2013 Plant Talk 13 Temperate (Mostly Appalachian) Medicinal Plants


Plant Talk 13

Temperate (mostly Appalachian) Medicinal Plant Study Review

Hello plant enthusiasts!

Upcoming Events

Today i will teach a fermented beverages class at Jim Duke’s legendary Green Pharmacy Garden in Fulton, MD. Excited to reconnect with that magical and special place. Jim Duke for those unaware is one of the foremost phytochemists of the last 50 years. He worked for the USDA studying plants for close to three decades, has an incredible database online resulting from his endeavors and has written many books (Duke & Foster, 1999; Duke & Vasquez, 1994; Duke, 1986, 1992, 1997, 1998a, 1998b, 2000, 2009).

What’s Blooming

The blooms have mostly moved toward the Asteraceae side of the spectrum. Asters, Goldenrod (Solidago), Ironweed (Vernonia), Dahlias and the allergy inducing Ragweed are some examples. However, with deadhead pruning Roses, Butterfly Bush (Buddleja) and other perennial shrubs will bloom until frost. i have noticed several species of Lobelia and the insect magnet Autumn Joy blooming as well.

Recent Events

Mountain State Fair

            i recently completed some of my annual Master Gardener volunteer hours at the Mountain State Fair. The flower shows were exceptional as always. The Dahlias in particular are always breath taking! Really neat to also see the creativity in the themed arrangement categories. The biggest pumpkin was over 200 pounds with some watermelons pushing 100! Really incredible to go back in time and see canned goods, quilts, wood carvings etc all put up by the community for display and judging.

Vegetable Gardens

This is the time to grow fall veggies. Mostly Brassicaceae members including Kale, Collards, Cabbage, Broccoli, and Asian members such as Mustard Greens, Bok Choi, Pac Choi, Tat Soi etc. Greens such as Lettuce from the Asteraceae, Spinach from the Chenopodiaceae and Mache from the Valerianaceae are other good choices. Some lettuces such as Romaine are hardier than others in regard to taking the cold. It is also good time to plant Garlic!

Forage and Feasts

            i have had low attendance for several classes recently! Noticed that from last year too. Not sure how much the time of year controls it nor exactly what to do… Humbling, and inopportune…

Prominent greens included Quickweed (Galinsoga quadriradiata), Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) and Violets (Viola sp.).

            Tea plants mostly included items from the Lamiaceae such as Mints (Mentha spp.) Bee Balm (Monarda sp.), Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) and Spice Bush (Lindera benzoin) from the Lauraceae.

Lots of fruits including Persimmons (Diospyros spp.), Pears (Pyrus sp.) Apples (Malus spp.) Figs (Ficus carica) and Asian Chestnuts (Castanea  mollissima).

All things Apple

            This is a new class I brought online this year to honor probably my most favorite fruit. We have had an incredible year for apples in Southern Appalachia. I facilitated a class at the Appalachian Institute for Mountain Studies and at my alma mater Warren Wilson College. I studied organic apple production as my Senior Sustainable Agriculture Project at Warren Wilson. As part of that study we planted 50 trees of around 10 varieities. Unfortunately many of them did not make it to maturity for various reason. However, now ten years later a few varieties are rally flourishing and coupled with trees planted there by a friend and also from the found of the garden 30 years ago we now have over 20 varieties on campus in general. For the all things Apple events we pressed cider, made sauce, jelly, chutney, baked goods and had a tasting of all the different apples fresh. Amazing the variations in smell, texture, tasted and appearance. The literature on this one fruit is rather amazingly prolific as well (Browning & Silva, 1999; Thomas Burford, 1998; Tom Burford, 2013; Calhoun, 1995; Calhoun Jr., 2011; Crawford & Agroforestry Research Trust, 1994; Downing, 2009; Hanson, 2005; Idone & Kleinman, 1993; Jolicoeur, 2013; Manhart, 1995; Morgan & Richards, 2002; Phillips, 1998; Proulx & Nichols, 2003; Ragan, 2012; Rosenstein, 1996; Yepsen, 1994).

