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For ages, humans have used plants for a myriad of purposes. Plants have also been a nuisance or danger. Some grew in dense tangles that were barriers to travel, such as the thickets of rhododendron known as ‘‘laurel hells.’’ Plants such as poison ivy, poison sumac, and stinging nettle were wisely avoided, while other plants were poisonous if eaten. Plant lore is the vast body of traditional knowledge about wild plants built up through long experience.

Wild plants provided food, medicine, fuel, and shelter for American Indians, early white pioneers, and those who followed. The first signs of spring once sent people to the fields for wild greens. Leaves of violets, dandelion, pokeberry, and spring cress (cressy or creasey greens) were cherished after a long winter. Young cattail sprouts tasted like tender cucumbers. Ramps provided a strong garlic taste and stronger odor that caused many schoolboys to have to sit outside their classrooms. Today, ramp dinners are popular social events. The tender fiddlehead stems of ferns were cooked as greens or canned for future use. Tasty roots of Indian cucumber and toothwort provided fresh tidbits.

Bulbs of Jack-in-the-pulpit (Indian turnip) were baked by Indians but eaten raw only when practical jokers could trick unwary people into doing so. Within minutes the victim’s mouth, throat, and stomach burned with a pain that was only intensified by drinking water.

Other bulbs used for food included spring beauty, wild yam, and Jerusalem artichoke. Fruits and berries of mayapple, cherries, blackberries, pawpaw, persimmon, elderberries, blueberries, huckleberries, strawberries, and serviceberries were eaten fresh or canned as jellies, jams, and preserves for winter.

Walnuts, hickory nuts, beech nuts, and hazelnuts have always been favorite foods for humans and wildlife. Acorns were pounded or ground into flour for porridge or cakes. The sugar maple tree was an extremely valuable source of maple syrup and maple sugar. In its day, the American chestnut was unsurpassed in quality and quantity of nuts, readily gathered by the sack-full or bushel. Chestnut lumber, split rails, and poles for barns and cabins were highly valued. The loss, when American chestnut was virtually eliminated by chestnut blight in the 1920s and 1930s, was immense.

Nearly every community had a folk doctor who collected plants, leaves, fruits, seeds, and roots. The medicinal plants were learned from American Indians, European traditions, and by trial and error. Numerous plants with ‘‘snakeroot’’ names were tried as snakebite cures. Touch-me-not (jewelweed) contains slimy juice used as a cure for poison ivy, stinging nettle, and bee stings. People chewed the inner bark of the prickly ash or toothache tree to numb aching teeth, and willow bark, which contains salicin (from which aspirin was later derived), to cure aches and pains. Goldenseal (yellowroot), black and blue cohosh, and mayapple were frequently used medicinals and were collected for sale. Ginseng was the king of the wild medicinals in dollar value, and remains so today.

Roots of chicory and dandelion and wild coffee fruits provided a substitute for coffee. Leaves of several wild mints were used for teas and flavoring. The red fuzzy seeds of staghorn sumac were brewed into ‘‘Indian lemonade.’’ Spring was not complete without sassafras tea, made from fresh sassafras roots to thin the blood and prepare the body for summer’s hot temperatures. Spicebush, anise, and ginger provided spices and flavorings.

American Indians used bloodroot to dye leather, arrows, and baskets, and for war paint. Craftspeople still prefer its deep red color. Dyes from black walnut (yellow-brown), butternut or white walnut (reddish-brown), osage orange (olive drab), and goldenrods (yellow) were just a few of the natural dyes used by our ancestors.

Plants were valued for their beauty as well as for practical reasons. Dogwood, dwarf iris, azaleas, and rhododendrons are among the most beautiful flowering plants. The pure white serviceberry (service or sarvis) flowers were often collected for memorial services in early spring when circuit-riding preachers could finally travel the muddy roads after winter. A bouquet of pink lady’s slipper was the special treat children often gave to their mothers in May.

Tales and uses of plants fill many books. Dense wood from persimmon was used for golf club heads, while the wood of dogwood was used as machine bearings. Dogwood twigs were chewed and used as a toothbrush. Recent research has found a high fluoride content in these twigs. Sourwood trunks grew straight except for abrupt bends caused by killing winter temperatures, making them perfect for sled runners. The tannin of chestnut oak, hemlock, and sumac barks was used to tan leather; sumac is still called ‘‘shoemake’’ by many country people. Sumac stems have a large soft pith that was easily hollowed out to make spouts to collect maple sap. The best red spruce boards were used to build airplanes and for piano sounding boards. And mountain boys knew that rhododendron forks made excellent sling shots, combined with rubber strips from an inner tube and maybe an old shoe tongue for the pouch.

Leaves of sourwood and teaberry, or black birch and sassafras twigs, were chewed for thirst. White oak, hickory, and white ash splints or strips still are the choice for making baskets and chair bottoms.

Evergreen plants of groundpine and princess pine were mixed with holly and Christmas fern for Christmas decorations. Mistletoe hung above the door during the same season. The dustlike spores of groundpine provided the original explosive light in flash photography.

Allegheny flyback grass of mountain pastures was virtually impossible to cut with a scythe, which merely bent the tough wiry stems, resulting in the stems’ flying back upright. The canebrakes of the South reached our southern counties and gave Canebrake in McDowell its name.

Oil from anise plants was used to mask human smell on fish bait and was thought to put fish in a trance, making them easier to catch. Scouring rush stems, naturally encrusted with silicon, were used to clean pots and pans. Skunk cabbage flowers produce heat and can grow through the snow and ice of mountain bogs. Bears coming out of hibernation readily eat the plants which may be the laxative needed after three to four months of no food.

String and thread were made from bark of basswoods, leatherwood, and Indian hemp. Fleas were repelled by walnut leaves scattered in the yard and pennyroyal plants added to bedding for pets. Finally, who can forget swinging on a grapevine hanging from the top of a tall oak tree?

This Article was written by William N. Grafton

Last Revised on October 22, 2010

Cite This Article

Grafton, William N. "Plant Lore." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 22 October 2010. Web. 18 July 2024.


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