2023 Plant Talk 9
Temperate Medicinal Plant Study Review through a mostly Appalachian Lens
Hello plant enthusiasts! Greetings from Western North Carolina…
What follows is a botanically based phenological report from the area around Asheville, NC.
Amaranth (Amaranthus spp.), Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), Avens (Geum spp.), Balloon Flower (Platycodon grandiflorus), Cardoon (Cynara cardunculus), Batchelor’s Buttons (Centaurea cynaus), Bear’s Breeches (Acanthus mollis), Bee Balms (Monarda spp.), Bee Blossom (Gaura lindheimeri), Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa), Black Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia spp.), Blazing Star (Liatris spp.), Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), Buckwheat (Fagopyron sp.), Burdock (Arctium spp.), Butterfly Bush (Buddleja sp.), Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), Calla Lily (Zantedeschia aethiopica), Canna Lily (Canna spp.), Carolina Milkvine (Matelea carolinensis), Catnip (Nepeta cataria), Chameleon Plant (Houttuynia cordata), Chaste Tree (Vitex spp.), Coreopsis spp., Dahlia spp., Chickory (Cichorium intybus), Corn (Zea mays), Crown Vetch (Securigera varia), Culver’s Root (Veronicastrum sp.), Dayflower (Commelina spp.), Daylily (Hemerocallis fulva), Elecampane (Inula helenium), Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea spp.), Evening Primrose (Oenothera spp.), Fameflower (Phemeranthus sp.), Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium), Fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolium), Gladiolus spp., Golden Raintree (Koelreuteria paniculata), Hollyhock (Alcea rosea), Horse Nettle (Solanum carolinense), Hosta spp., Hydrangea spp., Lavender (Lavandula spp.), Loosestrifes (Lysimachia spp.), Love in a Mist (Nigella damascena), Lucifer’s Tongue (Crocosmia x crosmiiflora), Madder (Rubia tinctoria), Magnolia grandiflora, Marigold (Tagetes spp.), Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis), Motherwort (Leonurus spp.), Mullein (Verbascum spp.), Nasturtiums (Tropaeolum spp.), Oregano (Origanum spp.), Passionflower (Passiflora spp.), Persian Silk Tree (Albizia julibrissin), Phlox spp., Pineapple Lily (Eucomis comosa), Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), Pukeweed (Lobelia inflata), Raspberries (Rubus spp.), Roses (Rosa spp.), Rose Campion (Lychnis coronaria), Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus), Sages (Salvia spp.), Self Heal (Prunella vulgaris), Sochane (Rudbeckia laciniata), Spiderflower (Cleome sp.), Sticky Tofieldia (Tofieldia glutinosa), Stoke’s Aster (Stokesia laevis), St John’s Worts (Hypericum spp.), Sumacs (Rhus spp.), Sunflowers (Helianthus spp.), Tulsi (Ocimum spp.), Trumpet Creeper (Campsis radicans), Vervains (Verbena spp.), Water Hemlock (Cicuta maculata), Wild Carrot (Daucus carota), Wild Quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens), Woundwort (Stachys spp.) and Yarrow (Achillea spp.).
Is there anything blooming around you that you would like to add?
Ready for Harvest
Garden vegetables: Cucurbitaceae including Cucumbers (Cucumis sativus), Squash (Cucurbita spp.), Solanaceae including Peppers (Capsicum spp.), Potatoes (Solanum tuberosum), Tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicon). Self-seeded Holy Basil and Dill thinning has made for some tasty flavorings.
Wild edible greens include in particular so much Lambsquarters (Chenopodium spp.), Pigweed (Amaranthus spp.) and Quickweed (Galinsoga spp.) are all very prolific at this time of year.
Some prime mushrooms include Black Trumpets (Craterellus cornucopioides), Boletes (Boletus spp.), Chanterelles (Cantharellus spp.), Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus spp.) and some of the Milk Mushrooms (Lactarius spp. sensu lato).
Here's a link to a photo album featuring many of the taxa mentioned above and below.