My Back

i hurt my back recently and was totally layed out for a few days! Humbling how everything can ground to a halt in a blink of an instant. Probably related to a reoccurring area damaged by so many countless hours driving a stick shift with no cruise control across the country and typing on the computer with bad posture especially. i will really redouble my efforts to limit both of these activities moving forward and also try to do more yoga. In the most acute phase of the current ailment i could bearly get out of bed without intense muscle spasms. A tincture with Valerian, Skullcap, Black Cohosh and Pedicularis was a great friend as well as a salve with Menthol, Camphor and Salycilic Acid. Ultimately the body and energy work of dear friend and Warren Wilson College athletic trainer Charlie Wright was the major component of putting me back together again in a functional way…i give thanks for each and every healthy day…

Western Medicinal Plants

What follows is a very brief treatment of prominent Western Medicinal plants and book resources. i hope to turn this into its own class at some point and certainly welcome input.

Major Plants

Alder (Alnus spp.) Betulaceae

Devil’s Club (Oplopanax horridus) Araliaceae

Desert Sage (Artemisia spp.) Asteraceae

White Sage (Salvia apiana) Lamiaceae

Yerba Santa (Eriodictyon spp.) Boraginaceae formerly (Hydrophyllaceae)

Yerba Mansa (Anemopsis californica) Saururaceae

Incense Cedar (Calocedrus decurrens)

Osha (Legusticum porteri, S. grayii and, spp.)

Bearberry (Arctostaphylos spp.)

Pasque Flower (Anemone spp.)

Pedicularis spp.

Several resources have been helpful in my study of the medicinal aspects of western plants in particular (Chapter, 2007; Couplan, 1998; Elpel, 2004; Foster & Hobbs, 2002; Gunther, 2003; J. Pojar et al., 1994; Tilford, 1997). Kathy Keville is a prolific author and one of my favorite herbalists who resides in California (Hobbs & Keville, 2007; Keville & Green, 2008; Keville, 1995, 1996, 1999, 2009).

Michael Moore ran the Southwest School of Botanical Medicine for years www.swsbm.com. Great website with tons of info. He also published several books along the way of educating many current instructors within Appalachia and other regions as well (Moore, 1989, 1993, 2003).

i have only begun to delve into the prolific Native American ethnobotanical literature as seen in some of the sources above. A suggested reading list for mostly eastern tribes is located under the resources section of the Botany Every Day website. Sources cited here may act as an addendum to that list from a western (mostly Californian) perspective (Anderson, 2006; Barrett & Gifford, 2011; Bean & Saubel, 1972; Beck & Strike, 1994; Campbell, 2000; Castetter, 1935; Chestnut, 1974; Deur & Turner, 2006; Dubin & Tolley, 2008; Hart, 1996; Heizer & Elasser, 1981; Kroeber, 1976; Lightfoot & Parrish, 2009; Margolin, 2001; Minnis, 2010; Ortiz & Parker, 1996; Snell, 2006; N. J. Turner, 2010a, 2010b, 2010c; Vizgirdas & Rey-Vizgirdas, 2009).

Medicinal Plant Use in Appalachia

What follows is mostly another revised subset of the research i pursued on Appalachian plants while in graduate school. Much of the information has credence for other areas of the temperate world as well.

Literally hundreds of hours of determined work and thousands of dollars of educational investment are represented here. i continue to just get by economically and the debt from my student loans still looms large. i will greatly appreciate any compensation for my efforts if you find this information or that of any other classes here of value.

The purpose of this class is to review the literature about medicinal plant use in Southern Appalachia, to some degree other mostly temperate areas, and set that use within a cultural context. The purpose is not to explain in any great detail what plants were used historically or are in use today. A plethora of well researched and cited references explore in depth what plants have been used, in what manner and for what ailment. However, some noteworthy plants and plant families are mentioned here.

The relative prevalence of medicinal plant use in Appalachia amongst Native Americans and settlers is a main focus. i also cross compare how medicinal plants have been employed in various different states within the region according to several ethnographic studies. The state of current affairs in regards to medicinal plant use, production and research is covered as well. A good bibliography will aid the researcher in further exploration (De Laszlo, 1958).

