With all the pertinent issues in modern American herbalism, like endanger species, failing health care system, drug companies, FDA regulations, GMO’s and GMP’s, it still is a great time to be in this field, as a student, participant and practitioner. One thing I am particularly grateful for is the plethora of learning opportunities, like classes, blogs, seminars, home-study courses, videos, recordings, conferences, and so on.
A few years ago, I took a class with Matthew Wood and Phylis Light. As soon as they started discussing Southern folk herbalism, I was enthralled with the regional flavor that and the South brought to herbalism. It has also gained a new appreciation for the Southern herbs I adore like passionflower, peach leaves and sassafras. Here is a little bit of what I have pieced together about the background of Southern herbalism, after listening to Light, reading Wood’s Earthwise Herbal and a few more sources.
To many people of the United States (and around the world), the South is its own distinct entity with unique cultural nuances, food and dialect. Upon closer investigation we find that, just like any other locale, the South’s identity is the mixture and steeping of various factors coming together over time. Anthony Cavender, writing in Folk Medicine in South Appalachia, reminds the reader that “[t]here never was nor is there now a variety of folk medicine unique to Appalachia.” (preface). The distinction of southern herbal medicine is not solely created by piecing together the ethnic beliefs and practices of the people of the South: the Cherokee, European immigrants (largely Irish, English, Scottish and French), and African slaves implanted in the south and through the Caribbean. It is also due to understanding of health and medicine of the groups of people at the time they settled in the South, geographical isolation and relative economic misfortune (Cavender, 24).
Although there were differences in the European folk medicine and Native American systems around the time of European immigration, one obvious commonality was the reliance on plant medicines. During the Civil War, Confederate doctors working in the battlefield expanded their use of herbal medicines to what they could learn from local folk herbalists, as the only common medicines to which they had regular access were whisky and quinine, and both were quite expensive (Jacobs). Many of the remedies used during the war are still used frequently in the South by herbalists (and indeed all over the States) and include red oak bark and sodium bicarbonate used as antiseptics, slippery elm, wahoo and salt employed as emollients, poppy and nightshades for pain, boneset and pleurisy root for intermittent fever, mayapple or peach tree leaves for stomach upset, mustard seeds for pneumonia, black haw, black cohosh and partridge berry for women’s complaints (as thousands of women assisted in the camps), and so on (Jacobs).
The folk herbal practitioners used these herbs and more, as they were never as dependent on imported herbs or manufactured patent medicines like quinine, belladonna, senna or opium. Like many in the Western world, the herbalists had in their ancestral knowledge base the Greek Humoral system of hot/cold, damp/dry. Being dependent on the natural world around them for food, shelter, clothing and medicine, the folk herbalists observed the way the sap fell and rose in the trees with the changing seasons and applied their observations to the humoral system to develop a system of blood typology (Light). Wood quotes a saying in the south,
“In the spring collect the spicy, warm sassafras root bark to thin the blood; in the fall collect the mucilaginous bark to thicken the blood” (13).
Blood typology is a systems of energetics, one system of many used around the world. On the surface, energetic systems like the Ayurvedic doshas, Chinese Five elements, Native American four directions, Greek humoral, physiomedical cross and Southern blood typology are systematically different, yet they all share a treatment philosophy of looking at underlying patterns in an individual (often called constitution) formulate a diagnosis directed by the person, not the disease.
Energetics do not just address an individual’s diagnosis, but also extend to the remedy. Energetic treatment protocol can include taste (sour, sweet, pungent, acrid, bitter, meaty, salty, and so on), temperature (hot, warm, cool, cold), humidity (dry, moist), directionality (up or down, in or out), and tone or general state of being (constricted, tense, relaxed, atrophy), and can be gross (physical) or subtle (energetic) in nature.
Imagine, for example, that a person’s pattern of disease exhibits one of the four Greek humors, heat, as an underlining pathology. To counteract the heat and assist the healing process, a practitioner administers a cooling agent to sooth the irritated tissue and increase the body’s capacity to cool itself. As a remedy, slightly sweet and sour hawthorn berry is given to help cool and constrict the tissues back to a healthy tone. Red or blue pigmented fruits like hawthorn berries contain high amounts of flavonoids, a particular class of chemical constituents that seem to have an affinity for the blood, heart, capillaries and vessels (Bove). The sourness of hawthorn berries, like most other fruits, are thought to tighten, cool, promote salivation and thus cooling. In Western traditional medicine and herbalism, energetics often extend to include the actions of plants (astringent, tonic, diaphoretic, syptic, ect…) which then can further be extrapolated to chemical constituents, thus bridging Western medical traditions, American herbal medicine and modern biomedicine views.
Bove, Mary. “Four Super Fruits”. Medicines from the Earth lecture notes, 2010.
Cavender, Anthony. Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia.
Jacobs, Joseph. “Drug Conditions during the War between the States”. Southern Historical Society Papers, Col XXXIII. January-December 1905. civilwarhome.com/drugghsp.htm.
Light, Phyllis. “Southern herbalism: Southern Herbalism, My Story”. An article from: New Life Journal [eDoc/Amazon Short].
Light, Phyllis. Lecture notes: Southern Folk Herbalism. 2007.
Matthews, Holly F. “Rootwork: Description of Ethnomedical System in the South.” Southern Medical Journal, July 1987, Vol. 80, No. 7.
Wood, Matthew. The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal