Lost in the Sods

By Chrissy Moore

Dolly Sods Wilderness AreaI have a bumper sticker on my car that reads: “I’d rather be lost in the Sods than found in the city.” A friend introduced me to the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area in West Virginia back when I was in college (and back when few people ever ventured that far outside of Washington, DC), and I have been hiking in the West Virginia mountains ever since. They are truly special in so many respects.

One of the main reasons I consider the WV mountains so special is because of the abundant, and often unique, native plants found on the mountain tops and down in the hollers. I am one of those plant nerds that can’t stop hunting for plants, even while on vacation. (What can I say? It becomes an obsession after a while.) Identifying plants in the wild is entertaining enough, but as an herb gardener, I’m always rooting around for the plants’ uses as well to round out the botanical adventure. Many of these plants have been used by the Indigenous Peoples and mountaineers for centuries as medicine, for beverages, for utility, for charms…you name it. Discovering those native gems is often more thrilling than…hmm, can’t think of anything.Gaultheria procumbens leaf and fruit

While not terribly unique in mountain locales, I always love to see Gaultheria procumbens leaves in fall colorGaultheria procumbens (American wintergreen; Eastern teaberry) dotting the forest floor. As heretical as this may sound, I actually dislike the taste of wintergreen, but I find the scent uplifting and enjoy crushing a leaf to release its heavy perfume. The leaves’ fall color is also some of the most beautiful I have seen. Historically, American wintergreen has been used as a flavoring for teas and even chewing gum. According to Foster and Duke (1990), “Traditionally, leaf tea [was] used for colds, headaches, stomachaches, fevers, kidney ailments; externally, wash [was used] for rheumatism, sore muscles, lumbago.” But, care must be taken when consuming Gaultheria. Its essential oils are very toxic when ingested internally.

Vaccinium macrocarpon (American cranberry) is especially exciting, because it grows in very specific conditions that you don’t often encounter during everyday hikes—acidic wetland bogs, usually alongside carnivorous plants and sphagnum mosses at higher altitudes. There are a number of formally recognized bogs or botanical areas in West Virginia, but I stumbled upon my latest find in an off-the-beaten-path trail where a boggy area was the last thing I thought I’d find. It was a small “hidey-hole” of a place, so it was a wonderful botanical surprise.

Cranberries are well-known for their more modern uses in fruit juices, in Thanksgiving side dishes, and medicinally to treat urinary tract infections, though the efficacy of this use remains in question. Many American Indian tribes used cranberry as part of their diet. They used the fruit or made a leaf tea for purifying the blood, as a laxative, and for treating fever, stomach cramps, and colic, or inhaled smoke from burning flowers for “madness” (Foster and Duke; Powwows.com).

Goodyeara procumbens leavesDowny rattlesnake-plantain (Goodyeara pubescens) is a member of the Orchidaceae family and a native herb that I have encountered only once, despite it being a common species of orchid in the mountains of the eastern United States. I spotted it during my recent foray into the southern WV mountains, where it was sparsely distributed amongst the leaf duff under a stand of varying oak (Quercus) species. It is a rather unique-looking plant that I might have missed had I not been tuned into the forest floor. GoodyearaGoodyeara procumbens flowers has dark green leaves with pronounced light-green to white venation arranged in a basal rosette, and the white flowers are born on tall, slender stalks.

Though not used anymore, particularly because it is too infrequent to collect (not that you should collect from the wild anyway!), but doctors would use the leaves to make a poultice for tuberculosis swellings and also as a tea. American Indians used it to treat snakebites, colds, burns, skin ulcers, and more (Foster and Duke, 1990).

Getting “lost in the Sods” (or anywhere in between) is easy when you have an obsession with the plants those mountains support. Fortunately for me, there are endless hollers and high places yet to explore. So, don’t look for me in the city for a very long time!

West Virginia mountainsMedicinal 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) Dolly Sods Wilderness Area; 2) Gaultheria procumbens (wintergreen) leaves and fruit; 3) Gaultheria procumbens fall color; 4 & 5) Vaccinium macrocarpon (American cranberry) leaves and fruit; 6) Goodyeara pubescens (downy rattlesnake-plantain) leaves; 7) Goodyeara pubescens flowers. All photos courtesy of the author.

References/Works Cited

Foster, Steven and James Duke. 1990. Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants. Peterson Field Guides. Houghton Mifflin. New York, New York.

North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox. Gaultheria procumbens. https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/gaultheria-procumbens/. Accessed 20 January 2023.

Powwows.com. 2013. “Cranberries were a Native American superfood.” https://www.powwows.com/cranberries-were-a-native-american-superfood/. Accessed 22 January 2023.

United States Forest Service. “Cranberry Glades Botanical Area.” https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/mnf/recarea/?recid=9913. Accessed 22 January 2023.


Chrissy Moore is the curator of the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, DC. Aside from garden maintenance in the NHG, Chrissy lectures, provides tours, and writes on various herbal topics. She serves as co-blogmaster of The Herb Society’s blog, is a member of the Potomac Unit of The Herb Society of America, and is an International Society of Arboriculture Certified Arborist. When not doing herbie things, she can be found looking after many horses.

Herb of the Month: Ginger – An Ancient Spice

By Maryann Readal

Ginger inflorescenceGinger, Zingiber officinale, is The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for January. The English botanist, William Roscoe (1753-1831), gave ginger its name, which was derived from the Sanskrit word sryngaveram, which means “horn root.” However, ginger is not a root; it is a rhizome, which is an underground stem from which the roots grow. Ginger is an excellent spice to feature in January, because when infused into warm water, its spiciness warms the body on a cold winter day. Its medicinal qualities also help to relieve a sore throat or other cold symptoms that are more common in the winter.

Drawing of Arab merchants trading gingerGinger is a very old spice. The Indians and the Chinese used ginger as a medicine over 5000 years ago to treat a variety of ailments (Bode, 2011). It was also used to flavor foods long before history was even recorded. The Greeks and the Romans introduced ginger to Europe and the Mediterranean area by way of the Arab traders. It became an important spice in Europe until the fall of the Roman Empire. When the Arabs re-established trade routes after the fall, ginger found its way back into European apothecaries and kitchens. It is said that one pound of ginger cost the same as one sheep in the 13th and 14th centuries (Bode, 2011). (It’s hard to imagine something that is so common today was so expensive many years ago.) The Arab traders were also good marketers. They brought with them claims that ginger was a reliable aphrodisiac. As late as the 19th century, it was claimed that rubbing your hands in ground ginger would assure success in the bed chamber (Laws, 2018). Perhaps it was their successful marketing that created the demand for the rhizome, driving up its price.

Growing gingerToday, growing culinary ginger is not limited to the hot, humid areas of Southeast Asia and India as it was long ago. Anyone living in southern growing areas (USDA Hardiness Zones 8 – 12) can grow it as a perennial. In colder areas, it can be grown in pots and brought indoors for the winter or grown in the ground, but dug up before frost and potted up for overwintering indoors in a cool location. It prefers a rich, moist soil, good drainage, and shade in the south, but full sun in the north. If starting plants from store-bought ginger rhizomes, the rhizome should be first soaked in water to remove any growth retardant that may have been used. Each rhizome can be cut into sections with at least two eyes and planted in soil. Harvest the rhizomes when the leaves begin to fade. 

There are many beautiful ornamental gingers that are in the Zingiberaceae family that are easy to grow in warm climates. There are shell, butterfly, spiral, hidden, and peacock gingers, each with a unique bloom and bright color. All provide tropical accents in the garden.

Savory Asian and Indian cuisines would be unthinkable without ginger, but in Europe, it is added to puddings, cakes, and drinks. Ginger is used in teas in many countries as well. In some parts of the Middle East, it is added to coffee. On the Ivory Coast, ginger is ground and added to juiced fruit. And how much more tasty Japanese sushi is with those slices of pink, pickled ginger! Here in the U.S., we have ginger ale and ginger beer, gingersnaps, and gingerbread. In Hawaii, ginger flowers are one of the flowers used in making leis. Googling ginger and cooking will find many, many interesting recipes Sushi with pickled ginger, wasabi and soy sauceusing ginger in some form: fresh, ground, crystallized, pickled, preserved, or dried. 

Ginger is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Some medicinal applications of ginger that are supported by contemporary research are for the treatment of motion sickness, nausea, osteoarthritis, and muscle pain reduction (Engels, 2018). According to Bohm, “ginger also appears to reduce cholesterol and improve lipid metabolism, thereby helping to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.” It also shows promise as an anti-cancer agent against colon cancer.