Western Medicinal Plants
What follows is a very brief treatment of prominent western North American medicinal plants and book resources. i hope to turn this into its own class at some point and certainly welcome input.
Some Major Plants
Alder (Alnus spp.) Betulaceae
Bearberry/Manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp.)
Devil’s Club (Oplopanax horridus) Araliaceae
Desert Sage (Artemisia spp.) Asteraceae
Elderberry (Sambucus cerulea)
Incense Cedar (Calocedrus decurrens)
Pasque Flower (Anemone spp.) LOW DOSE!
Louseworts (Pedicularis spp.) Many species some more rare than others!
Yerba Santa (Eriodictyon spp.) Boraginaceae formerly (Hydrophyllaceae)
Yerba Mansa (Anemopsis californica) Saururaceae
Several resources have been helpful in my study of the medicinal aspects of western plants of the USA in particular (B. G. Baldwin et al., 2012; Carter, 2009; Chapter, 2007; Curtin, 2003; Foster & Hobbs, 2002; Garcia & Adams, 2012; Hickman, 1993; Kirk, 1975; Kozloff, 2005; Minnis, 2010; Petrides, 1998; Tilford, 1997; Vizgirdas & Rey-Vizgirdas, 2005; Wetherwax, 2002).
Kathy Keville is a prolific author and one of my favorite herbalists who resides in California (Hobbs & Keville, 2007; Keville, 1995, 1996, 1999, 2009; Keville & Green, 2008).
Michael Moore ran the Southwest School of Botanical Medicine for years www.swsbm.com. This is a great website linked above with tons of information including whole old school publications. He also published several books along the way of educating many current instructors within Appalachia and other regions as well (Moore, 1989, 1990, 1993, 2003).
i have only begun to delve into the prolific Indigenous North 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 (K. Anderson & Blackburn, 1993; M. K. Anderson, 2006; Barrett & Gifford, 2011; Bean, 1974; Bean & Saubel, 1972; Beck & Strike, 1994; P. Campbell, 2000; Castetter, 1935; Chestnut, 1974; Dean et al., 2005; Deur & Turner, 2006; Dubin & Tolley, 2008; Frank, 1991; Funk & Kaufman, 2011; Heizer & Elasser, 1980; Jacknis, 2006; Lightfoot & Parrish, 2009; Margolin, 2001; Minnis, 2010; Ortiz & Parker, 1996; Thompson, 1976; Timbrook, 2007; Welch, 2013).
Dr. Nancy Turner is an incredibly renowned researcher of First Nations ethnobiology in the Pacific Northwest as can be seen cited here (Deur & Turner, 2006; Joseph et al., 2012; J. S. Turner, 1970; N. Turner, 1996; N. Turner & Hebda, 2012; N. J. Turner, 1973, 1983, 2010a, 2010b, 2010c, 2014; N. J. Turner et al., 1982, 2004, 2011, 2013; N. J. Turner & Aderkas, 2009; N. J. Turner & Kuhnlein, 1991).
Dr. Kelly Kindscher (2016; 2017, 2019) has done a lot of research on medicinal plants of the Midwest and Rockies e.g. Echinacea spp. and Osha (Ligusticum porteri) in particular.
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 many hundreds of hours of determined work and thousands of dollars of educational and travel investment are represented here. i continue to just get by economically and 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 Indigenous groups and colonizers 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 any prospective researcher in further exploration of older resources (De Laszlo, 1958). A suggested reading list on medicinal plants can serve this function as well in regards to more recent publications and is under the resources section of this website.
The practices of medicinal plant use are 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) and European along with the local lore of Indigenous and settlers from around the world) This is exemplified by the approach of Frank Cook (2009) who is the founder of this course and still to this day one of my greatest influences.
Humbling to think of the route to acquisition of herbal knowledge and the thousands of years of effort it took to accumulate among untold millions of ancient people for millennia around the world. We are clearly, thankfully, entering a different age of diversity, equity and inclusion of a much broader perspective both on the knowledge of all but also how that vital intellectual property is learned and shared. At the same time the sharing of media is easier than anything people only a few generations ago could imagine. This is one reason i strive as much as possible to pay credit where do to as much of what has informed my thinking as possible through citations and meditations as well.
