Traditional Herbalism More Than A “New-Age” Trend In Appalachia
Crystal Wilson’s small garden beds and animal pens sprawl off both sides of a dirt drive on the side of a ridge south of Knoxville. She’s been gardening and tending the herbs on her forest floor in Rockford for a quarter-century.
Today, herbal remedies are experiencing a renaissance. Industry trackers reported an explosion in sales — and prices — last year. But this “new-age” trend has been a traditional source of wellness and independence in Appalachia for centuries.
Wilson grew up in Southwest Virginia learning about wild plants on long walks with her father, who was a factory worker. Her grandparents made extra money gathering plants to sell at an herb house in Marion. It dried them and sold the components to pharmacies.
“Appalachia used to be the pharmacy of the United States,” she said. “We would harvest the plants here, they’d go to compounding pharmacies and that would make medicine. So folks could gather things and take them to sell them to make extra money. That’s always been part of who we are here. We just forgot it.”
Wilson didn’t forget. Until the COVID-19 pandemic, Wilson sold remedies from her farm and at a farmer’s market, mostly to women.
She learned the skills from not only her family, but Appalachian women she taught to read during her first job after college.
“They were all working women,” she said. “It’s not as bad in Appalachia as it was 30 years ago, but (illiteracy) was a real thing — you know, they’d have someone else sign their checks for them at the grocery store. So I taught them — and through that, they taught me.”
As a writing exercise, the women wrote down home remedies they knew. Wilson took those on a literacy exchange program to the Bronx and shared them. The Puerto Rican and Dominican women there wrote down their own. Wilson was struck by the similarities in folk wisdom among women from different environments and cultures.
Historically, women have turned to herbs when they needed help with health concerns like menopause and family planning, Wilson said. Many people today also use herbal remedies for several other problems of our age: sleeplessness, anxiety and depression.
“That talks about who we are as a people, and what we struggle with,” she added.
Elderberry Is The Gateway
For a lot of people, elderberry is a gateway to other traditional remedies, Wilson said. In late spring, she makes a tincture of elderberry flowers and honeysuckle steeped in vodka. She said it helps bring down an elevated temperature, whether a fever or hot flashes.
“This is what keeps me grounded to this land: Herbs have different cycles,” she said. “My year is planned around what is harvested and how it’s harvested.”
It starts with violets in the spring, then honeysuckle flowers.
“Then we’ll do leaves through the summer," she said. "In the fall, the energy of the plant goes back down in the ground and the root, so that’s when you want to harvest the root, preferably during the waning moon.
A wandering flock of noisy, angry-sounding guinea fowl followed her as she looked for a fully flowering elderberry bush after a cool spring. Picking her way among goat and chicken pens, she scolded an escaped kid. It bleated at her, unimpressed.
After a hunt, Wilson broke off clusters of elderberry flowers like small lace doilies. After checking for bugs, she washed the elderberry and some honeysuckle flowers in a metal bowl full of water from one of the huge square rain barrels built onto platforms at the corners of her house.
That’s an example of how Wilson values what modern science has to teach about conservation, climate change and medicine. She’s getting advice this summer from the non-profit Appalachian Sustainable Development, which is going to visit the farm and recommend improvements to make her woods even better for deep-forest botanical plants like goldenseal.
As a diabetic who relies on insulin, Wilson emphasizes that herbal remedies are not a substitute for modern medicine. She has even taught workshops for nurses about how to avoid interactions between herbal remedies and prescriptions.
“For a tincture, you know, it’s a plant and alcohol base,” she explained. “I usually use potato vodka because a lot of folk got wheat allergies. So now we’re going to take our potato vodka and cover this up.” She poured a full bottle of it on top of the flowers in a glass jar.
When someone buys a tincture, Wilson uses a formula based on their age and weight to personalize the dosing. She’s aware of modern challenges.