Photo of Jamaican ginger juiceUnfortunately for ginger, there is a dark side to its history. Throughout the 19th Century, a patent medicine, Ginger Juice (also Jamaica ginger), or “Jake” as it was popularly called, was widely sold on street corners and in pharmacies in the U.S. It contained alcohol and a ginger extract and was used as a treatment for headaches, upper respiratory infections, menstrual disorders, and intestinal gas. Even though it had a pungent ginger flavor, it became a sought-after alcoholic drink in U.S. counties where alcohol was prohibited. When Prohibition came along in 1920, medicines with a high alcohol content, such as Ginger Juice, became especially popular. The U.S. government put in place measures to control inappropriate use of these patent medicines; alcohol-based medicines were only available with a prescription. The Prohibition Bureau (naively) considered Ginger Juice to be non-potable and too pungent and possibly did not think people would misuse it. However, Ginger Juice continued to be a popular and inexpensive “drink.”

Washington Post article about Jamaican ginger lawsuitTo circumvent the government’s restrictions/regulations placed on Ginger Juice, one manufacturer began adulterating the medicine by adding the compound tri-orthocresyl phosphate to its product. This created the illusion of pure Ginger Juice to fool the government officials, but ultimately resulted in a very toxic drink for the consumers. Soon, Ginger Juice users began reporting that they lost control of their hands and feet. They developed a peculiar walk, where their toes would touch the ground before their heels. It was called the Jake Walk or Jake Leg. Between 30,000 – 50,000 (some even estimate up to 100,000) people (Fortin, 2020) were affected before the government could remove the contaminated product from the market. Some recovered, but many did not.  This unfortunate event has been the subject of many blues songs and some books and movies. This incident contributed to the passage of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938, which prohibited the marketing of new drugs that were not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

This winter, warm up with ginger. For more information and recipes for ginger, please see The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month webpage.

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) Ginger inflorescence (Maryann Readal); 2) Arab merchants trading ginger (public domain); 3) Growing ginger (Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder); 4) Alpinia zerumbet ‘Variegata’  (variegated shell ginger) and Curcuma petiolata (hidden ginger) (Maryann Readal); 5) Japanese sushi with pickled ginger (Creative Commons, wuestenigel); 6) 19th-century Jamaican juice (Wikimedia Commons, public domain); 7) Washington Post article about Jamaican Juice lawsuit (Wikimedia Commons, public domain).

References

Bhatt, Neeru, et al. 2013. Ginger : a functional herb. Accessed 12/1/22. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/257416254_Ginger_A_functional_herb

Bode, Ann. 2011. The amazing and mighty ginger.  Boca Raton, FL. CRC Press/Taylor Francis. Accessed 12/11/22. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK92775/

Engels, Gayle. 2018. The history and mystery of the Zingiberaceae family. Round Top, TX, Herbal Forum.

Fortin, Neal. 2020. Jamaica Juice paralysis. Accessed 12/9/22. https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/jamaican-ginger-paralysis 

Ginger, Zingiber officinale. 2018. Accessed 12/1/22. https://mastergardener.extension.wisc.edu/files/2018/02/Zingiber_officinale.pdf

Ginger. 2022. Accessed 12/25/22. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ginger

Laws, Bill. 2018. Fifty plants that changed the course of history. Ohio: David & Charles Books. 


Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America and a Texas Master Gardener. She is a member of The Society’s Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. Maryann is also a certified Native Landscape Specialist. She lectures on herbs and plants and does the herb training for several Master Gardener programs. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.

Sloe Gin – A Marriage of Prunus and Juniperus

By David McDaniel

White flowers on Prunus spinosaIn the U.S. National Arboretum, a few little thorny trees bearing small astringent fruits are tucked away in a research field. These trees are called blackthorn (Prunus spinosa). The fruits, called sloes, are very bitter, and when eaten raw, will dry out your mouth in a second. Generally, they’re unpleasant until frozen, and even after that, they are not great. But when steeped in gin with sugar, the flavor and color of the resulting drink is comparable to a sweet red wine.

Prunus might be a familiar genus, containing the cherry, plum, and apricot to name a few. Prunus spinosa generally stays small and blooms a brilliant white in mid spring (Fern, 2022). The fruits are not useful for very much until frozen, when the cold breaks down the astringent compounds (Fern, 2022); however, the fruits are plentiful in many parts of England owing to their presence in many hedges. The branches are Flowering Prunus spinosa in hedgerowthorny, and trunks can grow densely together making blackthorn ideal for use in hedgerows, where it was employed heavily in that role in England after the Enclosure Act. The Enclosure Act was the creation of private land in England, and landowners wanted what was in their lands kept in and what was outside kept out (Shaw, 2016). Therefore, a spiny tree with tough wood was perfect for their needs. Most hedges were a mix of different species, and blackthorn was often included in the mix. 

Common juniper (Juniperus communis) fruit is the only required herb in the creation of gin. No juniper, no gin. You can add whatever other ingredients you want, and it will still be a gin as long as it meets the next requirement: gin must be 40% alcohol by volume (Department of Treasury, 2007). Gin was first marketed in the Netherlands in the mid-1600s by Franciscus de la Boe as a medicinal tonic. But, people really liked it…to the point where people made up a lot of “illnesses” that could only be remedied by this new tonic (Ciesla, 1998). It became a regular drinking spirit not too long afterward and eventually made its way to England in 1700 (Ciesla, 1998; Forsyth, 2019). 

The earliest mention of sloes in alcohol is in the book, British Wonders, by the satirical poet and London tavern owner, Ned Ward, published in 1717. It is a densely written chronology of what Ned Ward perceived as societal ills in post-Queen Anne Britain. Within his 18th-century description of the Gin Craze, Ward says, “But made at home twixt Chip and Dash, Of Sugar, Sloes and Grocers Trash.” The use of the phrase “Grocer’s Trash” in this line could be a reference to the ingredients of the homemade alcohols made by anyone interested in cashing in on the popularity of gin. In an effort to make these homemade alcohols appear as Juniperus communis fruit and foliagelow class and horrible as possible, the author specifically refers to their ingredients as something a grocer would trim off of their goods or refuse to sell. This is, perhaps, specifically in reference to the juniper berries in gin not being used for much else in England at the time. The Gin Craze Ward speaks of was when cheap spirits, mostly gin, reached London, England. The popularity of gin was the result of various factors: 1) spirits becoming easier to distill; 2) economic protectionism from the British monarchy against the French; and 3) the expansion of London (Vorel, 2020). Essentially, there was a new monarch that wanted to shield Britain from France, and in turn, hurt the French. So, there were tariffs on French goods, including the drink of choice at the time—brandy.

Gin Lane by William Hogarth, 1751

Gin Lane by William Hogarth, 1751

It was already expensive and a special niche drink as a result, but those looking for liquor had to turn elsewhere, and gin was easy to distill using poor quality grain masked by juniper. The new accessibility of stills, and the lack of government oversight into the practice of distilling, meant that the price per gallon dropped below that of beer (Vorel, 2020). The population boom of London was brought on by once-rural farmers moving to the city for work. This was after the Enclosure Act forced them out of the communal fields. Jobs were not guaranteed in London, so money was tight; therefore, cheap spirits were the go-to for wetting their whistles (Vorel, 2020). As a side note, “gin” in the Gin Craze wasn’t the gin we think of today. It was incredibly strong and was mixed with things like sulfuric acid and turpentine to add “bite.” These adulterants made it toxic (Forsyth, 2019). The early drink was called “Madam Geneva” by some in London due to the original marketing of it as “Jenever,” the Dutch word for juniper, and Geneva is a similar sounding city in the Netherlands (Ciesla, 1998; Forsyth, 2019). It was then shortened to “gin” in 1714, giving us the name we now know (Online Etymology Dictionary, n.d.). 

Sloe Fruit Prunus spinosa Nobury Inkberrow WorcestershireSloe gin is made by adding 500g of sloes and 250g of sugar into a liter of gin and then letting it steep for two to three months. The resulting solution is bottled after running it through a filter to catch any skins or other undesirable bits. This is then decanted into bottles, where it continues to mature until enjoyed (Cadogan, 2014). Sloe gin is traditionally enjoyed straight and warm, but when sloe gin reached America in the early 1900s, it became popularized by the Sloe Gin Fizz cocktail (Lee, n.d.). The tradition of drinking sloe gin warm may be a product of the fruit being picked around mid-October and the preparation taking three months to reach initial maturity. The drink would be truly ready to enjoy in the middle of winter, but would be “good enough” on or around Christmas, when a warm beverage would be a treat on a chilly day. 

After hunting around town for a while, I finally found some sloe gin to try for myself. Because it may not be readily available in all areas, I recommend going to a really large liquor store, which is bound to have some. Sloe gin is typically less than 40% abv, so it might be with the cordials as opposed to the gin section. I tried two different kinds. One was a straight sloe gin, just gin and sloes. It was delicious. I loved the sweet plummy flavor and the slight punch of juniper from the gin. When mixed in a Gin and Tonic or a French Mule instead of taken straight, it is a sweet variation on these traditional favorites. Another bottle was a more complex sipping gin that had, including sloes: grapefruit, angelica, jasmine, bitter orange, lemon, cassia, coriander, and orris. (Perhaps a list for blog articles!) All of the other flavors, including the focus on citrus, were tasted throughout the gin. It was a much more challenging drink, and was enjoyed best over ice and slowly sipped to taste every flavor more independently, as opposed to all at once in a shot. This botanical sloe gin does not mix well with traditional mixers such as tonic or ginger beer. It’s a balancing act of flavors, and my mixing skills could not thread that needle. Perhaps someone more skilled than I could make that mix taste good, but I could not. 

