By Sheryl Kleinschmidt, Master Gardener
“The song came to me from the singing of a yarb doctor named Mayberry Thomas, a resident of Knoxville, Tennessee. When I first knew him in 1929, he had a little stand in the unused end of the Knoxville public market where he sold roots, herbs, a liquid made from wild cherry bark, dried mullein leaves, sassafras and dozens of similar items.” — The Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles
Yarb Doctors and Granny Women primarily treated their patients with herbs. “Yarb” was the colloquialism of “herb” used by most in the Ozark regions of Arkansas and Missouri as well as others places like Tennessee. There are reputed to have been many more Granny Women than Yarb Doctors. One possibility for that is that these healers were seldom paid for their services.
One well-known Granny Doctor (same as Granny Woman) who practiced her medicine in the Ozarks was Ella Dunn. She took care of her neighbors in Taney County most of her adult life. For two decades she practiced as a Granny Woman before studying more conventional medicine in the mid-twentieth century.
The herbs used by these early-day healers were quite varied and certainly had been proven by lots of trial and error. “Recipes” were handed down from mother to daughter as they were sometimes the only treatment received by these back-woods folks. Children were taught to self-diagnose and to recognize the appropriate herb or plant for healing—sometimes with disastrous results, however.
There were a number of ways that plants and herbs could be prepared for medicinal use. One method was by boiling and is called decocted. If an herb was steeped but not boiled, it was said to be infused. Demulsified meant the herbs were used in an ointment. Another method of preparation was the making of a poultice. A poultice would be made of herbs in a mixture of cornmeal or lard and heated. The warm poultice (heat brings blood to area for healing) would then be applied to wounds or to the chest for congestion.
Today there has been a revival in the medicinal use of herbs as people seek out alternatives to traditional medicine. Generally speaking, the herbal approach to healing may take longer, but many find it preferable to sitting in a roomful of sick people at the doctor’s office. Besides, healing, herbs are quite effective in the prevention of sickness and disease.
One herb certainly used by many of the early healers is Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) which tolerates many soil-types, is a perennial, and easy to grow. A patient would be required to chew the leaves of the Feverfew plant to alleviate fever, headache, cramps and arthritis. Old-timers planted it around their houses to “purify the atmosphere and ward off disease”.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinallis) is one of my personal favorites because of its aroma. I was given a pot of it when I lived near Little Rock, Arkansas, and put it on my patio. It was prolific and spewed seeds as far as six feet out into the yard. Every time I mowed the grass I was rewarded with the heavenly scent of Lemon Balm.
Lemon Balm likes to grow in a rich, moist soil and is loved by bees. Its crushed leaves actually resemble the pheromones given off by the bees. Medicinally, the leaves were boiled (decocted) and made into a tea which reduced anxiety, helped reduce colic and aided digestion. In ointment form, it relieved fever blisters.
Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) is a biennial and considered a naturalized weed in the eastern states. In the Middle Ages the plants were called hag tapers because the stalks could be dipped in melted fat and lighted as a torch. They were thought to either be used by witches or used to drive them away.
As a medicine, the whole Mullein plant seems to possess slightly sedative and narcotic properties—another reason why the Yarb Doctors and Granny Women needed to be very careful in the preparation of and administration of herbal remedies. Mullein was often used in the treatment of ear infections, colds and bronchitis.
Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea) was also a staple in the healer’s arsenal against disease/sickness and if it wasn’t needed, made a beautiful addition to the flower garden. Its one-inch purple petals are strikingly attractive. Echinacea can chase off or help speed recovery from an acute bacterial or viral infection—especially in the respiratory tract. It is available in capsule form in today’s health food stores.
The use/knowledge of Echinacea was wide-spread before the use of modern medicine and even the Plains Indians used it topically and internally. Because of its antiseptic and anti-inflammatory qualities, it was also used to treat wounds.
These are just a few of the herbs used by our ancestors as medicine or tonics. For those interested in learning more about medicinal, culinary, or other uses of herbs you may want to check out a couple of these resources.
HERB SOCIETY OF AMERICAN-PIONEER UNIT www.herbsocietypioneer.org/
NORTH TEXAS UNIT OF THE HERB SOCIETY OF AMERICA www.herbsociety.org
THE OZARK FOLK CENTER in Mountain View, Arkansas www.ozarkfolkcenter.com
The Ozark Folk Center has one of the most diverse herb gardens in the United States (I have personally visited there several times). Since it is also a state park, they offer nice, clean cabins at affordable prices with an awesome restaurant that features many herbs in their food choices. There are two upcoming herb workshops in which you may be interested:
1) Culinary Herbs—March 17-19, 2014
2) Medicinal Herbs—April 4-5, 2014