Magic of the Hillfolk Herbalism
by Stephen J. Meek
There’s magic in the plants of these Ozark hills. Third-generation herbalist Lisa Pluth notes plantain (Plantago major) has the power to heal a thorn in the flesh when used as a simple green bandage. Of the splinter she got, she says “After I put the plantain over it — the wound healed from the bottom out, so it can push splinters out!”
The miracle of herbal remedies has been a tradition in the Ozarks for ages past and the practice is still going strong.
“Twenty-five percent of vascular plants in the Ozarks can be documented at least folklorically in the Ozarks as being used medicinally,” says Steven Foster, of Eureka Springs. Foster has been an herbalist of 40 years. He was trained by the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village Herb Department in New Gloucester, Maine (the oldest herb dealer in the nation).
“There’s really not anything unique to Ozark medicinal plant use that would be different from Appalachia,” Foster says. “We like to think there is and pretend there is, but the devil’s in the details. There’s nothing particularly unique about it except, perhaps, local plant life.”
Even so, people still need the plants. Herbs are special according to Tina Wilcox, head gardener and herbalist at the Ozark Folk Center’s Heritage Herb Garden in Mountain View, Arkansas. “With gardening comes the realization that plants help people out.” And it’s the relationship between the plants and the people that makes the plants special.
Think about it: a quarter of all those plants out in the hills can be used as a medicine.
Jim Long of Long Creek Herbs thought about it and it brought him there to live. “I grew up at the very northern edge [of the Ozarks] and I’ve always been in love with the Ozarks. Some of the reasons I moved south was the rich folk heritage of herb use and the amount of natively grown herbs.” Long has since become successful in his herb-selling business and is known for his lectures, his many books and a number of unique herbal remedies developed on his Long Creek Herb farm near Blue Eye, Missouri.
What makes these healing plants special? The traditions which surround their uses are varied, coming from cultures around the world.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)
Lemon balm is a multipurpose herb and member of the mint family. Pluth said the plant is identified by its square stem and lemony scent. According to Long, “It’s an awfully good bee attractor. They help pollinate things, especially fruit trees.” So if you see a lot of bees drumming around and smell lemon, you might be onto some Melissa officinalis.
Pluth uses lemon balm as a sedative in some of her tisanes. Wilcox has several uses for the fragrant herb: “I make a tincture of the tops when they’re just in bud and keep it around for when I’m stressed or can’t get to sleep, or I use it for a cold sore, if I have that herpes complex. I also keep it around for mosquitos. I crush it up and use it to keep them off.”
As lemon balm is popular as a sedative, Long compares it to the better-known chamomile. He says “Chamomile will make you sleepy, but Melissa will just make you relaxed.” Because of that and its lemony tendencies, Long uses it in teas, cakes and cookies.
Cedar (Juniperus virginiana)
The Eastern Red Cedar, nearly inescapable for Ozark families as it proliferates on glades and has been cut as cheap Christmas trees for generations, may be used in herbal remedies as well.
One of the most common uses for cedar is in the building of storage chests as moths are repelled by the scent of the wood. However, the berries may also be used in a bitters formula.
Wilcox explains. “Lemon balm is a volatile oil that will leave the body. Cedar resin tends to stick around, so be careful.” Wilcox also said that “people suggest it was used for kidneys but they also suggest that [cedar] could hurt your kidneys.” She added that “Friends who are Native American use it as a smudge, like a smoke or incense to clear the air.”
Pluth explains the effect. “The seeds are anti-fungal and burning the branches releases oils which are also anti-fungal so pioneers would burn cedar in their cabins to clean them out.”
“Cedar was used for making tar. Pine tar is more common than cedar tar. Usually it was ground up and mixed with alcohol.”
Long, who was one of Wilcox’s mentors, knows many uses for the fragrant evergreen tree. And if you’re feeling especially festive during Christmas, “One of its claims to fame is that its berries are what make gin taste like gin. The primary difference between gin and vodka is flavor, which comes from cedar [in gin],” Long says.
Long added culinary uses for cedar as well: “The berries are used as a seasoning herb for things like venison and pioneers would season their cabbage with cedar berries. Try chewing one. They have a nice flavor, especially during early winter.”
Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)
One plant you may think of when hunting herbs in the Ozarks is ginseng. According to Foster, around 95 percent of “Sang” harvested in the Ozarks is shipped to Hong Kong and distributed throughout the south of China. But be careful what you do with ginseng. “Sangers” can be territorial and the harvested plants do not grow back on their own. They must be replanted. If you find a stash of ginseng, treat it with respect.
