Old Appalachian Folk Remedies They Used To Swear By

Goldenseal Tincture for Antibiotic-Like Properties Originally used by Native Americans as both a medicine and a dye, goldenseal has a rich history of medicinal use. This… Alli Anderson - September 25, 2023

The healing traditions of Appalachia, deeply rooted in folk remedies, represent a rich tapestry of herbal knowledge influenced by the wisdom of indigenous peoples like the Iroquois and other Woodland Indians (including the Cherokee). As European colonists ventured into this unfamiliar land, they carried with them a treasure trove of familiar plants and seeds used for sustenance and medicine. The healing practices of Appalachia are as diverse as the region itself, and they go by various names depending on location and practitioner. It may be referred to as root work, folk medicine, folk magic, or kitchen witchery. Some practitioners identify their practice as “hillfolks’ hoodoo,” while others may view it as a manifestation of their faith, simply referring to it as the work of the Lord. This rich tapestry of terminology reflects the blend of cultural influences, spirituality, and the intimate connection between the people of Appalachia and their healing traditions.

Please note that while these remedies have historical significance in the Appalachian region, it’s important to consult with a healthcare professional for any medical concerns. The effectiveness of these remedies may vary, and some may have potential side effects or interactions with medications.


Who Are The Appalachian Folk?

The diverse population of Appalachia reflects a complex tapestry of ancestral backgrounds and migrations. One of the prominent groups with roots in this region is the Scotch-Irish, who embarked on a significant migration from their ancestral homeland to settle in Appalachia. Their traditions, including folk remedies and cultural practices, became deeply ingrained in the region’s heritage.

African-Americans also played a pivotal role in shaping the demographics of Appalachia. Many were freed from slavery, and their migration to the area added to the cultural mosaic of the region. Their contributions, both in terms of cultural heritage and knowledge of traditional healing practices, enriched the Appalachian tapestry. As time passed, more communities from various backgrounds continued to migrate to Appalachia, further diversifying the population.

Atlas Obscura.

Why Did They Have Their Own Medicine?

In the early settlements of the Appalachian region, the presence of doctors was not unknown, and they could be summoned when a medical situation exceeded the capabilities of home treatment. Accidents, often involving sharp tools like axes or knives, were not uncommon, necessitating skilled suturing to address wounds. Additionally, the hearth posed a constant fire hazard, and many women faced the risk of severe burns if their clothing caught fire while tending to the open flame.

Within these communities, “Granny Women” played a pivotal role as trusted figures in matters of health. They were skilled in delivering babies, offering guidance to new mothers, and serving as the local “Herb Doctor.” Their knowledge spanned a broad spectrum of remedies, crossing cultural boundaries, as both white settlers and indigenous populations adopted the use of various plants and herbs for medicinal purposes. These included ginseng, sassafras, wild cherry bark, sumac, black walnut, dogwood bark, yellowroot, and club moss, among others.


Sassafras Tea To Purify The Blood

Sassafras Tea, derived from the root of the sassafras tree, holds a significant place in the heritage of the Appalachian region. Passed down through generations, this tea was highly regarded for its perceived ability to purify the blood and alleviate various ailments. In the heart of the Appalachian Mountains, the sassafras tree, with its distinctive leaves and roots, was a common sight. To create this medicinal brew, Appalachian families would venture into the woods to gather the gnarled roots of the sassafras tree. These roots were carefully cleaned, sliced, and left to dry, releasing a sweet, earthy fragrance into the air as they absorbed the warmth of the sun.

Once the roots were adequately dried, they were ready to be transformed into a therapeutic elixir for spring. A pot of water was set to boil, and the dried sassafras roots were added to the simmering water. As the roots steeped, the liquid transformed into a warm, amber-hued tea, exuding a delightful aroma that captured the essence of the Appalachian wilderness. Appalachian communities held a steadfast belief in the healing properties of Sassafras tea. It was thought to cleanse the blood, eliminating impurities that could contribute to various health issues. Families turned to this tea when feeling unwell or used it preventatively to guard against illnesses, particularly after Appalachian winters. It is said “that in the spring of the year when the blood is too thick, there is nothing so fine as a Sassafras stick.”

Joybilee Farm

Mullein Oil For Earaches

Mullein Oil, a traditional remedy that can be found throughout the history of folk medicine, was highly esteemed for its efficacy in addressing the discomfort of earaches. This natural remedy was prepared by steeping mullein flowers in olive oil, resulting in an herbal-infused oil that could be used to alleviate ear pain. To craft Mullein Oil, Appalachian families would carefully collect the vibrant yellow flowers of the mullein plant, which commonly grew in the region. They are not native to the area, however. It was introduced in the 1700s. These flowers were then gently placed in a container of olive oil. Over time, the medicinal properties of the mullein flowers would infuse into the oil, creating a potent elixir.

