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In Southeast Medicinal Plants, herbalist CoreyPine Shane is your trusted guide to finding, identifying, harvesting, and using 106 of the region’s most powerful wild plants. Readers will learn how to safely and ethically forage, and how to use wild plants in herbal medicines, including teas, tinctures, and salves. Plant profiles include clear, color photographs, identification tips, medicinal uses and herbal preparations, and harvesting suggestions. Lists of what to forage for each season makes the guide useful year-round.
Thorough, comprehensive, and safe, this is a must-have for foragers, naturalists, and herbalists in West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana.
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadenis).
IDENTIFYING AND HARVESTING IN THE SOUTHEAST
This book is a travel guide to a land we’re already living in but haven’t fully discovered. By learning how to find medicine and food in the wild, we change our relationship to forests and front yards alike. We reconnect with everything outside of our front door. And then, by understanding how to use these same plants for healing, we learn and grow and deepen our relationship with our own body. More than a guide about how to identify the occasional plant, this is ultimately an introduction to a different way of seeing the world, both internal and external.
Herbalist and friend Frank Cook talked about how we need to get past the “green wall” in order to see the plant world. When most modern humans look at the woods or even a meadow, what we see is an imposing wall of undifferentiated green things. But then as we learn the individual plants, trees, and ferns, we start to get more of a three-dimensional picture of what’s around us. We begin to feel more at home outdoors, more in our element. What was once a flat picture gains depth and nuance. The plants that were once strangers at a party become our friends.
In this book, you’ll meet some of the medicinal plants that live and thrive in the southeastern United States. You’ll find the weeds of Raleigh and Birmingham, the deep-woods plants of the Blue Ridge and Ozark mountains, and the low-country plants of the Mississippi’s floodplain and Georgia’s Golden Isles.
It should be noted that, as many plants as I have covered here, they are still only a small part of the many plants that grow in this vast region. Not every plant has a known medicinal use, and some plants are medicinal but are seldom used or have uses that are easily replicated by more common plants. Instead, I have focused on the ones that I or other herbalists use most.
In doing so, I have excluded some plants that are part of the southern folk tradition that I don’t know from personal experience. Among them are some plants that have a long history of use but little written about them—trees like dogwood, magnolia, and tulip poplar; herbs like bee balm, Indian pink, and senega snakeroot. All these and more deserve attention, research, and integration into modern herbal practice.
I have also excluded some plants that are not abundant enough to harvest—there’s no pink lady’s slipper, Virginia snakeroot, or false unicorn root for instance. But I do cover ginseng and goldenseal, two at-risk herbs that should very rarely if ever be harvested from the wild. But they are good well-known medicines that can be cultivated in the woods. I trust the reader to know when not to harvest these endangered plants.
Overall, I have done my best to include so-called mainstream herbs along with herbs from the many folk traditions of the South. We know about these plants from Native American, Black, Afro-Caribbean, Spanish, Latin, and Scotch-Irish traditions. It is important to recognize the many influences in modern herbalism—it is the product of thousands of years of indigenous peoples’ direct experience with the plants; it has been and continues to be adopted and adapted by colonizers.
Some of the invasive weeds are also great medicine and are used in the Chinese herbal tradition. Some of these plants are routinely found on the shelves of U.S. and European herb stores, and some are lesser known but essential nonetheless. It’s hard to know why some herbs are popular and others are obscure—sometimes there’s a good reason not to use a plant anymore, and sometimes the use has just been forgotten.
This book was inspired by the work of one of my teachers, herbalist Michael Moore, who wrote and taught extensively about the plants of the American West. He was a champion of bioregionalism before that word was even coined. He used local analogues to closely related plants among the classic canon of Western herbalism; and he learned about other native plants from the local people who had been living on the land for centuries. His work helped to bring such plants back into use in mainstream herbalism.
Like Michael, I want to share the indispensable specifics of where and when to find a medicinal plant, what species to use, how to make the best preparation from it, and of course, how to use it to help people heal. My goal is to uncover the genius of each plant, when is the best time to use it, and for whom. Understanding what the plant really does—its “personality”—gives us the flexibility to use it for conditions well beyond what any book tells us. And therein lies the depth of herbal medicine.
