(originally published in Best of North Georgia Mountains, May 2015)
Being “born and raised” in North Georgia, I have quite a bit of pride when it comes to the people and history of these mountains. Sometimes though, you forget. You forget when you are driving past the chain resturants, box stores, and strip malls. You forget when you rush from one moment to the next always moving forward toward the next thing. This is happening all over our U.S.A., but if you are lucky enough to be in the North Georgia mountains, you will occasionally find yourself traveling down a dirt road on a spring day driving past old wood barns, farmers working a garden to get it ready for planting, and green fields that are so green it makes you take a deep breath just to taste the fresh air. It heals you. Just the sight of all this heals you and helps you remember.
Spring and Summer time in the mountains was a time to harvest all that nature provides for food, for tools, and for health. Poke salat, creasy greens, redbud tree blossoms were a few of the first fresh foods after the winter. These ‘weeds’ were free and readily available to anyone who cared to look. But they weren’t only food, they were also a benefit for health. Redbud blossoms (Cercis canadensis) contain a high amount of Vitamin C. Poke salat (Phytolacca americana) and creasy greens (Barbarea verna) would ‘clear your liver’ after the richness of winter meats. The people of North Georgia used the plants available, like these, to treat themselves, their families, and neighbors for many different types of illness.
As a modern herbalist, I have studied many historical texts and references about plant use in many areas of the world. Now, what I want to know is how did the people of my mountains use the plants around them. I created a survey to gather info and give credit where due to the healers around here - be it a mom or dad for their children or a community healer. These are a few of the treasures I’ve been given so far.
Hickory sap (Carya sp.) as an earache remedy - “The hickory sap was gathered from the hickory firewood that was warmed by the wood heater. The sap would look like little drops of honey on the cambium layer of the bark at the ends of the firewood. My Daddy told me that his father, Clyde Low, would use this for the small children with an earache in the family.” - Donnie L (Pickens/Gilmer/Towns)
Calamus root (Acorus calamus) for upset stomach - “My mother and grandmother used what they called Calamus root for stomach upsets. I remember seeing roots in some sort of suspension in grandmother's cupboard.” - Rhonda L (Pickens)
Yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima) for mouth sores - “Daddy always gathered yellow root for mouth sores or sore throat. Tastes nasty but works great. He would gather it from near the creeks above our house. Bring home a few sprigs, put in a kettle to boil for a tea to rinse our mouth out. “ - Cathy H (Pickens)
Apple (Malus domestica) for injury - “When my grandfather was a small boy, his brother hit him in the eye with a stone. His father mashed up an apple and put it in his eye for two weeks and wrapped it up. When he became an adult and went to an eye doctor, the doc said he should be blind and couldn't believe how his dad saved his vision.” - Phillip W (Cherokee)
Kerosene and Pine (Pinus sp.) for cuts - “Pulpwood cutters, Dad included, would keep a coke bottle full of kerosene with a wad of green pine needles doubled and stuffed down in the bottle. The pine needles would let them turn the bottle up and shake the kerosene out onto their saw blades. It served a dual purpose though, as they also used it on cuts, which were inevitable in that sort of work. Kerosene, or coal oil as it was also called, was often used to put on cuts and scrapes, to keep infection and soreness away (sped up healing) ” - Ronnie D (Pickens)
Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) for bee stings - “My grandmother Mrs. Minnie Johnson taught me. She used chewing a little tobacco from a cigarette and putting it on a bee sting to draw the poison out. Also, there was red oak bark boiled in water and gargled for sore throat , WD 40 for arthritis pain, heating green pine needles and breathing the smoke for asthma and on and on. She was born in Alabama in 1903 and moved to Pickens in about 1913 with her family in a covered wagon.” - Roger D (Pickens)
It is important to note that some of these quotes are memories from long ago or handed down, and can not be considered to be complete or safe from such a brief telling. I encourage anyone interested in folk remedies to research, research, and research. Most people have stepped away from folk remedies, and although they are just as useful now as then, many people now don’t have the skills or knowledge to properly use these remedies or even properly identify the species of plant needed like our ancestors who lived closer to nature and were continually using the remedies. It is exciting and very rewarding to learn more about plant identification and use. Please consider doing so!
Got your own Folk Medicine stories? Please share them with me and I will in turn share them with others in future articles. Visit my website www.crystaldawnherbs.com and click the link for Survey.