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.

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by Stocksy/Alicia Magnuson Photography
Healing off the land is a practice of give, take, and timing.

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.

person wearing gloves using hand trimmer to clip a stalk off of a green plant

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.

A Tradition in Tincturing

On what’s possibly the oldest mountain range in the world, there’s bound to be some traditions that are steeped in mysticism. Appalachian folk medicine is a centuries-old practice, with cultural influences that date back thousands of years. Despite its deep historical roots, as an oral tradition, many folk medicine practices aren’t written down, increasing its likelihood they’ll one day become lost knowledge altogether.

I learned tincturing through doing, by humbling myself to mountain flora and gleaning a little knowledge from far wiser herbalists. I’m lucky to have my botanist, herbalist, endlessly plant passionate Aunt Tammy as a teacher, who also has a lifetime of familiarity with the mountain land we forage.

And our annual women-only retreats aren’t anything new to the Smoky Mountains. In these parts, a woman’s hand has historically done the healing, curing, and preventing. “Granny women” tended to the sick, birthed babies, and used the herbs available to them to treat the ill or wounded. Their methods were born out of necessity, due to isolation from doctors and modern medicine, and survived because of the medicine’s practicality and effectiveness.

What Is Tincturing?

Tincturing is the age-old practice of extracting nutrients, vitamins, minerals, and even energy from plants. The craft is accessible to anyone with a few basic materials, including a plant, an extraction liquid, a canning jar, a strainer, and opaque bottles. Most importantly, patience and a good attitude are crucial ingredients, because the tincture solution will take some weeks before it’s ready for consumption.

alcohol being poured in to a glass bottle filled with plant matter through a funnel

The science behind tincturing is essentially the process of ethanol in alcohol breaking down a plant’s cell walls, extracting the constituents, and creating a solution. Good things take time, and drawing out all the goodness from a plant takes at least 14 days. The alcohol also preserves the shelf life and potency of the herb, so the tincture can ruminate for months, even years, and still work just fine.

But any herbalist worth her roots knows that tincturing is as much about intention as it is about science. Tincturing, like folk medicine in general, lives in a space between fact and intuition. One of the psychological and spiritual components that cleaves it from modern Western medicine is its emphasis on positive intent, which is just as critical as the herb itself. A medicine made under distress can be feckless at best and adverse at worst. Keeping this in mind, once a day I invert my tincture, approaching the herb with calm and goodwill to encourage a healing energy while the solution macerates.

How to Make Appalachian Traditional Tinctures

Fresh herb tincturing is a study in perfect timing. For example, dandelion root is best brought up in spring because it’ll bitter by fall. And you should pick nettle leaves in spring, but at sight of the first tiny blossom, it’s too late to use for medicine.

No matter what time of year you go collecting, awareness of overharvesting is crucial. It’s the responsibility of everyone to respect the land’s botanical bounty. Last year, we skipped making dandelion tincture because the patch hadn’t quite replenished itself from the previous year’s harvest. Sometimes spring is late, and the nettle hasn’t had time to proliferate much before it blooms. Healing off the land is give and take, and we’re careful to only use plants sustainably for tinctures. If any plant appears to struggle one season, we let it be, and give it a chance to come back stronger next year. Besides overharvesting, tincturing should also never lead anyone to trespass or steal resources from another’s land.

Beyond healing, the land is a great teacher. While practicing folk medicine, I learn more from the flora than I could from any book; I figure a 200-million-year-old mountain range knows a lot more than I do. I submit to its time, move to its cadence, and gratefully accept any healing gifts that are offered. For that, I’ll take a few nettle rashes.

At the very least, I know tincturing knowledge will live on when I teach it to my daughter. For now, I’ll infuse tincture in my orange juice or coffee every morning, taking the moment to appreciate the natural wisdom, healing ability, and heritage packed in every tincture drop.

Nettle Tincture

Wood Nettle, Laportea canadensis

This creek-loving plant might sting on contact, but generosity resides just beneath its ornery exterior. Fresh nettle leaf tincture is so abundant in vitamins and minerals that it’s a popular daily tincture to promote overall wellness. Packed with vitamins A, C, K, and B, as well as minerals, such as iron, phosphorous, potassium, calcium, magnesium, manganese, and copper, nettle is a phenomenal advocate for blood and respiratory health. The plant also has anti-inflammatory, antihistamine, antihemorrhagic, and anti-allergenic effects.

I make sure to incorporate nettle’s health-giving properties with my meals three times a day. A dosage of 0.2 to 0.6 teaspoons of nettle tincture three times daily is an excellent healer for general weakness, low blood pressure, skin complaints, anemia, respiratory allergies, asthma, or rheumatism. It also improves prostate health and can be used as a diuretic.

1. Garble in the springtime once the nettle has had enough time to populate, but before the first blossom. Cover any of your exposed skin while you do so.

2. Tear or cut the leaves into pieces and place in a canning jar. The tearing facilitates the breakdown of the cell walls by the alcohol. Continue to lightly pack in the leaves until the jar is full.

3. Dilute a 190-proof grain alcohol (such as Everclear) by 50 percent with water. NOTE: Use a vinegar recipe for children, alcohol abstainers, or those with liver disease.

4. Pour the diluted alcohol or vinegar solution into the nettle-filled canning jar until it reaches the bottom of the glass thread that the lid screws on.

5. Cover, and store in a cool, dark place, such as a cupboard. Approach the tincture with positive intention and invert once a day.

6. After at least 14 days, strain the tincture and store this alcohol and herb solution in dropper bottles. Keep the bottles somewhere dark.

7. To use, follow the base dosage instructions and observe the effects on the body. Adjust dosage as necessary.

Dandelion Root Tincture

Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale

woman pouring brown dandelion root tincture through a strainer in to a glass bottle

This unassuming weed has a bad reputation as a nuisance, when deep down it’s a detoxifying super plant. The root contains inulinand levulin, which balance blood sugar, as well as taraxcin for digestive health. The leaves contain vitamins A, B, C, and D, as well as minerals iron, magnesium, zinc, calcium, and manganese. Dandelion is there for me when I can feel that last glass of wine from the night before, but it’s also suitable for the occasional detox of the liver — hangover not required. Just 0.8 to 1 teaspoon of dandelion tincture taken three times a day can act as a blood purifier, digestive tonic, and diuretic, as well as aid liver function. 

  1. Garble in the springtime by pulling the dandelion plant up, root and all. Cut the root from the stem.
  2. Gently clean the roots before packing them into a canning jar. Lightly pack in more roots, until the jar is full.
  3. Dilute a 190-proof grain alcohol (such as Everclear) by 50 percent with water. NOTE: Use a vinegar recipe for children, alcohol abstainers, or those with liver disease.
  4. Pour the diluted alcohol or vinegar solution into the canning jar of roots until you reach the bottom of the glass thread that the lid will screw onto.
  5. Cover, and store in a cool, dark place. Approach the tincture with positive intention and invert once a day.
  6. After at least 14 days, strain the tincture and store it in dropper bottles. Keep these bottles somewhere dark.
  7. To use, follow the base dosage instructions and observe the effects on the body. Adjust dosage as necessary.

Madelyn Brown lives in metro Atlanta with her husband and daughter. Formerly a photojournalist for the Air Force, she now spends her time attending the Savannah College of Art and Design and visiting The Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. Follow her on Twitter @Mad_Lyn21.

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