Cultures that rely on limited local sources of food in the winter often have traditions about the restorative and curative powers of foods and herbs that become available in the spring. The American Folklife Center’s Coal River Folklife Project, headed by Mary Hufford, documented folklife in West Virginia’s Coal River Valley (1992 to 1999). The research especially focused on the ways that the people in that region used the resources of shared areas of the surrounding forest. Items from this collection are presented online as Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia.
When we think of important herbal remedies of West Virginia, ginseng (panax quinquefolia) often comes to mind. Ginseng is dug and dried in the fall and traditionally valued for increasing energy and supporting general health. But when Hufford asked people in the Coal River valley about ginseng only a few talked about using it as a tonic themselves. Ginseng has become so valuable that most West Virginians who gather it sell it to supplement their incomes and some farmers are developing ways to cultivate the plant. In this interview ginseng broker Randy Halstead talks with Mary Hufford about the energizing effects of ginseng.
In the early spring a type of wild onion, the ramp (Allium tricoccum), briefly puts up broad leaves. West Virginians value these as both a culinary onion and a spring tonic. The plant is so valued that many gardeners in the region attempt to cultivate ramps, with varying success. Not everyone joins the feast, as ramps have a strong taste and an odor that is carried for a short time by those who eat it. Ramp houses are a place where people gather to eat them and keep the offending odors out of their houses. Ramps are thought to improve health, cleanse the blood, and protect people from illness. There may be some truth to this, as members of the onion family seem to have antiseptic properties and may protect against viruses such as colds as well. Ramps also supply vitamin C and minerals. Ramps may be frozen or canned for use at other times of the year. As Mary Hufford explains in her essay, “Crafting Locally,” “Scientific research suggests that such faith in ramps is well-placed. The allicin (diallylsulfide oxide) in ramps, which has antibiotic properties, has been linked with reduced rates of cancer. Ramps are higher in vitamin C than oranges. They contain cepaenes, which function as antithrombotic agents. Ramps also contain flavonoids and other antioxidants that are free-radical scavengers.”
Another traditional spring tonic that West Virginians remember is sassafras, an understory tree. The roots of the plant were traditionally used to make tea as a spring tonic to purify the blood. It is also said to be useful in treating several illnesses. Sassafras is one of the traditional flavorings in root beer, and so was once widely consumed. Research has shown that safrole, the main flavoring in sassafras, causes cancer in rats. The use in commercial products such as root beer was banned by the FDA in 1960. In this recording, Elsie Ritch talks with Mary Hufford about the value of both ramps and sassafras as tonics (1999).
Spicebush, also called spicewood (Lindera benzoin), is another common remedy often used in the spring. It is an understory shrub with pungent leaves, bark, and berries. The young twigs are collected and brewed as tea for colds and flu and can be dried for later use. The berries are sometimes gathered and used as a spice. In this recording, “That mountain is like a drug store,” Joe Alif talks about local remedies, including spicebush, which he calls by the local name “spicewood.”
Early spring greens are valued as both foods and a tonics as they also add vitamin C, vitamin A, and minerals to the diet. In the Coal River Valley people gather young poke leaves, “creasy greens” (a local name that includes at least two dry-land relatives of watercress), woolen britches or woolen breeches (Heracleum lanatum), violet and viola leaves, and other greens from the forest. These are usually boiled or sauteed. Young poke leaves are commonly par-boiled and the first water discarded to remove a toxin before boiling again. (Poke consumption is not recommended as toxins may remain after parboiling). In this recording Mary Hufford talks with Mae Bongalis about the greens she gathers and how she prepares poke for canning. Shawnee or shawny (probably hydrophyllum virginianum) is known by several common names. It is either boiled or served fresh, wilted with a topping of hot bacon grease. Those who like it say that it is becoming difficult to find. In this recording David Price talks about finding and preparing Shawnee with Mary Hufford. As in many places, young spring dandelion greens, gathered before the plant flowers, are valued as a medicinal herb and a food in West Virginia. The European dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), the one commonly eaten and also seen as a garden pest, was introduced to North America by European settlers who planted it as a crop. Spring greens are so valued that West Virginians often can or freeze them to enjoy later in the year.
A food found in many traditional herbals that we no longer think of as a “spring tonic” is the strawberry, often the first fruit available in the spring. Not only do the berries provide a good source of vitamin C in the spring, but the leaves were traditionally used as a tea for fevers and kidney stones and the root was used as an astringent. The people of the Coal River Valley frequently talk of the much-anticipated early strawberries and many people grow then, but they do not mention the medicinal uses of the rest of the plant. In this recording that begins with “Copperheads smell like cucumbers” David and Sherman Bailey talk about picking strawberries that continue to grow on an old farm no longer cultivated — and of risking meeting a copperhead while doing so.
The wide variety of wild greens along with ramps and other wild foods gathered in the Coal River Valley are likely beneficial as a whole, as the different herbs may supply different beneficial vitamins and minerals.
Some readers may want to try wild tonics themselves. But in gathering any wild foods, it is important to be sure to identify the plants correctly. Sometimes toxic plants may resemble healthy ones. A field guide and someone with expert knowledge of local plants are indispensable. Current information on the toxicity, drug interactions, and effectiveness is also important as this may change as more research is done on medicinal plants and wild foods.