The practice of medicinal plant use is often collectively referred to as herbalism. Herbalism in Appalachia can be roughly broken into two groups and phases. The vestiges of historical use may still remain with a mostly older generation whilst their children have tended to forget such things. Meanwhile, many new comers to the area are feeding into a thriving desire to learn the lore of herb use. Often what is taught includes knowledge of other herbal traditions from different parts of the world i.e. (Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), European) exemplified by the approach of Michael Tierra (1988) and Frank Cook (Cook, 2009).

The history of herbal study is a fascinating and extensive one (Arber, 1970; Crellin & Philpott, 1997a). Much has been written about ancient traditions of herbalism. The names of Hippocrates, Pliny, Dioscorides, Galen, Avicenna, Maimonides, Theophrastus, Gerard, Culpepper, and many others allude to knowledge handed down over thousands of years in Europe and the Middle East (Ody, 1993; Wheelwright, 1974). Similar traditions have existed all over the world. Much more can be written about the various ways that cultural bodies of medicinal knowledge have transferred, combined, and evolved into the modern system known today. A synthesizing of knowledge is occurring that leads one to think that an amalgamated health care system may emerge at some point through globalization (Cook, 2009).

Medicinal plant study was for centuries transferred through a compilation of books. Eventually the categorizing of herbal use evolved into extensive materia medicas, herbals and ultimately pharmacopeias. In the early 1900s the USDA issued a number of bulletins listing harvesting practices and prices for plants still in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia (USP) or those that were actively collected (Henkel, 2009). New herbals were issued in the 1900s after a significant break in time (Grieve, 1971; Muenscher, 1955). Meanwhile, plants continued to take up less and less space in official pharmacopeias. The Thomsonians and Eclectics were strong advocates for botanical medicine in the mid-1800s but were eventually discredited in the early 1900s (Flannery, Museum, & Worthen, 2001; Haller, Jr., 2001; Thomson, 1841). These two groups were concentrated on the edge of Appalachia in Ohio. The use of patent medicines was a concurrent theme of the 1800s whereupon specific formulations became household names under various labels. Often these medicines contained potent and potentially addictive substances such as Opium (Papaver somniferum) (Amjad, 2005).

Many of the best botanists of the 1800s such as Rafinesque, Asa Gray and Benjamin Barton were also medical doctors. Eventually the fields of botany and medicine diverged and many traditional herbal therapies were officially discounted by allopathic medicine in the pursuit of more “modern” cures. Nonetheless, a significant degree of official medicines still depend on natural materials for their modes of action albeit in an altered or synthesized form (Krochmal & Walters, 1971; Morton, 1977; Van Wyk & Wink, 2004). Schools of pharmacology are also starting to teach more about herbalism due to its popularity with the public. The fields of Naturopathy, Ayurveda, and TCM continue to employ plant medicines extensively as part of their practice  (Foster & Chongxi, 1992; Lust, 2001; Tierra, 1988; Van Wyk & Wink, 2004). Homeopathy is another type of healing that relies largely on plant medicines as well (M. Wood, 2000). An overview of perspectives from the American Herbalist Guild gives a greater understanding of the diversity in modern herbal practices (Tierra, 1992).

Historical use of herbalism in Appalachia depended on traditional European knowledge and introduced plants combined with the knowledge of Native Americans and native plants. In the mid-1800s physician Francis Porcher (1970) compiled a treatise on medicinal herbs for the confederate South with allusion to Appalachian uses. A number of other books including those by John Gunn and R.V. Pierce were popular in Appalachia for healing a well (Amjad, 2005; Lopes, Moser, & Perkinson, 1997).

Today herbalism in Appalachia often builds off of its historical foundation along with an eclectic mix of knowledge from around the world.  Many traditional medicinal plants still grow in the region and a direct form of herbalism remains. Practitioners of herbalism have also recognized the affinity of Eurasian plants for the Appalachian region. Some have begun to explore analogous uses for Native American plants that are related to those from east Asia (Li, 2009; Shane, 2011).

Herbalist Susun Weed (Weed, 1996a, 1996b, 2002, 2003, 2011)  who lives in the mountains of New York has personally influenced many people in the area around Asheville, NC and probably other places in Appalachia as well with her “Wise Woman” herbal approach. Corinna Wood in particular has continued Susun’s tradition through her business Red Moon Herbs and their Southeast Women’s Herbal Gathering http://www.sewisewomen.com/womens_herbal_conference/ .