I like alcohols that have unique flavors not found elsewhere in other culinary pursuits. The unique flavors that come from the distillation, fermentation, or other processes performed in the production of alcohol, make them special. When drinking, I would prefer something unique as opposed to another cider or lemonade experience. Sloe gin is another I’ll add to my repertoire of unique experiences to enjoy only in alcohol.

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) White flowers of Prunus spinosa (John Winder); 2) Prunus spinosa at U.S. National Arboretum (John Winder); 3) Juniperus communis foliage and fruit (Chemazgz, Openverse Creative Commons); 4) Gin Lane by William Hogarth, 1751 (Public Domain); 5) Prunus spinosa sloes (rodtuck, Openverse Creative Commons); 6 & 7) Sloe gin (David McDaniel).

References

Cadogan, M. 2014. Sloe gin recipe. BBC Good Food. Accessed on: 22 November 2022. Available from: https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/sloe-gin 

Ciesla, W.M. 1998. Non-wood forest products from conifers. Food and agriculture organization of the United Nations. Rome: FAO. 

Department of Treasury. 2007. The Beverage and Alcohol Manual. Department of Treasury. 

Fern, K. 2022. Prunus spinosa. Useful temperate plants. Accessed November 22, 2022. Available from: https://temperate.theferns.info/plant/Prunus+spinosa 

Forsyth, M. 2019. The 18th-century Craze for Gin. Accessed on: November 22, 2022. Available from: https://www.historyextra.com/period/georgian/gin-craze-panic-18th-century-london-when-came-england-alcohol-drinking-history/ 

Lee, L. Drink in History: Sloe Gin Fizz. Accessed on November 22, 2022. Available from: https://chilledmagazine.com/drink-in-history-sloe-gin-fizz/ 

Online Etymology Dictionary. Gin. Accessed on: November 22, 2022. Available from: https://www.etymonline.com/word/gin 

Shaw, M. 2016. The Commodification of a Blade of Grass: Enclosure in England. University of Georgia. Accessed on November 22, 2022 Available from: https://ctlsites.uga.edu/whatthehistory/the-commodification-of-a-blade-of-grass-enclosure-in-england/ 

Sipsmith. 2015. Exploring the History of Sloe Gin. Sipsmith Blog Accessed on November 30, 2022. Available from: https://sipsmith.com/exploring-the-history-of-sloe-gin/ 

Ward, N. 1717. British Wonders. Accessed on 22 November 2022. Available from: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/British_Wonders 

Woodland Trust. Hedgerows. Woodland Trust Accessed on 30 November 2022. Available from: https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/trees-woods-and-wildlife/habitats/hedgerows/ 

Vorel, J. 2020. The Gin Craze: When 18th Century London Tried to Drink Itself to Death. Paste Magazine. Accessed on 7 December 2022. Available from: The Gin Craze: When 18th Century London Tried to Drink Itself to Death – Paste (pastemagazine.com)


David McDaniel is the National Herb Garden intern for the 2022-2023 season, where he’s digging into the herbal uses of plants, as well as learning the ins and outs of public gardening.

DANCING IN BLUE

By Katherine Schlosser

Indigofera suffruticosaI remember the first dress that made me feel good about myself. I was 17 and looking for something to wear to a dance, not formal, not cocktail, but a Sunday dress, as we called them so many years ago. It was a slim dress (I could get away with that in those days), with three-quarter length sleeves, a prim boat neckline, and a wide shiny ribbon sash at the waist. The dress was indigo blue. I remember nothing about the boy or the dance, but I still remember the dress.

Indigofera tinctoria, indigo, a member of the Fabaceae family, has that effect on people. The dye it produces is exotic, soothing, luxurious. A color of devotion, wisdom, and justice. For all its attributes, it has also been the cause of much labor for planters, free men of color, and slaves over the years, requiring large numbers of laborers to grow and harvest enough leaves to produce the dye.

The oldest record I know of is a small piece of 6000-year-old cotton cloth on which the indigo dye is still detectable. This was discovered in a preceramic site of Huaca Prieta on the north coast of Peru during an archeological dig. Other snippets of dyed cloth, wool, and silk from archeological digs were dated 1,500 years later than those in Peru. Those others were found in archeological sites from India and Africa, to Italy, Greece and in Europe, as well as in South America.

Woad-dyed fabricThere are other plants that produce a blue dye, especially Isatis tinctoria, woad, a primary competitor with indigo. But none have quite the same opulent quality as indigo, or the stability. 

Indigo grows around the globe in tropical to subtropical areas. In the United States, we have eight native indigo species, most centered in the southeast. Several will produce indigo dye but not always of top quality. Indigofera suffruticosa, also known as añil, produces a rich, stable color close to I. tinctoria, as does I. guatemalensis, or Guatemalan indigo. I. caroliniana makes a nice dye, but paler. Indigofera tinctoria, true indigo, is the best, and seeds of the plants were brought to this country in the 1700s and grown in Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, and Tennessee to produce dye for commercial use.

Indigofera tinctoria can grow from 3 to 5 feet tall with light green pinnate leaves (with 4 – 7 pairs of leaflets) and sweet pink or violet flowers that bloom in July or August. In its native tropical Africa, south central Asia, Mexico, and South America, it can be either perennial or annual, or even evergreen in warmer locations. It grows best in full sun, with a little shade from the hottest part of the day, and needs regular rainfall. It also has been used in the past for a variety of medical ailments, and against insect and serpent stings or bites.

It requires 30 tons of indigo leaves (one acre) to produce about 26 pounds of pigment. Leaves are harvested, separated from stems, dried, and processed to produce the pigment. That happens after the land has been prepared, seeds planted, weeding on a daily basis (plants don’t do well when crowded), and harvested twice a year.  The labor required is intense, and in the 1700s and 1800s, was usually managed by slave labor and/or free men of color.

Indigofera tinctoriaThose who worked in the fields were subject to more than just hard work in the hot sun. Many had to endure the “putrid effluvia of the coastal swamps,” as well as stagnant pond water and mosquitoes. Disease and death was not uncommon in southern fields.

Eventually, so many planters around the world were growing and exporting indigo that the market began to collapse. More than a million pounds of dye had been exported from the U.S. in 1775. In the southern U.S., cotton gained notice, along with rice, as indigo was removed and replaced. Indigo plants deplete the soil of nutrients rather quickly, so frequent labor-intense alternating of crops was necessary as well. Some planters still grew indigo but on a smaller scale.  

True indigo is still grown commercially. There are artists who grow their own plants and process them to make the pigment they need for the renowned deep blue. A 5mL (.17 oz) tube of watercolor sells for $10, and a 37 mL (1.25 ounce) of oil paint sells for about $18. When you buy artwork, you are not only paying for creativity, but for materials as well!

Six shades of indigo-dyed cottonSynthetic indigo is common now with the advantage of lower cost. As is often the case, lower cost doesn’t always mean equal products, and in this case, synthetic indigo carries the costs of diminished depth of color and damage to the environment. Unlike natural indigo, synthetic indigo is dependent on petrochemicals for processing, which are toxic and require appropriate disposal, adding to the expense. Water remaining from natural indigo processing is free of chemicals and can safely be returned to the earth. 

Indigo appears in clothing, on pottery and ceramics, and on artists’ palettes. It is also in every rainbow most of us see, though not everyone can see it. In the spectrum of colors—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet—for some, distinguishing between blue and violet is difficult.  Spotting the indigo is considered a sign of hope, joy, or for some, luck. With the next rainbow you see, search for the indigo and give a little thought to the human costs that brought that beautiful color to our palettes.

And think about that pretty indigo-blue dress on a shy teenage girl who sees indigo in rainbows.

Indigo species in the U.S. and the states in which they are native:

Indigofera caroliniana Mill., Carolina indigo – NC, SC, GA, FL, AL, MS, LA

Indigofera colutea (Burm. f.) Merr., rusty indigo – FL 

*Indigofera decora Lindl., Chinese indigo – GA 

Indigofera guatemalensis Moc. & Sessé ex Prain & Backer, Guatemalan indigo – PR, VI

*Indigofera hendecaphylla Jacq., trailing indigo – FL 

*Indigofera hirsuta L., hairy indigo – SC, GA, AL, FL 

*Indigofera kirilowii Maxim. Ex Palib., Kirilow’s indigo – TN  

*Indigofera lindheimeriana Scheele, Lindheimer’s indigo – TX 

Indigofera miniate Ortega, coastal indigo – TX, OK, KS, AL, GA, FL

Indigofera oxycarpa Desv., Asian indigo – FL (threatened)

*Indigofera parviflora K. Heyne ex Wight & Arn., nom. Inq. – AL  

Indigofera pilosa Poir., soft hairy indigo – FL

Indigofera sphaerocarpa A. Gray, Sonoran indigo – NM, AZ

Indigofera suffruticosa Mill.,  Anil de pasto – TX, LA, GA, SC, NC, FL, PR, VI

*Indigofera tinctoria L., true indigo – NC, SC, MI, TN, PR, VI, NAV 

*= non native species growing in the U.S.


