A modern day medicine woman

By Becky Johnson • Staff Writer


Watch for this name: Ila Hatter. She’s a woman you want to go hiking with.On a guided walk along the Appalachian Trail in Graham County last weekend, Hatter pointed out dozens of wild plants that could be used in the kitchen or as medicines. Every few steps, there went Hatter — veering off the trail to fondle this or that plant, sometimes plucking its leaves to pass around for a sniff or a nibble, sometimes lifting it out by the roots or scratching away the bark on a stem, all the while purporting its various traits and uses.

One of the first finds was jewel weed, a common plant known to stop the itch of poison ivy or insect stings. Hatter broke open a stem, milked a thick, oozy liquid to the surface, then passed it around.

“This sap acts like cortisone,” Hatter said. She shared the recipe for a skin concoction known to stop just about any itch, sting or burn: jewel weed, witch hazel, cucumber and aloe. Hatter puts the four plants in a blender, then freezes dollops of them in an ice cube tray, popping them out and thawing when needed.

Hatter truly loves to live off the land. The leaves of the toothwort, prized for its horseradish flavor, often end up in Hatter’s lunch bag.

“I’ve been known to take a roast beef sandwich hiking and look for this and make it my lettuce and condiment,” Hatter said.

Hatter was soon jabbing her walking stick at a May apple in bloom, describing the fruit that would soon form. While the rest of the plant is toxic, the fruit has properties that shrink tumors. It was used as such by the Cherokee for thousands of years. Recently, pharmaceutical companies studied the May apple fruit and developed a synthetic version of the compound, used in two cancer drugs on the market today, Hatter said.

The toxic leaves and stem of the May apple were put to use as well, Hatter said. Early settlers boiled the plant along with seed corn, leaching the toxicity into the corn. They sprinkled the corn around the perimeter of their fields, stopping any varmints before they could devour their crops.

Wild plants have their place in cooking, not just as medicines. Like anise, whose wispy strands of seeds have the flavor of licorice. Hatter directed us to a mass of anise and soon we were all plucking and nibbling away.

Many plants do double duty as a healthy food and herbal medicine. Violet leaves, for example, contain rutin that strengthens capillaries. It’s good for people with varicose veins or retinopathy. But they make for good eating, too. Violet leaves often find their way on to Hatter’s salads, or on her plate steamed up like spinach.

“I’ve eaten violet leaves for years. They’re loaded with vitamin C. There’s more vitamin C in a mess of violet leaves than an orange,” Hatter said.

Then came the Solomon’s seal, the thick, ribbed leaves studding a strong waxy stem. But it’s the seeds that attract Hatter.

“When these start to look like little green peas, before they turn black, they can be eaten just like English peas,” Hatter said.

When passing a moist, shaded bank, Hatter honed in on a colony of plants lurking amongst the moss and careful lifted one out by the roots. She scraped the root with her fingernail to expose some flesh, then passed it around and told us to take a whiff. It had the spicy smell of ginger.

The wild ginger was particularly delightful for the early settlers. The root was boiled in sugar syrup, rolled in sugar and then dried to make candy. Ginger is also good for stomach aches and nausea.

As Hatter walked and talked, the lush undergrowth of the Appalachian forest was transformed from yet another green mountainside to something much more tangible, from the elusive “ecosystem” to plants with a purpose. It dawned on us, “So this is how people used to do it.”

Hatter stooped down alongside a purple native geranium. It’s an old-time remedy for hemorrhoids. Boil the plant in water to make a sitz bath and soak in it, Hatter said.

Hatter doesn’t just know what plants are good for, put actually uses them. The same toothwort that carries a horseradish flavor got its name because it dulls toothaches. When Hatter developed a toothache, which she later learned was due to a cracked root, she crushed the toothwort leaves and placed it on the throbbing tooth. Within 15 minutes the pain was gone.

Hatter’s nickname, “Lady of the Forest,” didn’t come lightly. She has been the subject of more than a dozen documentaries and has written many magazine articles. It’s impossible to dabble in the world of native and wild plants and not have heard of Hatter.

Here’s some upcoming opportunities to catch Hatter in her element.

• Guided forest walk in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park called “Incredible Edibles & Traditional Medicinals.” Three dates this year are June 14, Sept. 13 and Oct. 11, all Saturdays. Hosted by Great Smoky Mountains Field School. $49. 865.974.0150 or www.outreach.utk.edu/smoky.

• Cultural heritage demonstrations in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at the Mountain Farm Museum adjacent to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center outside Cherokee. June 21 and Sept. 20. Hatter will be working in conjunction with other heritage demonstrations. 828.497.1904.

• Field trip leader during the Cullowhee Native Plant Conference July 23-26 and the Highlands Native Plant Conference Sept. 12.
• Check her Web site at wildcrafting.com for more information.