Into the Woods
A Starkville herbalist treads a time-honored path to health
Story Birney Imes | Photograph Luisa Porter
A man and a woman are driving down Lakeshore Drive in Jackson. It is early evening. The woman, a noted herbalist and teacher, has just attended a neighborhood street fair, Fondren after 5, where she was a vendor. They are headed to the home of a friend to spend the night. As the car turns left on the busy thoroughfare, a large pickup slams into the passenger side of the vehicle.
The woman comes to in the emergency room of a nearby hospital. As she regains consciousness, she begins negotiating with the E.R. staff, who have stabilized her and have begun removing glass fragments from her head. The CAT scan shows no broken bones. The patient refuses x-rays and a tetanus shot. The hospital wants to keep her for the night. She says no, that people get infections in the hospital.
At her friend’s house, she makes a turmeric wash.
“It’s very anti-microbial, and it’s very good for trauma to the skin,” she says.
Even so, the woman is nauseous. A sip of water sets her stomach roiling.
The next morning she asks her companion to cut branches from the cedar tree in the yard and boil them in water. He adds the “cedar water” to her bath water. Soon afterwards her nausea subsides, her digestion returns and her headache begins to diminish.
Lindsay Wilson lives in a small house on an inconspicuous street about a mile north of Starkville’s downtown. The front yard has been recently tilled and covered with straw. Rosemary, hollyhocks and several herbs, including valerian, tansy, wormwood and mugwort, are growing along the walkway leading to the front porch.
Inside, along the wall of a sparsely furnished living room, there are shelves crowded with dozens of clear glass jars containing leaves, berries and bits of plants submerged in colored liquids. Each jar is meticulously labeled: True Solomon’s Seal, Poke Oil, Propolis, Ginger, Black Walnut, Prickly Ash. On a shelf above the jars, oversized bags of dried herbs compete for space.
These are the raw materials for the tinctures and salves Wilson markets through Sweet Gum Springs Apothecary, a company she founded two years ago with Mandi Sanders, another Starkville herbalist. Wilson discovered the name for her enterprise on a historic marker near Starkville’s First United Methodist Church. The sign marks a now-paved-over spring, Hic-A-Sha-Ba-Ha, a Choctaw phrase thought to mean “Sweet Gum leaves floating on the water.”
Wilson, 37, is a petite woman with bright eyes and an open, pleasant face that exudes health. She moves quickly, with precision, and shows little evidence of having suffered the trauma of a car crash less than a week earlier.
Her first brush with herbal medicine came during a Peace Corps stint in the Ukraine just after college. Desperate for relief from a cold, she accepted a small bag of herbs from a babushka at an outdoor market. She credits a tea made with the herbs for her rapid recovery.
“I wish I knew what was in it,” she says years later.
From Ukraine, Wilson moved to Prague. By then her health had deteriorated. She was having heart palpitations, digestive problems, vertigo and severe depression. A doctor there told her to drink more green tea. Wilson ignored the advice.
Back in Mississippi — Wilson grew up in New Orleans, then Louisville — a doctor told her she needed to go on birth control pills. She ignored that advice, too.
She moved to San Francisco and there met a practicing herbalist. Through diet, herbs, yoga and meditation, she overcame her maladies. She studied with the herbalist for four years, and then attended a six-month school. Her education is ongoing, she stresses; it continues through consultation with other herbalists, workshops and practical experience.
The vast body of knowledge of natural healing is supported by centuries of empirical experience, says Wilson. One notable contributor to that trove of knowledge practiced in this area in the early 1800s.
In his remarkable and hugely entertaining autobiography, frontier naturalist Gideon Lincecum* recounts his experiences as a self-taught doctor plying his trade in the upper “Tombecbee” River Valley.
Stricken by a near-fatal heatstroke after over-exerting himself on a deer hunt, Lincecum treated himself to multiple bloodlettings and ingested mercury, two widely accepted treatments at the time. During his four-years-long convalescence, Lincecum’s disillusionment with traditional or allopathic medicine grew.
He wrote a friend, a member of the Choctaw Nation, requesting a session with the tribe’s healer. Lincecum proposed the two men engage in a sort of roving colloquy until the elder had imparted his knowledge of healing plants. The friend instructed Lincecum to meet the medicine man after “12 sleeps” at the black rock bluff on “Noxuby” River at midday. The teacher would stay as long as it took; the student would be responsible for providing food and 50-cents-a-day tuition.
The two men spent six weeks in the woods.
Lincecum incorporated his newly gained knowledge into his medical practice. When patients demanded conventional or allopathic treatment Lincecum complied. After he watched a 2-year-old he had treated with allopathic methods die, he vowed never to use them again.
“After this occurrence, I carried none but botanical remedies with me,” he wrote.
By 1839, according to his autobiography, a drug store in Columbus was advertising, “Botanical Medicines … prepared and manufactured … by Dr. Gideon Lincecum.”
THE NEW FRONTIER
Throughout the year Wilson and her partner, Phillip Kendall, gather raw materials for her preparations. Some are wild-harvested in nearby woods, others on land near Kendall’s family in North Carolina. For non-native ingredients she relies on organic suppliers.