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 as mentioned above have existed all over the world. Much more can be written about the various ways that cultural bodies of medicinal knowledge have been 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 first the oral tradition and then 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 & Conrad, 1978). 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 undermined in the early 1900s (Flannery et al., 2001; Haller, Jr., 2001; Thomson, 1841). These two groups were concentrated on the edge of Appalachia in Ohio. The Lloyd library stands as an archive and testament to this era and offers an extensive list of publications (Hartwell, 1984; C. G. J. U. ; Lloyd, 1930; J. U. Lloyd, 1911). 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 Poppy (Papaver somniferum) (Orr, 2014; Wood, 1997, 2000).
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, 2017).
Schools of pharmacology are also starting to teach more about herbalism due to its popularity with the public (Bone & Mills, 2013; Etkin, 2008; Heinrich et al., 2018; Heinrich & Jäger, 2015; Mowrey, 1986; Wichtl, 2004).
The fields of Naturopathy, Ayurveda, and TCM have continued to employ plant medicines extensively as part of their practices (Bensky et al., 2004; Duke & Ayensu, 1984; Foster & Chongxi, 1992; Holmes, 2007, 2007; Li, 2006, 2009; Lust, 2001; Pitchford, 2003; L. Tierra, 1992; M. Tierra, 1988, 1998). Homeopathy is another type of healing that relies largely on plant medicines as well (Fry, 2017; Wood, 2000).
An overview of perspectives can give a greater understanding of the diversity in more recent and traditional herbal practices worldwide (Bellamy & Pfister, 1992; Foster, 1986, 1993; Grossinger & Levine, 2003; Grossinger & Upledger, 2001; Montgillion, 1985; Morton, 1977; Sumner, 2008; M. Tierra, 1992).
Historical use of herbalism in Appalachia depended on traditional European knowledge and introduced plants combined with the knowledge of indigenous groups such as the Catawba, Cheraw, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Iroquois, Koasati, Mingo, Saponi, Shawnee, Susquehanna, Tutelo, Yuchi and their native plants (Hutchens, 1991; Moerman, 1998, 2009, 2003).
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 et al., 1997).
Also important is the contribution of African American people to Appalachian medicine and beyond which is lightly documented especially in the mountains proper (Amjad, 2005; Leopold, 2011; Light, 2018; Pollitt, 2016; W. H. Turner & Cabbell, 1985, 1985). The interface between African Americans and indigenous groups is of particular interest and fertile ground for research on knowledge transfer (Miles, 2015; Minges, 2004; Walton-Raji, 2007). This paragraph represents basically my dream doctoral dissertation at this point and whether i get the degree or not a lot of the rest of my life is dedicated to this pursuit and the traditions of the African diaspora throughout other parts of the Americas as well…
More widely a plethora of publications have been created related to ethnobotany/herbalism and various communities of African descent (Boyd & Shimp, 2014; Carney & Rosomoff, 2011; Covey, 2007; Fett, 2002; Fontenot, 1994; Fraser, 1998; Grime, 1976; Lee & Allen-Taylor, 2014; McQuillar, 2014; Mitchell, 2011; Morton, 1974; Payne-Jackson & Lee, 1993; Schiebinger, 2017; Voeks & Rashford, 2012; Yronwode, 2002). i hope to make a whole class about the Ethnobotany of the African Diaspora in the coming year.
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 and is even increasing in practice to some degree. 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 (Couplan, 1998; Li, 2009; Scott, 2010; C. P. Shane, 2011).
Herbalist Susun 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 Southeast Women’s Herbal Conference. Red Moon Herbs is a company located near Asheville, NC that works in the Wise Woman tradition as well. Unfortunately, Susun, has been accused for decades with what seems like good cause of being abusive to her students. Please be forewarned previous to any direct interactions. Here is one article published by Vice but a whole lot more can be found with a cursory internet search.