“We’ve got a lot of opioid addiction, so you know, you don’t want to give someone struggling with that an alcohol,” she said. “So I’ll use glycerin or even apple cider vinegar for someone like that.”
She sets the jar in a windowsill, and shakes it when she walks by every day. In six to eight weeks, she’ll strain it and put it in little amber dropper bottles. The dark bottle can help it last a couple of years.
“So everything is slow about this, from the plants to the medine,” Wilson said. “Nothing’s fast. There’s wisdom in that.”
Wilson says she’s concerned that the rising mainstream popularity of herbal remedies will lead to over-harvesting Appalachian forest plants, as it has with ginseng and ramps.
But she said she’s excited to see suburban enthusiasm for traditional remedies actually driving more Appalachians back to them.
“It’s so wonderful to see people (go) ‘I know that!’ — and to have that light bulb come on again,” she said.
Age-Old To “New Age”
College-educated, suburban women have helped popularize herbal remedies, which can now be found in drug and grocery stores, Wilson said. Jill Richards, a mother of six living on the outskirts of Knoxville, reflects this trend.
“I think definitely through the years there’s been more of an uptick in just regular suburban moms wanting to do things naturally,” she said.
Richards started making home remedies almost 25 years ago in Florida, because she didn’t want to give anything unnatural to her newborn. She learned recipes from books, her chiropractor, and other moms. The women would get together to make salves and diaper rash cream while their toddlers played.
As her kids aged, Richards came to rely on other remedies for her family — like fire cider.
On her counter is a big glass container with a spigot, the kind most of her neighbors might use to serve iced tea at a party. But hers contains a light amber liquid thick with floating white fragments and flower-like slices of pepper.
“So you take horseradish root, onions and garlic, habanero peppers, some herbs and spices and things like that, and then put them down in apple cider vinegar and let it ferment for four weeks,” she said. “I drink it every day during the winter, and I think it gets rid of anything.”
She poured some into a handy shot glass and tossed it back.
“It is very hot,” she said, wincing briefly. “But I am telling you, I don’t think anything bad could live near you if you drink that!”
Richards used to sell some of her remedies in stores. But in recent years she just sells elderberry syrup, which has gained mainstream popularity for warding off flu and colds. Some medical research seems to show it can strengthen immune response and shorten illness.
Richards puts out the word on Facebook when she cooks a batch from dried berries ordered online. (Sometimes she makes it into gummies for her kids.) She says herbal remedies are part of a holistic approach to health.
“It’s interesting to me that we call them ‘alternative,’ because this is what people used to heal for thousands of years,” said Richards, who is concerned about over-prescriptions of antibiotics making them ineffective. “This is the original medicine: plants and berries, and oils, and extracts.”
Gardening For Independence
Modern women like Richards can now learn the skills in formal classes. In the rolling fields of Clinton, Tennessee, a dozen members of a local Red Hat Society perch on stools around a bar in a greenhouse, clinking ceramic teacups. They’ve just had a workshop on herbal tea at Erin’s Meadow Herb Farm taught by farm owner Kathy Burke Mihalczo. She grew up mostly outdoors in nearby Oak Ridge, but she first learned about herbs from a co-worker at a garden center.
Mihalczo says the growing interest in herbal remedies from her customers, who mostly live in Knoxville, reflects the broader trend of wanting to know where our food and medicine comes from.
That went into overdrive during the coronavirus pandemic, when more people also turned to gardening.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Erin’s Meadow started selling out of immune-boosters like dried elderberry and echinacea. Mihalczo says some of her online buyers were hoarding. She quit selling more than a bag at a time.
“I think it did make people think, especially when stores were closed and restaurants were closed... ‘If I did have an injury or an illness, what would I do if I couldn’t get to the store for store bought medications? I want to know what I could grow and use right out of my backyard if I have a stomachache, my child couldn’t sleep, we have a small burn,’” she said. “And I think people realized that they were dependent on store bought things and maybe they didn’t have to be.”
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council. The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.