¹ History of Indigo & Indigo Dyeing.  Indigo History, WildColors, http://www.wildcolours.co.uk/html/indigo_history.html. Accessed 7-08-2022.

² Winberry, John J. 1979.  Indigo in South Carolina: A historical geography. Southeastern Geographer. Vol. 19, No. 2, p.91-102. Available online:  https://www.jstor.org/stable/44370692?seq=1&cid=pdf-reference#references_tab_contents. Accessed 08-07-2022.

Photo Credits: 1) Indigofera suffruticosa (Kohler’s Medicinal Plants, 1887, Public domain); 2) Woad-dyed fabric (Local Color Dyes, http://www.localcolordyes.com); 3 & 4) Añil-dyed fabric (Norma Schafer: Oaxaca Cultural Navigator); 5) Indigofera tinctoria (Kurt Stuber, Creative Commons); 6) Indigo-dyed fabric (Affordable-kind-craft.com.au).

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.

References

Butler, Nic. Indigo in the South Carolina Lowcountry: A brief synopsis. Available at Charleston Tine Machine at Charleston Public Library. www.ccpl.org/charleston-time-machine.

de Marigny de Mandeville, Philippe. April 29, 1709. Memoir on Louisiana. Dunbar Rowland and Albert G. Sanders (ed. & trans.), Mississippi Provincial Archives, French Dominion (3 vols., Paris, 1953-1966), III, 350.

Garrigus, John. 1993. Blue and brown: Contraband indigo and the rise of a free colored planter class in French Saint-Domingue. The Americas. Vol. 50, No. 2. October 1993, pp. 233-263.  https://www.jstor.org/stable/1007140. Accessed August 7, 2022. 

Holmes, Jack D. 1967. Indigo in Colonial Louisiana and the Floridas. Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association. Vol. 8, No. 4, Autumn 1967, pp. 329-349.

International Center for Indigo Culture, Sapelo Island, Georgia.  https://www.internationalcenterforindigoculture.org/home 

Kumar, Prakash. 2016. Plantation indigo and synthetic indigo: European planters and the redefinition of a Colonial commodity. Comparative Studies in Society and History. Vol. 58, No. 2, pp. 407-431. Available online: https://jstor.org/stable/43908426. Accessed 07-08-2022.

Kuta, Sarah. 2022. Cherokee Nation members can now gather plants on national park land. Good News, Smart News, Smithsonian Magazine online. April 22, 2022. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/cherokee-nation-members-can-now-gather-plants-on-national-park-land-180979965/. Accessed 07-10-2022.

Nash, R. C. 1992. South Carolina and the Atlantic economy in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Economic History Review, New Series. Vol. 45, No. 4 (Nov. 1992), pp. 677-702. Available online: https://www.jstor.org/stable/2597414. Accessed 08-08-2022.

Pattanaik, Lopa, Satya Narayan Naik, P. Hariprasad, Susant Kumar Padhi. 2021. Influence of various oxidation parameter(s) for natural indigo dye formation from Indigofera tinctoria L. biomass. Environmental Challenges 4. Elsevier B.V. Open Access, available online: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envc.2021.100157. Accessed 07-10-2022.

Rembert, Jr., David H. 1979. The indigo of commerce in Colonial North America. Economic Botany. Vol. 33, No. 2 (Apr – Jun, 1979), pp. 128-134.

Shields, Jesslyn. 2020. The dark history of indigo, slavery’s other cash crop. Available online:  https://history.howstuffworks.com/world-history/indigo.htm. Accessed 08-06-2022.

Sharrer, G. Terry. 1971. The indigo bonanza in South Carolina, 1740-90. Technology and Culture. Vol. 12, No. 3 (Jul. 1971), pp. 447-455. Available online: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3102998. Accessed  08-07-2022.

Splitstoser, C., T. D. Dillehay, J. Wouters, A. Claro, Early pre-Hispanic use of indigo blue in Peru. Sci. Adv. 2, e1501623 (2016). Available online: https://www.science.org/doi/epdf/10.1126/sciadv.1501623. Accessed 09-18-2022.

The manner of cultivating the indigo plant, C.W., Charles Town, S. Carolina, 1754, The Gentleman’s Magazine, printed by F. Jeffries, etc., 1755. Available online: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015020178300&view=1up&seq=248. Accessed 08-06-2022.


Katherine Schlosser (Kathy) has been a member of the North Carolina Unit of The Herb Society of America since 1991, serving in many capacities at the local and national level, including as a member of the Native Herb Conservation Committee, The Herb Society of America. She was awarded the Gertrude B. Foster Award for Excellence in Herbal Literature and the Helen de Conway Little Medal of Honor. She is an author, lecturer, and native herb conservation enthusiast eager to engage others in the study and protection of our native herbs.

400-Year Old Seeds, Nuts, and Other Artifacts—Archaeological Plant Finds From Jamestown, Virginia

By Leah Stricker

Did you know that seeds, nuts, and even leaves can survive in the ground for many years, even millennia? Paleoethnobotany, the study of archaeologically recovered plants and plant elements, can tell us many things about how humans have interacted with plants throughout history. Archaeobotanists seek to answer questions like: 

“What were the people of this culture eating?” 

“How were plants harvested?” 

“Were seeds and nuts being stored in specific places on a site?” 

“How were meals prepared?” 

“What was the role of plants in medicinal practices?”  

“Which types of plants were used as construction material, fuel, or cooking fires?”

“How did this plant come to be domesticated?”

Historic Jamestowne

Aerial view of Historic Jamestowne

Of course, there are numerous other research avenues that archaeobotanists study, but the above questions are some of those that archaeologists working at the site of America’s first permanent English colony, Jamestown, have pondered as they have recovered amazing finds from the site. The Jamestown Rediscovery archaeological project is an ongoing archaeological investigation of 22.5 acres of Jamestown Island in Virginia. The land was occupied by various Virginia Indian groups (see Note) prior to the arrival of the English and other Europeans. By 1607, the Powhatan tribe had become the most powerful group in the region, and they accessed the island seasonally. Wahunsenacawh, the chief whom the English called Powhatan, had centralized power from a number of individual groups, and he ruled from the village of Werowocomoco, a site not far from what became James Fort. Archaeological work at Jamestown indicates that there was much interaction between these two groups during the fort period (ca. 1607-1624), both collaborative and destructive. The botanical remains currently under investigation support finds like Virginia Indian-produced ceramics, shell beads, and locally made bone and stone tools, including over 400 projectile points, highlighting this volatile relationship. 

Recent botanical work at Jamestown Rediscovery was initiated thanks to funding from the Surrey Skiffes Creek Curation, Conservation, and Research Collection Plan. An ambitious project is underway that includes many facets, hopefully to be covered in future posts! This blog will focus on some of the recently identified and cataloged macrobotanical material, or plant artifacts that can be seen with the naked eye. These seeds, nuts, and other plant elements have survived for so long, because they have been preserved in one of two ways. If the seeds or other plant parts were burned, they became carbonized material instead of organic. They are no longer subject to microbial activity, and they will survive as tiny artifacts for a very long time. Other seeds and plant parts are preserved, because they were deposited and found in waterlogged environments. Similar to a shipwreck, if organic items like seeds or wood are waterlogged, microbes that need oxygen to survive are not present to break down the material.

At the beginning of this project, only a few formal archaeobotanical analyses had taken place using samples from Jamestown. These began to highlight the use of local plants, and perhaps the most notably recovered evidence from only three tiny seeds dating to ca. 1610–1617, the presence of tobacco in seventeenth-century Virginia.

Tobacco seed

Tobacco seed

This find confirmed what researchers had investigated through historical documentation. Ralph Hamor, Secretary of Virginia, recorded in 1612 that John Rolfe began experimenting with plantings of tobacco seeds he had gathered in the Caribbean. While there was a local variety of tobacco (Nicotiana rustica) already growing in Virginia, it was considered too strong and bitter tasting by the English. Rolfe had imported and developed Nicotiana tabaccum, the tobacco variety that became the primary export from Virginia from the seventeenth century until the mid-2000s. 

The botanical finds from Jamestown analyzed and reported on by professional archaeobotanists have now been cataloged into Jamestown’s digital database system. This allows curators to understand the assemblage of botanical material on the whole instead of within the individual reports. Other finds, recovered by archaeologists during regular excavation and screening practices on the site, have also been cataloged, and their species identified, when possible. This data shows us some intriguing information. 

