Rabbit Tobacco (Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium)
This beautiful native plant is popping up on roadsides and in grassy meadows all around where I live. I am not sure what it is about this plant, but it has always fascinated me. Perhaps it is the pearly white flower heads, the campfire, vanilla- like scent of the burned plant or its abundance this beautiful time of year, but it stands out every Fall. The Full moon in September for me is often the Rabbit Tobacco moon. Moonlight shining off their pearly flowers.
This aster family plant has many folk names. White balsam, sweet everlasting, life everlasting or pearly everlasting. This plant holds an important place in Indigenous and Black medicine traditions in the South, like in the practice of Hoodoo, among the Yuchi and Cherokee nations and in Appalachian folk magic. Though there are similar species in Europe, the use of this plant in America is grounded in First Nations traditions from so-called Canada to Florida, and is a pivotal plant in Southern Black Folk Medicine and Hoodoo.
This sweet biennial is analgesic, expectorant, antispasmodic and astringent. Some First Nations people practice medicine with this plant’s aerial parts for pain relief and as a muscle relaxant by applying the decocted tea and aerial parts externally. I think Rabbit Tobacco is best known for their affiliation with the lungs however. Coughs, sore throat and lung pain were all treated traditionally with the tea of this plant. In magical medicine, people bothered by ghosts were treated with the smoke of this plant among many nations but notably the Lumbee and the Yuchi(1).
Rabbit tobacco is used in Appalachian folk medicine cures for coughs when mixed with wild cherry bark, sweet gum resin, maidenhair fern and mullein. Alabama folk herbalist Tommie Bass used it as a vapor inhalation for coughs as well which reflects his learning from Black and Indigenous women. Pillows stuffed with Rabbit Tobacco are said to aid those who suffer from asthma attacks. This was even recommended for those with consumption or tuberculosis.(2) It was also used as a tea for whooping cough in children.
I’ve been told the medicine of Rabbit Tobacco works best when the leaves are brown and have been touched by the first frost. This practice was common amongst Lumbee people and eventually spread to many others living in the South. Cherokee folks combine this with Carolina vetch for rheumatism and muscle spasms and twitching.(3)
When you see the Rabbit Tobacco out this time of year around Western North Carolina, the dried brown leaves at the base of the stems are actually the preferred part for medicine. It is believed that the phytochemicals, such as terpenes, that make Rabbit Tobacco useful medicinally, don’t fully develop until this point. It is interesting to note that this plant is often touted as having “little use” medicinally in old books from white authors at the turn of the century. Curious to wonder where that originated as they are such a special and long loved plant. Phytochemical analysis reveals that they do indeed contain many powerful terpenes and triterpenes, which are the major constituents of the essential oils in plants. Terpenes carry out a wide variety of effects on the body and organic organisms but they can be anti-cancer, antispasmodic and anti-viral amongst many other functions.
In Ozark folk magic the sweet smoke of this beautiful plant is said to ease restless spirits and calm angry ghosts. Backwoods doctors would burn this herb and look for symbols in the smoke to lead them to a cure. Love divinations could also be done with this sweet plant by chewing some up and placing it under one’s pillow in order to dream of their true love (4).
In Hoodoo medicine one would smoke the dried leaves to relieve toothache. As the name implies, to live a long life and for a charm against illness, drink the tea. The tea was also commonly used for cramps and bringing on menstruation more easily amongst Afro- communities in the South(4).
I like to use Rabbit tobacco tea of the lower dried leaves as a warming remedy for flu-like symptoms and respiratory viruses. I haven’t used the tincture a lot personally, but many people do, except externally for poison ivy watered down as wash. I love this plant for it’s fumitory properties, as a locally abundant burning herb. The smell is so unique and beautiful. Pearly Everlasting is a beautiful and very special herb in our region to so many. I am adding it to my regional Samhain incense blend for burning on a coal to honor the restless spirits of this land I live on and provide some sweetness on their journey. Thank you Life Everlasting.
(1). Moerman, 250.
(2) Cavender, Anthony. Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia. P. 93
(3). Boughman, Arvis Locklear, and Oxendine, Loretta O. Herbal remedies of the Lumbee Indians. United Kingdom, McFarland, Incorporated, Publishers, 2004. P. 74
(4) Weston, Brandon. Ozark Folk Magic.
(5) Mitchell, Faith. Hoodoo medicine : Gullah herbal remedies. Colombia, Summerhouse Press, 1998. p. 70.
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