Creole Healers and Herbs

In the parishes of southwest Louisiana, generations of Creole people have used little-known plants for treating a host of ailments. Today, they’re making a resurgence.

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by Adobestock/lesterman
Hot tea in glass teapot and cup with steam on wood background

Growing up in southern Louisiana, it wasn’t unusual to hear the older adults in my family speaking French. My mom would bellow from the back door, “Viens manger,” imploring me and my two older brothers to come inside to eat dinner. My grandparents, who all grew up with French as a first language, still use it to communicate with younger generations, myself included, who learned it in immersion programs.

Intertwined with this region’s rich linguistic heritage is an enduring adherence…–…and wide acceptance…–…of age-old Creole practices practically forgotten in many other parts of the country. Once-isolated and rural communities still engage in medieval customs, such as Courir de Mardi Gras, and eat regional food staples, such as gumbo, that date back to when the United States was hardly an idea. However, as pharmaceutical companies have come to dominate health care, one tradition has been largely forgotten: knowledge of local medicinal plants.

“It’s just about lost,” says Mary Perrin of the Lafayette Parish Master Gardeners Association (LPMGA) in southwest Louisiana. Perrin says Louisiana Creole people from not so long in the past…–…only a few decades ago…–…commonly looked to the land to heal what ailed them. Europeans arriving in the colony of Louisiana had adopted the practices from some of the Native American tribes living nearby, such as the Atakapa Ishak and Chitimacha tribes, until they became a part of Creole culture. (See “Creole People and Culture,” below.) These plants, little-known to those outside Louisiana, were said to quell a fever, reduce a cough, or numb pain. Often, the keepers of this knowledge were staples in the community, called traiteurs, which means “healers.” They treated people within their community through Roman Catholic prayers, and they could prescribe local medicinal plants that could reportedly cure a host of issues. It’s said a traiteur would heal maladies, such as a sprained ankle, or illnesses, such as the flu.

Traditionally, the art of healing was passed down from a traiteur to an apprentice. Perrin, 72, is a traiteur herself, having learned the healing practice from an older man about 20 years ago. “He taught me the prayers, the traditions,” she says. “Since they are handed down orally, the traditions tend to vary.” That means one traiteur might prescribe drinking tea steeped in local herbs three times a day, while a traiteur in another community might recommend drinking the tea five times a day.

A traiteur would often treat a sick community member with prayers while laying their hands on the afflicted, and perhaps prescribe a poultice made with plants found throughout the area. While traiteurs aren’t as common as they once were, those like Perrin can still be found scattered about southern Louisiana, although, Perrin says, the knowledge of medicinal plants has, in some ways, fallen out of favor among the healers. Many traiteurs now simply focus on prayers.

But it’s not only the traiteurs who once knew of the power of Louisiana’s medicinal plants…–…the plants’ uses were widely understood. This is evidenced in a 1933 dissertation by Louisiana State University graduate student Charles Bienvenu, who studied the Louisiana Creole language of hundreds of Creole people in St. Martin Parish. To study this language, which differs from the local Louisiana French dialect, he discussed folk remedies with his subjects in Louisiana Creole, which invariably provided a treasure trove of knowledge on local medicinal plants. What resulted is one of the most comprehensive written accounts of Creole folk plant knowledge available today.

Bienvenu’s thesis and the work of other researchers and practitioners have ensured that information about these local plants hasn’t died out. In 2010, C. Ray Brassieur, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (ULL), began studying Bienvenu’s thesis to identify these plants and uncover their potential in a modern context. Some local plants are widely known, such as elderberry and honeysuckle, while others are unknown to most people outside southern Louisiana, such as manglier (groundsel bush) and herbe à malo (lizard’s tail).

In 2011, the LPMGA helped Brassieur establish a traiteur demonstration garden at Vermilionville, a museum in Lafayette, Louisiana, to serve as a living exhibit of these plants and their accompanying folk remedies. “We have the garden so we don’t lose the knowledge,” Perrin says. “We’re keeping alive a cultural tradition. And we also have the French tradition and Creole names for the plants.”

In 2014, Brassieur and a team of scientists from the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, Rutgers University, and ULL went further, studying a few selected plants from Bienvenu’s thesis that purportedly had powerful medicinal qualities. After field collections, their studies revealed that several plants stood out with superb anti-inflammatory qualities and potential to treat Type 2 diabetes, and the results were published in Volume 30 of scientific journal Nutrition.

The researchers went on to study one plant in particular, manglier, which proved to be the most promising of the group. After examining extracts from the plant’s stem and leaves, researchers found that manglier was a potential treatment for metabolic syndrome, which includes high blood sugar, obesity, and high blood pressure. Among its benefits, manglier fought inflammation in fat cells while boosting the body’s ability to create proteins that are good for the liver and skeletal muscle. These findings were published in 2018 in the international, peer-reviewed journal Biology.

The following plants are those used by Native American tribes and Creole communities for generations. Some of them are scientifically backed and could be welcome additions to your medicinal herb garden. Others haven’t been as scrutinized by scientists looking for medicinal qualities, but are listed nonetheless to provide a window into the folk remedies of little-known plants. This list isn’t comprehensive, and you should speak to your health care provider about the possible risks of using these plants medicinally.

Groundsel Bush (Manglier)

Sea myrtle (Baccharis halimifolia) with flower buds - Long Key N

Native to the coastal areas of the Southeast, this shrub can grow to 12 feet high, and it sports dense clusters of white flowers in fall. Its foliage varies, from smooth, oval leaves to larger serrated ones. It’s tolerant of saltwater sprays, so it’s often recommended as a yard plant for those in coastal areas who want a native shrub.

