Stumpwater, that is water that has collected in the hollow bowl of a tree stump, is an interesting part of folk materia medica. Its use can be found throughout the Ozarks and the Appalachians, and I wouldn’t be surprised if other cultures were to use the mystical substance as well. Stumpwater is mostly connected to the healing of certain dermatological issues like warts, rashes, and sometimes even freckles. But the water has also been used in the making of herbal infusions. The idea being that the stumpwater has more power than regular water because it is elevated above the rest of the land.
Vance Randolph mentions stumpwater several times in his “Ozark Magic and Folklore,” here are a few quotes:
“The skin disease called tetter is treated with spunk water or stump water simply rain water which happens to be retained in a hollow stump.”
“When a hillman tries to remove warts by applying stump water he repeats this formula: Stump water, stump water, Kill these — warts! The dash represents the number of warts that the patient has, and it is essential to state this number correctly. If a man says six when he has only five warts, the warts will not be cured, and another one will appear in a few days.”
“Most of the old-timers believe that a woman should never be bathed ‘all over,’ or her bedding completely changed, for nine days after the child is born. Some say that the palms of a child’s hands should not be washed until the child is three days old to do so washes away the infant’s luck, particularly in financial matters. It is always best to bathe a new baby’s head with stump water; if ordinary water is used, the child is likely to be prematurely bald when it grows up.”
One can say that most of the lore behind stumpwater likely came into the Ozarks from the Appalachian people. A similar wart-cure can be found in the book “A Tennessee Folklore Sampler” by Ted Olson and Anthony P. Cavender:
“To remove a wart go to an old hollow stump that contains water and wash the hands or warts in the stump water. After doing this, walk home without looking back and the wart will go away.”
A few more Appalachian uses of stumpwater come from the wonderful book “Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia” by Anthony Cavender:
“To treat and prevent pimples and blackheads, the face was washed with buttermilk, a solution of Epsom salts or soda, human urine, stumpwater (water collected in a tree cavity or stump, also called ‘spunkwater’), a decoction made from witch hazel or ratsbane leaves, or dew of the first day in May.”
“Stumpwater, buttermilk, dew of the first fay in May, and a cow manure facial also were used to remove freckles.”
“Southern Appalachian folk medicine is abundant with beliefs about contracting and removing warts. Some of the more frequently mentioned naturalistic remedies were rubbing warts with castor oil, a chicken gizzard, a slice of Irish potato, bean leaves, or stumpwater and inserting a hot needle into the warts.”
In my last post on the interactions between white and Native medicines I mentioned the use of stumpwater as a practice shared by both the white and Cherokee communities. Who gave the practice to whom is still debatable, but the fact remains that both communities considered stumpwater as an important part of the materia medica. Frans M. Olbrechts, in “The Swimmer Manuscript” mentions a Cherokee medicine man who only used water in healing:
“Spencer Bird, an old medicine man, now dead, used to rely on the sole purifying power of water. The informant who told me this vaguely hinted at the probability of the water being some ‘special water,’ such as that scooped out of a stump (‘stump water’) or even out of the stump of a lightning-struck tree.”
The use of stumpwater bears some semblance to other folk medicines such as the use of certain “flying” plants, meaning plants that are growing out of trees, or rock faces, that have never touched the ground. The power here is that the “flying” plant has some mystical connection to the sky, and is therefore given an added potency as a medicine or magical item. A common example of this idea is the mistletoe plant, which has been considered a mystical or magical plat partially because it hangs in the air without touching the ground. There’s a tradition throughout the Ozarks and Appalachians (and one can see the original belief throughout Europe) that the mistletoe will only be effective in protecting the home when it is cut and never allowed to touch the ground. We can see the same concept with the stumpwater, the idea here being that the water fell from the sky and hangs in the air, not touching the ground. The power of the stumpwater then isn’t in the chemical makeup of the water itself, but in the fact that it has been given a magical quality by being set apart from other puddles, creeks, and water sources.