Living on the Blue Ridge of the Southern Appalachian Mountains is a blessing. Multiply that by the abundance of medicinal herbs that also live here, and what you have is a rich haven for herbalists. Having survived the advance and retreat of glaciers during the last ice age, the Appalachians, which are some of the oldest mountains in the world, became a botanical treasure. It is here that I am blessed to study, gather, prepare, and practice herbal medicine.
I have been coming to these Smoky Mountains of North Carolina for as long as I can remember, and living here full time for the last twelve years. Like me, lots of folks are finding their way to the mountians in search of a saner, healthier lifestyle, and communities in which to raise families and grow old. Unfortunately, more people also means more scars upon the land. While it is my belief that there is enough for everyone, I also believe that we have a responsibility to future generations to be good stewards of the land that feeds, sustains, and heals us. For this reason I would like to share my latest harvesting expedition.
Wild Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens,) an attractive shrub, but nowhere near as flamboyant as her cultivar cousins has recently come to my attention as an excellent remedy for inflamed or enlarged prostate. As a result of this discovery I have been recommending it frequently for men who are experiencing prostate problems. With Wild Hydrangea being native to the Southern Appalachians I was in a perfect position to get to know it more intimately. Having never harvested Hydrangea before I wasn’t fully confident in my ability to identify it, especially if the flower clusters were no longer present on this shrub that grows between four to six feet tall. Preferring a personal introduction to this Native plant, which Patricia Kyristi Howell writes about in her book, Medicinal Herbs of the Southern Appalachians, I asked her if she would be willing to take me harvesting, and she obliged. With summer coming to its close this would be the perfect time to go digging for Hydrangea’s roots. So on the Full Harvest Moon, my friend and mentor, Patricia, and I, carried a basket and a canvas bag into the North Georgia woods.
Lo and behold, the flower clusters, now somewhat brown and faded, were still clinging to the plant and identifying her was easy. But she was growing high up the side of an embankment that made getting to her difficult. Following Patricia’s lead I clamored up the bank, digging my heels into the soft deciduous dirt and began to dig. This was no easy root to free from its tenacious hold. I sweated, dug, pulled and cut until I held the most amazing rhizome and wildly branching roots in my hand. I filled the gaping hole that remained with as much dirt and leaf litter as I could manage and clamored back down.
Looking up at the embankment where I had just been perched it looked like a bear had been digging up there. I had taken one three Hydrangeas that grew in that spot, knowing the importance of leaving enough to ensure continued propagation. Then we decided to climb up to the ridge above the embankment to continue our search, and to see if it might be easier to dig from above rather that climbing up from below. Not far from where I had dug the first Hydrangea I saw another small grouping. In the end I would dig three roots, but not before I climbed down over the edge of the bank I had previously climbed up. While hanging off the side I lost my footing with nothing to hold me but my body pressed against the loose, humus rich soil and one hand clinging to this small, but very deep root. I looked down and realized the slide and tumble to the bottom would not be a fun one. I turned back to the root that was holding me up and was determined that if I was going down, she was going with me. So I dug my heels in deeper, freed the root from its tenacious hold, and managed to grab a vine and pull myself up just enough to get one foot in the hole left by the root. I propelled myself up over the top of the bank and was very grateful that I didn’t crash and burn.
This gave me a deeper appreciation for the roots of plants that hold and support the soil and its microorganisms on steep mountain slopes. My clamoring had left the mountainside unmistakably vulnerable to erosion even though I had done my best to fill in the holes. We should never underestimate the impact that we have on natural systems when we impose our needs, but always do our best to keep that impact to a minimum and never take it for granted. I thanked the rich soil beneath my feet and Hydrangea for her medicine root. Even if I hadn’t been totally spent by this point I knew that three roots was plenty. It was all I needed. And this is one of the keys to ethical harvesting; not taking more than we need.
The week prior to this I bought some dried and sifted Hydrangea root from a wholesale distributor so that I could connect with the plant and have enough on hand for making medicine. But I also know that preparing wild crafted medicines from the area where a person lives is 1000 times more potent energetically than commercially prepared medicines. These roots that we had gathered would become fresh root tincture, started on the full moon and decanted on the new or dark moon — dark like the earth in which she grew. The roots would more readily release their medicine and active constituents during this phase of the waning moon.
“So that’s all you need?” Patricia inquired. And my response was, “Yes, it is enough.” I had accomplished what I had come for: to feel, smell and connect with the medicine plant that was serving my clients. Sometimes healing takes a certain kind of aggressiveness, a willingness to go that extra mile, or climb that mountain as the case may be. Then Patricia made a very, thoughtful suggestion, “Add a little of the fresh wild root tincture to the commercial dried root tincture. It will remind her who she is.” And that this is where she came from.
Thea Summer Deer is a practicing herbalist in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Visit her on the web at www.theaskitchen.com or at the Southeast Women’s Herbal Medicine Conference Vendor’s Booth.