Mingo Mornings: Native Americans found medicine in these woods

  • Thursday, May 30, 2013

By Patricia Tanner Candal

One of the first native flowers to catch my attention here at Mingo Woods was blue vervain, or wild verbena. I first saw it 24 years ago, growing four to five feet tall in the ditch on either side of the culvert the county set in and covered so we could drive inside these woods. This medicinal wildflower now grows in a garden in the back yard as well as inside the fenced-in garden at the front of the property. I have not transplanted the vervain, nor have I scattered its seeds. The birds or the wind or some other manifestation of God brought it closer to the house and moved it around the yard.

This plant can grow very tall and branchy, its blue-violet flowers blooming in pencil-like spikes at the top of square stems. Once you know the plant, you will notice that it blooms in profusion on local roadsides and in fields. Native Americans called it “sacred plant” and believed that good luck came to the family whose home had vervain growing at the entrance. They used leaf tea from vervain as a female tonic, as well as for colds, coughs, and fevers. Nineteenth century physicians used the plant in similar ways. Finding the vervain and learning that it was used by Native Americans was the beginning of my search for other plants at Mingo Woods that American Indians found useful as medicine.

This column will contain information about only a few of the medicinal plants that grow in and around the swamp where we live. Each spring I look for the season's new growth in just the same spot where each plant grew the previous year. I walk to the edge of the forest on a warm day in early spring, looking for the lobed leaves and star-shaped flower of bloodroot amidst the fallen leaf clutter. Bloodroot was used by the first Americans for all blood conditions and as a stain for their skin. As with all plants used as medicine, we are cautioned against trying home remedies; but studying plant histories can be very interesting.

Early in May, the mayapple can be seen blanketing the forest floor under the hickories, beeches and oaks. Its large, deeply-lobed leaves hang, umbrella-like, over a solitary flower that seems to nod. A fleshy lemon-shaped berry is edible only when ripe and is sometimes used to make a refreshing drink. All the green parts of this plant are poisonous, but its roots are gathered in late October and the resin is extracted for medicine for the urinary tract. Mayapple has been used in modern research and is said to be helpful for chronic liver diseases. Although I read with interest about the research, I do not eat or drink mayapple. I do like to see its small flower and the little berries growing in the summer.

Hiding deep in the forest, down on the other side of a small hill, and a short jump across a small stream, Jack in the Pulpit stands two inches above the sheath of green that encircles him. A few of his relatives stand together at the base of an oak tree on the other side of Mingo Woods, just to the left of the bee house, a small cypress building where I store some art supplies and beehive equipment. I walk the property, camera in hand each year, just to verify that Jack still shows up; there is something satisfying about a perennial plant. You can count on it showing up on time. The dry root of Jack in the Pulpit was used by Native Americans for whooping cough, asthma conditions, chronic bronchitis, and pains in the chest. I just take his picture; I don't eat him. The fresh roots are said to leave a burning sensation on the skin, making it inflamed and tender.

Passionflower, also known as our old-fashioned maypop, is one of my favorite additions God planted here. I wait for them to show up each summer, never quite in the same place; and I stick a trellis in the ground for them to cover. If the deer leave them alone long enough, the fritillary butterflies will lay their eggs on them and the caterpillars will use them as a host plant, eating the tasty leaves.

I didn't know the maypop (passionflower) was edible for humans until my friends in Sweden served it with other fruit after dinner one evening in their home in Gothenburg. I had held the fruit in my hand as a child; I had popped it under my palm and examined the seeds inside, but I had never eaten it. These days I eat at least one maypop fruit each summer, just for the memories of Ingegerd and Sture Svensson. I have made a lemonade-like drink from the ripe fruit. Its seeds are edible as well. When it's ripe, the fruit will be shriveled, wrinkly-looking, and smell sweet and fruity. I dry passionflower leaves in a dehydrator in the summer to make a soothing tea in the winter. Native Americans used this plant, including the flowers, for nervous headache, convulsions, and epilepsy. It works as a pain reliever and a diuretic, as well as a nerve sedative. A cup of passionflower tea can relax you after a hard day walking through the woods searching for plants.

Other native plants that our earliest ancestors used for medicine grow in the wild here at Mingo Woods. Some of them include witch hazel, wild cherry, dogwood, hickory, sassafras, wild ginger, and bracken fern. The roots and the tops of ferns were used to cure rickets in children. American Indians boiled and ate the starchy roots as a worm medicine, serving up a strong cup of fern tea to expel tapeworms. As I confirmed information for this column, I learned about the uses of another native plant in the swamp: cypress. The cones (nuts) are used even today as an astringent, to stop bleeding.

For more than 30 years I have had the idea (or perhaps, the wish) that my own roots have some Native American connection, though I have been unable to prove the genealogy. Some confirmation of this lineage has come from discussions in two of my family reunions in the past. At a Howard Reunion on my mother's side of the family, my cousin Michelle Howard, who had been researching our ancestors, made an interesting statement as she presented Granddaddy Eli's history. She commented that his grandmother had been a Creel, living in Georgetown County in the 1800s. Michelle also stated that she had been told by a genealogist that the Creels of 1800s in Georgetown County were American Indians.

On my father's side of the family the story has been told that a great, great grandmother was likely an Indian woman. Some of her current descendants would certainly make beautiful Native American princesses. These days I rest in the understanding that I have inherited my love of nature, and specifically my interest in plant medicine, from someone special. If she was a Christian Native woman, I hope she knows I respect what plants can do for us.
I will continue to research how the native plants at Mingo Woods might have been used by America's first inhabitants, knowing that I will likely never exhaust the subject in my lifetime.

Patricia Tanner Candal lives on the edge of Mingo Creek swamp with her husband Steve, one bee colony, dog Shandy, parakeet Norton, twenty chickens and a bunch of flowers, herbs and other plants.

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