“Arkansas is really at the southwestern edge of the plant’s range. The roots tend to be a lot smaller than in the Catskills or upstate New York,” says Foster. “It’s generally regarded as woodland cash. It grows on shaded north slopes, generally. It’s associated with basswood and other plants that indicate a rich eastern deciduous forest.”
As far as what to look for, Foster said, “Roots between four- and five-years old are used in the market. Roots younger than that are not as valuable.” The number of prongs can help identify the size of the root, according to Richard Howard from Mountain Creek, Arkansas, who has studied medicinal herbs for 35 years. “They go from a single prong to a two-prong to a three-prong, then you’ll get up to your four-prong. So the root to this will be really big.”
“Ginseng is generally regarded as an adaptogen. In other words, it stimulates the adrenal cortex and certain hormones and allows an organism to withstand stress,” Foster explained. “In traditional medicine, it was used with other things because it was believed to make other herbs stronger,” furthers Long. “Overall, it’s just a good tonic.”
Foster also said that it could be used as a mild central nervous system stimulant.
Wilcox remembers one of her personal successes with medicinal herbs: “My arthritis started showing up in my knees (which is really bad for my work). Another herbalist suggested teasel (Dipsacus sylvestris) and Japanese knot weed (Fallopia japonica). I took those two together for a series of a couple years to kick [the arthritis].”
As a gardener, the story exemplifies the close relationship people in the Ozarks still may have with plants. It is beautiful symbiosis. The very plants Wilcox tends help her continue her hard work as an Ozark herbalist.
European pioneers found synonymous species in North America. In some cases, they brought their plants with them. The common dandelion (Taraxacum officinalis) is a colonial import once valued for the culinary and medicinal qualities of root, leaf and blossom.
The European tradition isn’t the only one to influence these culture- and herb-rich hills.
The First Nation peoples who lived here left much of their practices and some of their legends behind as they were forcibly removed. As many North American plants were unfamiliar to herbalist settlers, some uses were borrowed from American Indians in each region. An important contributor to this interchange of knowledge were the Cherokee.
“The Cherokee were originally from Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia—that area. After the Trail of Tears, some went into Southern Missouri and Arkansas,” explains Rod Jackson, owner of Nuwati Herbals, a small company based in House Springs, Missouri.
Jackson descended from both the Cherokee and the Irish and was taught about herbs by his Cherokee grandmother. “She would take me to the woods. She would teach me to take plants respectfully,” he reminisces. Jackson also noted the Cherokee were important to the culture of herbal medicine in the Ozarks.
“Due to the necessity of moving prior to the relocation [to Oklahoma], all natives had an impact on that sort of stuff.”
One of the most important plants in Cherokee lore is the cedar. “Cedar is one of the seven sacred woods.” Jackson explained, “Everything with Cherokee is seven. There’s seven clans and seven woods…”
The sacred woods include holly, laurel, pine and spruce, as well as cedar. These trees “stayed awake during all seven days and were blessed to stay green,” according to Myths of the Cherokee by James Mooney (19th Annual Report of American Ethnology 1897-98, Part I).
Burning cedar is important to Cherokee spiritual beliefs. “Cedar is used to cleanse an area of negative energy. It’s used as a smudge,” Jackson said, illustrating the tremendous impact his heritage has had. He used his grandmother’s teachings as inspiration for a now-thriving business. While it is difficult to measure the Cherokees’ cultural influence in the Ozarks, it is impossible to discount the significance of their knowledge and respect for healing herbs on later generations.
The Scientific within the Medicinal
Many question herbalism for a lack of scientific backing or regulation but Foster says that is a misconception. “If you look at herbs as a dietary supplement, you often hear that herbs are not regulated, when in reality, they’re pretty heavily regulated.”
As for the science and research, Foster says, “There’s over 550 studies with Echinacea in the title related to pharmaceutical chemistry.” Keep in mind, that’s just one plant! ”
For Wilcox, the knowledge of plant remedies was lost to the masses with the advent of “progress.”
“People grew accustomed to buying medicine, both pharmaceutical drugs and herbal supplements. Even with the current resurgence of taking herbs for medicine, the majority of people are more comfortable buying rather than harvesting and making their own preparation,” she notes.
The progress in modern medicine indeed seemed to make herbs obsolete but herbalists disagree. The use of herbs for medicine goes back as far as medicine itself. “Herbs have been used from antiquity and were the first medicine used by man, while allopathic medicine (the use of minerals to treat disease) is only about 500 years old,” notes Jethro Kloss in his seminal 1939 book Back to Eden.
