It was believed to purify the blood and was helpful in the treatment of colds, fevers, and the ague.
A song helped to advertise the values of sassafras as a medicinal plant: "In the spring of the year when the blood is so thick/There is nothing so fine as a sassafras stick./It tones up the liver and strengthens the heart,/And to the whole system a new life doth impart." (from The Foxfire Book 2, 1973, p.50). Boil the roots or bark in water. Sweeten with honey or sugar and drink as spring tonic.
That first mess of greens in the spring was also considered a boost to the system. Spring greens must be gathered while young and tender or they will have a bitter taste. Among those eaten by mountain families in early spring were dandelion greens, poke "sallet" or pokeweed, dock and wild mustard. Gather plenty of the selected green, as volume shrinks with cooking. Parboil, or cook first in plenty of water; drain and wash, and then cook again, seasoning to taste. Recipes for these various wild greens have been passed down in families. Poke sallet, for example, after parboiling, can be put into an iron skillet with shortening and fried. When almost done, break in two or three eggs and scramble with the greens. Serve with vinegar or pickle juice.
Violet leaves and flowers are both edible and grow in abundance in the woods or on lawns in early spring. The leaves are rich in vitamins C and A. Violet leaves may be cooked separately or mixed with mustard greens for a spring "sallet" treat. The petals of the violet flower may be used to make a delicate jelly by using pectin to thicken the jelly.
Gathering wild ramps or leeks has become a modern-day pastime for hikers. "Ramp tramps" are often planned for certain areas where the plant is known to grow in the woods and can be found most readily under maple trees. Some mountain towns have ramp festivals in the spring. Ramps, a very odiferous plant, akin to wild onion and wild garlic, have a "bad breath" quality that remains with those who eat it for three or four days. The advice for would-be ramp gatherers is to go into solitary confinement for a few days after your mess of ramps.
Last week's column looked at ginseng and its uses. Another native medicinal plant is goldenseal. Like ginseng, it was over-harvested and became scarce in its natural habitat of moist woodlands. It is now being cultivated, but does not grow well unless the goldenseal farmer can provide an environment very similar to its moist, woodland habitat.
Goldenseal roots and rhizomes, the underground stems, are harvested in the fall and dried for medicinal purposes. Goldenseal has antibiotic properties and is prized for healing infections and inflammations. For a healing tea, use one teaspoon of dried pounded root in one cup of boiling water. Steep for 15 minutes. Strain and use as a gargle for sore throat. It is useful for stomach upsets by mixing a teaspoon of goldenseal powder with 1 teaspoon of honey. Take the syrup twice a day for 3 to 4 days until stomach upset and diarrhea clear. Goldenseal is in the "bitters" classification of herbs and will leave a bitter taste in the mouth. Drink plenty of water when ingesting goldenseal syrup or tea.
Sweet flag (acorus calamus) roots are gathered dried and used to make tea, powder, liniment and balm for the bath. It is useful in treating indigestion, flatulence, joint pain caused by arthritis or injury, and for a calming bath.
For the last several years, people have become interested again in herbal medications. Health food stores sell many of the emollients that were once made by my Grandmother Sarah Evaline Souther Dyer, “Granny Woman,” and used as she sought to meet the medical needs of her family and her neighbors.
Alternative medicine and natural healing are on the rise. A word of caution is in order. Many of the health store products are not approved by the Federal Food and Drug Administration.
Extensive and controlled testing has not been conducted to verify claims. And we in this modern age have not been taught, as were our ancestors, to recognize healthy edible plants and herbs. Therefore, walk with caution the forest trails as you seek to gather your own herbs, and beware of those that can be lethal if used in the wrong manner.
c2006 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published March 23, 2006 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.