FINDING YOURSELF AND YOUR PLANTS IN THE SOUTHEAST
The Southeast is an incredibly diverse area with a wide variety of elevations, rainfall, soil geology, and habitats. It would be almost impossible to cover every medicinal plant in this area, and I have done my best to avoid prioritizing plants of Southern Appalachia (where I live), which already have a lot written about them. And by the way, it is pronounced ap-uh-LAH-chuh (not ap-uh-LAY-chuh) down here. Just so you know.
This book covers the medicinal plants that grow from the Maryland–Pennsylvania border south to Florida and west through West Virginia and Kentucky, down through Arkansas and the Ozark mountains south to the Gulf Coast, including Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and even eastern Texas.
Within this range, we can define some broad regions, each of which can be further broken down into more subtypes and ecotypes. Starting from the east there is the coastal plain, extending from eastern Maryland south through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and southern Georgia, all of Florida, and then across the southern parts of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana as well as eastern Texas. Then moving west there’s the rolling hills of the Piedmont, then the Southern Appalachians, which include both the Blue Ridge and Smoky mountain ranges, before the land falls back into the Cumberland Plateau of middle Tennessee and Kentucky and then changes to the inner coastal plain of the Mississippi River Basin. Crossing the great Mississippi, we cover the Ozarks of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, and southern Arkansas, Louisiana, and eastern Texas contain some plants possibly washed down the river over time that are present further north but less common among the other Gulf Coast states.
THE HOW-TO OF HARVESTING
Wildcrafting, a name for harvesting plants that you didn’t grow yourself, has recently become much more popular, as has herbal medicine in general. As exciting as it is to see this once marginalized activity become more mainstream, it’s also led to problems of overharvesting, native ecosystems being damaged, and inexperienced harvesters collecting the wrong plants. It’s also led to illegal and unethical poaching on private and public land.
There is nothing like wildcrafting—going out and harvesting the plants to make your own food, tea, and medicine might be one of the most empowering feelings. Instead of tending a garden all year, planting and weeding and watering, we just go out and pick what nature offers us. No need to visit a pharmacist, doctor, or even health food store. Just a few basic supplies, some money for alcohol, glycerin, and/or vinegar, and you’re good to go! There is no more direct way to connect to nature and plants.
But it’s not always so easy or so fun. There is a cost, not in money but in our time, our attention, and above all, the responsibility it incurs to those plants and places we visit. We didn’t plant these plants, but once we start harvesting them we take some responsibility for the health of that plant and for the health of the area where we harvest. We take on the role of a gardener, not in the sense that the location is “ours,” but that some of the responsibility for tending that area now falls to us. I highly encourage everyone harvesting from the wild to read about the “honorable harvest” in Braiding Sweetgrass (Kimmerer 2015).
There are some things you need to know before harvesting wild plants to protect both yourself and the places you harvest from. The first thing you need to learn is how to harvest ethically and sustainably. I’ve seen too many stands get decimated by well-meaning harvesters who aren’t aware of some of these basics. People generally don’t mean to do harm, they just haven’t learned how to harvest with the forest in mind yet. Here are the basic rules for wildcrafting:
• Harvest like you want your grandkids (or friends’ grandkids) to be able to harvest from the same place.
• Don’t harvest when you’re feeling angry, rushed, greedy, or out of sorts. It will throw off your decision making and affect the medicine.
• Harvest only from abundance and take only what you need.
• Ask permission and leave a little something.
• Know what plants not to harvest and leave those plants be.
Though many plants in this book are common weeds that can be easily picked without much concern for the sustainability of the plant (hello dandelion, ragweed, and honeysuckle!), it takes careful consideration to harvest from the woods in a sustainable way. We need to remember that even when plants are available to us on public land, they are not “ours.” Our attitude has to be less of a colonial mindset of coming in and taking what we think we deserve and more about creating a relationship with the wild plants. Growing into this relationship earns the respect of the plants as well as fellow wildcrafters and herbalists. And every time I harvest plants from this place of respect, I always come away feeling like I know the plant better.