A large amount of accepted plant medicines from the United States have continued to be harvested in Appalachia up to modern times (Cozzo, 1999; Krochmal & Walters, 1971).


Use of herbal products in United States persists and even continues to grow. One reason for such a phenomenon, may be that natural medicines can work more safely and effectively than synthetic pharmaceuticals, while being more economical as well (Duke, 2009). However, not all herbs are totally safe and without side effects. Consumer education on such a point is an important subject as the herbal industry is largely unregulated. Medicinal plant use is not something to be taken lightly. One might assume because plant medicine is “natural” that it may be less dangerous than synthetic substitutes upon which many have come to rely. This is certainly not the case. The classic statement of toxicology is that the difference between a medicine and a poison is the dosage. One must know many variables when stepping into the realm of plant medicine. These include: what to treat, proper identification of the plant, what part to use, when to gather, how to prepare it, method of administration, dosage level, and contraindications.

Some plants written about in older sources are no longer considered safe when applied in traditional ways. Nonetheless, many plants are relatively safe to use when properly identified. Plants i normally use include: immune boosting tonics, digestive aids, superfoods, memory enhancers, and wound healers. Plants for such functions tend to come from “safe” families that bridge the gap between food and medicine i.e. the Mint  (Lamiaceae) and Aster (Asteraceae) families. Everyone should have a basic knowledge of herbalism in regards to the simple functions mentioned above. More in depth understanding and the use of a trained professional may be in order for more acute, chronic, or specialized conditions. The fields of botany, pharmacognosy, biochemistry, and others can ultimately shed light in a professional and technical way on some modes of action for medicinal plants (Blumenthal, 2000; Healthcare, 2007; Hoffmann, 2003; Morton, 1977)

 Hippocrates is said to have stated “Let food be they medicine.” A number of modern sources have ascribed to such a philosophy (Brill & Dean, 1994; Colbin, 1986; Kowalchik & Hylton, 1998; Pieroni & Price, 2006). Some books also contain copious recipes for employing food as medicine (Crocker, 1999; Muenscher, 1955). The first line of defense in maintaining health is to have proper nutrition (Balch, 2006; Haas & Levin, 2006; Pitchford, 2003).

Some herb books take a more comprehensive look at herbal plant use including dried arrangements, potpourri, aromatherapy, natural dyes, cultivation, etc (Kowalchik & Hylton, 1998; Lust, 2001; Shapiro & Harrisson, 2000). Such resources offer a reader the most value for their money and a greater holistic understanding of the role of herbs in right livelihood.

Modern Treatments of Herbal Medicine

Modern treatments of herbal medicine vary greatly. Some resources take a very scientific approach mentioning phytochemistry in the form of a materia medica (Blumenthal, 2000; Hoffmann, 2003; Morton, 1977; Van Wyk & Wink, 2004). Other sources blend together modern assays with the knowledge of traditional uses (Crellin & Philpott, 1997a; Duke & Foster, 1999). Modern Appalachian herbal authorities and/or practioners have written a number of books as well (Cavender, 2003; Howell, 2006; Krochmal & Walters, 1971; Montgillion, 1985; Rago, 2000).

Herbal medicine has become big business worth billions of dollars (Cozzo, 1999). Products such as Echinacea (Echinacea spp.), Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa), St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum), Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), Ginseng (Panax spp.) and many others are popular almost to a fault. These plants with the exception of St John’s are native to Appalachia and in threat of disappearing in the wild all together (Gladstar & Hirsch, 2000). A group called the United Plant Savers (UPS) www.unitedplantsavers.org  is currently advocating for awareness and preservation of these precious plant resources. Many other plants that are native/naturalized to Appalachia or could be grown here comprise the majority of top selling and most used medicinals (Cook, 2009). Some examples are included below

Aloe (Aloe barbadensis)

Mugwort/SweetAnnie/Wormwood/Southernwood (Artemisia spp.)

Burdock (Arctium spp.)

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

Cayenne (Capsicum frutescens)

Nettles (Urtica dioica)

Dandelion (Taraxacum officianale)

Oatstraw (Avena sativa)

Elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis)

Plantain (Plantago spp.)

