Homegrown Healing

Story Lindsay Wilson

Those of you who read Birney Imes’ article in the spring issue of Catfish Alley may remember how I found relief from a persistent and chronic medical condition with herbs and natural healing practices. The experience energized and continues to nourish my self-directed inquiry into the healing properties of plants. That journey, begun in San Francisco, led to my eventual return to this area and the founding of Sweet Gum Springs Apothecary to offer locally-crafted herbal preparations from the heart of Mississippi.

As a community herbalist, I grow quite a few herbs and know how to identify, as well as use, a number of plants in the wild. The majority of what we all need for health and well-being is right outside our door or in a nearby forest. Believe it or not, we really don’t need exotic herbs from far-away locations. Largely, what we need is already here, if we just learn to recognize it.

Although I grew up in Louisiana and Mississippi, my training in herbalism began in California about 10 years ago. I’ve studied with teachers out West, in Appalachia and here in Mississippi. My best teachers have always been the forests and the plants, themselves, though. And, of course, my studies never cease. I believe I learn something new every day.

So what is plant medicine or herbalism? Herbalism is an evolving, yet well-developed art and science that has been around since there were plants and there were humans. The healing power of plants has been used by every culture on the planet at every phase of human history and pre-history. There are very structured and intact medical systems like Ayurveda (India) and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM, China) as well as lesser known folk medical systems such as Curanderismo (Mexico) and Muti (Southern Africa) that all draw on hundreds of herbs for maintaining health. 

The Deep South is unique to America in that an unbroken, although largely lost, tradition of Southern Folk Medicine is still in practice. Similar to Ayurveda and TCM, Southern Folk Medicine has assessment tools, constitution types, a thorough meteria medica (local plants that are used for medicine) and underlying philosophies. It is a rich tradition that still lives on. One herbal elder who continues to teach it is Phyllis D. Light of Arab, Alabama.

Apart from folk and traditional medicine, America is also home to a legacy of botanical doctors called either Eclectic Physicians or Physiomedicalists. They built their practices on treating the patient and not the pathology, almost solely with local plant medicines. They were present mainly in the 1800s until the early 1900s. Some of their names are Rafinesque, Thomson, Ellingwood, King and Scudder. Columbus even has a well-known botanical doctor in its history — Gideon Lincecum. Due to the resurgence of American Herbalism, their dusty books of empirical literature are being cracked open again and looked at with fresh eyes. If you want to look into this further, I suggest the website Henriette’s Herbal (henriettes-herb.com).

So where are we today with herbalism? It is making a necessary come-back. From family herbalism to clinical herbalism, people are reeducating themselves on the traditional uses of plants. Conferences are being organized, journals and books are being written, and even medicinal plant cultivation is finding renewed interest. I think that is a good sign for the American people as the ultimate approach to medicine is a blending of traditional with modern medical systems.

In upcoming issues, I will be writing about certain plants, trees and shrubs and their medicinal uses. I will focus on some of my favorite herbs, and yes, that even includes common weeds.