The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Roots, Herbs and Wild Greens

By Jack Lowe © 1996

Issue: Spring, 1996

In the early twenties, when I was about ten years old, every spring my Grandpaw Marshall would go into the woods to get some sassafras. There were two kinds, the red variety and the white kind. He would collect the red kind, as this was supposed to be much better to make the tea.

I would usually go with him on these trips. We would hike up the N & W railroad tracks to about two miles above town where Valley Drive now passes under the tracks through an underpass. This area was all fields and woods. Our destination was the wooded area where the State Street Church now stands. This section was one time known as the Reed Farm. My Grandpaw, at one time, was manager of this farm. We finally stopped under a shade tree to rest. I noticed that Grandpaw started to dig up a plant. After he got it in his hands and wiped all the dirt off of it, he told me, "This is an Indian turnip. It has a good taste and is good for your blood." It was about the size of a nickel, white and looked somewhat like a regular turnip. Innocent like, I popped it in my mouth and started chewing. About the time I was ready to swallow it, my mouth began to burn like it had Red Seal lye in it. I spat it out, while Grandpaw was sitting there, laughing his head off. My mouth burned for at least an hour before it got back to normal.

He dug enough red sassafras roots to last him all summer.

When we came to a funny looking patch of weeds, that had sharp-pointed leaves, about the size of a mouse's ear, he stopped and started digging up clumps of them. I asked him what he was digging and he said, "Mouses ear."

He said that Grandmaw made a salve out of it, that was good for the piles, fever blisters, cold sores and insect bites. I then knew why Grandmaw always saved the empty Vicks jars, Vaseline bottles and Cloverine salve tins. She used these containers for her homemade salve. People from all over the neighborhood would come to our house to get some of Granny Marshall's home-made pile medicine. I watched her one day while she was making it. She would wash the plants real good and put them in about three pints of water to boil. When they had boiled for about fifteen or twenty minutes, she would strain the liquid through a sieve, dump it back in the pan, add about one pound of pure hog lard and a bottle of turpentine, mix real good and let cool. When it had congealed, she would spoon it into the containers.

After about two weeks after Grandpaw got back from his sassafras expedition, my Mother and Aunt Annie would go looking for wild greens. They wore their sun bonnets and aprons. I asked her why they were wearing their aprons and she said, "You'll see." We went to the open fields, just outside of town and I watched them while they went about gathering their greens. I found out why they wore their aprons. They took them off, pulled the four corners together and pinned them with a safety pin. This made a perfect container for the greens. They were cutting wild lettuce, plantain, chickory, dandelion and poke berry shoots. They said if the poke berry plant got too large that it was poison.

I remember one time my Father had a boil to come on the back of his neck. I went with him to the woods to look for a black haw bush or tree. When we found one, he dug up some roots and placed then in a bag. When we got home, he cleaned and washed the roots and made a tea from them. He scraped a couple of them and made a poultice from them and had my Mother to place it on the boil.

My Father was half Cherokee Indian. I asked him how he knew about the black haw roots. He said that it was an old Indian remedy for boils. He drank the tea from the roots and in a couple of days the boil came to a head and healed completely in a few days. He didn't have another boil after that as long as he lived.