The first thing to do when you find a stand of plants is to do a stand count. After hours spent looking for a plant, it can be tempting to harvest the first one you find, but take the time to walk around first and see how many plants are there and what impacts them. Ask questions. Is there agricultural runoff nearby? Are there wildlife that feed on this plant? Are other people potentially harvesting here? Do pollinators depend on this plant? You might not be able to answer all these questions, but observe as much as you can, counting the number of plants while you assess the area. A good rule of thumb is to never harvest more than one out of four plants—though in practice I usually harvest much less than even that. If you start harvesting before you know there’s enough, you might end up taking the only plants in that area and then not even have enough plants to make a cup of tea.
Once you’ve found a big enough stand in a good location, ask the plant’s permission. Maybe this sounds woo-woo, but trust me when I say it makes a difference. If you, like me, have a more science-y mind, think about it as quieting your mind and tuning in to your intuition, which is really just the sum of all the factors you’ve already unconsciously noticed but can’t put into words. Find the largest, most robust plant, or maybe just the first plant you saw, sit down and quiet your mind, then introduce yourself to the plant and ask permission. Next, and most importantly, stop and listen.
Now I should say that plants don’t exactly talk to me, or at least not like humans do, and I’m a little jealous of those who do have conversations with plants. I get more of a felt sense—if it’s the right place to harvest then I feel a peaceful sense of rightness, and if it’s not then I feel a sense of unease, like it’s not quite the right fit. Here’s a thought: if every time you ask, the answer is yes, then you’re probably not listening enough.
Next, make an offering as a token of appreciation. I’ve heard a lot of people say that Native American peoples leave tobacco as a thank-you gift. Personally, I don’t think it matters what you leave—it’s the thought that counts (as they say). Tobacco is not a plant I use or interact with, so I don’t have a sacred connection to it. I like to leave a bit of whatever precious snack I have in my backpack, like a small piece of dried mango or a square of chocolate. It’s just about creating some energy exchange, some appreciation.
I like to leave the biggest and healthiest plant in the stand to propagate and spread its good genes, but I do like to harvest larger plants because then I can harvest fewer of them. As you’re harvesting, ask yourself what you can do to make the stand healthier. If you’re digging roots, can you dig a plant that’s growing so close to another that they are competing, like thinning carrots? If harvesting flowers and leaves, can you pinch off upper parts so that the plant will branch out and produce more, like picking basil? If you’re harvesting branches, can you prune the plant like a fruit tree to encourage healthy growth? This is a holistic approach to harvesting.
As for when to harvest, generally it is better to harvest leaves and flowers on sunny days after the dew has dried. Aromatic herbs are best picked when the sun warms up the aromatics and it hasn’t rained in a day or two. Sun and rain matter less with roots and barks, and I’ve dug roots on cool rainy days. Some subscribe to the idea that upper plant parts are better picked closer to the full moon when the energy is more upward, and roots are best dug closer to the new moon when the energy is more down and in.
The bright yellow of goldenrod creates one of the Southeast’s major colors of fall.
Then there’s time of year. Generally, roots are best harvested in the fall after the flowers have finished and the leaves are starting to look a bit rough. Some plants (blue cohosh, bloodroot, Solomon’s seal) come up early in the spring and die back early, and their roots need to be dug in August. Some plants (pleurisy root, red root) are almost impossible to find if they’re not in flower, and so even though they are best harvested after flowering, I sometimes harvest them early because that’s when I can find them. Most barks are best harvested in spring and early summer as the sap is rising and the new bark is slipping, forming its new ring.
Our medicine can only be as good as the plants we harvest, though the energy we harvest with also affects our final product. Harvest carefully and with intention. Tune in to the woods to be more present, whatever that looks like for you. Choose healthy plants growing in a good location. Though there are better and worse times to harvest a plant, sometimes the best time to harvest is when you are there and the plant is there. Sometimes it’s better to have some tincture from not-the-ideal-time than to have no tincture at all because you were waiting for the moon to rise and the stars to align.
And finally, scouting for plants is a big part of wildcrafting—getting to know where plants grow, where they are abundant and where they are few, and how things change over time. This means getting to know your area and making more than one trip to the same place, and it may mean years of careful observation to get to know your area and what grows where.
