the grandam of Appalachian plant studies. Hatter studied with Mellinger for years. In addition to identification tips, Hatter also provides recipes and insights on responsible foraging. Her explanation of the ancient Doctrine of Signatures sheds much light on why certain plants gained their reputations-some deserved, some not – as medicinals.

As a reviewer I’m obligated to find at least one flaw. Indeed, I spotted only one small error in the entire 68 minutes of film. Shrub yellowroot’s maroon flowers appear in the spring (right now) not “late summer.” Since the only plant discussed on both videos is shrub yellowroot, I recommend that buyers purchase both. Each retails for $19.95 with an additional $4.00 for postage. (Buyers ordering two videos need to pay just one $4.00 postage fee.) Mail orders to Ironweed Productions, PO Box 2522, Robbinsville, NC 28771. Wholesalers can contact Hatter at 828-479-8999 regarding sales rates. For additional information consult Hatter’s Internet site at