Garlic (Allium sativum)

Skullcap (Scuttelaria spp.)

Gingko (Gingko biloba)

Valerian (Valeriana officianalis)

Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.)

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Mint (Mentha spp.)

Yellow Dock (Rumex spp.)

Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca)


Many products are offered over the counter in regards to the plants already mentioned. However, it is hard to tell the quality of product and the environmental/social sustainability of its harvest and manufacture. Local sourcing of such materials is the best way to know for sure the practices used. Frank Cook would talk about food feet or medicine feet rather than the more common food miles used in localism parlance today.

Several exotic plants that have long traditions of healing have been allowed to become invasives (Baldwin, 2003; Buhner, 2005; Morris, 2009; Scott, 2010). People ignorant of their utility not only pass up using these powerful medicines but they intentionally poison them. These poisons sometimes may lead to further environmental degradation. However, pesticides certainly have a role due to the scale and tenacity of certain infestations. Some examples of “choice” invasive medicinal plants include Kudzu (Pueraria lobata), Barberry (Berberis spp.), Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica) and Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica). Other lesser known medicinal plants may become invasive locally such as Jaiogulan (Gynostemma sp.) and Chocolate Vine (Akebia quinata). Let’s make lemonade from lemons shall we?

Appalachia remains a hot bed of herbalism for a new generation of people who are mostly from outside the region. A concentration of herbal schools are centered around Asheville, NC (Blankespoor, 2011; Eidus, 2011; Foley, 2011; Shane, 2011; C. Wood, 2011). A couple other notable school locations occur in the southern and northern Appalachian extremes of Georgia, Alabama and New York (Howell, 2011; Light, 2011; Song, 2011). A more extensive description of these schools and others can be found under the resources section of the Botany Everyday site. http://www.botanyeveryday.com/resources.html?expand=Useful%20Websites#Herbal/Botanical%20Schools .

Many organizations around Asheville also pursue research into herbalism. Some of the significant work on growing herbs as alternative crops is conducted at Fletcher, NC by Dr. Jeanine Davis (2011) through the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service. Phytochemical research in herbal medicine is also currently being followed at the Bent Creek Institute in Asheville, NC. This is the nation’s only specific repository for medicinal plant germplasm (Scullytown, 2011). Instructors at Asheville Buncombe Community College conduct classes in herbalism. Services in phytochemical analysis of medicinal plants are also offered at the same school (Schober, 2011).


            Adaptogens are a class of herbal remedies that deserve more attention. Most of these plants and fungi are from Asia. However, almost every region of the world has at least one. These entities span across a multitude of families unlike some patterns of medicinal plant uses. Adaptogens help the body maintain homeostasis. They tend to be immune boosting, cancer fighting and nourishing to the adrenals while helping the body cope with stress. A definitive text will help to flesh out the incredible properties of this group of plants and mushrooms (Winston & Maimes, 2007).

The most famous adaptogens of all are probably the Ginseng complex (Panax spp. and Eleutherococcus senticosus). Ginseng has fascinated people and been the source of a wildcrafting industry in Appalachia for over 200 years. This practice is avidly pursued to the modern day (Carlson, 1986; Harding, 1972; Kelly, 1977; D. A. Taylor, 2006). Definitive guides to growing and marketing Ginseng and other medicinals may aid further study (J. M Davis, 1997; Persons & Davis, 2005). References for this one group of plants number in the hundreds if not thousands. They have millennia of historical use in China and probably Appalachia as well. Ginseng is becoming scarce in the wild and intentional cultivation is becoming necessary to keep up supply.

Many adaptogens might be easily cultivated to offset the pressure being put on Ginseng. Holy Basils (Ocimum sanctum, O. gratissimum) are adaptogens that are particularly easy to grow and will even self-sow after the first year. Other potential adaptogenic crops for Appalachia and other places include Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera), Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra & G. uralensis), Schisandra (Shisandra chinensis), Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus), Codonopsis (Codonopsis pinosula), and He Shou Wu (Polygonum multiflorum) (Winston & Maimes, 2007). A couple plants might even be considered potential weedy exotic invasives including Jaiogulan (Gynostemma pentaphyllum) mentioned earlier and other Asian plants such as and Goji berries (Lycium chinensis, L. barbarum). Several people in the Asheville NC area offer many of these plants for sale including Mountain Gardens, Eagle Feather Farm and Useful Plants Nursery (Blankespoor, 2011; Eidus, 2011; Hollis, 2011; Marsh, 2011) .