1,779 seeds have been found on the site recovered by archaeologists and analyzed by archaeobotanical experts. Only 317 of these are unidentified. Of the others, over 30 species are represented, overwhelmingly locally found varieties. Some of the most commonly represented species include Cucurbita sp. (pumpkin or squash), Passiflora incarnata (passionflower), Diospyros virginiana (persimmon), Vitis sp. (grape), Vaccinium sp. (blueberry), and Zea mays (corn).

Nutshells during sorting process. On the left are black walnut shells, on the right are hickory nut shells

Nutshells during sorting process. On the left are black walnut shells, on the right are hickory nut shells

5,155 nut shells have been recovered from the site. Only 93 are unidentified. Of the others, only six species are represented. The nut finds are almost entirely hickory and black walnut, both locally available species. Only a small number of acorns (Quercus sp.) have been recovered

Other plant parts, including grape vines, leaves, pumpkin rind, pine cones, and many wood fragments—both cut, perhaps, from construction of the palisade walls or early mud and stud structures, and naturally occurring woods, like twigs—build a bigger picture of the types of foods consumed and other ways in which plants were being used at Jamestown 400 years ago.

Wood, possibly staves to a small cask

Wood, possibly staves to a small cask

The assemblage indicates that the colonists were consuming locally available fruits and nuts, pumpkin or squash, and corn. The colonists, more than once, wrote that supplies sent from England were spoiled or full of worms. They would have needed to supplement their diet with foods they could find locally. Corn was written about as a food, but perhaps more often, corn was referenced as a resource that was taken or given, depending on the political nature of the day.

Many of these species are mentioned by the colonists in their own records. The grape seeds and vine (Vitis sp.) may have been part of the first attempts to make Virginia wine. John Smith records these early efforts but indicates that the product was not as good as what was available in Europe at the time. However, in August, 1619, the newly established Virginia House of Burgesses codified grape production by requiring households to plant and cultivate at least 10 grape vines yearly.

Passiflora sp. seeds

Passiflora sp. seeds

Smith also wrote about a fruit that the inhabitants call Maracocks [was a]…pleasant wholesome fruit much like a lemon.” Here, he is describing the fruit of the purple passionflower or maypop (Passiflora incarnata), a species related to tropical passionfruits (Passiflora edulis, P. ligularis). 

It is not known whether the English would have prepared the hickory nuts in this way, but Smith also records pawcohiscora, or hickory milk, as a substantial beverage consumed by the Virginia Indians. The nuts were ground into small pieces and then steeped in water, not dissimilar from today’s almond, soy, and oat milks!

Hickory nuts (Carya sp.)

Hickory nuts (Carya sp.)

Although many of us learn about the “three sisters”—corn, beans, and squash—being the predominant diet of many Native American tribal groups, this does not appear to have been the case, at least at James Fort. Beans are represented by only two seeds in the assemblage. This could be due to the nature of food preparation and preservation of beans, but corn and squash are found in much greater numbers, and more parts of the plant have been recovered. 

More work is currently underway that will contribute to this initial data, continuing to build upon our knowledge of plants and how they were used in seventeenth-century Virginia. Please join us at Historic Jamestowne and see archaeology in action! We are open seven days a week and would love to share our finds with you. Learn more at https://historicjamestowne.org/.

Historic Jamestowne

Historic Jamestowne

Author’s Note: Jamestown Rediscovery uses the term “Virginia Indian,” because we’ve been told that is what the tribes (at least the individuals we have relationships with) call themselves. I am sure that there is a wide variety, even amongst Virginia tribal members as to preferences, but that is what we go with institutionally.

Photo Credits: All photos courtesy of Jamestown Rediscovery.


Leah Stricker is the Curator of Jamestown Rediscovery, Historic Jamestown, Preservation Virginia. She earned a Masters of Science from the University College London and a B.A. and B.S. from the VA Polytechnic Institute and University. She has held numerous positions within the field of archaeology both in the United States and abroad.

The Feeling of Harvests to Come

by Beth Schreibman Gehring

“After Lammas Day, corn ripens as much by night as by day.” – Author unknown

Loaves of bread, piles of grain, and a sheaf of wheatThe ancient origins of the word Lammas comes from the Old English hlaf, “loaf,” and maesse, “mass” or “feast.” Through the centuries, “loaf-mass” became the celebration that many of us know today as Lammas Day, although some refer to this day as Lughnasadh.

Lammas Day or Lughnasadh (August 1st or 2nd) marks the beginning of the harvest season, and is a time to give thanks and count our blessings for the rich and ancient fertility of the land. Our ancestors, people who tended to and revered the land for their very survival, spent this day together, gathering and preparing grains to bake sacred loaves that marked what would hopefully be the beginning of an abundant harvest season. It was a beautiful celebration of nature’s bounty and on this day still, loaves of bread are baked from the first-ripened grain and brought to churches all around the world to be consecrated. Some cultures still call this day “The Feast of Bread.”

In Ireland, it is still completely customary to give lovely baskets of freshly picked blueberries to your sweetheart to honor this ancient harvest festival. Many begin to make sweet meads and ales on this day, another way of preserving the abundance of the ripening fruits. Kneading and baking lovely breads and baking old fashioned fruit-filled pies are a traditional Lughnasadh activity. You might try to make a delicious blueberry boxty, which is a traditional shredded potato pancake topped with butter, sugar, and a fresh blueberry compote!

A basket of blueberriesThere is still an ancient county fair held in Ballycastle Ireland called the Auld Lammas Fair. This fair is held every year on the last Monday and Tuesday of August and is associated with the Lammas harvest festival. It has taken place for nearly 400 years, and it dates back to the 17th century. Interestingly enough, this timing is familiar to us. So many of our own county fairs are held during this time, and it is lovely to think that we are continuing these ancient celebrations from a time when legend and magic blended with everyday life well into our own time. A brief video of the fair can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f4zfmrT-OdU

Lughnasadh was named for the ancient Celtic god Lugh, who has long been associated with the powerful energies of fire and the sun. This was the time to begin preparing for the cold and barren winter months, by harvesting the first grains and beginning the long and arduous process of preserving meats, cheeses, fruits, and vegetables so that there would hopefully be enough to eat as long as the cold weather endured. It would be easy enough to know whether the coming days would be of feast or famine because one look at the branches and vines would tell you what you could expect. Very often the harvest would be scarce, and new plans would have to be made and resources parceled and shared with the entire community.

People sitting in chairs outside, eating under treesHowever you celebrate it this year, Lammas or Lughnasadh begins on the first of August, falling halfway between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox. I celebrate this day as a harvest celebration, sometimes by myself and sometimes with my neighbors. It is always such a beautiful time of year. The first soft fruits and vegetables have begun to ripen and the trees are heavily laden with lavish canopies of pears, plums, apples, and more.  It is high summer and the days are slowly beginning to shorten, but the warm evening air is always filled with such sweet garden scents and the coming promise of autumn’s abundance. Everywhere you turn or step, the hum of honeybees and other pollinators surrounds you. At night, all of the fireflies begin to dance around, lighting up the sky and making even the oldest of us long to catch a bit of that light for a minute in a glass mason jar, the same way we did when we were children.

In these modern days, it’s easy to forget just how dependent we are upon the whims of our climate with its quick and violent changes. I am reminded of this right now because most of my fruit trees, which are usually quite abundant, are just not producing. One badly timed snowstorm in the middle of springtime’s full bloom destroyed almost everything but the late blooming apple blossoms. Because of the extreme cold and ice prior to that storm there were less dandelions than normal, and because the dandelions are the first food sources of spring, there were no bees for quite some time. My potager is really beautiful this year but alas, my orchard is bearing very little fruit.

Raised garden and flower beds in a backyardCenturies ago, I would be relying on my community to help feed my family in a time when my harvest failed, but with supermarkets to rely upon we live with a false sense of security about our food. That being said, climate change and its hazardous impact upon our food system is no longer an abstract concept. Extremes in temperatures, drought, and wind patterns are forcing us to study the phenology of our personal and public landscapes so that we can make decisions based upon an almost unknown and uncertain future.

During this time of Lammas or the first harvest, which is traditionally a time of celebration, I think that we have an amazing opportunity to join hands with our communities and co-create our futures.

I was reminded of this just recently when I was in New York City visiting my daughter-in-law. We were walking her dog past a school and I was thrilled to see a beautiful children’s herb and vegetable garden, playful and colorful but very beautifully planted and obviously well-tended. When I asked her about it, she told me that it was her nephew Romans’ school!

Right before I left, I asked him if he got to work in it. He told me excitedly that he did and he loved to plant in it, that it was a “really special place for him”. He told me about his preschool graduation in the garden and the dancing they did in it. I was practically moved to tears thinking about it, this young beautiful child that I know and love and his connection to the land through this city garden.