In fact, Foster has used herbs in his scientific work to help people as far away as Ukraine.
“My claim to fame is at the University of Poltava (Academy of Science in Poltava). They call me the “King of Echinacea” in Ukraine. I studied [the plant] after the Chernobyl incident and its fallout. Echinacea purpurea grown in Ukraine is from seeds I collected in the Ozarks in 1986. There it’s used for immune system boosts and help with sperm production after radiation from Chernobyl. One of the main preparations was Echinacea in vodka.”
So from Great Britain to the Ozarks and from the Ozarks to China and Ukraine, herbs and herbalism have a long history
The people who practice keep the traditions alive with each new season’s garden.
February 11, 2016
plate 1. The study of pioneer, European and Native American herbal traditions is a fascinating one.
Photo courtesy of Nuwati Herbals.
plate 2. Hanging from the door (from left) comfrey (Symphytum officinale L.), wormwood (Artemisa sp.), and tansy (Tanacetum vulgare). Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is in the glass cup on the counter.
Photo courtesy of Tina Wilcox, Ozark Folk Center.
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plate 3. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is hanging from the cupboard door. Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is on the counter and in the mortar and pestle. Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is on the middle shelf.
Photo courtesy of Tina Wilcox, Ozark Folk Center. Photo courtesy of Tina Wilcox, Ozark Folk Center.
plate 4. Lemon Balm detail (Melissa officinalis). Photo courtesy of Jim Long, Long Creek Herbs.
Rootwork & Conjure
The idea that plants may heal and protect is commonly held in many cultures. Tina Wilcox’s use of lemon balm to defend from insects is a minor scientific example. There are, however, larger, more transcendent beliefs tied to the spiritual efficacy of native plants. Perhaps the most-developed knowledge of plant-and-spirit use is found in the practice of rootwork.
Jenney Head, a rootwork practitioner from the Springfield, Missouri-area, says, “I wouldn't actually say the Ozarks have influenced rootwork or conjure so much as I’d say there is some evidence that rootwork was practiced in these parts in the past.”
Rootwork is the use of plants and other natural substances to influence people on a spiritual level. Head explains, “Many make a clear distinction between rootwork and Southern conjure, myself included.
“Rootwork is firmly grounded in the historical record as an African-American folk magic tradition. Southern conjure (or simply "conjure") stems more from a hillfolk tradition, with antecedents in the practices brought over to the states with European immigrants.” Friend has studied under Cat Yronwode and Star Casas, (both nationally known rootworkers).
“I myself decided to focus my rootwork practice largely on those plants, minerals and animal curios which are native to the Ozark Highlands. It seems reasonable to suppose those old-time practitioners did the same out of necessity. I’m doing it out of respect and affection for the region.”
The natural elements change what can and cannot be done, much like medicinal herbalism.
“It is commonly believed by workers that the root is stronger than the leaves because the entire plant can usually grow from many roots. However, in some situations, the behavior of the leaves is of greater use. An example might be morning glories (Convolvulaceae):
“The roots cannot grow the plant (as morning glory is propagated from seeds). And the major utility of morning glories in root work is the climbing habit of the tendrils put out by this plant. These are delicate-looking little things but morning glory can pull an entire trellis right down.
“Many rootworkers use this plant on behalf of clients to keep a straying partner at home. The growing habits of this plant show why that connection may have been made.” The reason the plant is used in this way is what Head calls “metaphysical mirroring” where plants’ physical attributes mirror spiritual ones.
Friend’s ancestors have practiced rootwork and conjure before.
“My great-grandmother took my grandmother to a cousin with a certain reputation for giftedness,” she recalls. “That gentleman gave them instructions [for removing a wart] involving a tree stump, a potato and a particular phase of the moon. My grandmother says that wart was gone in no time.”
Rootwork has become Head’s career, but she doesn’t stop there. “I am a very practical person and there have been times when a client expresses surprise that we’re not ‘just talking about woo,’ but we’re talking about the actual world of work, and LinkedIn and so forth. But, I also add in cleansing baths and prayers and so forth to that mix.”
Along with her practical streak, Head holds to her spiritual beliefs in rootwork. “Whether or not a particular person believes in the efficacy of prayer or the willingness of plants to work with our Creator to heal people and their lives, there is solid research backing the usefulness of ritual and that is definitely something I employ in my work with clients.”
— by Stephen Meek
plate 5. Blooming Chives (Allium schoenoprasum). Photo courtesy of Jenney Head, Ozark Roots & Conjure.
