Excerpted from her forthcoming book, The Geography of Health: Southern and Appalachian Folk Medicine.
Plants have always been my companions, both in the woods and the fields. For as long as I can remember, they have kept me company, shaded me from the hot sun and supported my health. As a child, passionflower (maypops) could keep me occupied for hours during cotton-picking time. If I got hungry I ate its fruit. I cut the vine to tie things with. I ate the leaves for stomach aches. I decorated my hair with the flowers. I did just about everything a child could do with a plant.
We used to gather maypops for making jelly; no fruit is sweeter. We also collected the leaves and vines to dry for later use as a relaxant, sleep aid and anti-infective. Passionflower is an amazingly resilient plant. No matter how you pull, cut or dig at it, it still thrives and returns the next year.
In the spring, a time for weeding and thinning the cotton, Queen Anne’s lace, blackberry, dock, sassafras, cleavers, summer boneset, honeysuckle, poke salat, plantain and ground ivy were readily available. Most of these plants grew in the patches of grass that buffered the cotton fields from the woods.
When I was young, cotton had yet to become one of the most heavily herbicide and pesticide doused crops grown in the United States. Growing cotton back then was labor intensive and weeds around the cotton were kept under control by field hands welding sharp hoes and by plowing between the rows with tractors before the cotton got too high. My maternal grandfather, Papa Bright, didn’t use chemicals on his cotton or corn, he was too poor to afford them. Instead, the family weeded the fields. He usually planted in small plots of 10 to 20 acres. That was a lot of cotton to hoe and pick as he share-cropped several such fields. It was also a great many plants that grew along the borders.
In addition to passionflower, the two other plants I associate with the cotton fields are goldenrod and cockle burr. The showy goldenrod with its bright yellow flowers arrives with autumn. Insects love goldenrod and you can always find a wide variety of bugs and beetles within the flowers of the plant. Galls, swollen lumps, are a reaction to parasitic invasion and can also be found on the goldenrod stalks. The galls themselves can be used as medicine to control bleeding (either internally or externally), for intestinal problems such as diarrhea and dysentery, and to limit the excessive release of bodily fluids. Other types of galls are found on plants and trees such as oak, sumac and gum.
Some goldenrod plants exhibit feathery blossoms; others have blossoms collected on spikes. Alternatively, the plants can also have simple leaves, leaves that alternate or toothed leaves. Goldenrod’s scientific name, Solidago, means â€šÃ„Ãºto make whole.â€šÃ„Ã¹ And I think this is a fitting signature of goldenrod’s healing properties. Goldenrod helps tone mucous membrane tissues and can be used to tone the digestive tract, gall bladder, urinary tract and reproductive tract. Some people are allergic to the latex found in golden rod, so care should be taken when using the fresh plant.
Goldenrod is one of the plants I gather, dry and store for use every year. It reduces hot urine, eases inflammation in the kidneys and helps the body eliminate kidney stones. It can help increase energy when the kidneys are at a low function. I have found it useful for folks who have kidney or bladder infections or kidney stones, especially when the kidneys are congested. And it can help relieve spasms in the urinary tract. Just as a good hand washing whisks bacteria off the finger tips, goldenrod washes away the bacteria from the bladder and kidneys.
The other plant I associate with the cotton fields is cockleburr. Cockleburr is a devilish plant that, when small, looks almost exactly like cotton; in the early stages it is hard to tell these two broad-leaved plants apart. As a result, many an experienced field hand used to mistake cockle burr for cotton and leave it growing. The burr of the plant sticks to your clothes, your socks and your hair; nothing is more painful than trying to extract a cockle burr from your hair. Its Velcro-like spikes cling to the individual strands of hair, working their way around and twisting it into a matted mess. The spikes hurt! If you’re not careful, when you untangle the mess or extract the burr from clothes, they’ll painfully stab your fingers.
Its deep taproot makes this plant almost impossible to eliminate. To get rid of it permanently, you can’t just chop it down with a hoe. You have to dig down deep into the earth and extract it by the root and leave the plant lying in the sun to shrivel and die. If allowed to flower, the cockle burr spreads its seeds across the fields and maddeningly multiplies.
The behavior of cockle burr symbolizes certain types of entangling relationships. The way two cockle burrs cling tightly together represents the ideal marriage bond: bound strongly together, but still able to act as individuals. Cockle burrs are also like kin folk. They stick to you no matter what, irritatingly persistent until you get rid of them. Although the plant was considered poison, it is also strong and useful medicine in the right doses.
If all else failed when trying to remove gravel from the kidneys, a remedy made from the young leaves of the cockle burr plant was said to do the trick. It was also used for bursitis especially in the shoulders. Because of its reputation as a strong medicine and potential poison, it was a plant I greatly feared; so I never mastered its deeper magic or uses. Cockle burr root also enjoyed a reputation as an abortive, a plant that a good girl didn’t need to know how to use. And so I stayed away from the knowledge this plant had to offer for many years.
When I was growing up in Northern Alabama, my Southern herbal heritage was an important part of my daily life. Today, though, for most folks, this kind of information has to be sought out to be learned and understood. It is important that we keep this information alive and useful. I was taught the old fashioned way, through a long-standing oral tradition and an active apprenticeship.
Unfortunately, today when we need this information more than ever, few people are left alive who know this oral tradition.