The use of American and Asian Ginseng somewhat analogously is well known. However, they do have different specific uses and strengths in many traditional systems. Several other plants that are native and naturalized in Appalachia and North America are related to Asian adaptogens and might be used similarly with further study. These include Knotweed (Polygonum spp.), Schisandra (Schisandra spp.), Astragalus (Astragalus spp.) and Licorice (Glycyrrhiza spp.).

Appalachian Medicinal Plant Ethnographic Studies

Appalachia is blessed with a plethora of ethnographic studies of herbal use from almost every area of the region. One reason may be that many of the best herbal plants in the country happen to grow in Appalachia. Use of herbal medicines in a traditional way also persisted in the area long after they had died out in more urban places. The economy of herbal use and independence that such use provided are often mentioned as motives for such a phenomenon. Herbal practitioners have been shown to be very egalitarian and were willing to offer their services for free if necessary. Luckily, several famous herbalists were profiled shortly before their passing away. Others continue to carry on the traditions of such elders. The area is now ripe for a more modern study of herbal plant use.

Tommie Bass was an herbalist in the Alabama portion of southern Appalachia who lived from 1908-1996. His story has been documented in more depth than most if not all such practitioners. For Bass, herbalism was a continually evolving practice. The plants that he employed were the product of a synthesis between oral tradition, information learned in books and intuition. Researchers J. Crellin and Jane Philpott (1997a, 1997b) documented through Bass how plants may be adapted from local flora when particular species mentioned in the literature are not abundant. Phyllis Light studied with Tommie Bass and continues to practice herbalism at the Southern extreme of Appalachian in Arab, GA (Light, 2011). Observations about Tommie were also made into a book by another one of his students and friends (Patton, 2004).

Anthropologist David Cozzo (1999) included monographs of 47 plants that were harvested for the medicinal trade in three counties of western North Carolina. He interviewed eight “root diggers” about their practices as well as completed a thorough literature review of several sources mentioned in the current class. Cozzo found that root digging was an economically marginal activity and that most diggers did not personally use the products that they harvested.

Researcher Judith Bolyard (1981) analyzed 90 medicinal plants in use by members of 9 counties in eastern Kentucky. She then cross compared those uses with Rabun, GA, the low country of SC, Native Americans, and historical and “modern” sources from the literature of pharmacopeias, formularies and herbals. Bolyard relied on taped interviews already archived and one’s that she conducted herself that are all located at Alice Lloyd College in Kentucky. This work remains as one of the best sources of cross comparison of Appalachian medicinal plant use. However, she listed three sources for Native American plant use in the references conflating the distinct tribes of the Chippewa, Delaware and Cherokee together.  The only source directly cited is by Hamel and Chilotsky (1975). The comparisons to Georgia come from the Foxfire project (Wigginton, 1972). Comparison to South Carolina come from ethnobotanist Julia Morton (1974). Ultimately, Bolyard found little correlation between the different cultures in regards to particular remedies but found some fidelity of cures to the literature from the 1800s. Researchers from the Foxfire project subsequently continued to catalog medicinal plant use in Appalachia (Fund, 1986).

The story of Kern Kiser is one of the most multicultural that i have found (Kiser, Bledsoe, Askins, & Malone, 1975). Kern was from Wise county VA, but was a descendent of settlers from Kentucky as well as Native American healers. He went to college for botany in Raleigh, NC. He apparently learned more herbalism there from a Native American that had moved to the area from South Dakota. Most of the plants and stated uses covered are common in the Appalachian region. Alas, this reference is only 53 small pages long and mostly handwritten. Books mentioned in the suggested reading section are all popular texts and therefore might explain the uniformity of plant use advocated by Kiser (Harding, 1972; Medsger, 1972).

