The Southern Appalachian Mountains forests contain a cornucopia of over four hundred medicinal herbs used by the Cherokee, including both native and introduced plants. Many of these herbs and their traditional medicinal uses were shared with the European settlers. The settlers often added their own additional European plants and use of alcohol tinctures. These plant medicines were preserved as “tonics” especially when fresh plants were not available during their dormant season. These tonics served as sources of natural medicines and minerals roughly equivalent to modern herbal and vitamin supplements.
Spring tonics were traditionally desired after a long winter without many fresh greens and fruits. Various “tonics” have been described including boiled teas, infusions (soaking in water), and tinctures (soaking in alcohol.) Herbs were typically preserved in whisky and local moonshine. Noted folklorist Doug Elliott writes that some mountaineers used alcohol tonics as a means of getting around temperance.
Broader regional “spring tonics” include fresh plants such as the smelly wild-onion “ramps”, one of the first green plants to emerge in the early spring now honored by many regional ramp festivals. Poke salad or “salet” is recommended- “young leaves parboiled, seasoned, and fried – and to “eat several messes…” (with a “mess” being a good sized serving.)
Tonics mentioned in NC folklore includes Calamus (Sweetflag) root; cherry bark in whisky; boiled cherry bark with a few “nails” in whisky; cherry, oak, and persimmon bark tea. The inner green bark from trees was collected when the “sap was rising” preferred for potency and ease of collection. Green inner bark was commonly boiled to make strong teas or powdered and dried. The use of “bitter” tasting herbs that we now know to contain important medicines was common described. Bitter herbs are know to increase digestion, help deal with infections, and used for treating intestinal worms. Sassafras and Spicewood are both members of the plant family, Lauraceae, known for a wide variety of medicinal compounds. Sassafras contains essential oils of safrole; sesamin; tannins; and resin. Mixes of powder sulfur and molasses or sulfur with cream of tartar were also used and more exotic tonics may include powdered pearl.
The regional interviews collected in the famous Fox Fire books series mention several general spring time tonics, usually sweetened either with sugar, honey, or molasses. Mrs. C.E. Pinson recommended a “good” tea made from sassafras roots or spicewood bush branches. Lovey Kelso mentioned sassafras tea and spicewood (Lindera benzoin) and comments “ I never cared for either.”
Ginseng tonics vary from straight ginseng to ginseng mixes including black cherry bark, and yellow root with whisky. Tonic may include presently rare plants (rare due to habitat limits and over collection) such as Ladyslipper orchid leaves dried and powdered, and infused in water. People usually took a spoonful three times a day.
A modern Madison County (NC) herbalist mentions more complex tonic mixes including “spring burdock; yellow dock; dandelion; and sasparilla mixed in moonshine or brandy.” Another mixture of “sassafras; red clover; senna; fennel; anise; and turtlebloom” are recommended for high mineral content and containing natural laxatives.
Modern herbalists recognize the problems of over collecting especially rare plants. Studies in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park show that even a one time 25% collection of ramps in one square meter area requires more than seven years to recover. It is highly advised to work with experienced herbalists who are trained in wild plant identification and proper preparation before creating your own wild-crafted tonics.
Lee Barnes, Ph.D., is an environmental horticulturist, a regional naturalist, a land stewardship consultant, and a water dowser. He will be co-teaching classes in Permaculture Design with Peter Bane beginning in May 2006 in Indiana and in Floyd County (near Roanoke) Virginia.
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