Persimmons and String: Respiratory Infections in Appalachian Folk Medicine and Magic
We’ve passed Samhain on the Wheel, and I’ve been thinking a lot about tradition. It doesn’t take a lot for me to arrive at the topic, but as I forage and tincture, chop roots and dehydrate leaf, I always wonder, what did they do before? When respiratory infections ravaged the mountains, how did people cope? It’s interesting to see all the herbal information being shared right now about COVID. So many great herbalists are sharing important information that we’ve gleaned from similar infections, as so few of us have ever treated anything like this before. COVID is a complex and serious infection, I look to old books and history not to replace modern medical care, but to ask the questions of how? And what? Our ancestors survived, and didn’t survive, many serious diseases. So I’ve been researching and asking, how did Appalachians treat these plagues that rolled through the mountains? Is there wisdom to be gleaned there for us to use today? How has treating upper respiratory infections changed in our tradition?
Fevers in the Mountains:
Appalachian folk medicine is, very briefly, a mixture of predominantly Indigenous, European and African folk healing systems within the cauldron of the bioregion of Appalachia. Shaped by the land forms, the weather, the plants, the fauna and the humans of this space, it is a unique, location based medical, and dare I say magical, system wrought from all its bloody, complex, and sometimes beautiful history.
The unique climate and types of illnesses faced by Appalachians determined the ways that medicines were used, for those ailments most common could require the most diverse treatment options. Much wisdom rests in those old remedies, and while I write this as an exploration of a historical topic, I also wonder at how the remedies we are exploring today are not far off in some cases with the remedies of old.
Chills and Fever:
Many times, fevers and their associated chills would be caused by unknown or mysterious origins. This didn’t mean it didn’t need to be treated. Some herbs used are still touted as useful during fevers. Again I present this as a legacy of how peoples in this place have dealt with fever and this is not meant to take the place of medical care if one is experiencing serious respiratory symptoms or other medical issues. I think as herbalists, clinical or folk, it is good to know the legacies of medicine that has come before us to inspire, or mark the ways in which we have come to know what we do.
They come from many traditions. African, Indigenous and European, plants from around the world now in Appalachia.
+Boneset, which is sometimes called center weed in the Ozarks, was drunk as a tea for chills and fever.
+Black pepper in brandy was prescribed for fever and accompanying chills. The use of pepper in Appalachian folk medicine comes from African folk traditions.
+Ginger tea is good for fever.
+Smoking dried mullein leaves is recommended as a cure for catarrh. Today I wouldn’t recommend smoking anything if you have phlegm, but for a long time folx have used smoke to move phlegm.
+Sage tea is good for fevers. I use sage regularly for sore throat and general cold symptoms. Also as a steam.
+Specific Illnesses and their Treatments in Appalachian Folk Medicine+
The ”ague” was used to describe chills and malaria in old herbals and notes in the backs of family bibles. Dogwood bark tea and tincture were used instead of quinine (peruvuian cinchona bark). They also used blue gin, which contained quinine as well. One of the most popular tonics and medicines in the mountains, wild cherry bark tea, was prescribed anywhere coughing, mucus and respiratory illness was present. This use was gleaned from Indigenous peoples who long relied on the bark as a Spring tonic and general respiratory cure. Anti-inflammatory willow bark and lung soothing mullein leaves were brewed into strong teas to combat the fevers and phlegm. The food plant corn was and purging all also used, fires burned to clean air of putrid matter
For this devastating disease, asafetida bundles were worn around the neck to ward it off. Sulfur in great amounts was burned in the house and worn in the shoes as well. Infusions of brandy and saltpeter was also used. Holly leaves and berries (which are toxic) were used as a tea. Black snakeroot or Black Cohosh tea (Cimicifuga racemosa), hot and cold treatments in water, and bathing in buttermilk. People applied Goldenseal salves to pockmarks to prevent scarring and infection. The toxic foxglove mixed with sugar was also used apparently successfully in the mountains.
The main course was isolation and education. It took a while before people understood the ways in which to identify the disease as a unique condition and then note the way in which it spread. Sweating was encouraged with teas of solomon seal, fever weed, mullein, cow manure (yikes), along with a purging with jerusalem oak, wild cherry, sap of beech, hickory, sweet gum and or wild cherry. Anvil dust and molasses were also given. Rattlesnake meat was also used to combat the dread disease, as well as whiskey and salt. One would also sleep on a pillow of rabbit tobacco. The cherokee used skunk spray, ate skunk meat and used the scent pouch to ward away this illness.
Many people thought it was caused by poisonous vapors in the air (miasmic disease theory), and treated it with sweating, purging and puking. hot teas of ratsbane root (pipsissewa), pine needles, pennyroyal leaves, sassafras root bark, and lobelia. Ingesting a pill of pine resin the size of a bullet was also believed to combat thyphoid. Lime spread around the house, an almost magical barrier like cure. Pine knots were placed in drinking water, and onions hung on walls. Three messes of cooked Poke sallet eaten in spring was also taken to prevent it.
Magical Methods of Treating a Fever
"Climb a tree with your hands (do not use feet) and then jump off to leave your
fever in the tree". "To cure chills and fever, knot a string and tie it to a persimmon tree" (No. 1094). "If you feel a chill coming on, get a toad-frog, or have one got, put it in a paper
bag, and hold in your lap fifteen minutes. The chill will go into the frog. Then put him out on the ground, and he will shake him- self to death". (Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore.)
For chills and fever, tie a piece of yarn taken from your stocking around a pine tree then walk around the tree three times a day for nine days
For chills and fever, after you have had three or four chills, tie as many knots in a cotton string as you have had chills; then go into the woods and tie the string to a persimmon tree, turn around and walk away without looking back) — Ozarks: Randolph, 134 (knotted string around a persimmon tree).
Drink a tea made of cherry tree bark for chills and fever.
Wear a string of buzzard feathers around the neck to keep off the fever.
Apple tree, dogwood tree, and cherry tree bark boiled into tea is good for fever.
Split onions hanging in the house will keep off fever.
To cure fever, drink boiled pine tree tops.
A patient should break a pine top with (theri) face turned toward the setting sun, and make a drink from the pine top).
Snakeskin bay and toad's eye in it are worn to ward off
Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore.
Thanks for exploring the wild world of Appalachian Folk Medicine with me. If you want to learn more about Appalachian folk medicine, magic, wild foods and plantcrafts, join Corby and I for next year's Hedgecraft program. Wishing you health and happiness in these trying times.
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