WHERE TO GO AND WHERE NOT TO GO
Since most of us do not live in a pristine wilderness with access to every plant we want, where can we go to harvest?
The first thing to know is that many plants are already growing as weeds in your yard or in your neighborhood. If you have friends with gardens or farms, you can ask them about their weeds, and you can check local parks for weeds. Just make sure you choose places that haven’t been sprayed with pesticides or herbicides because you don’t want those chemicals contaminating your medicine. So that is an important question to ask, and always ask permission if you are on private land.
Some commonly sprayed places where you can’t necessarily ask about pesticide use include the sides of railroad tracks and underneath power lines. Furthermore, avoid harvesting from or near non-organic farms, along busy roads, or even within 10 feet or so of side roads; they are not only sprayed but also contaminated with exhaust and other environmental pollutants from traffic. I don’t usually harvest on the sides of trails, not because they are sprayed but because most people won’t go off the trail and I want to give them the chance to see this plant too.
If you live near public land, you can expect some general guidelines but always check with your local office because rules change from area to area. In national parks, you can only pick fruits or harvest mushrooms; other types of harvesting, such as digging roots, are strictly prohibited. State forests, Bureau of Land Management land, and game lands are usually OK, and state parks are generally not. National forests are usually fine to harvest in, but they require you to get a permit for anything beyond limited personal use. Some plants that are highly impacted by harvesting, like ginseng and goldenseal, require a special permit—harvesting ginseng without a permit or in the wrong season can result in a $5,000 fine or up to 6 months in jail, so take this seriously.
And then of course there’s always the option of finding plants on private land. Sometimes this means making friends out in the country and asking around about specific plants. Sometimes it means seeing plants in someone’s field and mustering up the courage to go knock on the front door. I’ve had some very interesting and almost always positive conversations this way. Sometimes I offer to give them a bottle of the finished product if it seems appropriate, but often people are just satisfied asking a few questions.
Several herbalists picking mimosa flowers from an abundant tree.
PLANT IDENTIFICATION TERMINOLOGY
In this book I have done my best to avoid technical botanical language. This language has its place—knowing the 14 different words for “hairy” can help tell the difference between two very similar plants—but it can be more confusing when we’re just beginning. I recommend you carry at least one other identification guide with you in the field, as cross-referencing is the best way to be sure of proper ID. And please, don’t ever harvest anything unless you are 100% sure that you have the right plant.
Even though this books steers away from technical botany lingo, there are still some basic botany terms we should be aware of. Begin with careful observation, because so much of identification comes down to specific details. But how do we even know what to look for? Here are some steps to get you started for proper botanical ID; they are arranged in a common-sense order to notice things. Some plants may require you to work through the whole list; for others, one particular characteristic might make the correct ID.
• Is the plant an herb, vine, shrub, or tree?
• Are the leaves simple or compound? If compound, are they pinnate or palmate?
• Are the leaves alternate, opposite, whorled, or basal?
• Is the margin of the leaves entire, toothed, or lobed?
• Are the flowers regular (radially symmetrical) or irregular?
• How many petals does the flower have? How may sepals? Are they separate or united?
• Are the flowers individual or in some kind of head or cluster?
To start at the beginning, whether or not a plant is a tree might seem obvious—but you’d be surprised! I had a challenging time identifying red root when I first met it because I didn’t realize it was a small shrub, not an herb! And sometimes a “stumper” that a student brings to me is actually a sapling tree that’s only a few feet high.
The word “herb” can mean different things in different contexts, but in botany it means a plant that’s not woody and whose aerial parts die to the ground each year. What’s confusing is that it is not size-dependent, so a 6-foot-tall spikenard is still an herb because the aboveground plant dies back each fall, whereas a 2-foot-tall red root is actually a shrub because the woody stems stay alive and regrow leaves each spring. The easiest way to tell is to check for a tough and woody stem (without breaking the stem accidentally).
The second question in the list is a little more complicated, as compound leaves aren’t always perfectly straightforward. A compound leaf is when one leaf is made up of several leaflets, which may at first resemble separate leaves. So how do we tell the difference?