When an earache struck, a few drops of Mullein Oil would be warmed slightly and applied to the affected ear. This simple yet effective remedy was believed to provide relief by soothing inflammation, reducing pain, and potentially addressing the underlying causes of the earache. While modern medicine has evolved, the memory of Mullein Oil persists in the Appalachian tradition. It stands as a symbol of the resilience and ingenuity of those who, in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains, turned to the natural world for solutions to everyday ailments, finding comfort and relief in the simple act of applying a few drops of herbal-infused oil to an aching ear.


Pokeweed For Aching Joints

Historically, the pokeweed plant, known for its versatile medicinal properties, played a vital role in the healthcare practices of both Native American groups and European settlers in the Southeastern United States. This botanical wonder offered a range of remedies, from soothing joint pain to treating various skin ailments. Among the various uses of the pokeweed plant, its roots held a special place. They were often steeped to create a tea-like brew, known for its potential to alleviate discomfort in aching joints.

The preparation of this root infusion was a testament to the resourcefulness of those who resided in the Southeastern region. As they sought relief from joint pain, they turned to the pokeweed plant, harnessing the power of its roots to create a soothing and therapeutic beverage. Furthermore, the pokeweed plant’s healing potential extended to skin ailments. The plant was transformed into a topical poultice, demonstrating the diverse applications of this botanical remedy. These poultices were utilized to address a variety of skin conditions, including rashes, itching, and other irritations. The poultice was carefully prepared and applied, offering a natural and local solution to common dermatological issues.

A man growing goldenseal. Cool Green Science.

Goldenseal Tincture for Antibiotic-Like Properties

Originally used by Native Americans as both a medicine and a dye, goldenseal has a rich history of medicinal use. This herb found its way into the practices of settlers and eclectic physicians in the 19th century, solidifying its place in traditional Appalachian folk medicine. Goldenseal’s healing properties are attributed to its alkaloids, which have been discovered to possess antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, and tonic effects.

These qualities made it a sought-after remedy for various ailments in the Appalachian region, where it was valued not only for its immune-boosting potential but also for its ability to alleviate inflammation and muscle spasms. Goldenseal’s dual role as a medicinal herb and a natural dye showcases its versatility and importance in the heritage of the Appalachian people. While modern medicine has advanced, the legacy of goldenseal as a multifaceted botanical remedy remains a testament to the deep-rooted wisdom and resourcefulness of those who relied on nature’s bounty for both health and practical purposes in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains.

Ascension Kitchen

Mugwort Inside Pillow To Lucid Dream

Mugwort’s unique qualities as a sedative and dream enhancer hold particular significance in the context of Appalachian folk medicine. In this region, where communities have historically relied on natural remedies and close connections to the land, the use of plants like mugwort for their soothing properties is deeply ingrained. Appalachian folk medicine emphasizes the holistic approach to health, considering not only physical ailments but also the well-being of the mind and spirit. Mugwort’s ability to induce relaxation and enhance dream experiences aligns with this holistic perspective, addressing not only the body’s needs but also the importance of mental and emotional health.

The practice of adding mugwort to sleep pillows in Appalachia not only reflects the region’s resourcefulness but also its reverence for the healing power of nature. It underscores the belief that plants, when used mindfully, can have profound effects on one’s overall health. In a region where stress and daily challenges were part of everyday life, the calming influence of mugwort was a treasured remedy. It is a testament to the enduring wisdom of Appalachian folk medicine, which continues to honor the healing properties of plants and their capacity to nourish both body and soul.

Smoky Mountain Living

“Granny Women” Saved Lives During Childbirth

Prior to the 20th century, a period marked by significant maternal health risks during pregnancy and childbirth, Southern Appalachian women emerged as the stalwart healers of their communities. Armed with inherited knowledge of regional botanica, along with practices encompassing divination and prayer, these formidable women took on the responsibility of safeguarding the well-being of those under their care.

These women wore many hats; they served as pharmacists, cultivating and tending to healing herbs while sharing the secrets of their applications. They were midwives, traversing from one home to another, and village to village, bringing their expertise to expectant mothers in need. For generations, these women functioned as doctors without formal degrees, excluded from the halls of academia and medical institutions, yet they thrived as a supportive network, learning from each other and passing down their wealth of experience, wisdom, and healing practices from neighbor to neighbor and from mother to daughter. Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English aptly captured this legacy in their book, “Witches, Midwives and Nurses: A History of Women Healers,” underscoring the pivotal role these women played in the healthcare landscape of their Appalachian communities.