In Louisiana, Creoles used several parts of the plant for the common cold or flu. The most common use was boiling the leaves to make tea, which reportedly helped treat fever, cough, congestion, and chills. The tea tastes incredibly bitter, so it was often served with honey, lemon, or whiskey. It was said that three cups of manglier tea per day would rid a person of their cold or flu symptoms.

Lizard’s Tail (Herbe à Malo)

Lizard's tail (Saururus cernuus). Known also as Water-dragon and

Lizard’s tail gets its English name from its whitish-yellow flower, which protrudes in a slender spike in the middle of the plant. It’s native to the eastern U.S., its range extending from Florida to Canada. It’s easily identifiable because of its arrow-shaped leaves.

Lizard’s tail grows in wet spots as a perennial and can tolerate shade, often growing in clusters, since it reproduces via runners. The plant can also be found thriving in standing water, either brackish or fresh, so it appreciates being planted into wet garden areas.

For years, some Native Americans, such as the Choctaw tribe, have used lizard’s tail as a sedative and an anti-inflammatory. In the 2014 research published in Nutrition, lizard’s tail exhibited anti-inflammatory properties. Historically, Creoles used the plant’s roots as a remedy for rheumatism, as well as in a poultice to treat sore breasts or cuts and scrapes. They also used the plant’s dried leaves as a remedy for breast and stomach pain.

Elderberry (Sureau)

American Wyldewood Elderberry perennial shrub. Sambucus canaden

The healing properties of elderberry are widely known today, as the plant has flooded the mainstream market in the form of syrups made from the berries, touted to boost one’s immune system. Typically, these berries come from the black elder tree, native to Europe. Its North American cousin, the common elder (also called “American elder”), is a close relative with just as many medicinal uses. The American elder is a shrub that grows along the eastern and central parts of the U.S. in recently disturbed environments, commonly found in fields, on the edges of creeks, and along fence lines. The elderberry produces white flowers that manifest in dark-purple, almost black, berries in late summer.

The berries contain plenty of vitamins, including vitamins A, B6, and C, as well as a supply of calcium and iron. Because of the large number of antioxidants present in the berries, they’re also a great immune booster. Creoles and some Native Americans would use various parts of the plant to heal an array of ailments. Its flowers were boiled down into a tea to treat cold and flu symptoms. The center of the branch, called the “pith,” was used as a wash for sore eyes. If someone had rashes or joint pain, the leaves were applied externally to the affected area. And of course, a syrup made with the berries is an effective immune booster and all-around health tonic for any time of the year.

Keep in mind that the leaves, seeds, stems, and roots of the elder are poisonous, since they contain cyanide-inducing glycoside. Cooking the berries, such as boiling them in water, makes them safe for consumption.

Bitter Melon (Mexicain)

orange ripe Momordica (Indian cucumber) -Momordica charantia

Bitter melon is most likely native to subtropical parts of Africa and Asia, and it can be found today in the Caribbean, South America, Louisiana, and other tropical climates. The vine bears large, lobed leaves and can grow up to 16 feet long. The fruits resemble cucumbers, but they’re warty and, as the plant’s name suggests, intensely bitter. Bitter melon grows best in hot, humid environments; gardeners in more northern climates should consider using a greenhouse if growing this plant.

Historically and today, bitter melon grown in tropical regions of the world is used as a treatment for stomach problems and malaria. Louisiana Creoles used to soak bitter melon in whiskey to treat stomachaches. These tart melons contain high levels of potassium, beta carotene, and calcium, as well as plenty of vitamins. According to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, bitter melon extracts have been shown to kill leukemia cells in mice in a laboratory setting. It has also lowered blood glucose levels in clinical trials.

Red Bay (Petit Laurier)

branch with leaf and berry

A Louisiana gumbo was once never without the fragrant red bay leaf, although today, most cooks use the commercially available leaves from the sweet bay tree. The red bay tree can grow up to 70 feet tall, thriving in most soil types throughout the southeastern U.S. Its leaves are similar to the bay leaves you’d find in the grocery store. It sports yellowish flowers in early summer that produce blue, round fruit. Creoles and some Native Americans used the leaves for more than just culinary purposes; the tree’s twigs and leaves were boiled down to treat colds, and the bark used to treat liver problems. In the 2014 research published in Nutrition, red bay was shown to contain anti-inflammatory properties.

Appreciation and exploration of these medicinal plants continue today, preserving the plants’ traditional uses that have been treasured for generations.

Creole People and Culture

The term “Creole” has been an identity marker for people of various backgrounds, and holds a complex history that spans centuries, cultures, and locations. This article specifically focuses on Creole culture and practices in Louisiana.

According to the African American Registry, “Creoles are commonly known as people of mixed French, African, Spanish, and Native American ancestry, many of who reside in or have familial ties to Louisiana. Research has shown many other ethnicities have contributed to this culture, including, but not limited to, Chinese, Russian, German, and Italian.” Therefore, the plant traditions practiced and handed down through generations of Creole people are, to varying degrees, a blend of numerous cultures, most prominently those of the local Indigenous peoples, free and enslaved Africans, and European settlers.

You can learn more about Creole culture and history through resources including (but not limited to) the African American Registry and Northwestern State University’s Creole Heritage Center.

Jonathan Olivier is an independent journalist who primarily writes about the environment and how humans interact with the natural world. His work has appeared in Outside, Backpacker, Mother Earth News, and other national publications.