Physician Hassan Amjad has made several significant contributions to the literature of Appalachian herbalism. His research pertains to West Virginia in particular. He profiled Clarence Frederick Gray known as Mr. Catfish, “Man of the Woods” (Amjad, 2006). Catfish was born in 1917 and apparently learned herbalism from his grandfather. The family knowledge came largely from what Catfish’s great-great grandfather learned from the Cherokee. He was somewhat of a celebrity and had received correspondences asking for help in the tens of thousands. Amjad found that the major problems of many people included obesity, arthritis, sex life, cancer, high blood pressure, heart problems, warts, PMS and hot flashes through an analysis of many letters and conversing with Catfish.  Amjad listed 56 plants as part of Catfish’s herbal apothecary. Catfish had an aversion for members of the Solanaceae family including Eggplant, Tomatoes and Potatoes. Such a belief stretches back to European views of the 16th and 17th centuries. Catfish incorporated Astrology and the Doctrine of signatures into his practice which were also a feature of older European healing modalitites.

An extensive study of over 60 people concerning herbal medicine around Chattanooga offers other insights into plant use in the Appalachian region (Evans, Kileff, & Shelley, 1982). The majority of people in this case were females. Granny women are mentioned throughout the literature as herbalists attending to birth matters as well as other types of herbal treatment. However, many ethnographic studies have focused on male healers. Therefore this study offers potentially lesser seen insights.

 Many references showed a faith that spirit had put plants in place to heal almost all illness with whites and Native American alike (Banks & Great Smoky Mountains Natural History Association, 2004; Price, 1960). The role of faith healing in combination with plants has been studied extensively as well (Buhner, 2006; Cavender, 2003; Kirkland, 1992). Several other resources can only be mentioned at the present time. A small book published by Warren Wilson College covers a number of herbal remedies, herbalists from the region and herb dealers (Lopes et al., 1997). Two very in depth analysis of folk medicine in Appalachia with much in regards to herbalism have also been published (Amjad, 2005; Cavender, 2003). Dr. Amjad is one of the few people to cover the role of African Americans in the Appalachian herbal tradition. However a more comprehensive source of information on Blacks in Appalachia has been compiled (Turner & Cabbell, 1985).

Studies of Appalachian Native American Medicinal Plant Use

Several accounts from the 18th to mid 19th century testify to the ability of Native Americans in using wild plants for medicine (Carver, 1956; Smith, 1812). James Mooney’s anthropological work in the late 1800’s has long been considered one of the primary sources on information of Cherokee plant use (Mooney, 1992). His work reflects the concurrence of ritual and ceremony with the employment of plants for healing. Mooney’s work was continued by the Belgian anthropologist Frans Olbrecht after his death (Mooney, 1932).

The Native American type of healing system was later discounted by people looking for phytochemicals with pharmacological effects only. A reference that compares plant use by other southern tribes such as the Chocktaw, Natchez, Koasati, Chickasaw and Creeks with “modern” medical beliefs reflects such a shift (L. A. P. Taylor, 1978). The use of plants by these various tribes even in close proximity was shown to have little overlap. This phenomenon points to localized evolutions of plant applications.

Several studies in the mid1900s continued the exploration of Cherokee plant use. William Banks (1953) used a number of informants from the Eastern Band to write his thesis covering Cherokee plant use. He also built on the work of Mooney and Olbrecht. His research substantiated the idea that many plants were used differently by members of the tribe. Hundreds of plants were catalogued in the process and many of them have ascribed medicinal uses.

A conflation of Native American herb uses has sometimes occurred in modern times. This further masked the individuality of a particular ecological setting or even tribal level of awareness (Hutchens, 1992). Cross comparisons with the folk and scientific knowledge of plant use from disparate cultures from around the globe evolved concurrently with the loss of representational details around Native American use.

The Cherokee had adopted many introduced plants into their materia medica by the time of Mooney in the late 1800s (Mooney, 1992). Whether the use of these plants was learned from whites or independently is often unknown. The late recording of Native American knowledge in regards to medicinal plants probably masks what was known and employed by them prior to colonization (Crellin & Philpott, 1997b). The uses of plants by Native Americans have often been described by outsiders and not by members of the tribe themselves (Crow, 2001). Herbalist, David Winston (2011) is a part Cherokee who was trained by his uncle in Cherokee medicinal ways. He has written several books and articles on Cherokee medicine while blending the modalities of other traditions together as well. Cherokee can be heard in their own words describing medicinal practices through listening to interviews (French & Hornbuckle, 1981).