A large amount of accepted plant medicines from the United States have continued to be harvested in Appalachia up to modern times (Amjad, 2005; Beyer, 2018; Cavender, 2003; Church, 2013; Cozzo, 1999; Howell, 2006; Krochmal & Walters, 1971; Lopes et al., 1997; Manget, 2022; Savers & Action, 2019).
Some organizations working with the sustainable harvesting and propagation of Appalachian plant medicines that are great models for other regions include the Appalachian Beginning Forest Farmers Coalition and Rural Action. Yale University has also stepped up recently to pursue research in Forest farming as well as Warren Wilson College through its Center for Working Lands and Conservation Exchange.
Use of herbal products in the 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 (Dauncey & Larsson, 2018; Fenwick, 1989; Lannuzel et al., 2002; Potts et al., 2012; Pour et al., 2011; Pour & Sasidharan, 2011; Wagstaff, 2008).
The classic statement of toxicology attributed to Paracelcus among others 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: proper identification of the plant, what part to use, what to treat, when to gather, how to prepare it, method of administration, dosage level, and contraindications to name a few. The journal Herbal Gram of the American Botanical Council, the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) and the American Herbalists Guild, are a few good sources for best practices (Applequist, n.d.; Gardner & McGuffin, 2013; Zimmermann et al., 2023).
Some plants written about in older sources are often no longer considered safe when applied in traditional ways i.e. Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) due to its pyrrolizidine alkaloids (Culvenor, Clarke, et al., 1980; Culvenor, Edgar, et al., 1980; Hills, 1976; Oberlies et al., 2004; Tyler, 1993). Nonetheless, many plants are relatively safe to use when properly identified and i covered potential toxicity much more in depth in the previous class on Poisonous plants.
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 Aster (Asteraceae), Mallow (Malvaceae) and Mint (Lamiaceae) families. Would love to see everyone 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; Bruneton & Hatton, 2008; Healthcare, 2007; Heinrich et al., 2018; Hoffmann, 2003; Malviya, 2015; Morton, 1977; Samuelsson & Bohlin, 2017)
The Greek philosopher and healer Hippocrates is said to have stated “Let food be thy 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; Duke, 2009; Gates & Schatz, 2006; Kushi & Jack, 1985; Muenscher & Conrad, 1978; Pieroni & Price, 2006).
The first line of defense in maintaining health is to have proper nutrition (Balch, 2006; Chrzan & Brett, 2017; Fallon, 1999; 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, 2017). Other sources blend together modern assays with the knowledge of traditional uses (Crellin & Philpott, 1997a; Duke & Foster, 2014). Contemporary Appalachian herbal authorities and/or practioners have written a number of books as well (Beyer, 2022, 2023; Blankespoor, 2022; Cavender, 2003; Foxwood & Auryn, 2021; Howell, 2006; Krochmal & Walters, 1971; Light, 2018; Lily, 2023; Montgillion, 1985; Rago, 2000; Richards, 2021; Richards & RavenWolf, 2022; C. Shane, 2021).
The publisher Springer in particular has quite a few modern publications about medicinal plants of the world (Agrawal et al., 2017; Albuquerque et al., 2018; Lim, 2012, 2013, 2014; Máthé, 2016; Neffati et al., 2017; Roth & Lindorf, 2002; Stepp, 2018; Yaniv & Dudai, 2016).
Ivan Ross is another researcher with a multi-volume approach to the medicinal plants of the world (Ross, 2001, 2003, 2010). The World Health Organization (WHO) is also a source for monographs on medicinal plants.
Herbal medicine is big business worth billions of dollars. 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 that particular sp. of St John’s are native to Appalachia and in threat of disappearing in the wild all together (Gladstar & Hirsch, 2000). Though the typical St John’s Wort in use (Hypericum perforatum) is not native an analogue that may be used when abundant (Hypericum punctatum) is native. The United Plant Savers (UPS) 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 vera)
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 (Scutellaria spp.)
