Appalachian Medicine Heritage

Appalachian Medicine

Appalachia is a haven for superstitions, wives tails, and down right kooky advice on the subject of medicine. From putting an ax under the bed of a sick person to cut the pain, to gargling something as poison as kerosene to burn out your tonsils. The medical folklore ranges from helpful to dangerous.

However, I do think it is interesting to see what was used before modern medicine took over. Especially fascinating to me-the plants used in the remedies that grow in my yard.

bloodroot growing in western nc mountains


This is Bloodroot, one of my favorite wildflowers. The small Daisey like flowers appear first, then seemingly over night all the petals fall off. A few days later the leaves appear. The leaves are fairly large and scalloped-I think the leaves are as pretty as the white flowers.

bloodroot for dye and medicine


You can see the reddish orange juice that is in the stems and roots. The juice was placed on a lump of sugar and used as a cough drop. The roots, sometimes called “she-roots”, were dried and ground into a powder to be used for female ailments, burns, coughs and colds.



The first spring after The Deer Hunter and I moved into our house, Pap and I went up the creek and got several little hemlocks to plant in my yard. This is the lone survivor of that day 11 years ago. The tree is over 12 foot tall now.


Hemlock needles were brewed to make a tea for treating coughs and colds.



This is Trailing Arbutus it grows along the bank behind my house. In the spring it has tiny white pink flowers that smell amazing and literally perfume the whole yard. The leaves were used to make a tea to aide in relieving kidney stones.

Carpet of violets


Wild Violets grow everywhere around my house, in the yard, in the woods and even in the rocks. A very prolific wildflower.


The roots were used to make a tea which was used as a fever reducer.

Some of the more wacky cures I’ve heard of:

Spider webs could be used to stop bleeding or swallowed for asthma

For feet cramps turn shoes upside down before going to sleep

To remove a sty from your eye-rub a black cats tail over it

For a headache- tie a flour sack over your head (for some reason I have the urge to try that one), or bury your hair after your next hair cut and you’ll never have a headache again

For a black widow spider bite drink liquor heavily from 3 p.m. till 7 p.m. (alright- can’t you just imagine who came up with that one)

I hope you enjoyed reading about some of Appalachia’s medical folklore. All though I am a native Appalachian, I wouldn’t even know where to begin with most of the remedies. If you decide to try any of them, please proceed with caution and do some research of your own.

I’m sure you have used some type of home remedy for an ailment or maybe your grandparents did. Please leave a comment I’d love to hear about it.


p.s. My research came from The Foxfire series number 1 & 11.

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  • Reply
    October 8, 2020 at 4:34 am

    Here’s a fun one: “Find a stick the same length as your young child with asthma and put it under their bed. When they outgrow the stick they’ll outgrow the asthma.” I said hogwash to that one, but my dad said “well, you and your brother outgrew the asthma, didn’t you?” So I don’t know now.

    A lot of the folk medicine I got from my grandma growing up was herbal remedies. Cayenne pepper to slow or stop a heavy period, ginger root tea for stomache ache or cramps, mint for nausea, oat baths for poison oak or other itchy rashes, raw potato for sunburn relief.

    But some of it was stuff like the stick under the bed, talking the fire from a burn, scheduling surgeries by the Signs. And you know what? I follow and use all that stuff to this day. I learned my lesson when I had my wisdom teeth out while the Signs were in the head. Never again.

  • Reply
    Bill Burnett
    April 11, 2019 at 6:46 am

    A lot of the old remedies actually work such as spider webs for stopping bleeding (only trouble with this one is gathering enough webs), cloves do stop toothache, Yellow Root Tea will stop kidney pain (You may just not complain to keep from a second dose). Though not an old remedy I have a great remedy for cuts, Krazy Glue with the cut held shut until the glue sets, I have used this several times and it allows you to go back to work and the cut will heal quickly. Only use this on smaller cuts but I have used it in place of sutures.

  • Reply
    January 21, 2009 at 12:35 pm

    Love your website! The information is great and the music is fantastic!

  • Reply
    May 11, 2008 at 10:37 am

    Awesome thread! That’s exactly the kind of thing I’d love to know when I start my garden this year. Bloodroot is definitely going to be on my list! Thanks for another great post!

