By Sam Venable, News-Sentinel columnist
April 25, 2002

GATLINBURG – When Ila Hatter needs medicine or cooking ingredients, she doesn’t swing by the drugstore or supermarket. Often, a walk in the woods will fill the bill.

Spicebush, bee balm, jewel weed, yellow root, wild ginger: The plants are indexed like a shopping list in her mind. Whatever the requirement, Mother Nature can provide.

“The woods and fields are a table always spread,” says Hatter, an interpretive naturalist from Robbinsville, N.C. “I teach people that all these plants are like having friends in the forest.”

Hatter is in East Tennessee this week for the 52nd Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage. She’s leading a series of “medicinal walks” in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, pointing out plants Native Americans and early settlers used to fill their bellies and treat their ailments.

Hatter is a native of Texas, but is descended from Tennesseans. A former airline stewardess, she has lived all over the globe – from Spain to the Caribbean to South America. She has spent the past 30 years in the mountains of Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina. Her knowledge of plants and home remedies was handed down from her mother and grandmother. Another of her mentors was Marie Mellinger, the legendary plant woman from Clayton, Ga., whose stories have been published in several volumes of “Foxfire.”

Her tours this week will include visits to Metcalf Bottoms and the quiet walkway across from the Huskey Gap trailhead.

“I go pretty slow because there’s so much to see and talk about,” she said. “Sometimes, it might take me two or three hours to go a quarter of a mile. I talk about what a particular plant looks like, how the early settlers used it medicinally and how it’s still used today. Bee balm, for instance. You can use the leaves for a tea that makes a very good expectorant for treating colds and flu. Yellow root’s another one. It makes an extremely bitter tea, but it’s good for treating mouth and stomach ulcers.”

Now that I’ve tempted you with a preview, I must give you the bad news. If you aren’t already registered for the Wildflower Pilgrimage, you’re too late. Her hikes are filled. But the festival offers more than 145 different activities, and some still have openings. Contact the Great Smoky Mountains Natural History Association, 436-7318, for details. Also, if you want to take a medicinal hike vicariously, Hatter offers a series of instructional videos. They’re available through her Web site,

Ironically, all Hatter can do during her hikes in the Great Smokies is point out the featured species. Picking is a no-no in the national park. Plants may be taken on private land and, with proper permits, on certain public tracts such as national forests.

“I always teach responsible foraging,” she said. “You have to have respect for the plant and the land.”

Her guideline to pupils consists of three words: identification, location and multiplication.

“Identification is very important; you’ve got to make certain you know the plant in the first place,” she said. “As far as location is concerned, you have to be certain it’s permissible to remove it. Multiplication has four parts. You leave one plant to go to seed. You leave another that a different species, like an insect, might need. You leave a third for another brother or sister coming by. Every fourth plant is the one you can use for yourself.”

As many woods walkers know, the demand on some wild plants is outstripping the supply. Ginseng comes immediately to mind, but others also are feeling the pressure. Just this year, the National Park Service instituted a ban on gathering ramps, the garlic-like onion that grows in our highlands. Previously, park visitors had been permitted to dig enough ramps for a meal.

Hatter cited another example: “Recently a German company put out an advisory for bloodroot. They use it as a component in the treatment of mad cow disease. They were literally asking for tons of it. That could have depleted the rootstock. We wouldn’t let them advertise in any botanical journals in our area.”

Sam Venable’s column appears in the News-Sentinel on Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. His column also is available on our Web site at He can be reached at 865-342-6272 or His latest book, “Rock-Elephant: A Story of Friendship and Fishing,” is available at most bookstores and online from the News-Sentinel.

Copyright 2002, KnoxNews. All Rights Reserved.