Volume V, No. 4, Summer 1978
MEDICINAL PLANTS OF THE OZARKS
Researched by Carla Roberts and Terri Jones
Drawings by Melinda Stewart, Photography by Doug Sharp and Ruth Massey
Today when people get sick, they go to a doctor who prescribes a medicine bought at a drugstore. The medicine usually has some long Latin name that is meaningless to anyone except a doctor or pharmacist. But, in the past, when someone was sick they went to the woods for medicinal herbs with names everyone could understand--goldenseal, mullein, mayapple and snakeroot.
Ella Dunn and Earl Stiles both used their knowledge of herbs, passed down through generations, to doctor their own families and neighbors for fevers, aches, arthritis, skin diseases and other ailments. Using the roots, bark or leaves of plants found growing wild in the woods or cultivated along the yard fence, both helped to ease the pain and misery of many people. "I never charged a dime," said Earl. "Once we spent sixty dollars for doctor medicine and I went and got thirteen cents for my own remedy and done the same thing."
Ella learned about medicinal herbs from her father. However, some of the herbs he prepared and used, such as digitalis known as foxglove, Ella did not use because these herbs became readily available already prepared in the drugstore. "Even though my husband had heart trouble," she said, "I never used digitalis. I don't even know how my father prepared it because we could buy it already prepared." But many other herbs became fever and cold remedies, spring tonics and salves and ointments.
The roots of most herbs have to be dug when the plant is dormant, before the sap begins to rise in February or March, for the roots lose their value after the sap rises. Though from her long experience with them Ella can identify plants she uses any time of the year by their barks or shapes, leaves are usually the easiest way for beginners to identify a plant. She suggests identifying the plant in the summer or fall, marking it, and then digging the root during the winter.
Following is a partial list of herbs either Ella or Earl have used. Some plants have more than one name or have different names in different parts of the country. Even living no farther apart than a hundred miles, Ella and Earl sometimes used different names for the same plant. We have been unable to find a scientific name for some plants described here, indicating the name is used only in a localized area. But all the plants, native or naturalized, survive readily in the Ozarks.
Asafetida (genus Ferula) is a bitter, foul-smelling, yellowish-brown material prepared from roots. Asafetida was bought and worn around the neck in little bags to ward off colds and diseases. It was also taken daily with one teaspoon of Jerusalem oak (Chenopodium botrys) to prevent illness. Jerusalem oak, found in waste ground and along railroads, is also odiferous, smelling like turpentine. Children were not especially fond of this preventive medicine. The name asafetida is particularly appropriate, coming from the medieval Latin meaning smelly or fetid gum.
August flower grows along roadsides to a height of about 12 inches. It has a hard gray stem and small yellow flowers the size of a common nail head. August flower was used as a tea for fevers to induce sweating.
Balm of Gilead (Populus balsamifera) is also called balsam poplar. Almost all old home places in the Ozarks used to have a balm of Gilead tree, but the trees are uncommon now. The purple flower was used to make a salve or poultice that was used to grease sores on feet and legs. To make the salve put the buds of the flower and mutton tallow in a pan. Cook until the oil comes out, then strain into a jar and store.
Black cohosh - see poke
Butterfly root (Asclepias tuberosa) grows in pastures or near fence rows to 30 inches high. It has four or five stems. The long bloom that looks like a rooster's comb stays on for months. A tea was made from the root to purify the spleen and blood.
Catnip (Nepeta cataria) was raised around the yard fence or house. It grows 16 to 18 inches high with a light green leafy stem and dull-white purple dotted flowers. Its leaves were steeped in boiling water to make a tea to put fretting babies to sleep.
Comfrey (genus Symphytun) grows wild with large, rough hairy leaves and small blue, purple or yellow flowers. The leaf was bound on cuts to stop bleeding.
Dogwood - see spring tonic
Elm (genus Ulmus) - Many medicines were very bitter tasting, especially quinine which was used for headaches, colds, congested lungs, fever and rheumatism. There were no capsules to put quinine in to take, so people used elm bark. To prepare the bark they split up the inner bark into pieces about the size of a thumb and soaked them in water overnight. The sap, a jelly like substance which rose on the water, was used like a capsule when taking quinine. The sap coated the powder and killed the taste of the medicine.
