Folk Medicines Examined In New Book
Appalachian lore often includes medicines made from plants and herbs to cure ailments. A new book by Rebecca Linger and Dennis K. Flaherty examines the components of some of those traditional herbs to see just what effect they have and determine how best to use them.
Rebecca Linger and Dennis Flaherty were both on the faculty of the University of Charleston School of Pharmacy. Both have an interest in medicinal plants but from different perspectives. Dr. Linger teaches graduate courses in ethnobotany and was interested in the chemistry and pharmacology of medicinal plants. Dr. Flaherty, who is now retired, taught graduate toxicology courses and approached the book project from a human toxicology perspective.
The book is titled “A Guide to the Toxicology of Select Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern North America.” Eric Douglas spoke with Linger to understand the history behind these medicines.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Douglas: Explain to me the interest in herbal medicine and the medicinal properties. Where did that come from?
Linger: I was born in southern Ohio, and my mother's people come from Adams County, Ohio. My grandmother was someone who pretty much doctored the family and herself and she had some very interesting remedies that she would use on her children. When I was little, I was always getting canker sores, which now that I'm older, I recognize that it's because I had a thiamin deficiency. My grandma had this little tin of yellow root powder. And she would always give me a little bit of that in a plastic bag and say “Take this home, lick your finger, tap it on the powder and put it on your sores whenever you get a canker sore.” And when I used that stuff, it's bitter. Being a four- or five-year-old kid, doctoring yourself with an herbal medicine was really, really tough. But I did it because the canker sore would be gone in a day. And if you've ever had any kind of mouth sores you know it's really, really painful. So I trusted it, and it worked great.
Douglas: How did people learn this stuff? Where did that knowledge come from in the first place?
Linger: The answer is that if you look back in recorded history, there have been many medical texts that have been written in all cultures. So the Chinese had the Yellow Emperor's book of medicine. That actually encompasses many, many different fields. But if you think all the way back to primitive man before recorded history, you'd have to figure that there were observational things. “Is this plant edible? Well, let me eat a little bit of it. Oh, it's edible. It's bitter. But it didn't really make me sick. And it actually helped with something.” The other thing is that the observation of what plants animals ate helped early man to recognize what was there.
But in terms of what plants have medicinal properties, it really was kind of a trial and error that you would have this idea that “Well, let me try this and see if this helps with this problem.”
I do want to point out that there was a Neanderthal grave that was discovered in Germany. And when they excavated it, they noticed that the body covered with a lot of medicinal plants. They thought it was a Neanderthal burial practice. But when they really looked at the flowers in the grave, every single one of them had strong medicinal properties. And so maybe the Neanderthals recognized medicinal properties.
Douglas: For the book, you've taken these oral traditions of medicines, but then you break down the chemical properties. As a scientist, what was your thought about this? Were you skeptical? Or were you? “Hey, I know from personal experience this stuff works?”
Linger: There are herbal books that have been written that basically will talk about all the plants that have been historically used as medicine. I did have a certain level of skepticism. It's like, “Is that really true?” One of the plants out there that has an ascribed medicinal property to it, but there's nothing in science to support is maidenhair fern. It's supposed to help you grow a thick head of hair. There's nothing in it.
After World War II, the United States government shifted its focus from implements of war to implements of health. The National Cancer Institute was founded from that. And one of the processes that scientists there advocated to academics across the country was to find new cures for cancer. The academics went back to the herbals. From that process, we got the mayapple, which is a beautiful spring flower. The fruit is edible, the rest of the plant is incredibly toxic, because it stops your cells from dividing. And so from that we got two chemotherapies that are still in use today. And they're very, very effective.
The book will allow you to learn how to dose yourself with medicinal plants. But it will also give you the caution that don't use too much of it, this is the recommended dose, don't go over this. And this is how it will interact with the organ systems in your body. If you take too much of it, it could harm your liver or your kidneys. Some of them are going to cause your heart to have issues.
Douglas: Were there any big surprises when you jumped into this research?
Linger: I talked about the horse chestnut. I was born in southern Ohio so the buckeye tree is, of course, near and dear to my heart. I was always raised that buckeyes were poisonous, but I would see half-eaten buckeyes in the field. My uncle always teased me that only the squirrel knows which half of the buckeye is not poisonous.
You can use the buckeye as medicine, you can make a tincture out of it, or a tea out of it, and use very, very small amounts of it. And it will actually help with stomach complaints and so forth. It'll help with inflammation. So it will help a little bit with your arthritis. One of the folktales that I'd always heard was to carry a buckeye in your pocket and you'd never have joint pain.
Douglas: Today, you hear a lot about essential oils and that sort of thing. Is that an extension today of this kind of medicine?
Linger: Definitely. A lot of medicinal properties of plants are in the oils of the plant itself. I'll give the example of pine oil. It can disrupt some of the pain signaling in your body so that it will alleviate pain and inflammation. There is some truth to that. Smelling lavender oil is relaxing. Cedar wood and sage oil can be very relaxing, too.
But you have to be careful with essential oils because they're so strong. There are some that are really, really toxic.
One thing about it that needs to be said is that if you are infusing essential oils in your household, be aware of the pets that you have because especially cats aren't able to metabolize the essential oils and they'll build up in the system. Essential oils can be toxic to your pets.
“A Guide to the Toxicology of Select Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern North America” is available in Charleston at Taylor Books, the Capitol Market and the gift shop at Kanawha State Forest. It is also available on Amazon.
This story is part of a series of interviews with authors from, or writing about, Appalachia.