Gingko (Ginkgo 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 what practices were 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 (J. Baldwin, 2003; Buhner, 2005; Morris, 2009; Scott, 2010). People often 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, in my estimation judicious use of pesticides certainly may have a role due to the scale and tenacity of certain infestations. Some examples of “choice” invasive medicinal plants include Kudzu (Pueraria montana), Barberry (Berberis spp.), Japanese Knotweed (Reynoutria japonica) and Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica). Kudzu in particular is one plant with a lot of historical use for various purposes and quite a bit of research to back up some of those applications (Benlhabib et al., 2004; Hoots & Baldwin, 1996, 1996; Keung, 2002; Keung & Vallee, 1998; Lukas et al., 2005; Penetar et al., 2015; Shebek & Rindone, 2000; Shurtleff & Aoyagi, 1985; Wang et al., 2020).
Other lesser known medicinal plants may become invasive locally such as Jaiogulan/Sweet Tea Vine (Gynostemma pentaphyllum) and Chocolate Vine (Akebia quinata) (Cui et al., 1999; Razmovski-Naumovski et al., 2005). Let’s make lemonade from lemons shall we?
Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) are often considered as exotic invasive. New research however shows that some strains are native along with previously known native and even endemic species like Taraxacum californicum. That said they are incredible medicinals either way with quite a bit of anti-cancer research to back that up and lots of other cool applications medicinally and otherwise (Chatterjee et al., 2011; Gail, 1994; Łuczaj, 2012; Łuczaj et al., 2014; Ovadje, 2014; Ovadje et al., 2011, 2012, 2016; Sun et al., 2019; Tungmunnithum et al., 2020).
Southern 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 (Artemisia & Beyer, n.d.; Boardwine, 2019; Eidus, 2011; Foley, 2011; Hollis, 2019; Maier, n.d.; C. P. Shane, 2011). Juliet Blankespoor of the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine now only offers online classes primarily. Notable school locations occur in the southern and northern Appalachian extremes of Georgia, Alabama and New York as well (Howell, 2011; Light, 2011; Song, 2011). Newer schools include One Willow Apothecaries, Terra Sylva School of Botanical Medicine and not far away in Deep Gap, NC the Eclectic School of Herbal Medicine. A more extensive description of these schools and others can be found under the resources section of the Botany Everyday site. Northern Appalachia has a good concentration of resources as well especially in VT including Sage Mountain and the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism. Deb Soule is in Maine as well.
Many organizations around Asheville also pursue research into herbalism. Some of the significant work on growing herbs as alternative crops is conducted in Fletcher, NC by Dr. Jeanine Davis and her crew (Davis, 1997, 2011; Persons & Davis, 2014) through the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service. Specific research in Hops and CBD etc are recent initiatives in the pursuit of knowledge about medicinal plants.
Phytochemical research in herbal medicine was historically carried out at the Bent Creek Institute in Asheville, NC (Scullytown, 2011). Instructors at Asheville Buncombe Community College also 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. Many of these plants and fungi are from Asia. However, almost every region of the world has at least one. These entities span across a wide array 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. Definitive texts will help to flesh out the incredible properties of this group of plants and mushrooms follow (Ayales, 2019; Beshara et al., 2019; C. Campbell, 2016; Grainger, 2018; Noveille, 2016, 2018; Rozelle, 2020; Winston & Maimes, 2019; Yance, 2013).
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 centuries. This practice has been avidly pursued into the modern day (Beyfuss, 1999; Burkhart et al., 2012; Carlson, 1986; Hankins, 2009; Harding, 1972; Johannsen, 2006; Kelly, 1977; Manget, 2012, 2022; McGraw et al., 2010; Ormsby & Leopold, 2018; D. A. Taylor, 2006; Van der Voort & McGraw, 2006; Woods, 2014).
Definitive guides to growing and marketing Ginseng and other medicinals may aid further study (Davis, 1997; Musick, n.d.; Persons & Davis, 2014; Vaughan et al., 2009). References for this one group of plants number in the hundreds if not thousands (Court, 2000; D. A. Taylor, 2006). 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 a sustainable supply.