Ginseng (Panax quinquefolium) grows wild. It has small greenish flowers and a forked root that looks like a sweet potato. Every year a nut and ring grow on top of the root, making it easy to determine the age of the plant. The oldest ginseng Earl has found in Missouri is ten years old. Ginseng is enjoying a modern day popularity, but was not used as a medicine in the Ozarks. It used to be and still is gathered and sold. Earl said the price has never been below eighteen dollars a pound with modern day prices as high as forty dollars.
Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) is also called yellow root. It is found in rich ground or leaf mulch in eighty-five percent shade, usually on a north hillside. It grows to about 10 to 12 inches high. Until it is two or three years old, goldenseal has just one leaf that looks like a grape leaf. When the plant is three the stem forks so it has two leaves. In the fork is a button with six to eight seeds inside. The roots are very knotty and stumpy. Half the weight will be in the little roots right on top of the ground. The roots, yellow on the inside, are the part of the plant used.
Goldenseal root was put in maple syrup and given to babies for sores in the mouth (thrash). It was also good for sore gums or sinus, and was used as an eyewash for red, sore or itchy eyes. Put in mineral oil or made as a tea, it was good for stomach ulcers. To make the tea, steep the root in hot water for twenty-four to forty-eight hours. Never boil goldenseal roots as boiling kills their healing properties.
Ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) is also called gill-over-the-ground. It is found in sunny places in the yard or along creeks in moist, rich soil. It grows close to the ground in vines 5 to 6 feet long. Ground ivy has a small rounded scalloped leaf similar to red clover, gray green in color. The tiny flowers are blue. The leaves were used for relief from poison ivy or poison oak and to cure most skin diseases. Put the leaves in a cloth and mash them to extract the juice. Rub the juice on the affected part of the skin.
Hickory (genus Carya) - The inside white bark next to the wood was used to make a sweet tasting tea to relieve a cough. The root was also sweet and was chewed like candy for its sweetness.
Horehound (Marrubium vulgate) is an aromatic plant with leaves covered with a whitish fuzz. It was cultivated alongside buildings or in yard fences. The leaves were made into a candy or syrup by first boiling them to extract the flavor and then adding sugar and cooking to desired consistency. Horehound candy was kept in winter for colds.
Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) -The thick, whitish and strong tasting root of this garden plant had many uses as a medicine as well as a food. Put one part grated horseradish in four parts fresh milk and let set for one hour. Then put the mixture on the skin to cure itch and other skin problems.
A skin freshner used 2 cups distilled witch-hazel water added to 1/2 cup grated horseradish root. Allow the two to stand overnight before straining and discarding the horseradish. Then add 1/2 cup rubbing alcohol and 1/4 cup white vinegar. Some cologne added to the formula helped the smell.
To treat influenza a wine glass full of warm horseradish wine was given to the patient four times a day. To make the wine heat a pint of claret to 160° in a double boiler. Stir into the heated wine 2 tablespoons of prepared horseradish root, 2 tablespoons honey, a dash of nutmeg and a twist of orange peel.
Horseradish root was also good for hoarseness. Infuse one tablespoon of vinegar, 2 tablespoons of grated horseradish and 1/3 cup water for one hour. Pour off the settled horseradish. Add 2/3 cup of honey to the liquid and take one teaspoonful every hour until hoarseness is gone. Since this had no dangerous drugs, it was safe and good for children.
The leaf of the horseradish had medicinal uses, too. A bruised leaf laid across the back of the neck was a cure for headaches. Also, a bruised leaf laid on a part of the body grieved with sciatica, gout, joint ache or hard swellings of the spleen or liver eased the pain. If one had facial neuralgia, some horseradish held in the hand on the affected side gave relief.
