African American Plant Medicines of the South Carolina Sea Islands

By Faith Mitchell, Ph.D.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Mitchell’s original blog post was featured in April, 2020, in anticipation of The Herb Society of America’s Annual Meeting of Members, which was postponed due to COVID-19. Below is an updated version of Dr. Mitchell’s post, who will now be speaking at the April, 2022, Annual Meeting of Members in Charleston, SC. For more information, please visit The Herb Society of America’s web site.

[A root doctor] told us that he had been born with a special knowledge of healing and had studied the science of herbs from the time he was a small boy. Some of the herbs he uses in his mixtures are Golden Seal, Yellow Dust, Golden Thread, Hippo Foot, Pink Root, Lady Slipper, Yellow Root, Blood Root, Rattlesnake Master, Black Snake Root, and John the Conqueror.

Georgia Writer’s Project, Drums and Shadows; Survival Studies Among the Georgia Coastal Negroes, 1940

Gullah slaves painting circa 1790The South Carolina and Georgia coast, which was settled in the 1670s, is one of the oldest parts of the United States. Worked by enslaved West Africans who came to be known as the Geechee or Gullah, for centuries Sea Island plantations growing cotton, rice, indigo, and other crops produced massive wealth for white plantation owners. Today, Hilton Head, Kiawah, and other Sea Islands are known for their resorts, recreation, and high-end vacation housing.

Map of the Sea Islands, South CarolinaThe Sea Islands have a uniquely resilient African heritage that distinguishes them from other African American communities. There are several reasons for this. Prior to Emancipation, Sea Island slave plantations were typically large and had hundreds of enslaved Black people and very few whites. In addition, long after the legal end of the slave trade in 1808, traders continued to bring enslaved Africans to the islands. Finally, separated by salty creeks and marshes from the mainland, the islands were geographically isolated for more than two centuries. In some cases, connecting bridges weren’t built until the 1950s. The result was that the coastal islands from South Carolina to the upper end of Florida were home to tightly knit Black rural communities that had their own unique culture. These Gullah communities lived close to the land, working the fields, catching oysters, fish, and shrimp, and keeping alive religious, linguistic, healing, and other traditions from their African ancestors.  

The Gullah people were mostly unknown to the outside world until the first Union soldiers arrived in South Carolina during the Civil War. In fact, some of the first spirituals that captivated northern listeners were sung by freed Gullah people. Then, in the early 20th century, the Sea Islands and other Black communities caught the attention of academics who were keenly aware that the oldest of the formerly enslaved people were dying, and with them many folk traditions. These early writings are a good source of stories and songs, despite often reflecting a distressingly demeaning attitude toward the Gullah people themselves.

Cover of Hoodoo Medicine bookWhen I made my first trip to the Sea Islands in 1971, I was awed by the breathtaking, tropical beauty of the land and the water and the sense of community among the Gullah people. Although people were poor by material standards, they were rich culturally and spiritually. 

At the time, there were few doctors on the more remote Sea Islands, so on one of my trips, I decided to find out if there were traditional medicines that people used and, if so, what they were. What I learned resulted in my book, Hoodoo Medicine: Gullah Herbal Remedies.

Practices described in Hoodoo Medicine include using elderberry tea to treat colds, mud to cast bone breaks, and tree leaves to draw out headaches. Healing properties were also attributed to mint, Spanish moss, gum tree leaves, and much more. Some of the plants and roots people described to me were introduced from Africa or Europe, while others are plants that were first used by the American Indians. Local people distinguish between what they call good and bad “roots” medicine. “Good roots” is the use of plants, mud, and other natural materials with healing powers. Meanwhile, “bad roots” is the use of natural materials – plants, blood, bones, candles, feathers, and more – for magical purposes, akin to voodoo. Even though “hoodoo” sounds like “voodoo,” my book is about good roots! 

