The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Herb Doctors - Harvesting Nature

By Jennifer Rose © 1989

Issue: February, 1989

Not so long ago in the Appalachian Mountains - where towns, and even roads, were few and far between - medical doctors were rare items indeed. People depended on granny women and herb doctors to deliver babies, prescribe cures, and tend to injuries.

These skilled men and women depended on nature to provide remedies for all ailments. Mountain people were more likely to use a cure form the local herb doctor than to trust anything a medical doctor prescribed. They had more faith in nature than in newfangled scientific medicines. This trust probably saved many lives that herbs alone, would not.

Doctors now know that a patient's faith in his treatment affects the effectiveness of that treatment. Dr. William A. McGarey. M.D. of the A. R. E. Clinic in Arizona and Director of the Edgar Cayce Foundation Medical Research Division, states in his book, "The Edgar Cayce Remedies," that he often applies that principle in his practice. He gives penicillin, for example, to patients who have a "penicillin consciousness." Dr. McGarey writes, "In their minds, they will not get well on the time schedule that they have set unless they take penicillin." The mind can, and does, affect the body.

Mountaineers would often "think on it," or meditate, to solve all sorts of problems, even physical ones. Sometimes a remedy was effected solely by mind power. For example, a dependable cure for hiccups is to "think of Willie Cook." Clear the mind of all thoughts, except of the imaginary Willie Cook. The hiccups rarely last longer than a couple of minutes. The only reason for failure, it is vowed, is distraction.

Self-help, such as the hiccup cure and applying powdered sulfur on the skin to ward off insects, was taught to children as matter-of-factly as the wisdom of wearing warm clothes in winter. Younger children had simple herb-gathering chores. They could easily collect the new growth of the willow, spicewood, and birch trees, among others.

Willow tea is an analgesic, good for assorted aches and pains. Spicewood and birch teas, and tea from sassafras root, were said to chase away winter's lethargy and cleanse the blood.

In warmer months, other plants were gathered and preserved for use year-round. Catnip was popular with young mothers. A weak infusion of catnip tea helps a colicky baby enjoy much needed relief. Soon after baby takes an ounce or two of catnip tea in a bottle, baby and mother rest easy.

Animal products were the base for some strange concoctions. Kids loved to dig up earthworms. The herb doctor cleansed the worms and put them in glass jars behind the cookstove, to melt into a jelly-like substance. One part worm jelly to two parts moonshine was sealed in the jars and kept for arthritis patients. It was miraculously effective and popular. The ingredients were a professional secret.

Dire circumstances call for dire cures. In the 1930's, a small girl was bitten on the leg by a poisonous snake. The roads in rural Kentucky were in poor condition, so by the time her father got her to the nearest doctor, she was too near death to treat successfully. Her leg had swollen grotesquely and turned black. The doctor sent her back home to die.

A passing herb doctor saw her reclining on the porch, drifting in and out of consciousness. He asked permission to treat her, and her desperate parents gave it.

He packed the girl's leg in fresh, still warm, cow manure, and bound it snugly. The next morning he returned to repeat the treatment. On the third morning when he removed the packing, the little girl's leg was back to its normal size and color. She had sustained nerve damage, and had to learn to walk again, but she was alive.

The passing herb doctor continued on his way, not even leaving his name behind.

Another cure for snakebite, especially in animals, is cocklebur leaves, dried and powdered. These are steeped in scalded milk, and force fed to the stricken animal. I have seen this potion work for many farm animals.

The cocklebur mixture was used, at least once, on a human. An herb doctor's wife was bitten on her foot by a rattlesnake. With no time to reach a doctor, she convinced her husband to try this remedy. He mixed a dose, and she drank it down. Soon, the only sign that she had been bitten was two puncture marks on her foot.

For obvious reasons, most of nature's pharmacy was harvested in the warmer months. But, one popular home remedy was available any time. Slippery elm bark tea treated both diarrhea and constipation. When the bark was cut from the tree in an upward motion, it was used for diarrhea. When cut toward the ground, it was used for constipation. The two bundles of bark were carefully kept separate and plainly marked. Using the wrong bark to treat a serious illness could cause a miserable death!

Many cures developed from watching what animals did when they were ill, and experimenting on oneself or a volunteer. Besides the discovery of valuable folk remedies, some outdoor survival techniques came from observing our fellow creatures. Caught out overnight in winter, a hiker could burrow into a snowbank, being sure to leave an air hole, to conserve body heat.

Home remedies are still popular. Some common ones can be whipped up in any kitchen. A warm salt water gargle eases sore throats, and is even a great nasal rinse.

A teaspoon of a half and half mixture of salt and sugar, eaten dry, soothes acid stomach. And who hasn't used honey and lemon, sometimes mixed with a little whiskey, for a cough?

Many doctors give recipes for effective home remedies to their patients. They know that a large percentage of pharmaceuticals are derived from nature, anyway. These doctors are conscientious practitioners, glad to help their patients save a little money.

Home remedies shouldn't be used without first clearing it with your doctor or pharmacist. Although herbal cures can be amazingly effective, the dosage is never accurate, and can be deadly if an illness is misdiagnosed at home.

Home remedies can help - but check first with your doctor.