  • Reply
    Jennifer in OR
    May 10, 2008 at 3:17 pm

    I love this! And the violets are simply gorgeous, gorgeous. I’ve used cloves of raw garlic for yeast infections (yes, I place the clove right up you know where).
    My 4th child was a little late coming, but upon drinking a tablespoon of cod liver oil, she came immediately – but be CAREFUL with this one, her head was emerging as my husband frantically RAN with me in his arms into the hospital, where she was delivered in an emergency room right in the lobby since we had no time for anything else! Yes, it works.
    Cloves are good for parasites. Sadly, one of my kiddos had pinworms, and passed it to the family, including me, so I’ve tried this one firsthand as well. Be careful with using cloves when pregnant or with children. But for myself, I purchased some quality powdered clove pills that did the trick.

  • Reply
    trisha too
    May 10, 2008 at 1:54 pm

    Tipper! I’m at the shop today, and have figured out how to keep your site open in the back and listen to the music! (Umm, no, I’m not exactly a computer genius.)
    Thank you!!! for the music!
    Violet flowers are good in salads, too, aside from any medicinal value. But not as good as the cattails! 😉

  • Reply
    Mary Anne Drury
    May 10, 2008 at 10:40 am

    I have the Italian version of folk remedies from my grandmother (who came to the USA as a young bride) …. chamomile tea for upset stomach, colds, PMS and just about every other ailment; and a tea bag for bee stings or burns. (pretty dull compared to some of the stuff listed above !!! I’m also thinking of trying that flour sack on your head for headaches !!!….seems to me if you didn’t already have a headache before you strapped that big ol’ flour sack to your head, you sure will afterwards!!)

  • Reply
    May 10, 2008 at 6:14 am

    Really interesting post! Some of those cures were known and used even here in upstate NY, as recently as back when I was a kid…like the kerosene one…believe it or not, my grandparents used it that way. And when we had an earache grandpa would blow cigarette smoke in the affected ear. The cobwebs for staunching blood flow actually works well, although I have never used it on people.

  • Reply
    May 10, 2008 at 12:39 am

    You forgot yellow root. It grows along the creek here by my house. It’s the only one of those old time remedies that I’ve ever tried. I can’t remember exactly what I drank yellow root tea for…maybe some ulcers in my mouth? It didn’t kill me, neither did it seem to help, but it sure tasted bitter. Maybe somebody will chime in here with what yellow root tea is supposed to treat. It seems like I remember Steve drinking yellow root tea for something else? Stomach sickness perhaps?

  • Reply
    May 9, 2008 at 10:23 pm

    Okay I don’t have many, but aloe for burns and something funny that I still put on my own kids is vicks on their feet with their socks on to help with a cough (works I promise) and I apply to their chest & neck and upper back as well..

  • Reply
    May 9, 2008 at 9:22 pm

    Man! As soon as I heard those first few notes, I knew what song it was, and it made my day! Thanks for sending well wishes for my Daughter’s birthday! I also love the foxfire books… I used to read them when I was a kid – my Dad has them, and I hope someday he’ll let me have them.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    May 9, 2008 at 3:45 pm

    My mother ALWAYS put turpentine on cuts and scrapes she said it would disinfect the wound and, if applied quickly following the injury, would take the soreness out. So, I in turn used turpentine on my son’s cuts and scrapes until—the pharmacy refused to sell it to my because they said it was poisonous. Ha Ha!
    Peppermint tea for an upset stomach.
    A dose of sulfur in the spring.
    Don’t go bare foot in the dew if you have broken skin on your foot.
    Lemon juice for your throat.
    Home canned blackberry juice for diarrhea–and the berries for the opposite.
    Salt in bath water to kill chiggers.
    Cigarette tobacco for a bee sting.
    Salt to kill snails in the yard.
    My friend puts salt on a cut to stop bleeding–ouch!
    Sassafras tea as a spring tonic.
    The old people had ways to remove warts. My dad took my cousin and I to an old man up in the cove to have warts removed—it worked! We had both had our warts medically removed and they returned but when that old man rubbed the warts and said some words (too softly for me to understand) they went away and never returned!
    Great post, Tipper!

  • Reply
    May 9, 2008 at 1:35 pm

    My grandmother would bite on a whole clove for a toothache and it would numb it. I was told by my mom to rub Vicks Vapor Rub on the soles of a child’s feet followed by a pair of socks before they went to bed to quiet a cough. Peppermint tea or ginger to help an upset stomach. Oh don’t get me started.