Elderberry Syrup For Immune Support

Elderberry Syrup, a cherished Appalachian folk remedy, draws from a history that stretches back as far as 400 BC, when Hippocrates, often referred to as the “Father of Medicine,” revered the elder tree as his “medicine chest.” This ancient acknowledgment of elderberry’s healing properties laid the foundation for its continued use in folk medicine, earning it a well-deserved reputation as one of the world’s most therapeutic plants. The elderberry’s magical aura finds resonance with the Celts, who held it in high regard. To them, it was a plant of mystical significance, carrying with it a sense of enchantment and wonder. Its presence in the Appalachian landscape serves as a living connection to these ancient traditions.

In the Appalachian region and other parts of the world, the tradition of harnessing elderberry’s potency continued through the generations. Elderberry bushes, with their clusters of dark purple berries, were readily available in the lush landscapes of the Appalachians. These berries, when carefully harvested and prepared, became the primary ingredient in Elderberry Syrup, a remedy celebrated for its immune-boosting prowess. Elderberry Syrup wasn’t just a sweet concoction; it was regarded as a natural defense against illness. The elderberries’ antioxidant-rich content, combined with their wealth of vitamins, was believed to fortify the body’s defenses and provide relief from a range of symptoms, particularly those associated with colds and flu.

A wagonload of ginseng being hauled away – likely to sell. 100 Days Of Appalachia

Ginseng Is Still One Of the Most Popular Herbs In The US

This one may be the most notable in Appalachian history. The region is well known for its abundance of ginseng. Ginseng holds immense significance in Appalachian medicine, where its roots have been woven into the fabric of healing practices for generations. Native Americans, with their deep connection to the land, recognized ginseng’s potential early on. They utilized the root as a stimulant to combat fatigue and as a remedy for various ailments, including headaches, fever, indigestion, and infertility.

Over time, ginseng’s reputation as a versatile herbal remedy has endured, making it one of the most popular herbs in the United States. Ginseng in the wild is endangered because the method of harvesting involves digging up its roots, which is why harvesting wild ginseng is highly regulated in the US and is illegal in some states. You can cultivate and harvest your own ginseng at home, however.


Buying Warts From Someone Would Make The Wart Disappear

The ability to remove warts was a shared talent within the family, rooted in their Appalachian heritage in North Georgia. On the paternal side, the grandmother showcased this skill by successfully eliminating over a hundred warts from a young relative in a single day. She initiated the process by instructing the child to collect a substantial number of smooth stones. Prepared with a paper bag, she systematically took each stone, and while quietly murmuring inaudible words, she rubbed it over every wart. After the treatment, she deposited the stone into the paper bag.

When all the warts had received this unique treatment, she directed the child to seal the bag and place it by the side of the road. She explained that, as people passed by, the warts would somehow jump onto them, leaving the young relative free of warts. Remarkably, in about three days, all of the child’s warts had disappeared. On the maternal side, the grandfather possessed a similar ability to make warts vanish through touch and whispered words, even extending his healing prowess to seed warts that affected livestock in the town. This effectiveness challenged skepticism regarding the placebo effect, leaving an enduring mark on the family’s belief in their healing traditions.


Ginger For Multiple Ailments

Ginger Infusion, a cherished remedy in the Appalachian tradition, served as a reliable solution for addressing various digestive discomforts. Ginger tea, derived from ginger root, was a prevalent choice for combatting nausea, heartburn, sour stomach, and a wide array of stomach ailments. Its widespread use showcased the versatility and effectiveness of this natural remedy.

The therapeutic properties of ginger root extended beyond its digestive benefits. Its anti-inflammatory nature made it a valuable ally in addressing various health issues over time. The anti-inflammatory compounds found in ginger could help alleviate symptoms associated with conditions beyond digestive troubles. Furthermore, ginger’s soothing qualities extended to respiratory concerns. In cases of a cough or cold, ginger syrup was a go-to remedy in the Appalachian pharmacopeia. The syrup’s warming and soothing properties provided relief from the discomfort associated with these ailments.

Dark Hollar Witch

“Granny Women” Would Help Ailing Infants

These resourceful Appalachian women possessed a deep well of knowledge, understanding that remedies like catnip tea and red alder tea could effectively prevent infants from developing hives. When faced with colicky babies, they turned to the soothing properties of stewed-down calamus root or catnip tea. Catnip tea, a time-honored remedy in Appalachia, was a trusted solution for alleviating colic in infants. Colic, characterized by excessive crying and fussiness in babies, can be a challenging condition for both parents and infants. Appalachian communities turned to the soothing properties of catnip to provide relief.