We need to keep asking ourselves in this time of earth changes – what is it we value personally and for our families? For our unborn grandchildren? For future generations that we’ll never know? What do we want to manifest in our lives? What is our vision for the future of our public lands and our gardens? Lammas is a time to set our intentions for all the harvests to come.

I feel that gardening gives us a precious and tangible gift for creating beauty both in the landscape that surrounds us and the landscape within us. It’s as if the sunshine, water, and soil are just symbols for the thoughts, feelings, and actions that, when properly tended to, ensure the same richness of experience in life as a well-tended garden, bringing to our senses the most wonderful sights, tastes, and smells!

A field of corn at sunrise or sunsetWhether you’re a solitary gardener or a community gardener, we are all connected through the soil, sunshine, wind, and rain. We are all connected through our dreams of our beautiful gardens, large or small. We all depend on the same resources and they are not infinite. I feel compelled to take a moment today to give thanks for the harvest, and to remember those who have gone before us, who have traditionally worked the land and brought forth its abundance for our pleasure.

Wishing all of you a blessed Lammas filled with an abundance of everything and everyone that you love.

Photo Credits: 1) Loaves of bread (Canva.com); 2) Basket of blueberries (Canva.com); 3) Breaking bread with friends in my community garden after a long morning weeding together (courtesy of author);  4) Part of my potager, or kitchen,  garden (courtesy of author); 5) Roman talking to me about how much he loved his school garden (courtesy of author); 6) The Children’s garden in the Queens Preschool (courtesy of author); 7) Cornfield at sunrise (Canva.com)


Beth Schreibman Gehring is a lover of all things green, delicious, growing, beautiful, magical, and fragrant. She’s also a lifestyle blogger, storyteller, and occasional wedding and party planner who uses an ever-changing seasonal palette of love, life, and food to help her readers and clients fall madly in love with their lives! Beth lives and works with Jim, her husband of 40 years, and is owned by 17 full sets of vintage dishes, hundreds of books, two cats, one dog, a horse, a swarm of wild honeybees, a garden full of herbs, fruit, vegetables, and old rambling roses, too many bottles of vintage perfume and very soon, a flock of heirloom chickens! In 2014 she took a stab at writing a book called Stirring the senses: How to Fall Madly in Love with Your Life and Make Everyday a Day for Candles & Wine. Available on Amazon! Join her in her gardens at https://bethschreibmangehring.substack.com/

Patchouli: What Was Once Old Becomes New Again…and Again

By Amy Forsberg

Painting by Pierre-Paul Prud'hon 1805 The Empress JosephineIn 2001 when I was the National Herb Garden intern, my internship project was to research the plants in the Fragrance Garden and write the copy for the permanent display labels. I was delighted to get to research the Fragrance Garden, because so many of my favorite plants are fragrant plants, and I love them, both for their wonderful scents, but also for their often romantic and beguiling histories. So many of those stories could not fit on those small labels, but they stayed with me all these years nonetheless. My favorite was the story of how patchouli became known in the West, a story that involves French fashion, mistaken identity, and Napoleon Bonaparte.

Picture of Satya Patchouli incense, 1960s classicYou may have a strong reaction to just hearing the word “patchouli.” It seems to be one of those love-it-or-hate-it smells. I love it, but I understand disliking it. It is very strong and musky and extremely persistent (more on that later). Or maybe you dislike it because of its strong association with that other love-them-or-hate-them topic, the hippies. American and European young people flocked to India in the late sixties and early seventies and brought patchouli back home with them, along with other Indian goods and practices now associated with the hippie counterculture, like marijuana, incense, mala beads, colorful printed cottons, yoga, meditation, sitar music, and vegetarianism.

Patchouli oil is distilled from Pogostemon cablin, an herbaceous shrubby perennial in the mint family. The scent is variously described as musky, woodsy, earthy, sensual, and camphoraceous. Those who dislike it may agree more with this quote from an 1856 Ladies Home Companion article: “It is far from agreeable, having a sort of mossy or musty odor, analogous to Lycopodium; or, as some say, it smells of ‘old coats’.”

Picture of patchouli leaves, Pogostemon cablinNevertheless, it is an essential ingredient in the perfume world, where it is an extremely common base note found in a majority of perfumes today, at least in small quantities. It is found in Opium, Coco Mademoiselle, Paloma, Tabu, Arpege, Miss Dior, and many others. The oil is both very strong and long lasting and is also an excellent fixative, which means that it “fixes” whichever scents it is blended with, making the more volatile top notes last longer. It is said to have the rare property of deepening and improving with age, becoming richer and more complex, unlike most essential oils, which degrade over time (the same is said of sandalwood, vetiver, and frankincense). In small amounts and blended with other scents, it isn’t necessarily discernible as patchouli, but it lends the perfume a rich, warm, well-rounded base. It is also used in very low concentrations in the flavor industry to flavor beverages, food, and candy! In India, it is used to scent tobacco. Interestingly, there is no synthetic version.

Fun side note: Regarding patchouli’s fixative properties, one source I encountered suggested that it may have had the unfortunate effect of fixing (rather than masking) the smell of body odor when worn by unwashed hippies and thereby amplifying their body odor. So when some people say they dislike the smell of patchouli, it may actually be the blended scent of patchouli and body odor that they are remembering as so objectionable! 

Although India is where many Americans first encountered patchouli, Pogostemon cablin is not native there, and was probably not introduced to India until about 1834, around the time it was first described in the West. Pogostemon cablin is believed to be native to the Philippines, and grows wild in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore. But the name “patchouli” derives from a Tamil word meaning “green leaf” and was, since ancient times, applied to several related plants with similar strong camphoraceous scents, including Pogostemon heyneanus and other Pogostemon species, Microtoena patchouli, and Agastache rugosa, all of which were used medicinally and as insect repellents. When Pogostemon cablin was introduced to India, it was also called patchouli and used in similar ways, being the most potent of all. Pogostemon heyneanus is known as Java patchouli and is grown commercially on a much smaller scale than P. cablin.

Pogostemon cablin is a tropical and subtropical crop that prefers warm, humid weather, loamy, well-drained, fertile, and slightly acidic soil, and full sun or partial shade. Today, it is cultivated in Malaysia, Indonesia, China, India, Vietnam, and the Caribbean and is often grown as an understory crop with tree crops such as coconut (Cocos nucifera), rubber (Hevea brasiliensis), and oil palm (Elaeis guineensis). It is generally pest free and easy to propagate from cuttings.

Picture of shawl from Kashmir, mid-19th centuryAnd now for the story that so tantalized me. As a lifelong seamstress, I love textile history and lore as much as all things herbal, and this story has both! The history of patchouli arriving in the West is inextricably bound up with the history of Kashmiri shawls. Beautiful, ornate, woolen shawls have been woven in the Kashmir valley on the border of India and Pakistan for many centuries (documented to the 11th century, and believed to go back to the 3rd century AD), and have been widely known as a luxurious status symbol for just as long. They were woven from yarn spun from the soft undercoat hairs of the Changthangi goat, which have to be raised at high altitudes in order for the goats to produce such Picture of Pashmina goatsdelicate silky fibers. The hair–and resulting yarn–is extremely fine textured and is known as cashmere (a variant spelling of Kashmir) or as pashmina (a term originally referring only to the very finest grade of cashmere but now diluted to near meaninglessness). One shawl could take a team of weavers many months up to a couple of years to produce, and the finest shawls cost the equivalent of about $10,000 in today’s dollars. They were gifted to and worn by royalty and the ruling elite throughout India, the Middle East and Near East, and beyond. By the mid-1700s, the shawls were finding their way into Europe, brought home to England and France by officers with the East India Company as gifts for their wives, and by the late 1700s, there were also textile factories in Scotland, England, and France creating imitations from fine merino wool and eventually from cashmere yarn imported from the East.

Around 1800, Napoleon Bonaparte acquired one of these shawls while in Egypt and gave it to Empress Josephine as a gift. The shawls then exploded in popularity and were highly sought after. Josephine Painting of Empress Josephine 1808 by Antoine Jean Grosherself eventually collected hundreds of them. Those “in the know” considered it essential to acquire an authentic imported Kashmiri shawl and not one of the inferior domestic imitations. A reliable way to tell them apart, at least prior to about 1830, was by their scent! For when the shawls were packed for shipping in Kashmir, they were layered with dried patchouli leaves to repel moths. The enduring scent infused the shawls and added greatly to their mystique and glamour. The fragrance became as fashionable as the shawl, but for years, no one in the West knew its source. By 1826, French perfumers figured out that the source of the scent was the crumbled brown packing material, and eventually plants were located, imported, and grown in greenhouses. However, the plant that was imported was Pogostemon cablin, while scholars now believe that it is far more likely that it was actually the milder Pogostemon heyneanus that was being used for packing. The leaves were steam distilled for their oil, which was used on shawls, scented handkerchiefs, and in perfumes. The dried leaves were used in potpourri to scent parlors and drawing rooms in England.