- Adaptogen: stimulates the adrenal cortex and stimulates certain hormones and allows an organism to withstand stress
- Bitters Formula: an alcoholic preparation prepared with herbal or other botanical matter
- Deciduous: of or pertaining to trees that typically go through hibernation in the winter and lose their broad leaves
- Sedative: an effect of some plants that directly depresses the vital forces
- Smudge: “a smoke or incense used to clear the air” according to Tina Wilcox
- Stimulant: an effect of some plants that temporarily increases vital activity
- Tincture: a preparation that involves extracting a liquid from the herb in use
- Tisane: A tea used for medicine
- Tonic: an effect of some plants that invigorates, braces or refreshes and the preparations that bring about this effect
- — Many of these definitions come from Shaker Medicinal Herbs by Amy Bess Miller, Storey Communications 1998.
plate 6. Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). Photo courtesy of Jim Long, Long Creek Herbs.
plate 7. Common Plantain (Plantago major). Photo courtesy of Jim Long, Long Creek Herbs.
Anglo-Saxon and Celtic herbal traditions:
Much of the culture and knowledge attached to herbalism comes from Great Britain as Anglo-Saxon and Celtic immigrants found refuge in the hills. Many brought with them their medicinal knowledge as well as hints of an older, mythological tradition.
In Welsh legend, one of the goddesses, Blodeuwedd, is created by the herbal work of other gods.
“It is Math who is skilled in creation. The creation of Blodeuwedd from the flowers of oak, broom, and meadowsweet is well annotated and appears as a first-person interpolation with the ‘Cad Goddeu’ attributed to Taliesin,” notes author Caitlìn Matthews in her work, Mabon and the Guardians of Celtic Britain.
The Welsh people who settled in these hills may have brought memories of this story as well as a deep respect for the healing, even magical, qualities of plants.
The great immigration of Irish settlers in the Ozarks may have influenced herb lore as well.
Ancient Irish folklore tells of a “Second Battle of Mag Tuired,” during which herbs were created in this spectacular way:
“Miach was buried by Dian Cecht and 365 herbs grew through the grave, corresponding to the number of his joints and sinews. Then Airmed spread her cloak and uprooted those herbs according to their properties. Dian Cecht came to her and mixed the herbs so that no one knows their proper healing qualities unless the Holy Spirit taught them afterwards. And Dian Cecht said, ‘Though Miach no longer lives, Airmed shall remain.’”
The tale may not be familiar to many today but those who learned the story in childhood could well have learned the names of those 365 herbs as well. Some of this knowledge could have been passed down through the ages, even to the Ozarks.
— compiled by Stephen Meek and Joshua Heston
plate 8. Oak (Quercus sp.), StateoftheOzarks Archive, February 3, 2006.
plate 9. A statue of St. Francis in a bed of impatiens. The connection between spiritual healing and garden plants has a long European history. Photo courtesy of Jenney Head, Ozark Roots & Conjure.
plate 10. Backyard tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus). Photo courtesy of Jenney Head, Ozark Roots & Conjure.
plate 11. Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). Photo courtesy of Jim Long, Long Creek Herbs.
One of the nice things about herbs is they are available to everyone. If you know how to cultivate them, they are free and self-replenishing.
Whether someone wants herbs for medicinal reasons, spiritual aspects or simply to season food, those willing to learn can use herbs. Jim Long is hopeful about the future. “Our own national movement toward local, organic and fresh foods is reflected by the rapid rise of companies like Whole Foods, Chipotle, Nature's Valley and others insures a bright future for whole, fresh foods, including herbs.”
However, if you’re going to try your hand at herbalism, you should remember several important safeguards.
Steven Foster warns “medicinal plants are all around us and the chemical diversity in the plants provides [some] bio-compounds that are not yet discovered.” Scientists still don’t know everything about the nature of some plants. A lot of the effects may differ based on your own body composition.
TIna Wilcox has a warning too: “ I stress that herbs are not regulated in the same way as pharmaceutical medicines so self-medicating is a lot of responsibility. It is about doing the research and making sure that anything you put in your system is not gonna mess you up.”
For that reason, she furthers, “Try to have an experienced herbalist to contact.”
Whether it’s your local herbal shop or just a knowledgeable friend, you should make sure you have someone who knows what they are doing before you begin to practice with herbal remedies.
— Stephen Meek
plate 12. Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana), StateoftheOzarks Archive, February 3, 2006.
plate 13. “The world reflected in a drop of water. Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana), StateoftheOzarks Archive, February 3, 2006.