Many adaptogens might be easily cultivated to offset the pressure being put on Ginseng. Holy Basils (Ocimum gratissimum and O. tenuiflorum) are adaptogens that are particularly easy to grow and will sometimes 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 (Schisandra chinensis), Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus), Codonopsis (Codonopsis pilosula), and He Shou Wu (Polygonum multiflorum). 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 chinense, L. barbarum). Several people in the Asheville NC area offer many of these plants for sale including Mountain Gardens, Eagle Feather Farm, Herb and Roots Nursery and Useful Plants Nursery (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 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 glabra), Astragalus (Astragalus spp.) and Licorice (Glycyrrhiza lepidota).
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 most popular herbal plants in the country happen to grow in Appalachia. Use of herbal medicines in a traditional way has also persisted in the area long after such practices have mostly died out in more urban and developed 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 historically 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 including the influence of an African American herbalist in particular. Researchers J. Crellin and Jane Philpott (Crellin & 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). Light also put out a her own book (Light, 2018). 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. He went on to do his doctoral dissertation on the medicinal plant traditions of the Cherokee (Cozzo, 2004). i came across another article about root digging in a copy of Geographical Review (Price, 1960).
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, indigenous groups of the Americas, 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 (F. Fund, 2020; I. F. Fund, 2016; Inc. F. Fund, 1986).
The story of Kern Kiser is rather multicultural as well (Kiser et al., 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 but is also a belief held in some parts of Asia as well. Catfish incorporated Astrology and the Doctrine of signatures into his practice which were also a feature of older European healing modalities and those of many Indigenous groups around the world (Bennett, 2007; Graves, 2012). i have personally witnessed the use of the Doctrine of Signatures in various other cultures as well i.e. Costa Rica and Jamaica.
An extensive study of over 60 people concerning herbal medicine around Chattanooga offers other insights into plant use in the Appalachian region (Evans et al., 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, 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 as mentioned above (W. H. Turner & Cabbell, 1985). I also have done a number of blogs for the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine about the role of African Americans in herbalism more generally.
What studies can you find from your area about medicinal plant use? From what historical traditions are these derived? What is the name of the indigenous group of where you live? Do you know what their most special plants are? Dan Moerman’s Native American Ethnobotany database may help facilitate your search.
Studies of Appalachian Indigenous Medicinal Plant Use
Several accounts from the 18th to mid 19th century testify to the ability of the North American indigenous tribes to use wild plants for medicine (Carver, 1956; Robson & Elias, 1978; Smith, 1812). James Mooney’s anthropological work in the late 1800s has long been considered one of the primary sources of information for Cherokee plant use (Mooney, 1992). His writing 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 indigenous North American type of healing system was later discounted by people looking for phytochemicals with demonstrable 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 mid 1900s 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 various members of the tribe. Hundreds of plants were catalogued in the process and many of them have ascribed medicinal uses.
A conflation of indigenous North 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 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 indigenous 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 natives have often been described by outsiders and not by members of the tribe themselves (Crow, 2001). 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 indigenous tribes. As mentioned above David Cozzo (2004) for his dissertation 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 300 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 the family of 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 indigenous tribes present and potentially African Americans as well. 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 and grassroots way than many other areas of the country or parts of the rich urbanized world.
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 others 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, indigenous 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 and Mimi Hernandez 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 Maryland University of Integrative Health (formerly Tai Sophia) educate the public at the collegiate level. The network that all these people maintain and continue to grow would make for a fascinating study.
The next class will cover major Woody Plants and it will be posted around 7/22
Below are items to think about/comment on. Please write me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave information in the commentary at the Facebook group.
WOULD REALLY LOVE TO HEAR WHAT YOU HAVE TO SAY!!!
- 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?
- Talk with older relatives about the medicines they used traditionally and where those traditions came from
- Plan to grow a garden next year, even if in containers, that will hold medicinal plants
- 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, commentarially, 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.
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