221: Asafetida

Asafetida isn’t a native of the Ozarks, in fact none of the plants in the genus Ferula, which also contains Fennel and Galbanum, are native to North America. But, asafetida does figure into the materia medica of Appalachian and Ozark folk medicine.

Asafetida’s scientific name is Ferula assa-foetida and gets its name, or at least part of it, from the Farsi word azā meaning “resin” and the Latin foetidusmeaning “smelling, fetid” and if you’ve ever been around asafetida powder or resin you will know exactly why it has this name. This plant has been prized as a spice and medicine throughout the Middle East, Mediterranean, and Europe for centuries, and was dispersed throughout these areas by traders and travelers from Persia. These same traders also brought the spice to India where it is known as “hing” and figures into both Ayurvedic medicine and many Indian food dishes.

Asafetida has been used in traditional medicine as an antiflatulent, digestive aid, antimicrobial, remedy for asthma and bronchitis, among many other things. Because of it’s smell it also has a connection to exorcism and driving out spirits of sickness. For this reason it’s often burned alongside sulfur inside the house of an ill person or where some witchcraft is thought to have been placed.

The foul smelling spice made its way into Ozark folk medicine by way of the Appalachian immigrants who would have brought preparations of the plant resin with them from Europe. By the 1800’s a powdered form of the resin could be found in most drugstores as a cure for colds and influenza, the plant was also often grown by mountain folk who couldn’t get into town very often.

In Appalachian and Ozark folk medicine asafetida has traditionally been used as a cure for influenza. It was most often hung in bags around the neck, not ingested, as a way of keeping the sickness away from the wearer. The idea being that the smell would keep away the illness. Here’s a couple anecdotes about the plant:

From Vance Randolph’s “Ozark Magic and Folklore”:

“Ozark children, in many isolated sections, still wear little packets of asafetida all winter to protect them from the common diseases of childhood. When spring comes, with sassafras tea and other internal prophylactics, the child is permitted to discard the asafetida.”

“It is said that a bewitched firearm can somehow be disenchanted with asafetida, but I have never been able to find out anything definite about this method.”

From the “Bittersweet” magazine article “Good for What Ails You”:

“Asafetida (genus Ferula) is a bitter, foul-smelling, yellowish-brown material prepared from roots. Asafetida was bought and worn around the neck in little bags to ward off colds and diseases. It was also taken daily with one teaspoon of Jerusalem oak (Chenopodium botrys) to prevent illness. Jerusalem oak, found in waste ground and along railroads, is also odiferous, smelling like turpentine. Children were not especially fond of this preventive medicine. The name asafetida is particularly appropriate, coming from the medieval Latin meaning smelly or fetid gum.”

From the “Bittersweet” magazine article “Old Time Cures”:

“To avoid a winter cold, mothers would put asafetida in a cloth bag and tie it around their children’s necks with a string. Asafetida is a very strong smelling plant. The bad smell that was given off was supposed to keep away the germs– For best results it should be kept moist. The child would stick it in his mouth occasionally, then let it dangle down.”

From the “Bittersweet” magazine article “From the Word Go”:

“Some unpleasant odors were looked upon as resistances to sickness. Youngsters, to avoid a winter cold, would buy a little package of asafetida at the drug store. They would put this asafetida in a little bag on a string around their necks and the bad smell that was emitted was supposed to keep the germs away. With groups of youngsters wearing this asafetida frequently, they soon got accustomed to the bad smell.”

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