Image depicting women wearing shawls of early 19th century FrancenturyThe shawls, and the scent of patchouli, were an essential item of fashion from 1800 up to about the early 1870s. Many women of high society had their portraits painted wrapped in their shawls. The shawls paired well with the clingy Empire style gowns worn in the early part of the century (think Jane Austen movies) and also with the full crinoline and hoop skirts of mid-century. However, they did not go as well Painting of “Madame Riviere” 1805 by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Wikipedia.with the bustled dresses coming into fashion in the 1870s and so fell out of fashion in favor of fitted jackets. Economic and geo-political changes also hurt imports. Additionally, the scent of patchouli also gradually fell out of favor as it became associated with licentiousness and marital infidelity, as its persistence would often betray the guilty parties, and among “respectable” women, lighter floral scents like violets and lilac came into style.

One last fun side note: The curvilinear motif so common on the borders of the shawls is an ancient Indian motif at least 2000 years old but became known in the West as “paisley,” because the Scottish town of Paisley was such a major center for European production of these shawls that all such shawls eventually became known as “paisley shawls,” regardless of their geographic origin. Thus, the word “paisley” eventually cameImage depicting the paisley design on the edge of fabric to refer to the motif itself. The pattern endured in European fashion and decorative arts, coming in and out of style over the years, and eventually exploding in popularity once again in the 1960s, right along with patchouli oil as perfume!

References

Bradford, Isabella & Holloway Scott, Susan. 2009. Wrapped in Luxury: Cashmere Shawls. Two Nerdy History Girls. Accessed July 1, 2022. Available from: https://twonerdyhistorygirls.blogspot.com/2009/12/wrapped-in-luxury-cashmere-shawls.html

Herb Companion Staff. 2002. Herb to Know: Patchouli. Mother Earth Living. Accessed July 1, 2022. Available from: https://www.motherearthliving.com/gardening/plant-profile/HERB-BASICS-TO-KNOW-Patchouli

Murugan, Ramar & Livingstone, C.. 2010. Origin of the name ‘patchouli’ and its history. Current Science. 99. 1274-1276. Accessed July 1, 2022. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/279905001_Origin_of_the_name_’patchouli’_and_its_history

Pallardy, Richard. 2018. The Mysterious Origins of Patchouli. Earth.com: Nature-Science-Life. Accessed July 1, 2022. Available from: https://www.earth.com/news/patchouli-origins/

Patel, Maneesha. 2017. In Pursuit of Patchouli. Balbac Beauty blog. Accessed July 1, 2022. Available from: https://balbecbeauty.com/blogs/news/in-pursuit-of-patchouli

Ramya H G, Palanimuthu V and Rachna. 2013. An introduction to patchouli (Pogostemon cablin Benth.) – A medicinal and aromatic plant: It’s importance to mankind. Agricultural Engineering International: CIGR Journal, 15(2): 243 -250. Accessed July 1, 2022. Available from: https://www.academia.edu/25578500/An_introduction_to_patchouli_Pogostemon_cablin_Benth_A_medicinal_and_aromatic_plant_Its_importance_to_mankind

Photo Credits: 1) Painting by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, 1805, The Empress Josephine (Public Domain); 2) Satya Patchouli incense, 1960s classic (www.hippieshop.com); 3) Patchouli leaves, Pogostemon cablin (Wikimedia Commons); 4) Painting of shawl makers in Kashmir, 1867, by William Simpsom (Wikimedia Commons); Painting by John Singer Sargent, Cashmere, 1908 (Public Domain); 5) Shawl from Kashmir, mid-19th century (Wikimedia Commons, Honolulu Museum of Art); 6) Pashmina goats (Wikimedia Commons); 7) Painting of Empress Josephine, 1808, by Antoine Jean Gros (Public Domain); 8) Image depicting women wearing shawls of early 19th-century France (Wikimedia Commons); 9) Painting of “Madame Riviere,” 1805, by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (Wikimedia Commons); 10) Image depicting the paisley design on the edge of fabric (Wikimedia Commons, Aukland Museum).

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.


Amy Forsberg follows her dual passions of gardening and sewing in Maryland. Previously, she gardened at the U.S. National Arboretum, the U.S. Botanic Garden, and the Hillwood Estate Museum and Gardens. She was the 2001 National Herb Garden intern.

Basil – The King of Herbs

By Maryann Readal

Image of basil leavesBasil, Ocimum basilicum, still reigns today as the King of Herbs. Its royalty was established by the Greeks, when they gave the herb its name based on the Greek word basilikon, meaning “king.” Alexander the Great is said to have brought basil to the Greeks. According to legend, St. Helena, the Emperor Constantine’s mother, followed a trail of basil leading to the remains of Jesus’ cross (Lum, 2020). Since that time, basil has been considered a holy herb in Greece. Basil is used in the Greek Orthodox Church for sprinkling holy water, while some Greeks bring their basil to church to be blessed and then hang the sprigs in their home for health and prosperity (MyParea, n.d.). However, on the isle of Crete, basil somehow gained a bad reputation and was thought to be a symbol of the devil. There seems to be a thread of bad history associated with basil since early times.

Hindu man worshiping tulsi plantAlthough named by the Greeks, basil originated in India 5,000 years ago. In India today, the herb is considered a sacred herb. Holy basil, Ocimum tenuiflorum (also known as tulsi), is considered to be the manifestation of the goddess Tulasi, wife of Krishna. It is thought to have great spiritual and healing powers. According to legend, only one leaf of tulsi can outweigh Vishnu’s power. Every devout Hindu home will have a special place for a tulsi plant. It is believed that the creator god, Brahma, resides in its stems and branches, the river Ganges flows through the plant’s roots, the deities live in its leaves, and the most sacred of Hindu religious texts are in the top of holy basil’s branches (Simoons, 1998). Nurturing a tulsi plant ensures that a person’s sins will be forgiven and everlasting peace and joy will be had. (Simoons, 1998). The dried stems of old holy basil plants are used to make beads for Hindu meditation beads. Twentieth-century herbalist Maude Grieve said, “Every good Hindu goes to his rest with a basil leaf on his breast. This is his passport to heaven. It is indeed considered a powerful herb” (Grieve, 1931). 

Image of Egyptian embalmingFrom India, basil spread to Egypt, where the herb was used for embalming and has been found buried with the pharaohs. The herb then moved on to Rome and southern Europe, where the Romans fell in love with it. In Italy, basil was considered a sign of love. If young girls were seeking a suitor, they would place a pot of basil on their windowsill. If a potential suitor showed up with a sprig of basil, the girl would love him forever. 

Ocimum spp (16)Italy became the home of pesto, which basil has made famous. “Pesto was created by the people of Genoa to highlight the flavor of their famous basil. Using a mortar and pestle, they combined simple ingredients to make one of the world’s most famous pasta sauces” (Blackman, 2010). The simple sauce contains only basil, pine nuts, olive oil, garlic, and parmigiano-reggiano cheese. Pesto is still a very popular sauce for pasta or crackers, especially in the summer, when fresh basil is plentiful.

During the Middle Ages, they believed that in order to get basil to grow, one had to curse and scream while planting the seed. This is the origin of the French verb semer le basilic (sowing basil), which means “to rant.” It was also thought that if you smelled basil too much, scorpions would enter your brain. Today, the French call basil l’herbe royale, “the royal herb,” and pots of it are found in outdoor restaurants, not to deter scorpions but to deter mosquitoes. Fresh basil leaves are used to make pistou, the French version of pesto.

Image of sign at garden center apologizing for not carrying basil due to downy mildewBasil, a sun-loving member of the mint family, is an annual herb that thrives in summer heat. In fact, it will languish if planted in the garden before temperatures reach a consistent 70 plus degrees. Frequent harvesting of the leaves before flowers appear prolongs its growing season. It can be propagated by seed or cuttings. However, it is very susceptible to downy mildew, which researchers are constantly trying to overcome by breeding more disease-resistant varieties. The new gene editing CRISPR technology may show a promising solution to this problem (Riccio, 2022).

There are more than 100 varieties of basil and counting! Some basils are grown as ornamental plants because of their beautiful blooms. In fact, the Chinese name for basil translates to “nine-level pagoda,” which is a good description of its blooming stalk. African blue basil and wild magic basil are two examples of basils with nice blooms that I have found are bee magnets during the summer. If you are interested in attracting pollinators, your garden should certainly have these basils. Cardinal basil, which shows off its large burgundy flower clusters in late summer, is spectacular in the summer garden. It can also be used as a culinary basil. Lemon basil and ‘Mrs. Burns’ lemon basil, both having a lemon scent, are perfect for adding to lemonade, fruit salad, or ice cream. Add cinnamon basil to cinnamon flavored desserts. The showy leaves of purple ruffles basil, O. basilicum ‘Purple Ruffles’, make a nice contrast among other plants in the summer garden. When cooking with basil, it should be added at the end of cooking.

