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Making Medicine in the Mountains

Steeped in folk history, the plants of Appalachia make excellent natural healers, and can be utilized from root to bloom.

| March/April 2019

Photo by Stocksy/Alicia Magnuson Photography

Balancing on slippery rocks 2,800 feet up in the Appalachian Mountains, I pluck a common spade leaf. Before I can place it in my bag, a creeping burn breaks through my gardening glove. Wood nettle, like stinging nettle, releases formic acid and histamine through its tiny hairs that cause an angry patch to spread across my skin. At that point, I decide I have enough leaves for my tincture. Strangely enough, when used topically, this same plant that harms the skin also heals it.

Nettle leaf and dandelion root are two of the most common plants I collect annually for tinctures, a type of healing extraction common in Southern Appalachian folk medicine. Around the time the tulip poplar blooms orange, the women in my family gather in east Tennessee to forage for the plant life that will restock our tincture supply. Neither nettle leaf nor dandelion root are native to the Great Smoky Mountains — a subrange of the Appalachian Mountains closest to where I live — but both have made themselves at home and wildly proliferated on the mountainside. Equally accessible, nettle and dandelion root are ideal plants for their health properties and natural abundance.

Of course, I fully understand why nettle and dandelion have taken to the Smoky Mountains; my time on the mountain is the high point of my year. My springtime sounds like rain boots splashing through the creek and feels like damp mountain earth. It’s shaded beneath a wide-brimmed gardening hat while we “garble,” separating the useable parts of a plant from any undesirable matter. It’s a communion around the kitchen while we rinse, measure, tear, and pack plants. And the end result is relieving for the soul and body.

Photo by Madelyn Brown

Today, interest in herbalism has piqued, which is encouraging for folk medicine’s continued practice. There’s personal empowerment in understanding the unique needs of the body, and the specific strengths of each plant that can support daily health. Folk medicine provides a way for everyone to reclaim ownership of their health by turning to their backyards for healing. From hill to hollow, Appalachia thrives with natural sources of relief.

3/11/2019 10:42:22 AM

LoLove foraging for dandelions in my backyard. I harvest the flowers for wine, leaves for greens, and roots for tinctures. Love an all-around plant that keeps on giving each year.

3/5/2019 9:44:14 AM

First, this was very nicely written. Interesting and packed full of useful information in such a short piece. I've long known about tinctures, salves, etc from the gifts of the wild. Besides the recipes and the story written here what I really find most important, and seldom seen, is how NOT to over harvest those gifts which you caution against. Many forget that depleting an area of its bounty could, and usually does, means not having that bounty in the future or at the very least for a long time. It is the same principle with our oceans. The more it is over harvested the more certain species are diminished and the more unhealthier our oceans become. Many people do not stop to realize that what we take from both land and sea and don't allow to replenish will also have a very negative impact on us as well. Feast or famine. I prefer a balance in between the two. Thank you for a well written article.

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