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The heart of holistic herbalism in Appalachia

Updated: Apr 12, 2023

For generations, Appalachians have foraged in their own back yard to create herbal remedies and medication. From the bright red bulb of ginseng to the welcoming yellow on the caps of dandelion, people have plucked and pounded these herbs and many more into tinctures and mixtures to holistically sustain their bodies.

Although it seems that herbal medicine is not used as often as it was years ago due to the domination of Western medicine, people in Appalachia continue to practice with the diverse flora and fauna of the region. It is not a dying practice, but a flourishing practice.

“More and more people are seeing the shortcomings in conventional health care and are wanting to find an alternative,” said Corey Pine, owner of Blue Ridge School of Herbal Medicine and Pine’s Herbals.

Pine started his journey with Pine’s Herbals in 1995 by creating herbal extracts and tinctures to serve certain clients’ needs. After working with clients for a few years, Pine saw a need for an educational resource in his area because he saw how Western medicine was not serving people. He started the Blue Ridge School of Herbal Medicine in 1999, which offers many programs including Essentials of Herbalism, Holistic Herbalism and Wild Medicine Internships.

“I saw a place for holistic herbal medicine that could really help promote health and not just focus on the disease state of health,” said Pine.

A study done at University of California found that one in five adults in the United States report taking an herbal product of some kind. The study also found that it has been estimated that one third to one half of currently used drugs from Western medicine originally derived from plants. Many are continuing to realize the importance of holistic health care and are looking for ways to educate more on this hidden practice.

Michelle Bouton is the director of HERBalachia, which is another school in the Appalachian region that offers hands-on workshops and lifestyle programs. Bouton started the school in 2015 because she recognized the need for herbal educational opportunities in East Tennessee. The closest program at the time was in Asheville, North Carolina.

“We’re in this big lap of luxury where we can use herbal medicine if we want to,” said Bouton. “And if that doesn’t work, we also have access to Western medicine, and most of the world does not have this option. We live in Appalachia, where we can grow just about anything. The diversity here is so high.”

HERBalachia offers a basic program that is one weekend a month for nine months, so that it is spread out over the different growing seasons. This allows students to handle the different plants that are blooming or coming into ripeness at different times of the year. HERBalachia also has single workshops, hands-on medicine practices and classes for medical personnel or nurses.

Both Pine and Bouton believe that people are starting to practice herbal medicine more, however, the educational opportunities are few and far between. They believe that a lot of knowledge has dissipated with the passing of elders who had practiced for years. They both believe that people should be talking to their elders and making a public effort towards making education about this practice more accessible.

“I’ve had so many people tell me, ‘Oh yeah, my grandma used to take me out into the woods and show me all these plants but I didn’t pay attention to her and now all of that knowledge she had is gone’,” said Bouton. “Part of me wanted to figure out ways of saving that information and passing it on to other people.”

A study done in Scott County, Virginia, found that the use of botanicals in that area by the older generations demonstrated a generous decline in comparison to their parents. Many of the respondents did not know any specific treatments for certain issues and could not remember a specific remedy when asked about what their parents and their grandparents would use.

Herbal remedies and medication have been around for centuries. For generations, indigenous tribes have passed down their knowledge of herbal remedies and medication. Evidence of their history with herbal medicine dissipated when they were removed from their land. However, indigenous tribes were the first people to integrate the knowledge of native plants and their use into the Appalachian region and culture.

The Southern Appalachian Mountain forests contain over 400 native medicinal herbs that the Cherokees continue to use today. When the European colonists came over, they brought their own familiar seeds and plants to integrate in their food and medicine. Their new herbs mixed with the native herbs of the indigenous tribes of Appalachia quickly developed the foundations of Southern Folk Medicine.

“In Appalachia, there’s a couple of different streams of tradition that kind of come together,” said Andrew Bentley, a fourth-generation Appalachian herbalist. “There’s Native American herbalism and the native plants that weren’t part of plant traditions from the old world. And then there’s also European herbalism, and some of the plants that they brought over is mint and comfrey. There’s also an Afro Asiatic subset of that tradition that was brought over.”

Bentley learned his practices from his father and his grandfather. He did not grow up around people that did it professionally, it was simply something that they did within the community. He believes there is value in the history and culture of herbal medicine.

“Herbal medicine is along the same lines of growing your own food,” said Bentley. “It’s locally controlled where the production, or the value of production stays in the community.”

Herbal medicine is important in a lot of areas of Appalachia because of the inaccessibility of conventional Western medicine. Many cannot afford the costs of medicine produced by pharmaceutical industries, which leads them to forage in their own backyards for medicine.

“For some people, herbalism has been out of economic necessity,” said Bentley. “It’s easier to take care of yourself if it's a matter of picking something off of a bush that grows in your backyard, versus hoping that your marginally functional car will make it to town so that you can spend the last few dollars that you have on a bottle of over-the-counter remedy from pharmacy.”

Herbalism in Appalachia has demonstrated its importance to the culture and economic necessity. The information regarding this practice is slowly dwindling away, however many people in younger generations are starting to recognize its importance to holistic health. Herbalism has become a trend among younger generations in its hold on those practicing holistic and sustainable health.

Sadie Arnold is a part of this younger generation that is holding on to the holistic benefits of herbalism. Arnold has been working with herbs for three years and finds her practice to be empowering, as she has slowly learned more about the flora and fauna of the Appalachian region. She believes that herbalism is an extremely important practice when learning to be more self-sufficient.

“Today, we rely solely on western medicine and other practices, that I find we have become so disconnected from our food and its origins,” said Arnold. “While I aspire to become more and more self-sufficient, I recognize that growing my own food is also a powerful tool for my mental health.”

To maintain this upward trend of herbalism in younger generations, herbalists are urging people to continue having conversations with their grandparents. They believe that the best information about this practice lies within the minds of older generations. Herbalism in Appalachia is ultimately obtainable to anyone who is willing to step into their back yard.

“Talk to your grandparents, there are people alive who still have this knowledge,” said Pine. “We don’t realize how valuable it is and how valuable it will continue to be.”

First photo provided by Corey Pine, second photo provided by Michelle Bouton, third photo taken by Nikki Chambers.


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