Varieties of basilBasil is not usually considered a medicinal herb, but it was used medicinally in the time of Hippocrates who prescribed it as a tonic for the heart and to treat vomiting and constipation. Pliny the Elder commented that it was good for lethargy and fainting spells, headaches, flatulence, and other digestive issues (Pliny, 1855). China and India have a long history of using basil as a medicinal herb as well.

 Basil does contain a healthy amount of vitamins A, C, and K and has antioxidant and antibacterial properties, which helps fight disease. Studies show that it can help reduce blood clots by making the blood less “sticky.” Animal studies suggest that it might help slow the growth rate of some types of cancer (Todd, 2015).

A plate of brownies with cinnamon basilSo, do enjoy fresh basil this summer. Remember to dry some for the winter, freeze the leaves, or combine chopped leaves with water and freeze in an ice cube tray for later use. However, you should take careful consideration before putting basil on your windowsill lest you attract an unwanted suitor.

Basil is The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month for June. 

References

Blackman, Vicki. 2010. Basil it’s not just for Italian food anymore. Texas Gardener. Vol. 29, Issue 2, p. 20-25.

Lum, Linda. (2020). Exploring basil: a simple plant with a complicated history. Accessed 5/16/22. https://delishably.com/spices-seasonings/All-About-Herbs-Basil

Matel, Kathy. 2016. History of basil. Accessed 5/15/22. https://catrinasgarden.com/history-basil/

MyParea. (n.d.) Basil in Greek culture. Accessed 5/15/22. https://blog.myparea.com/basil-greekculture/#:~:text=For%20ancient%20Greeks%2C%20basil%20was,used%20to%20sprinkle%20holy%20water

Pliny the Elder. 1855. The natural history. John Bostock, M.D. (ed.). London: Taylor and Francis, Red Lion Court, Fleet Street. 1855. Accessed 5/15/22. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.02.0137:book=20:chapter=48&highlight=ocimum 

Riccio, Peggy. 2022. Breeding better herbs. The American Gardener. Vol. 101, No. 2, p. 30-34.

Simoons, Frederick. 1998. Plants of life, plants of death. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

Todd, Kathy. 2015. Basil: King of herbs. Environmental Nutrition. Vol 38, Issue 7, p.8.

Yancy-Keller, Alexandra. 2020. History of basil. Accessed 5/15/22. https://www.nutrifitonline.com/blog/news/history-of-basil/

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) Basil leaves (Ocimum basilicum) (Maryann Readal); 2) Man worshipping tulsi basil (Wikimedia Commons, Shirsh.namaward); 3) Egyptian embalming (Catrina’s Garden, https://catrinasgarden.com/history-basil/); 4) Variegated basil leaves (Ocimum cv.) (Chrissy Moore); 5) Sign at garden center regarding basil and downy mildew (Maryann Readal); 6) Varieties of basil (US National Arboretum); 7) Plate of brownies made with cinnamon basil (Chrissy Moore).


Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America and a Texas Master Gardener. She is a member of The Society’s Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She lectures on herbs and does the herb training for several Master Gardener programs. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.

Calendula – Herb of the Month – An Herb of the Sun

By Maryann Readal

Orange flowers against dark green leavesCalendula officinalis is a plant in the Asteraceae family and is The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for May. In my Texas Zone 8b garden, I planted calendula in November and it is now in full bloom, and will continue to bloom until the hot summer sun puts a damper on its bright yellow and orange blossoms. Planted in organic, well-draining soil, and with enough sun, this herb will reward you with its bright blossoms for a very long time. Deadheading does increase its blooms. Calendula can tolerate some freezing temperatures and it does reseed easily. I cannot imagine a garden without it.

This herb has been called marigold or pot marigold since early times. The name marigold is said to have come from the use of the golden flowers during celebrations for the Virgin Mary (Mary + gold), after Christianity became the dominant religion in Europe. Some claim that the golden petals were like the rays surrounding the Virgin’s head. In the thirteenth century, the German poet, Konrad von Wϋrzburg, included calendula among the twelve flowers symbolizing the Virgin (Larkin, 2010). 

The herb was added to soup pots and stews during the Middle Ages. It was also used to color cheese and butter. In India it was a sacred herb, where it adorned statues and temples. 

However, calendula should not be confused with the garden flower we call marigold (Tagetes spp). The flowers of marigold plants, although they look somewhat similar, are not the same and are generally considered to be non-edible. Other important differences include:

  • Calendula originated in the Mediterranean area and some parts of Asia, while the marigold originated in the Americas. 
  • Europeans brought calendula to the Americas. Tagetes spp. were brought to Europe after they landed in America.

Orange flowers on white paper towelThe Romans are believed to have named the calendula after the Latin word calendae (a word referring to the day of the new moon), because they observed that the flowers opened on the day of the new moon. Carl Linnaeus gave the plant its botanical name in the 1750s. 

In early days, calendula was often associated with magical powers. If you wore calendula flowers while in court, you would be victorious in legal matters (Cohen, 2021). People would sprinkle the flowers around their door to keep evil away, and under their beds to ensure that good dreams would come true.

Shakespeare’s writings contain at least six passages about marigolds (Macht, 1955). In several passages, he notes the use of marigold in honoring the dead. The passage in The Winter’s Tale, Act IV, Scene 3, reflects the common belief that marigold was also a heliotropic plant.

Here’s flowers for you;

Hot lavender, mint, savory, marjoram:

The marigold that goes to bed with the sun,

And with him rises weeping.

Glass bottle of light yellow oil surrounded by orange flowersSometime in history, it was discovered that calendula could be used as a medicinal plant. Since early times it was used as an effective treatment for skin irritations. During the U.S. Civil War, the flowers were used to stop bleeding and to promote healing of battle wounds. British garden designer Gertrude Jekyll led a campaign during World War I to raise calendula to supply British hospitals in France (Keeler, 2016). 

In traditional medicines, calendula was used to treat a variety of skin irritations. It was also used to treat earaches, eye and mouth irritations, jaundice, and menstrual problems. Clinical use today shows that it is effective in treating radiation burns (Patil, 2022).  Some recent studies conclude that Calendula officinalis shows promise as an effective medicine, even as a treatment for some cancers (Patil, 2022), but that more clinical research needs to be done.  Its antifungal, anti-inflammatory, and astringent properties make a healing treatment for the skin when infused in oil.

Calendula is also known as “poor man’s saffron.” The petals can be dried and used in place of the more expensive saffron. However, the taste is not the same as that expensive herb. The colorful petals and young leaves can be tossed into salads. The petals can be cooked with rice and mixed into egg salads, cakes, puddings, and soups.  

Orange calendula petals on a white paper towelThe petals have been used as a dye for fabrics and as an ingredient in cosmetics. Dried petals give a nice contrast color in potpourri.  Some say that if the flowers are fed to hens, the resulting egg yolks will have a rich, yellow color (Barrett, 2009). 

This very useful, colorful, and easy-to- grow herb deserves a place in every garden.  For more information, recipes, and a beautiful screen saver, go to The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month webpagehttps://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-information/herb-of-the-month.html

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: All photos courtesy of the author.

 

References

Barrett, Judy. 2009. What can I do with my herbs? College Station, TX: Texas A & M Press.

Cohen, Bevin. 2021. The artisan herbalist. Canada: New Society Publishers. 

Fischer, Fern. 2017. History of calendula. Accessed 4/3/22. Available from https://www.gardenguides.com/78027-history-calendula.html

Herb Society of America. 2008. Calendula: An Herb Society of America guide. Accessed 4/3/22. Available from https://www.herbsociety.org/file_download/inline/210f18de-fb79-4fe8-b79c-8b30bdca4885

Keeler, Kathy. 2016. Plant story: Marigolds in history – pot marigolds (Calendulas). Accessed 4/3/2022. Available from http://khkeeler.blogspot.com/2016/10/plant-story-marigolds-in-history-pot.html

Larkin, Deidre. 2010. Calendar girl. Accessed 4/16/22. Available from https://blog.metmuseum.org/cloistersgardens/2010/11/05/calendar-girl/

Macht, David. 1955. Calendula or marigold in medical history and in Shakespeare.  Bulletin of the History of Medicine. 29:6, 491–502. Available from http://www.jstor.org/stable/44446726.

Mehta, Devansh, Parkhi Rastogi, Ankit Kumar, and Amrendra Kumar Chaudhary. 2012. Review on Pharmacological Update: Calendula officinalis. Linn. Inventi Rapid: Planta Activa. Vol. 2012. Accessed 4/3/22. Available from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/229067785_Review_on_Pharmacological_Update_Calendula_officinalis_Linn

Patil, Karthikeya, et al. 2022. A review of calendula officinalis-magic in science. Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research. 16:2, 23-27. Accessed 4/4/22. Available from Explora from Ebsco.


Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America and a Texas  Master Gardener. She is a member of The Society’s Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She lectures on herbs and does the herb training for several Master Gardener programs. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.

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.