Long before HMOs and antibiotics, people in south Louisiana relied on all-natural cures pulled from the forests and bayous.
Cajun traiteurs, or faith healers, and before them the Native Americans who made the Gulf Coast their home used native plants to treat everything from fevers to spider bites.
Many of these plants, from elderberry to goat weed, sassafras to bitter melon, have been proven to have some legitimate scientific uses and can be found in teas, supplements and poultices.
“We know the value of it now,” says Mary Bellis Williams, 74, publicity chairwoman for the Baton Rouge unit of the Herb Society of America. “There have been so many studies.”
But some parts of these plants have also been proven dangerous or useless.
“I think it is really important to educate yourself on the use of herbs,” says Julie Walsh, the horticulture chairwoman for the herb society. “Because it is unregulated, you’ll have unscrupulous distributors using all parts of the plant.”
Local herbalists look to the wisdom of folk cures and modern science while searching their gardens for natural remedies, but they don’t recommend anyone use herbs without seeking a doctor’s advice.
“These are traditional uses,” says Art Scarbrough, 66, a chairman of the herb society. “We’re not advising anybody.”
Members of the local herb society shared a few herbs and plants that are native or were brought to this area more than a century ago that are commonly used for healing.
This hardy bush grows across the South, and is often seen as a flash of white blossoms in the woods.
“A lot of people think of it as a weed,” says Walsh.
But the elderberry has long been used to treat colds and coughs. An antioxidant, it can be found in cough medicines and is often used as a preventative measure during cold and flu season.
“I ended up making a tincture with elderberry and vodka,” says Walsh. “It’s good for colds, and it’s antiviral.”
Walsh hasn’t had to use her concoction yet this year, but plenty of cold sufferers buy medicine, such as Sambucol, which is made with elderberry.
While elderberries grow nearly everywhere and have several benefits, use caution: The green berries are poisonous.
Part of the hibiscus family, the roselle plant produces a bright red seed pod that has been used for generations as a cold cure because of its high vitamin C content.
“They’re full of antioxidants, and you can eat them,” Walsh says.
Roselle pods are worth big money online as a garnish of sorts. Used to brighten up parties, the red flowers are often placed in champagne glasses.
They can be used in wines, syrups and jellies, and the calyx, or pod, is a main ingredient in Red Zinger, the popular herbal tea made by Celestial Seasonings.
Used to treat coughs, mullein is a natural expectorant, forcing mucus out of the system. It has been used in medicines for tuberculosis and bronchitis.
The herb can be bought commercially as a supplement or an herbal tea, and recipes are often traded online for homemade cough syrups using the plant.
Walsh has used teas made with mullein to treat mild asthma symptoms.
The plant resembles a large cabbage that biannually shoots up a tall spike with yellow flowers.
Its large, fuzzy leaves are also handy for burns and rashes. By soaking them in warm water, the leaves become a useful poultice, says Williams.
“It’s so big you don’t have to put a bandage on it,” she adds. “You just put it on.”
Known to most of the world as an ingredient in root beer, this plant’s most important use in south Louisiana may be for filé, a powder made from sassafras leaves to thicken gumbo.
But its traditional uses have proven dangerous.
Traditionally, Cajun traiteurs used the roots to brew a tea for measles or as a tonic for blood purification. However, the tea could be poisonous. In 1960 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned safrole oil made from the bark and roots as a food additive, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. Later, it also banned the interstate shipment of sassafras bark.
Today the leaves are still used by some to treat insect stings.