Indian turnip (Arisaema triphyllum) is also called Jack-in-the-pulpit. It grows along fence rows to 24 inches high. It has two stalks to a plate and a pale blue bloom. The root was used to heat up the stomach. Dried and put in horse's feed, it was also used for heaves. Indian turnip didn't cure heaves, but eased them so the horse could work.
Jerusalem oak - see asafetida
Lady's Slipper (genus Cypripedium) grows at the break of a hill, usually near nerve root. It is light in color. The stem looks like it grew through the leaf but there are really two leaves. The larger leaf is about 3 inches long and the smaller 1/8 to 1/4 inch. A tea was made from the root to cause an abortion.
Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis) was cultivated near houses. It has a wide blade-shaped leaf and a cluster of fragrant white bell-shaped flowers. The roots and blossoms were made into a tea and used for epilepsy.
Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) is also called mandrake. It grows along fence rows or in the woods in rich soil. It has a 5 or 6 inch umbrella-like leaf. A small yellow apple grows in a fork. The roots were used alone as a purgative and in mixtures with other herbs in spring tonics. The roots, seeds and leaves are poisonous if too much is taken, but the fruit is edible.
Mullein (genus Verbascum) grows wild in pastures, yards and along the roadside. It has several velvety leaves that can be as wide as a hand and up to 10 inches long. The yellow, lavender or pink flowers bloom on a single tall stalk. A tea made of the leaves was good for fevers, hives and measles and for bathing swollen areas. Binding a leaf on a swollen area was also used to reduce the swelling. Bathing a cow's udder in mullein tea was used to open the tits if they were swollen shut.
Mullein was also used for piles. To ease piles, sit on a jar filled with boiling water and mullein leaves.
Nerve Root (genus Cypripedum) is also called moccasin flower and is similar to lady's slipper. It grows at a break of a hill in the shade. The plant has several sprouts and several roots that grow out from it. The roots are crinkled about every one-fourth inch. The leaf is 6 to 8 inches long. A tea was made from the roots to calm the nerves.
Pennyroyal (Hedeoma pulegioides) grows wild in the woods. It has hairy leaves and small lilac blue flowers. It has a 6 inch stem. The top leaves were picked and rubbed on the body to keep off ticks and chiggers.
Poke (Phytolacca americana) grows around barns, in fence rows and banks of dirt where the sun hits it. It reaches 5 feet in height. Its seed is in a grape-like cluster of purplish berries. The leaves when tender make good greens. The raw root is poisonous and will cause temporary blindness, but the root boiled in water was used as a cure for any kind of skin poisoning.
Equal parts of poke and black cohosh (Cimicifunga racemosa) was used to cure arthritis. Take all the poke root a man's hand will hold and cut the ends off even with the hand. Add an equal amount of black cohosh root. Chop fine. Put in a quart jar and fill with good grain alcohol or whiskey. Let set for twenty-four hours. Before taking the first dose, take something to work the bowels out well. Then take one tablespoon of the poke mixture once a day for two days. On the third day take one tablespoon morning and night. Repeat for four days. On the eighth day take one tablespoon morning, noon and night. Be sure to keep the bowels open while using poke since the root is poisonous.
Red root (Geum canadense) is similar to, but larger than, ginger. It is found in rich or rocky woods on hillsides, in valleys along streams, in ravines and sandy thickets. It takes its name from its red root which is about the size of a lead pencil. It is used in nearly all animal blood conditioners.
Sarsaparilla - see spring tonic
Sassafras (family Lauraceae) is a large shrub or tree found in the woods, old fields and fence rows. It has three kinds of leaves on the same plant, unlobed, mitten-shaped and three lobed. In the fall the leaves turn brilliant orange. The root was dug before the sap rose and was used in tea in the spring to thin the blood. Earl said, "It thins your blood for the spring change--change over from winter and heavy blood to lighter blood. An old doctor dug sassafras root and put it up as his medication. He'd say if you would drink that a certain month, either February or March, three times a day, he'd doctor you the rest of the year for five dollars. That was what the old doctor thought of it. If your blood is in proper shape you're not liable to take disease."