To alleviate flu symptoms, they ingeniously placed sulfur in the soles of shoes. And in cases of severe burns, they relied on a blend of smoke, chants, and precise words to work their healing magic, coaxing the fire’s destructive power away from the injured. Their intimate knowledge of these remedies and their unwavering commitment to their communities made them invaluable healers in the rugged landscape of Appalachia.

Druid’s Well.

Englishman’s Foot To Reduce Pain & Swelling

The rich tapestry of herbal remedies in the Appalachian region reflects the blending of native traditions and those brought by immigrants. Native peoples embraced new plants introduced by settlers, such as mullein, catnip mint (used not for pet cats but to soothe colicky babies), peaches, and plantain, among many others.

Plantain, scientifically known as Plantago major, held a unique nickname among the indigenous populations—it was called “Englishman’s Foot” because, wherever European settlers tread, this hardy plant seemed to flourish. Its remarkable ability to alleviate pain and reduce swelling made it particularly valuable to the Tuscarora tribe, who used it as a vital poultice for snakebites. This interplay between native and immigrant flora showcases the adaptability and resourcefulness of Appalachian communities in embracing the wealth of new plant species introduced by settlers.

The Permaculture Institute

Ramps Were More Than Just A Strong Onion

Ramps, belonging to the allium family, are a distinctive member of North American cuisine and are often referred to as our native leeks. These wild plants are renowned for their pungent aroma and flavor, which can be likened to “industrial strength onions” due to their remarkable richness in sulphide compounds. In the Appalachian tradition, ramps were celebrated not just for their robust flavor but also for their potential health benefits. It was a common belief that after a long winter of consuming preserved foods like dried vegetables and salted meat, a “spring cleaning” for the body was needed.

To achieve this, people turned to remedies like sulfur and molasses. However, for a more palatable and enjoyable alternative, they would indulge in a hearty meal of “ramps.” A “mess o’ ramps,” as it’s affectionately known, became a traditional Appalachian springtime dish, heralding the arrival of a new season and a return to fresh, locally foraged foods. The strong flavors and vibrant greenery of ramps symbolized the revitalization of both the body and spirit after the hardships of winter.


Protestantism & Mysticism Come Together For Powerful Healing

The burn spell, a cherished Appalachian healing practice passed down through generations, holds a place of significance in the tradition of women like Ballard. Rooted in the practical wisdom of their foremothers and their close-knit communities, this spell wasn’t referred to as a mystical ritual; it was simply the words spoken when someone suffered a bad burn, resulting in the burn’s miraculous improvement. It didn’t require elaborate attire or specialized tools; it was accessible and rooted in everyday life.

All it entailed was repeating a simple chant three times while making a counter-clockwise motion with one’s hands over the burned area without making direct contact. The words of the chant—”Come! Three angels from the North, Take both fire and frost”—reflect the intriguing blend of mysticism and Protestant Christianity often found in Appalachian culture. It was a down-to-earth form of witchcraft, an inherent aspect of their lives that used readily available materials and resources. It was born from generations of living close to the land, making do with what was at hand, and being resourceful in the face of adversity.

Tame The Spirit Herbs

Shrub Yellowroot For Digestive Issues

Yellowroot, a prominent native plant in the Appalachian region, has long been recognized for its medicinal properties. This versatile shrub is widely acknowledged throughout the area, and its applications in traditional remedies span a range of ailments affecting the stomach, kidneys, liver, or bladder. One of the standout qualities of Yellowroot is its antibiotic properties, which are akin to those found in Goldenseal but are often considered safer to use.

This made it a trusted choice for addressing various health concerns while avoiding potential side effects associated with other remedies. The doctrine of signatures, a principle employed by many indigenous cultures, played a role in identifying Yellowroot’s medicinal potential. This doctrine posits that the appearance of a plant often indicates its use in medicine. In the case of Yellowroot, its vibrant yellow color served as a visual cue, guiding those seeking natural remedies to recognize its potential as a healing agent.

Nitty Gritty Life

Wild Cherry Bark Cough Syrup

Wild cherry bark, a staple in Native American traditional medicine, has historically been utilized for a wide range of ailments including coughs, colds, fevers, labor pain, dysentery, digestive problems, and skin wounds. While contemporary herbalists primarily endorse its efficacy in addressing coughs and providing respiratory support, its versatility lends itself to various other medicinal applications.

To prepare this syrup, the bark of wild cherry trees was carefully harvested, often during the winter months when the tree’s medicinal properties were most concentrated. The bark was then simmered and steeped to extract its beneficial compounds. Wild Cherry Bark Cough Syrup was highly regarded for its ability to alleviate coughing and provide relief from the symptoms of the common cold. Its effectiveness lay in its natural compounds, which had a soothing and calming effect on the respiratory system.