The strictly botanical way is to look for buds or new growth: one leaf comes from one bud—so there will never be buds within a compound leaf, only one at the base of the whole leaf. An easier and more intuitive way is to look for numerical consistency; a plant that always has 7–9 leaves per branch is probably compound and not just lucky. Though there can be some variation in the exact number, there’s a general feeling of every leaf being composed of a similar number of leaflets. And finally, new growth at the tip will be of the same age, unlike a simple leaf, where separate leaves will more clearly be of different ages.
Compound leaves can be either palmately compound, meaning the leaflets come from a single point like fingers from a palm, or pinnately compound, meaning the leaflets branch out from a central stalk like a feather. Examples of pinnately compound leaves include agrimony, elder, black walnut, mimosa, and raspberry. Examples of palmately compound leaves include buckeye, blackberry, and cannabis. Examples of trifoliate leaves, those that have only three leaflets, include red clover, kudzu, and poison ivy.
With time and experience, this distinction starts to become second nature and can be made even from a distance; but it does throw people when first identifying plants, which is why it’s a good thing to practice noticing.
Now that you know whether the leaves are simple or compound, check to see how the leaves (not leaflets!) are arranged on the main stem. If there is only one leaf attached at each place along the stem, the leaves are alternate, and if there are two leaves attached at the same place on the stem, they’re opposite. If there are three or more attached at the same place, then you’re looking at whorled leaves. If the leaves all come directly from the ground, they are basal, that is, they come from the base of the plant.
Next check the margin of the leaves. If the edges are smooth like a plantain leaf, then they are entire; if they are cut like a saw edge (like a birch leaf), then that’s toothed. And if the indentations are deeper, maybe a third to halfway toward the midrib (like an oak or maple leaf), then that leaf is lobed.
And finally we get to the flower. There needs to be a flower present for positive botanical identification, except for trees. So, first: is the flower regular or irregular? A regular flower can be cut through the middle in any direction and there will be two equal parts—think of a starfish or a lily. If it is irregular then it may be two-lipped with different top and bottom parts, or one of the petals may be larger and will only make two equal parts if cut through the middle along one line. Mints, orchids, and peas are examples of plants with irregular flowers.
Now count the number of petals, or, if the petals are fused together, count the number of lobes. Beneath the petals are the sepals, the part that encloses the flower in bud—these might be brightly colored and look like petals (as with some plants in the buttercup family), but they are usually plain green. Count the number of sepals.
Do the flowers grow one per stalk or are they growing in heads or some other kind of formation? There are many different names for the structure of a flower head; for example, if all the flower stalks come from one place on the stem like spokes of an umbrella then it is called an umbel (think of Queen Anne’s lace, angelica, or elder). If the flowers are attached to a central stalk then it is called a spike, but if each individual flower has a stalk where it attaches to that central stalk then it is called a raceme. There are more terms, but those are a few to get you started.
Finally, getting geeky: inside the flower are the stamens, which produce pollen, and then inside of that is the pistil or pistils, which produce the seeds. Look for both types, and note whether there are just a few or many.
The first things to learn are the very poisonous plants so you can at least know that you aren’t inadvertently harvesting one of them. The first plant I teach students on plant walks is poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) because it is widespread and common, and it can cause severe, long-lasting symptoms for many people. Some call it “sister ivy” as a way of respecting the plant’s important role of keeping people away from disturbed areas that are trying to regrow.
The old summer camp adage “leaves of three, let it be” applies here. But if we did this, we would also miss out on strawberries and red clover. So to be more specific, poison ivy’s middle leaflet has a longer petiole (leaf stalk), and there is a red dot where the three leaflets meet. Every leaf seems to be differently wavy-margined, but usually the bottom leaflets are wavier facing away from the central leaflet.
This vine can run along the ground and even climb up trees with hairy aerial roots, a behavior that is more common in the southern than the northern states. There are times I look up to identify a tree by its leaves and find that the first 15 feet of leaves are actually poison ivy! Please be aware that the vines can cause more irritation than the leaves, and the roots even worse. So be sure there’s no poison ivy within ten feet when you’re digging roots to be on the safe side.
Less common though far more dangerous are the deadly poisonous plants water hemlock and poison hemlock, both in the parsley family (Apiaceae) and not at all related to
- On Sale
- Nov 9, 2021
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Timber Press