Speaking of Uncle Stevie Craft, as we often do in this column, he came up to our house on Blair Branch one time, when I was just a little fellow, and asked my Mom how she was doing.
Mom told him her head had been swimming all day and she was getting worried about it.
"Oh I wouldn't worry about it too much," Uncle Stevie told her. "As long as your head is swimming, your behind won't drown." He actually used another word for "behind" that we don't quote in family newspapers. As I recall, my Mom was not amused.
Then he told her that he was on his way to the "sang (ginseng) patch" to dig some yellow root and that he would get some for her while he was up there. My Grandpa "Pap", Mose Adams, had established, in the 1890s-early 1900s, a small, 1/4 acre plot halfway up the mountain where he raised ginseng, golden seal, blood root, snake root, wild ginger, goldenseal etc. At one point in time, he had attempted, without much success, to grow these herbs commercially. For several decades after his death in 1954 some of them, especially yellow root, still "volunteered."
Toward the end of the 20th century, there was some commercial demand for golden seal, similar to the market for wild ginseng. Herb hunters found Pap's old patch and, at least I assume, it finally paid off for somebody.
Yellow root is the name most Appalachian Kentuckians use for an herb more universally known as goldenseal. It was believed to be a sure cure for many ills.
In those days, mountaineers relied far more on herbal remedies for whatever ailed them than they did on medical prescriptions or commercially prepared medicines. I can remember drinking catnip tea for stomach aches and indigestion. Sassafras tea laced with ground ginger seemed to ease the suffering of head colds and was thought to make us "sweat out" fevers and head colds. Jewel weed sap almost instantly relieved the itching and burning of poison ivy rash as did milkweed sap on chigger bites.
Witch hazel, May apple, Queen Ann's lace, dock root, pennyroyal, rabbit tobacco (also known as life-ever-lasting) and dozens, if not hundreds, of other wild plants were thought to have incredible healing properties before modern medicine found its way into the mountains. There is ample evidence that many, if not most of them, did, in fact, help cure or alleviate the symptoms of everything from headaches to heart disease and runny noses to rheumatoid arthritis.
In fact, there are dozens of full length books on the subject of herbal remedies. I just checked Amazon Books and counted over 20 for sale just for Appalachian herbs. Chances are you can find several at your local library without spending a penny except for the gasoline it takes to get you to there and back. About all I have room for in this column is to stir up the hornet's nest and get readers arguing about what is or was good for what.
As I recall, Uncle Stevie had some sort of ongoing bowel problem that he simply called a bellyache. He kept a quart jar of "yellow root tea," as he called it, in his refrigerator throughout my youth. It was made by boiling the roots of the plant until he had a very bitter-tasting, amber liquid that he drank whenever his symptoms occurred.
Mom made some when he came back off the hill and she said it stopped her dizzy spells but the thing I remember most about it is that I'd have had to be hurting awfully badly before I would have been willing to even take a sip of the stuff. The very thought of yellow root tea would cure my bellyache and, if that didn't work, I learned to absolutely love the taste of pepto-bismal and/or catnip tea