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Appalachian Herb Lore & Remidies

Nothing grows on this earth in vain.
~Nicholas Culpeper, 1640

   Folk medicine is a tradition of treating sickness by herbs, ethnic foods, prayers, healing objects, magic and dance ceremonies. It is in a way a subtle departure from the formalized practice of medical science. Folk medicine is a forerunner to our present day Alternative Medicine. Folk medicine in the broadest sense is a collective folk wisdom, a heritage of the healing art of life, nurtured constantly by generations of that great human family.

    Writers on Folk Medicine are often confused about the boundaries of Folk Medicine. The answer lies in the eye of the beholder: to some it is an old granny with chicken soup stories, to others it is a heap of medical customs, taboos, superstitions and sometimes plain, sheer ignorance. The body of knowledge derived from folklore and other traditional sources may vary. However for what is important and of practical value to survive the passage of time, it must have some quasi scientific or logical basis. A superstition or fad will quickly fade and be washed away from the fabrics which are knitted in the Quilt of Time.

    The use of Patent medicines in Appalachia for every day illnesses is not appreciated by many writers of folk medicine. It takes many generations of a society to develop and nurture those traditions. Many successful medical discoveries of today were one time used as folk remedies. Examples are Foxglove which gave digitalis, St. John’s Wort as an anti-depressant, Willow Tree’s salicylates and one rarely mentioned today, Goldenseal which was used 130 years ago for the treatment of peptic ulcers as an antibiotic. It took state of the art technology and a Nobel Prize to discover they were caused by H. pylori bacteria, when all along, this was successfully treated with herbal tea from Goldenseal prepared by a granny witch.

Tea made from the root is used for colds, fever, cough, etc.

Rubus allegheniensis
Also called Appalachian raspberry and dewberry. One of the best old remedies for summer complaints. Blackberry juice is also used for diarrhea and flux. When combined with Goldthread and boiled, it is used to treat sore throat and canker sores and is a valuable remedy for dysentery as well.

Sanguinaria canadensis
This is the earliest spring flower. Leaves are multi-lobed, 6-10 inches long. White flowers are in a wax line with golden stamens. The root has been used by Native Americans as red body paint and for clothes. It is a strong emetic (induces vomiting) and expectorant (brings up phlegm). Though much less is used, a fluid extract is helpful for Ringworm infections and other fungal infections. A mixture of vinegar and root was used as an antiseptic. When boiled, it was used to treat skin sores. Presently it is used on occasion as toothpaste as a plaque inhibitor and mouthwash.

Eupatorium perfoliatum
This has been used since early colonial times to break fevers, especially fevers that are due to viral infections, such as Dengue Fever, where the fever and chills are so severe that it feels like the bones are breaking. Its name boneset also refers to the straight opposite leaves of the plant which were used by Native Americans as splints for broken bones. It was a popular substitute for quinine during the Civil War, especially for periodic fever and malaria.  In southern West Virginia, some farmers still use Boneset for broncho-pneumonia and viral flu-like symptoms. A tea made from leaves taken in a single dose is considered effective and curative.
Use one ounce of dry leaves herb, in a pint of boiling water for one hour on slow heat
Take in doses of ½ to 1 ounce, as needed

"Horse Chestnut"
Aesculus hippocastanum/ glabra
Buckeye promoted circulation and was a treatment for varicose veins. When bark is boiled in water, it was a useful remedy for diarrhea. Persons known to carry fruit (Buckeye) in pocket for arthritis, hemorrhoids. Bark was considered a substitute for quinine.

Its root has been used as a laxative, and body cleanser, as a folk treatment for cancer and as a treatment for head colds.

"White Walnut"
Juglans cinera
During the Revolutionary War, Dr. Rush promoted the value of butternut. It is an indigenous forest tree smaller than black walnut. It has ash-colored bark (that is why it is called cinera). The fruit is an oblong nut.
Medicinal uses:
The inner portion of the bark of the root contains active principles. This is the mildest and best laxative without gripe. It is an astringent (like rhubarb) which is why it is used in dysentery. It is a valuable anti-parasitic.

Cephalanthus occidentalis (L.)
A small bush growing near shallow water with pin cushion-like, round flower heads blooming in midsummer. Tea made from the roots is used for chest congestion and as a gargle for sore throat.

Nepeta cataria
Catnip is one of the very useful safe herbs used up till now by many herb grannies. It is a common herb grown in yards. It is a small perennial, 4 – 5 feet tall, with angled stems. Leaves are heart-shaped, green in color and white under the surface. Its flowers are bluish white or lavender and bloom in June and July. The plant has a peculiar fragrant smell, which is much admired by cats, therefore originating the name catnip.
It is used for infant colic and as a sleep aid, for skin hives and as a general tonic for nervous depression or debility. It acts as a carminative diaphoretic. It is usually given to teething babies with abdominal colic or diarrhea. It contains lactone, which acts as a sex attractant chemical, which makes domestic cats excited. Catnip has pheromones. The leaves can be chewed for a toothache. It also was a great help for insomnia. Very useful for skin rashes, especially urticaria due to secondary allergies. In the author’s opinion, it is a classic, useful, safe herbal remedy. Syrup made from the flower can be used as a sleep aid for children.
Useful Remedies:

  • Chewing the leaves relieved toothache.

  • Juice from bruised leaves used as insect repellent.

  • Tea made from leaves useful in abdominal cramps and colic.

Gossypium hirsutum
Tea made from the root bark was used as an abortifacient as well as to produce sterility in men. It was also used as a treatment for asthma and diarrhea. Roasted seed was used in tea, also made into tea for bronchial conditions. Flowers are mild diuretics. Leaves soaked in vinegar were used as a poultice. The Cotton plant has been used amazingly for different diseases by African Americans in the southern states. Tea made from the root is used for uterine contractions, while European immigrants used Penny Royal, which has severe toxic effects. Tea made from Cotton root was used by plantation slaves to induce sterility.   Their knowledge was imparted to many women herbalists in Appalachia.

In Appalachia, various bark infusions have been used for the treatment of menstrual cramps. One popular kind has been Viburnum (Black Haw) and Wild Yam (Dioscorea villosa). Along with Toothache Tree, or Prickly Ash ,(Zanthoxylum americanus), has been used for toothache and as a counter irritant.

Leaves and roots are used as a laxative and for the treatment of heartburn. Roots are useful as a diuretic.

Cunila mariana
Dittany is a common farm plant, growing in dry places on hillsides. A perennial herb 1 – 2 feet high, the leaves are oval with sharp edges. Flowers are purplish and grow in clusters. It has been used in Appalachian folk medicine as tea for fevers. It was popular for nerves, headaches and hysteria. Tea is used to produce sweating. It has been popularly known since Dr. Gunn’s book was published in the early 1800’s. It remains popular with older herbalists, though in Appalachia is not currently used.

During early Colonial days and the Civil War era, dogwood bark was considered an effective substitute for quinine. It was used to treat fevers (agues) and it was also useful in the treatment of dysentery. It is considered safe and effective.

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