Botanical illustration of a cotton plant and flowerGullah healing practices remain relevant today for people interested in new pathways to health. In fact, sales of Hoodoo Medicine took off during the Covid pandemic. And fortunately, there is strong interest among Gullah descendants themselves in preserving their unique history and culture.

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.

Photo Credits: 1) Gullah slaves, circa 1790 (freemaninstitute.com); 2) Sea Islands, South Carolina (GoogleMaps.com); 3) Hoodoo Medicine cover art (Faith Mitchell); 4) Cotton flower/plant (Gossypium hirsutum) botanical print (Public Domain).

References

Allen, William F. Slave songs of the United States. 1867). Available from: https://hdl.handle.net/2027/pst.000029312436

Davis, Henry C. Negro folk-lore in South Carolina. The Journal of American Folklore. 27, no. 105 (1914): 241–54. Available from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/534619

Parsons, Elsie C. Folk-lore of the Sea Islands, South Carolina. Memoirs of the American Folk-Lore Society. 16 (1923). Available from: https://hdl.handle.net/2027/njp.32101068189925


Picture of author Faith Mitchell, Ph.D.Dr. Mitchell has a doctorate in medical anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley. In addition to Hoodoo Medicine and a supernatural thriller, The Book of Secrets, Part 1, she has written or edited numerous policy-related publications. For more information and to purchase her books, visit Dr. Mitchell’s website.

Foraging: Find Free Food in the Weeds

By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America

If you’re making a weekend of the Herb Society of America’s annual meeting on April 29 in Asheville, consider going on a wild food adventure with No Taste Like Home.  You’ll forage for wild herbs, “weeds,” and other edibles. Alan Muskat and his expert guides identify what’s edible and common, how to tread lightly, where it’s legal to forage and how much, proper preservation and preparation, and much more.

Foraging saladWhen I was about eight, I loved to lounge in the lawn behind my parents’ light green ranch home. The grass was mixed with clover (edible), dandelions (edible), plantain (edible), chickweed (edible), violets (edible), purslane (edible), ground ivy (edible), onion grass (edible). Who knew I was laying in the salad?

In the good old days, the lawn could be a first course. Not so much today with chemically cultivated homogenous grass.  For many reasons, the perfect lawn became a middle-class American standard and gone was any connection to some of the most sustainable, locavore foods.

Reclaim that culinary heritage with a foraging hike in Asheville, NC.  Alan Muskat’s wild food tour company,  No Taste Like Home, has 30 private hiking spots scoped out to collect edible “weeds.” He has negotiated permission for all of the sites.

Foraging brifeIn January, when we visited, our guide Abby Artemisia handed out little, brown paper bags, round basket with handles round baskets with handles and an affectionately labeled “brifes.” A “brife” is a combo knife and paint brush for picking and cleaning specimens. Ours is a duct-taped prototype that may be followed by the real thing.

20160130_140908We spent three hours stepping around the ten acres surrounding Alan’s home in the mountains a few miles east of downtown Asheville. There we found more than 20 herbs and edibles.  An amazing number for a dormant season.

Among these were white pine needles that are used for seasoning and tea and wild rosehips that are good by themselves, in preserves, or made into tea. Just when it seemed everything was edible, Abby pointed out a few poisonous leaves and berries to avoid as well.

When the hike was over, Abby distributed a sheet to record our “catch of the day.” It listed possibilities found in other seasons such as ramps, wood nettle, autumn berry, and so much more. The list noted which can be particularly hard to identify and which must be cooked.

If we scored 20-plus in mid-winter, imagine the menus you can build with a mid-summer’s collection of mushrooms, berries, flowers and so much more.

Speaking of menu, you can even take your harvest to one of four Asheville restaurants where a top-name chef will transform it into a free appetizer. Kind of like Iron Chef meets Survivor Man.


Creating No Taste Like Home is part of Alan Muskat’s journey to Foraging Alanself-actualization.

About 25 years ago, studying philosophy at Princeton, the Miami native of Cuban ancestry first went hiking, learned to cook, and discovered taoism. These three encounters led to an interest in natural foods. At that point, Alan’s next comment is no surprise: “I decided to drop out, become a hippie and live off the land.”