Bathing cows and dogs in sassafras tea kept off lice and flies. One bath lasted about two weeks.
The root put in dried apples also kept bugs away.
Seneca Weed (Polygala senega) is also called senega root. It grows in the sun on top of a flat hill in damp places where water seeps out of the ground. It reaches 12 to 18 inches high and has no branches. Its leaves are 1/2 inch wide and 3/4 inches long. Seneca weed grows in bunches 8 to 10 feet around. The leaves were used for a purgative. It is still available in drugstores.
Sheep sorrel (Oxalis stricta) is found in grassy fields or yards. It is a very small plant with oily-looking leaves somewhat like white clover. Part of the leaf is green-colored and part mahogany-colored. To use, hang the leaves and stems in the sun until the sun brings the oil to the surface. The oil, applied to the sore, was used to delay skin cancer.
Snakeroot (Aristolochia serpentaria) is known as Virginia, Kansas and Missouri snakeroot. This strong smelling plant has vines 2 to 4 feet long and grows around the roots of post oak or white oak timber. Its root grows up to 6 inches long. A tea made from the roots was used to break out measles and to treat malaria cases.
Watermelon seeds steeped in a cup of water and sweetened made the kidneys act.
Wild Cherry (Prunus serotina) - Make a tea of the bark and strain. Take 2 or 3 teaspoons as needed for a cough.
Wild Grape (genus Vitis)- Juice made from wild grapes drunk twice a day over a period of three months was used as a cure for cancer.
Earl said, "That's a miracle that doctors really hate. They might turn me over to the CIA for telling you. Now for six years I've used wild grape juice. I take it three times a year whether I need it or not. Drink it morning and night. The blood's got to take care of disease. That's a long time to get medicine in blood or change the blood to flow to some other part of the body that needs it. It'll take sixty days if grape juice is taken two times a day. It'll cure any cancer that's ever been on any human. It takes about three to four gallons to kill the average cancer. It's old stuff. It's been proven hundreds of years."
Wild ginger (Asarum canadense) grows in patches in shady places under bluffs or along a creek. It has one round leaf that is about 3 inches long. The root, dark brown and big as the little finger, is very hot. It was used to heat up the stomach and for colds.
Witch hazel (genus Hamamelis) - To make your own distilled witch hazel extract, cut two pounds of dormant witch hazel twigs into 1/2 inch lengths. Put the chopped twigs in a blender with 8 cups of Water. Blend until the Witch hazel is cut into very fine pieces. Let twigs soak overnight. The next day pour the twigs and water into a drip still with very high heat. Collect 2 cups of distillate. Discard the spent material in the still. To the 2 cups of distillate add 1/2 cup rubbing alcohol and bottle the extract.
Distilled witch hazel had many uses. It was used in first aid treatment of minor burns and scalds and to soothe insect stings, mosquito bites and burst varicose veins. It was used to strengthen the muscular fiber of veins. It was also used on internal and external hemorrhage, for bruises, inflammations, hemorrhoids, diarrhea, dysentery and for reducing bags under the eyes.
Many herbs were used in combinations to make tonics to tune up the body for spring. One such tonic is the spring tonic Ella Dunn's family made every year. The tonic built up the body's system, purified the blood and cleared up the complexion. The tonic was made in March or April when the herbs were up enough to identify. To make the tonic, use equal amounts of sassafras roots, burdock roots, sarsaparilla roots, blue burvene, wild cherry bark and dogwood bark. Add one-third as much mayapple root. If mayapple is not available, yellow dock, also a purgative, can be used in place of it. Wash all roots and barks well. Cut all ingredients into fine pieces and add water. Boil down until it makes a good heavy liquid. Strain and either put in whiskey to preserve it or add sugar before cooking it down to a syrup and bottling. Every morning and night for two weeks to a month adults would take one tablespoonful. Small children would take a teaspoonful three times a day.
Ella's family has used this tonic for years. She knows just where to get the various plants and used to gather them herself each year. Dependent now on her son to get them, she will still occasionally make a batch. "I think if I had some now, I'd feel better," she said last spring.
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.