By Susan M. Thigpen © 1996
Issue: Spring, 1996
There is a big interest in herbs for health lately. Herb shops and stores are popping up like mushrooms in towns both big and small. People are seeking "natural" sources for sleeping aids, ways to loose weight, cut cholesterol, increase their immune systems so colds and flu don't jump on them, and more.
But all of this is old hat to mountain folks. Mountain people have been using native plants and cultivated herbs for generations. What knowledge they didn't bring with them to America, they learned from the native American Indians.
Hunting herbs was called "wild crafting" and many families supplemented their income by finding a little ginseng or distilling mint oil to sell. The Blue Ridge was practically depleted of herbs such as ginseng and bergamot. Ginseng is now protected by a "hunting" season each fall so it will not become extinct. People will be fined for "hunting" out of season.
When Indians hunted for a healing herb, they did not take the first plant they found. Instead, they prayed to the Earth Mother to help them find another. They only took plants they found after the first one so the source would not be depleted, and they only took as much as they needed, no more.
Herbs were used in every family for a number of reasons. Herbal lore passed down through the generations because the mountains were remote and rather isolated. There weren't many doctors and no drug stores, and even if you did have access, there usually wasn't money to pay for such services and goods. Families relied on herbal knowledge to nurse their families through illnesses, broken bones and such.
While some things were just old wives tales, many were not. Many of our modern pharmaceuticals have their synthetic roots in native, natural herbs. Today, plants are analyzed and found to contain many of the vitamins and minerals needed for a balanced diet.
There are many good books for sale and at local libraries today that you can read to learn what the past few generations have forgotten about herbs and about current new discoveries. Because of this new interest in herbs, we will try to print articles about herbs native to the Blue Ridge and their uses in upcoming issues. If you have an old home remedy or stories about them you would like to share, send it to us and we will print it.
For a starter, this month we are featuring:
Smelly Cures - The many medicinal uses for the onion family.
Onions, garlic and leeks are related, though, because of their odor, not necessarily "kissing cousins." There are many varieties in the family including nodding onions, wild garlic, ramps, chives, wild onions, shallots, scallions, yellow flowered onions, crinkled onions and walking onions. Some of the varieties grow in every part of the United States. Ramps are so famous in the Blue Ridge, there are annual festivals held in their honor. Of them all, garlic is considered to be the most potent.
Medicinal properties in the onion family have been around for centuries and mountain folks knew their value. There have been mentions of garlic as old as 3,000 years ago. Ancient Egyptians swore on garlic the same way we swear on the Bible, they considered it of such value. Greek midwifes hung garlic around birthing rooms to safeguard newborns from disease and witchcraft. East Indians used garlic to treat cancer and leprosy. Some even believed garlic juice poured in the ear could cure deafness. In World War I, when there was a shortage of penicillin in Russia, many of the troops were treated with garlic as an antibiotic in infected battle wounds and to treat amebic dysentery. Again, in World War II it was used in the same place for the same reasons and garlic was called, "Russian Penicillin."
Modern herbalists recommend it for treating coughs, colds, flu, bronchitis, ringworm, high cholesterol, and gallbladder and digestive problems. Modern science, through testing has found that garlic kills the bacteria that cause tuberculosis, food poisoning and may prevent infection by flu viruses. Garlic reduces blood pressure, cholesterol, reduces blood sugar, and reduces the likelihood of blood clots as well.
Garlic has always been used to ward off colds, and as my Uncle used to say, "It will keep anything with a nose at a distance." The time honored way of using garlic has been to eat it. Its medicinal properties are released when it is chewed or crushed. When a person eats a lot of garlic, their sweat will begin to have a garlic smell, but garlic has been called "nature's antibiotic," for its healing properties. Garlic also lowers cholesterol and can be purchased in capsule form in drug and herb stores. Look for bottles of it in the vitamin section.
A bad chest cold or bronchitis was treated with a hot onion poultice. To make an onion poultice, bake a large onion until it is soft. Mash the onion while it is still hot and spread the mashed onion on a square of cloth (flannel was used quite often) and place it directly on the skin of the chest of the affected person as hot as they can stand it. Place another cloth on top of it to hold in the heat as long as possible. The poultice is supposed to break up the congestion. (Editor's note: My own father swears by onion poultices and I have seen my mother make many of them.)
Onion juice was rubbed on athlete's feet infections and had a good measure of success.
One of the things mountain families tried to avoid in the spring was their milk cow eating wild onions. It gave the milk a distinct taste and odor. The Dutch actually favored the onion-milk when made into butter and cheese and considered it a delicacy.