In the best sense of doublespeak, he continues: “Foraging means taking things as they come. It was grounding for me. It gave me a sense of abundance.”

No Taste Like Home began, quite simply, because Alan ran out of money.  “I fell into it,” he says. “It was an outgrowth what I was already doing for myself. No one else was doing it and I thought, ‘I can teach this.’ I must have gotten the jump on the trend, because in the past three years, my business has twice doubled.”

Pausing, he says that for many reasons, the growing interest in wild food is really inevitable. “We have to get back to what’s truly natural. Even organic agriculture is neither local nor sustainable unless you’re growing what would thrive there on its own.”

Alan is working with Asheville schools to dispel any stigma about “eating weeds.” His company is offering a seven-month training program, starting this April, for people who want to learn to be wild food instructors, whether with his company or elsewhere.

It’s hard for Alan to pick a top wild food. He compares one of his favorites ­– autumn olive juice – to lychee fruit.  He sings the praises of what he calls fairy potato (commonly known as cinnamon vine).  But mushrooms top his list.  Or, then again, maybe it’s amaranth…


What’s your favorite wild edible? Favorite wild herb?

Register for Annual Meeting ON OR AFTER Feb. 9

annual meeting - 2016

Four speakers highlight the agenda for the The Herb Society of America Annual Meeting  on April 29, 2016, in Asheville, North Carolina.

Members recently received a reminder postcard.  Registration begins FEBRUARY 9th.

Follow the above link AFTER that day to sign up.

Add Biltmore to Annual Meeting Plans

Biltmore housefront12x8__large
All photos courtesy of The Biltmore Company

 

By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America

When you plan for this year’s Herb Society of America Annual Meeting  on April 29, 2016, schedule extra time in Asheville, North Carolina. One of the most significant attractions is the 8,000-acre Biltmore Estate.

House tours are self-guided and take 1.5 to two hours. Tickets include a free visit to the property’s winery. You can purchase add-ons such as audio, guided tour, rooftop tour and more.

Biltmore italiangarden12x8Tours of the estate gardens – 2.5 miles of manicured paths — may be more delightful for Herb Society members. Acres of formal and informal gardens were designed by America’s foremost landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted. From the beauty of the Italian Garden to the breathtaking trees in America’s first managed forest, Biltmore’s lush landscape is a living tribute to Olmsted’s genius.

As a century-old model for forest conservation (and, more recently, for sustainability, thanks to nine acres of solar panels), Biltmore continues to honor Vanderbilt’s legacy of environmental protection.

While the property lacks a formal herb garden for visitors to wander, it has a utilitarian kitchen garden for use in the Biltmore’s six, sit-down restaurants. By the end of April, most of the kitchen garden fields will still be at rest.  The only sprouting things will be a couple thousand broccoli plants. The greenhouse, however, will be in full production with microgreens, flowers, lettuce, and herbs.

Field to Table Manager Eli Herman answered a few questions for HSA …

Biltmore production_garden12x10__largeQ. Is there a dedicated herb garden? Kitchen garden? 

A. We don’t have an herb/kitchen garden any more but we do have our Field to Table Production Garden. FTT focuses on larger plantings and less diversity than a kitchen garden.

Q. How big is the garden? 

A.Our current planting is about 2 acres and one 30- by 80-foot greenhouse.

Q. What herbs/produce are grown? 

A. Some of the crops we grow are blackberries, butternut squash, broccoli, tomatoes, fingerling potatoes, and sweet potatoes. We also have a small greenhouse where we grow microgreens, edible flowers and are developing hydroponic production for lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, and chives.

Q. What are the crops used for?

A. Everything grown in FTT is used in one of the six restaurants on the estate.  Our goal is to have something available to every restaurant year round. The chefs determine where they will feature the products

Q. Can the visit the food gardens?  

A. USDA and USFDA food safety guidelines forbid visits by the general public.