The Southern Highlands of North Carolina is part of the Appalachian chain that extends from Georgia all the way up into Virginia. Europeans moved to this area during the late 1600’s with the Scotch-Irish and Germans traveling from the northern states down the Great Wagon Road.
The isolated mountainous territory was rugged and difficult to build roads. Despite the isolation, our ancestors were self-sufficient and independent. With plenty of wildlife and a variety of plants for food and medicine, they were able to make a living and survive.
“They are the nurses, the teachers of practical arts, the priestesses, and their wisdom commands the respect of all.” – Emma Bell Miles, The Spirit of the Mountains
The Native Americans shared their folklife of food and medicine and contributed to the survival of early European settlers. The Europeans shared their knowledge of their crafts and tools they brought with them. Irish brought looms, weaving and needlework traditions. The Germans brought the axe, knife and shave horse. Combining resources and knowledge created a distinct blend of Appalachian culture.
Knowledge of herbal remedies from wild medicine found throughout the Appalachian Mountains has been passed down through generations. The Irish brought their traditions from the Old Celtic World to the New World and incorporated it with Native American beliefs. Granny’s wisdom of wildcrafting is a very sacred tradition. Her knowledge was gained from the divine granny women of past generations.
See Also Appalachian Folk Magic: The Witch BottleHer wisdom taught us the precise art of plant identification, how to gather, collect, clean and cure the wild medicine they found. In my life, I’ve witnessed “granny women” make warts disappear, “talk the fire out” of burns and bee stings, drank special tonics for a cough or a cold, brew up special decoctions for indigestion and nausea, and “laying on hands” to cure illnesses while reciting bible verses. Even our local pharmacist had a homemade remedy for baby rashes called “fanny creme.” Maybe it was perceived as magic because it worked!
Many of the herbal and folk remedies from our ancestors formed the basis of modern pharmacology. Because the Appalachian chain was never glaciated, its flora is greater than anywhere else on the North American continent. With its incredible diversity, Appalachia has always provided the plant material necessary for pharmaceuticals.
Today, 25% of prescription medicines are from native plants and barks of the Appalachian Mountains.
Granny women of Appalachia filled many roles for the community. While some of them were labeled as “witches,” they seldom endured physical persecution as they were far too valuable. These wise women were respected members of the community and some were known to have “second sight” and were consulted in divinations, charms, healing, and midwifery. With lack of drug stores and few doctors, if you came down with the “miseries” or a spell of sickness, you had a family member that took off into the woods and fields to get what you needed. They either dug it up, picked it, or got it from someone else who had it.
Whether it was the leaves of a plant or the root of another, there was something growing that would be the cure. Plants gathered and foraged would range from poison mandrake, vines of passionflower, leaves of witch hazel or the bark of the wild cherry. Before penicillin was discovered, a cut would be dressed with a bread poultice and wrapped in a canvas sheath that kept the squishy poultice from spilling out. As the bread in the poultice molded, a natural penicillin would be formed to prevent infection and promote healing. “Pot-likker” was ingested as a replacement for your daily multivitamin. The liquid in which greens had been cooked was an excellent source of vitamins and minerals.
Before the early days of patent medicines and synthetic drugs were developed, native plants were medicine. In fact, in North Carolina, all physicians used native herbs or imported plants from overseas. Granny’s remedies, old wives cures, and folk medicines were valid medical treatments. These wildcraft prescriptions were respected so much that the Confederate States Medical and Surgical Journal published a list of indigenous remedies using botanical drugs and herbs. The journal cited recommended doses that were to be administered in the form of drops, brewed teas, astringents, and tinctures.
Common plants you might find in Granny’s kitchen medicine recipes were mullein, pokeberry, sassafras, yellow jessamine, Indian tobacco, bloodroot, star grass, and snakeroot. Many people today are unaware that the weeds and wildflowers growing in their own backyard were once used as herbal remedies and marketed in the form of wild medicine or crude drugs. These folk medicine remedies are just as effective as the patent medicines you find in drug stores.
Granny’s wisdom of wild medicine contained an array of cures for whatever ails you. For sleepless nights, she would brew up a sleepy tea that combined valerian root, hops and lemon balm for a much more restful night. Drink some of Granny’s magic migraine tea made with feverfew, chamomile flowers, lemon balm, passionflower and a little ginger for nausea. Got an ulcer that’s acting up, take some goldenseal. Fevers caused by the flu or viral infections were reduced by using boneset. Bloodroot combined with vinegar was used as an antiseptic for ringworm and other fungal infections.
Chewing catnip leaves would relieve a toothache and brewed as a tea was useful for colic and abdominal cramps. Body aches called for granny’s “sweet shine” which was a mixture of rock candy or honey, moonshine and lemon juice. Heartburn was treated with black cherry bark, wintergreen, and yellow dock. And I can’t leave out North Carolina’s state tree, the dogwood. Dogwood bark treated fevers and dysentery during the Civil War.
One household catch-all and the holiest of all homemade ointments and salves was Balm of Gilead. This was a must-have salve in the household and was used for just about everything. It was the cure-all for arthritis, chapped lips, burns, bruises, and swelling. Balm of Gilead salve is made from the buds of poplar and cottonwood trees and the buds have an orange sticky resin with a smell of vanilla and amber.
In these days of miracle drugs that administers a constant stream from large drug manufacturers, it might seem a little strange that so much reliance was placed upon the primitive art of wildcrafting. The wild medicine that once was so widely used and respected has fallen into disuse. No one should ever sneer or belittle folk medicine. The knowledge of wild medicine was an important source for the art of healing. It took many generations to develop and nurture those traditions.
Much of it was based on sound principal and natural knowledge of herbs and plants. Some of Granny’s magic wild medicine prescriptions in modern times may come across as bizarre and superstitious with their peculiar mixture of formulas and superstition. But the mixture of folklore and superstition continues to offer both wisdom and wit. Our generation must revive what is lost and learn from our elders. Granny’s magical wild medicine contains a world of wisdom to share with future generations. Preserve it, remember it, and pass it on.
By Hope Thompson
See Also The Great Wagon Road: America’s First Interstate Highway Disappears, The Vanishing Grave Houses of Appalachia, Folklife: The Faith Healing Tradition of “Talking Out the Fire”, Appalachian Folk Magic: The Witch Bottle, Folklife: Creasy Greens and Leather Britches