Herbal Remedies: Appalachian Herbs

Medicinal plants from the southern Appalachians such as foxglove, St. John's wort, witch hazel, mayapple, Indian tobacco, butterfly weed, blue cohosh, Queen Anne's lace, Oswego tea and peppermint.

| April/May 1999

In 1776, while the Declaration of Independence was being drafted, the great French botanist Andre Michaux stood atop North Carolina’s Grandfather Mountain and sang the French national anthem. It was a moment that represented the culmination of years of exploration into the magnificent variety of plants that flourish in the southern Appalachians — a concentration of flora unequaled on the North American continent or even in the whole of Europe.

As significant as was the work of Michaux, Native American tribes such as the Cherokee and the Catawba had been roaming the lush hillsides and gorges for centuries before his time, discovering a multitude of uses for these plants — one of the most significant being medicinal. The region is a veritable outdoor pharmacy of medicinal plants, which were not only part of the recipes of yesterday’s tribal medicine men, but continue to occupy a place in today’s pharmacopoeias. In fact, so important are the botanical sources of modern medicines that environmental scientist G. Tyler Miller has estimated that 40 percent of all the medicine on the shelves of today’s drugstores have plant origins.

While any attempt at a complete listing of known medicinal plants of the southern Appalachians might require volumes, a brief walk along their paths will, I hope, serve to illustrate the enormous impact the area has had on modern medical practice.


Let’s begin with a heart medication. A member of the figwort family, growing 2 to 5 feet in height, is the purple foxglove (Digitalis purpurea). With lance-shaped to oval leaves, these spires of thimble-like flowers — from white to pinkish lavender to red bloom from June to September. This beautiful plant is the source of digitalis, a cardiac stimulant extracted from the leaves that has kept millions of heart patients alive.

Foxglove is among the loveliest, most famous, most important and most dangerous of medicinal plants. Used improperly, it is as likely to stop a heart as it is to keep it going.

Its usefulness was first discovered in 1775 by the English physician William Withering. He had heard of an old woman who practiced folk medicine with herbs gathered from the countryside. A patient afflicted with excessive fluid retention caused by congestive heart failure, who Withering expected to die, was cured by this healer. From this woman’s bag of weeds, Withering identified foxglove as the key element in treating swelling or edema associated with congestive heart failure. The paper he published in 1785 to inform other physicians of his findings is a classic of medical literature.

jim adams
4/11/2011 9:02:06 AM

I just read and enjoyed your article about Mountain Healing. Thanks, and i'm passing it on to my wife who is -- amongst other things -- an herbalist. A minor note .. you mention that British Physician Withering "discovered" the uses of Foxglove..............Withering joins a distinguished group of (mostly) well to-do, well educated white men who researched by asking questions of country (mostly female) herbalists, illiterate sailors, farmers, natives from around the world, etc. These "discoverers" then published their findings as their own without crediting the people who passed the specific knowledge on to them...........I do credit you for mentioning the unknown elderly woman herbalist who cured what the learned doctor was unable to, tho Withering goes down in history as the discoverer............(see "A People's History of Science" for more of this behavior thru the ages.) Thanks, jim

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