Day 192: Yarbs for Surviving Winter


Autumn is in full swing here in the Ozarks, and with chilly, misty mornings I’m reminded of the approaching colds of winter. Cold in more than one usage of the word, as with these frigid winds come the flu, the head cold, and fever. About this time every year I start gathering my stores of yarbs that will be helping me to survive the winter. I harvest and dry the last of my summer plants and wander the woods for any remaining foliage that I might have overlooked. Autumn is prime season for gathering roots, as the plants that have now lost their flowers and fruit, are beginning to store up nutrients for the long winter. A tip for those folks who want to start wild-harvesting roots; go through the woods when there are still leaves on the plants, mark certain yarbs with bits of red string so that in autumn, when there aren’t any identifying leaves, you can still find the plants to harvest. Remember to leave behind a sizable piece of the root in its hole so that the plant will continue to live, and as always, an offering of tobacco to the spirit of the yarb.

There are many winter cures here in the Ozarks. Common yarbs found in any Hill Doctor’s cabinets include; Mullein (Verbascum thapsus), Whiteleaf Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum albescens), Horehound (Marrubium peregrinum), Melissa (Melissa officinalis), Slippery Elm bark (Ulmus rubra), Sumac (Rhus glabra or Rhus typhina), Pine needles (in Arkansas it’s usually Pinus taeda “Lobolly Pine” or “Longleaf Pine” Pinus palustris), Wild Cherry bark (Prunus serotina), and of course there are less common ingredients and techniques that will be mentioned here.

Mullein flower tea is said to be a good remedy for coughs, specifically wet coughs where the lungs are full of mucus. For a dry cough a demulcent like Slippery Elm can be used, just boil the bark or leaves down into a syrupy broth then drink it with a little whiskey. This bark can be combined with Wild Cherry bark for a more powerful decoction, although note that the foliage of the Wild Cherry is poisonous when ingested.

Horehound is probably the most popular remedy for colds and congestion, likely because it has a more palatable flavor than most other yarbs that are used. The leaves and stems are boiled down for several days until a dark brown, almost black, liquid is made. This is then taken by the spoonful over the course of three days.

For a sore throat and cough a Sumac berry tea is often used, sometimes accompanied by Whiteleaf Mountain Mint or Melissa (commonly called lemon balm and sometimes wrongfully associated with bee balm). Sumac can also be mixed with cider vinegar, salt, and black pepper for a strong and effective gargle.

Pine needles, steeped overnight in a pan of water then boiled down with sorghum, is also a common remedy for sore throats and coughs. Pine needle tea can also be mixed with cider vinegar as a throat gargle.

A few less common but still interesting remedies for winter ailments include recipes like the below from Granny Gore:

“Fer a cough there was also another good remedy, an’ one the men folks always liked. A tablespoon of sulfur, four or five tablespoons of sorghum, and a pint of peach brandy. Mix and take a tablespoon full fer a cough. Don’t take too much or you’ll git drunk.”

Other less savory ingredients to help with winter problems includes a truly horrible greasy paste made from either a skunk or possum. Fat is taken from either of these animals then rendered down until a paste is made. This paste is then smeared on the neck and face of the afflicted person. I can personally attest to both the horrible nature of this grease as well as its effectiveness. Oh yes, your cold will be cured, that is if you’re able to stand the smell.

It’s fairly common to see yarb doctors sweating out the flu using recipes that include whiskey or moonshine, sometimes taken alone, other times taken boiling hot with ingredients like sugar, and lemon juice.

To help with colds and pneumonia one can smoke out the sickness using burning corncobs. The afflicted person is put under a blanket, corncobs are then put into a bowl of hot coals, the bowl is then put under the blanket with the patient. For many Ozark people this fumigation is a sure way to cure the common cold, although there is much debate over the effectiveness of a yellow corncob versus a white or red one.

Smoking out a sickness, although not recommended by most city doctors, is common among the Hillfolk. Either by fumigation, where the plant matter is burned in a bowl then the patient is encouraged to breathe in the smoke, or by smoking plant matter in a tobacco pipe, either technique, in my experience, is an effective way of helping to cure many ailments. I’ve seen many yarbs used to smoke out sickness, but common ones include sumac leaves, horehound, mountain mint, mullein, and sometimes even just straight tobacco. A fumigation of juniper branches is another common way to help run off the flu and colds, this smoke is also said to help clear a house of problematic haints.

Some folks might say these cures are nothing more than a mixture of superstition and the mild effectiveness of certain plant compounds, but for Hillfolk there is real power in these yarbs. People like my ancestors couldn’t afford to go to the doctor, couldn’t make the trip across the hills to the nearest town, or had a severe distrust for all things from the city. All these reasons gave birth to a medical system that for this mostly uneducated group of people is both elegant and effective. Ozark yarb medicine is just one part of a grand tapestry of folk medicine traditions from around the world, all of which share in their resourcefulness, uniqueness of practice and materia medica, and their humble origins among the poorest and most marginalized of society. There’s a vast corpus of knowledge here that is being lost. But, as Ozark people have always been survivors, plant lore and medicine continues with modern day yarb doctors who rather than seeing these traditions as just the superstitions of old folks, are excited and passionate about learning and keeping this magic alive.

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