Among the apothecary’s offerings are “Flu Fighter” and “Sage Privet Tincture” for flu symptoms; “Happy Uterus Tincture” and “Menopause Tincture” for women; “Black Walnut Elixir” and “Peppermint Spirits Plus” for digestive health. Those formulations are compounded using familiar ingredients: sweet gum balls, St. John’s wort, privet, partridge berry, red clover and prickly ash, among them.
While she is finding acceptance, misconceptions exist.
“One woman walked up to our table (at a farmers’ market) and said, ‘Oh, you have to believe in it for it to work.’”
“You believe in coffee, don’t you?” Wilson said.
“Of course I believe in coffee,” the woman laughed.
“Well it’s the same thing,” Wilson said. “Coffee has its particular constituents that make a physiological response in your body.”
People are asking more questions now than ever about their health care, she says.
While her 19th century predecessor relied on letters and submissions to medical journals to announce his findings, this modern-day herbalist has the Internet. There she maintains a lively dialog through Facebook and blogs on her company’s website sweetgumapoth.com.
Wilson is quick to acknowledge the important role of allopathic medicine. But the best model, she says, is collaboration between conventional medicine and natural healing.
“Out West you can find that,” she says. “In the Deep South, not so much.”
She blames the increased use of pesticides and antibiotics for many of today’s health problems.
“A lot of autoimmune disorders are elusive,” she says. “Certain things just aren’t working anymore. … (people) are finding relief through diet, herbs and lifestyles.”
Evidence suggests interest in herbal medicine is growing. Wilson was among 1,000 attending the Southeastern Women’s Herb Conference in Asheville, North Carolina, a year ago. (She taught two workshops at that conference this year.)
When looking back at her own personal health issues, Wilson is grateful to have been in San Francisco where there is a community of people devoted to natural healing. Now, years later, she is at the vanguard of a movement to create that same kind of community here in northeast Mississippi.
*Adventures of a Frontier Naturalist; The Life and Times of Dr. Gideon Lincecum; Texas A&M University Press, 1994.
5 COMMON PLANTS & THEIR MEDICINAL USES
By Lindsay Wilson
CLEAVERS (Gallium aparine)
A common early spring weed (and I use weed in the highest regard) with a square stem and whirled leaves. Touch the plant and you’ll immediately feel its “cleaving” action. Touch the stem of the plant to your shirt and it will stick. One of my favorite alterative and lymphagogue herbs. Works on the lymphatic system which normally needs to be moved by muscle movement or manual movement. Lymphagogues encourage the movement of lymph fluid through the vessels while improving lymphatic function (think waste out, nutrition in). An affinity for the urinary tract. Good for “spring cleaning.” Lots of silica. Indirect immune support.
YELLOW DOCK (Rumex crispus)
Fleshy, spear-shaped leaves that can have colors from green to amber-brown. Grows during the warm seasons. The leaves have a bit of a sour taste. The root has an unmistakable yellow hue to it, along with a mineral-rich, rooty smell. A common weed that packs a powerful punch in the herbal world. The leaves can be eaten when they are small and young (toss in a salad with other greens). The root is used medicinally to provide and increase iron absorption in the blood. The root is a blood builder. Great for prenatal care and new moms. Has an affinity for the small intestine and is a great herbal ally for Leaky Gut Syndrome. Known as the “herb of understanding” in certain American Indian tribes. Tincture is taken in small doses (5-15 drops).
SMOOTH SUMAC (Rhus glabra)
Another common herbal ally. This one is native to the Southeast and its bright red, erect clusters of berries are hard to miss along roadsides in the fall. The small tree can get as tall as 10 feet. The leaves are compound and get firey red in late fall. Leaves and stems do not have wings (liked Winged Sumac). You can gather to make sumac-ade (tangy like lemonade). Packed with Vitamin C. This is a VERY astringent herb. Take to regulate the flow of fluids (urine, blood, saliva, sweat). Great cold & flu herb, especially for those with a lot of mucus discharge.
RED CEDAR (Juniperus virginiana)
A first succession growth tree that has become invasive in certain areas of Mississippi. My favorite use is to clear trauma from a person’s energy system after an accident or other traumatic event. The leaves (and berries if they are available) are best prepared as a bath. Simmer for 20 minutes and pour into bath. Good for arthritic conditions as well. Can use for lower urinary tract infections. Do not use if the infection is deep (or upper) as the warming nature of this plant can push it up into the kidneys. Do not use on someone with kidney issues. Warming in nature. An immunity stimulant that increases macrophage activity. Ripe berries (technically they are cones) can be used to cure fish and meat dishes like culinary juniper berries.
DANDELION (Taraxacum officinale)
There is so much to say about dandelion. This amazing herbal ally, often the target of toxic RoundUp Ready herbicides, is one of the most important herbs to integrate into your daily life. Its bitter taste stimulates bitter taste receptors in almost all organ systems of the body. To me, it’s like getting a free acupuncture treatment each time you eat it or use it as medicine. The ENTIRE plant is edible. The leaves and roots are packed with calcium, magnesium, Vitamin A, and a host of other nutrients. Start today. Eat a few leaves of dandelion a day for overall digestive support. Roast the roots to make a coffee substitute. Batter the flowers to make dandelion flower fritters. Toss the greens into your salad. Infuse the entire plant in apple cider vinegar to make a mineral rich vinegar that can be added to salad dressings or taken by itself. Cooling to the liver. Protects liver cells and encourages liver detoxification.