Many researchers have added to the picture of medicinal plant use by the Southeastern Native Americans. David Cozzo (2004) synthesized the data of various Cherokee ethnographers in order to get a holistic sense of their medicinal plant use and ethnobotanical classification systems. Rebecca Westbrooks entered plants with medicinal uses known by the Cherokee into a database coming up with 472 species in total (Westbrooks, 1989). J.T Garrett (2003) has written about over 450 medicinal plants of the Cherokee and framed them within the concept of the four directions and other spiritual beliefs. Daniel Moerman has amalgamated the work of Cherokee researchers and framed it within the context of plants used by over 100 tribes from North America (Moerman, 1998). John Swanton (1979) compiled information about various southeastern tribes including information about medicinal practices.


The most important plant families in numbers of species used for medicine from examining the literature cited above are the Sunflower (Asteraceae), Mint (Lamiaceae) and Carrot (Apiaceae). Stronger and more dangerous medicines are found in the Tomato (Solanaceae), Buttercup (Ranunculaceae), Foxglove (Scrophulariaceae) and Barberry (Berberidaceae) families. Certain especially useful medicines belong to smaller families such as Ginseng (Araliaceae).

            A theme of food as medicine repeatedly came up throughout the literature. The use of plants for healing teas and detoxification by eating greens is commonly mentioned. Many spices are stated to act medicinally as well. However, good diet, exercise, hydration and rest all combine with herbal supplementation to keep illness at bay.

            Original white settlers of Appalachia brought many of their European plants and healing traditions with them. However, they also picked up significant knowledge at times from the Native Americans.  Herbalism is very popular in general in the U.S. today. However, in Appalachia many people persist with the growing, harvesting and learning about herbalism in a more direct way than probably exists in almost any other area within the eastern part of the country.

Further Research on Medicinal Herbs of Appalachia

A comparison of all the plants mentioned in the cited ethnographies with their stated uses would be insightful. Compilations of the common names mentioned in these references and other might help future researchers decipher primary research material. Also an analysis of the roles that African Americans have played in the development of Appalachian herbalism will add to a more complete picture.

Who are the herbalists of Appalachia in the here and now? Who did they learn from? How were those teachers taught? Phyllis Light lives on one of the last southern mountains in Arab, Alabama. She represents the melding of white, black, Native American and other traditions that make up the cultural soup of Appalachian folk medicine. 7 Song teaches in the northern extreme of Appalachia in Ithaca, New York. He has had a profound influence on the herbal knowledge and pedagogy of the Asheville region in the heart of Appalachia. Some of his students such as Corey Pine Shane, Juliet Blankespoor and Frank Cook have gone on to inspire literally thousands of other people in the ways of herbal medicine and plant knowledge in general. Researchers such as Jeanine Davis, Sunshine Brosi, Hasan Amjad, Mimi Hernandez and Joanne McCoy, continue to publish literature for the formal botanical community about the wonderful potential of the Appalachian flora as well as our need to preserve and protect it. People working at Mountain State University in West Virginia, Frostburg State University and Tai Sophia Institute in Maryland educate the public at the collegiate level. The network that all these people maintain and continue to grow would make for a fascinating study.

For the next class we will cover plants for Phytoremdiation and it will be posted around 10/5

Below are items to think about/comment on. Please write me directly at marc@botanyeveryday.com or leave information in the commentary at the Facebook group. The comment boxes on the site here are currently in operational


-          Ethically wildcraft a familiar medicinal plant or get familiar enough to wildcraft a

           plant for some medicine making this fall

-          Make a list of the medicinal plants you use most regularly in your life.

-          What are the most important medicinal plants from this list for you?

-          Attend a workshop or a class and write up a brief description of plants or

           information learned.

-          Post any clear photos of question plants to Facebook or send in an email.

Praises to all that have donated to the cause. i encourage everyone reading this to donate as they are able financially, commentarialy, or energetically... Your contributions greatly help me continue this crucial work of ethnobotanical research and education. Please let me know your thoughts in general and any way i can help this class serve you best.

Thanks, marc

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