By Chrissy Moore
I 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.
While not terribly unique in mountain locales, I always love to see Gaultheria 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).
Downy 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. Goodyeara 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!
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) 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.
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.