Plants of the Cherokee


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Plants of the Cherokee: Medicinal, Edible, and Useful Plants of the Eastern Cherokee Indians

After languishing for 50 years in libraries, archives and attics around the southern Appalachian region, the following manuscript by William Banks was brought to the attention of Great Smoky Mountains Association by two of the organization’s most active members: Jerry Coleman and Ila Hatter.  Mr. Coleman and Ms Hatter live near the Cherokee reservation in western North Carolina and are recognized experts on edible and medicinal plants in the area.  They were overjoyed to discover the existence of the manuscript and devoted themselves to seeing that it be published.

Staff at the National Park Service and Association were equally excited to learn of Banks’ masters theses.  During the early 1950’s, when Banks did his research, there were still quite a few elder Cherokee and others who continued the old ways of using wild plants for a wide variety of medicines, food crafts, and other purposes.  Today, attempting to conduct such research would be much less fruitful.

It should be mentioned that Banks’ thesis advisor and mentor, Dr. A.J. Sharp, was one of the most widely recognized and respected experts on the botany of the Great Smokies and southern Appalachians.  His career as botanist, professor, writer and advisor spanned more than 60 years.  Sharp’s role as overseer on this project lends it great credence.

Plants of the Cherokee

Serendipity: “…making desirable but unsought-for discoveries by accident” was exactly how this manuscript came into my hands.  I heard of Banks’ thesis from Dr. Jack Sharpe (Professor Emeritus of UT) some 10 or 12 years ago. He knew of my interest in Cherokee plant lore, as I was already teaching edible and medicinal plant classes for UT’s Smoky Mtn Field School.  “However”, he said, “The only public copy in the University Library has disappeared.  I have the only copy I know of in my safe at home.  You are welcome to visit and read it there.”   Unfortunately that occasion never presented itself before Dr. Sharpe died.   I thought I would never have access to the information William Banks had gathered, until “serendipity” brought Eileen Wilson and I together at a Tremont workshop.  During that weekend, one of the students came up to me saying “You know, I have something that’s been in my attic for over 20 years, that I think you might find interesting.  It’s a thesis by one of Dr. Sharpe’s graduate students written in 1952…….” And I finished her sentence saying “by Bill Banks on the Ethnobotany of the Cherokee!

When I read the manuscript I realized that more serendipity was in the list of people that Dr. Banks had interviewed.  I knew most of the families!  And also knew that a lot of the information from that generation had not been passed down.  So if this was published, here was a way all their descendents and others interested in their heritage, could have it forever.  I found Bill (Dr. William) Banks in Kentucky through a mutual friend.  He gave his consent to publication with the concession that he honor the pledge he gave the Cherokee i.e., not to profit from the information.

It seems appropriate that the Great Smoky Mtn Association is the publisher, as proceeds from sales help fund the preservation of the National Park and the heritage of all people who made these mountains home.

There are a couple things I want to tell the reader.  At first the unusual phoneme system for the Cherokee names will be a bit complicated.  It is unlike any we have been used to in other publications.  The reason that it was suggested for Banks’ to use it is because it came the closest to reproducing some of the nuances in the Cherokee language.  In 1952, the language was not being taught, and there was the real possibility that future generations would not know how to say the words as their grandparents had.  In my editing task, I found that eventually the system made sense and was not so difficult to use after you become familiar with the symbols.  (And those were handmade for computer typesetting by Joey Heath)

The second thing the reader should know is the addition of a “translation” of the diseases mentioned.  Without medical diagnosis people have to come up with their own names for their illnesses.  It seemed appropriate to do some research into the descriptions and give the reader a list of what the various diseases were that the plant remedies alleviated.   David Cozzo, PhD (Anthropology-UGA) has supplied just such an appendix.

– Ila Hatter