  • Reply
    May 9, 2008 at 12:29 pm

    For some of those remedies, there has to be a ring of truth because they were used for years. Some others are just simply ridiculous. My daughter gets sty’s a lot and we just happen to have a black cat…She may think I’ve lost my mind when I drag that cat’s tail across her eye~ LOL!

  • Reply
    May 9, 2008 at 12:53 am

    i like the tail of a black cat in the eye…mark has always had a house cat and i really really tried while we were on kauai. all my animals have been “outside”, i raised three sons and barely wanted to let them in 🙂 here, they would spend a great deal of time in the house due to cold. i couldnt handle them in my stash, in my bed, on my counters…i miss my dogs. i raised austrailian sheperds…bet they’d keep the deer out but mark doesnt like dogs, so we go petless.

  • Reply
    May 8, 2008 at 11:30 pm

    Great post — very interesting, tipper.
    You know, some of the old folklore seems pretty silly, such as the ax under the bed. But others make perfect sense. For example, I imagine the spider web might stop mild bleeding. Natural remedies, you know.
    I’m also very interested in natural and herbal medicine, though I have very little knowledge and am afraid I’d poison myself! lol
    Girl, those wild violets are beautiful! Do they seed?

  • Reply
    noble pig
    May 8, 2008 at 11:26 pm

    If I told my six year old to swallow spider webs for his asthma, he’d have an asthma attack!
    These were good.

  • Reply
    May 8, 2008 at 6:35 pm

    We have tons of those little violets in our yard too. I love them so….

  • Reply
    May 8, 2008 at 5:57 pm

    My mom used to rub an eye sty with her gold wedding band …
    For chest congestion, coughs and sore throats, my dad would cover our throat with Watkins menthol camphor and cover the area with a white hanky …
    We never bought cough syrup but always had a batch of Maw’s homemade on hand: 1 oz. glycerine, 1/2 cup honey, 1/2 cup whiskey. Heat slightly til mixed and refridgerate.
    Sunburns were painted with wet tea bags …

  • Reply
    May 8, 2008 at 5:33 pm

    I know people who put baking soda in a little water and drink it for an upset stomach.
    And apple cider vinegar is great for a lot of things. I’ve seen this myself!

  • Reply
    Terry Thornton
    May 8, 2008 at 3:16 pm

    Most interesting — and the photos are super. Two books I recommend are:
    A Guide to Medicinal Plants of Appalachia (Agriculture Handbook No. 400, Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture) by Krochmal, Walters, and Doughty, 1971. U.S Printing Office.
    A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants, Eastern and Central North America by Foster and Duke with drawing by Peterson, Rose, and Peterson. One of the Peterson Field Guide Series published by Houghton Mifflin 1990.

  • Reply
    May 8, 2008 at 2:13 pm

    and who can ever forget codliver oil. one tablespoon was a nightly ritual that still makes me gag! I CANT WAIT for them to make a cd…I will be the first to buy it!!!!

  • Reply
    May 8, 2008 at 12:28 pm

    “For a black widow spider bite drink liquor heavily from 3 p.m. till 7 p.m.”
    I’m guessing by the end of that 4 hours, you would be feeling no pain! ;-Þ
    I’ve always been interested in this subject. I know that many (most?) of the synthetic medicines produced in labs today were created to duplicate those originally made from plants and used before the days of pharmaceutical labs.

  • Reply
    May 8, 2008 at 11:56 am

    I am fascinated with the medicinal plants. I’ve always dreamed of having a huge medicinal/ herb garden.
    My family would treat tooth aches by putting raw cloves of garlic between their lip and the tooth in question. My huband treats headaches by pinching and rubbing the fleshy portion of skin between the thumb and index finger. There’s supposed to be an accupressure point there.

  • Reply
    May 8, 2008 at 11:30 am

    Tipper – your pictures are great! I think the medical folklore is hilarious – an axe under the bed! Who would think. Have a great afternoon!

  • Reply
    May 8, 2008 at 8:51 am

    My Hubby swears by pouring or immersing a cut (especially a bad one) in kerosene. He has a hugh scar on his leg (from sleigh-riding on a piece of tin roofing) that his grandmother poured kerosene in. “It didn’t sting a bit and it healed right up without any infection at all,” he says.
    Great topic! And don’t you just love the Foxfire books?!! You’ll have to do a post on ghost stories from the region too!

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