LAFAYETTE — The Healer’s Garden is a holdover from days gone by, as are most things at Vermilionville.
Beverly Fuselier, Mary Perrin, Tina Vidrine and MaryAnn Armbruster are the master gardeners who oversee it. They serve as stewards and docents when tourists come through, explaining the medicinal properties of elderberry, monglier and other “remèdes.”
Fuselier and Perrin also serve privately as traiteuses. But you won’t find them in the Yellow Pages.
Traiteuse — traiteur, if you're a man — are folk healers who combine Catholic prayer and traditional folk medicine and are considered an important part of Cajun tradition. Fuselier and Perrin believe their talents are a gift from God and will treat anyone who asks, regardless of faith. Their prayers are kept secret to safeguard their efficacy — Perrin has one in a native dialect that is untranslatable — and while practitioners may differ in their ritual styles or treatment, all utilize a spiritual component.
They do not, however, learn their craft from a book. The faith healer tradition is passed from old to young, and rituals are practiced within the confines of the Catholic Church, says Perrin. Sometimes, Fuselier says, touch is involved, a laying on of hands.
Perrin and Fuselier agree a traiteuse must be asked to help, and most will not accept gifts or compensation. Vidrine says she was once treated for migraines by a traiteuse. “I left a pound of pecans on her doorstep,” says the former journalist. “But the treatment didn’t work.”
Fuselier tells a different story.
“My aunt was a traiteuse,” she says. “When I was 8 years old, I had severe sunstroke and was put to bed. My aunt laid on her hands, said the prayers, I turned my head to the left and fell asleep. When I woke, it was over.”
For all her childhood exposure, Fuselier was reluctant to carry on the practice.
“I dreamed of people’s illnesses as a kid, and it haunted me until I was 30," she says. "It scared me. I made a deal with God to give me a sign, and I picked three difficult ones.
“They all came together. I knew I was called.”
Perrin learned from a friend, Allen Simon. For her, email frequently brings clients, and Fuselier says she also will treat someone over the phone.
“They can call; it’s not necessarily face to face,” Perrin says.
She tells of the time she was contacted by someone whose friend was failing in the hospital. Perrin agreed to do the treatment.
“Everything is a series of three,” she says. “Three prayers, three times, three different days. I forgot about it.
“A month later, I learned he went home. I don’t know for sure it was prayers, but he went from dying to going home. That’s a good thing.”
Perrin, Fuselier and other traiteurs say they can treat a variety of ailments, including, among many, warts, sunstroke, bleeding, arthritis and asthma.
On Mondays at Vermilionville, the four women make their traditional "medicines" for their personal use. But, they agree, these remedies are distinct and apart from traiteuse tradition, and the traiteuse can treat without them.
The Healer’s Garden, which surrounds an Acadian cabin, is a medicine cabinet for those who know what to look for. Some remedies are easy to spot, like toothache tree, while others are more subtle, such as creeping spot flower, which Armbruster says is under scrutiny for its ability to arrest drug-resistant infections.
The garden's caretakers continually seek plants that have been used in various cultures, such as boneset, Indian bone, Jack in the pulpit, cat’s foot, manroot, mayapple and tea grass.
According to information at the Vermilionville Cultural Center, remèdes were historically prepared a number of ways — as a poultice, plaster, wash, tea or decoction (like a stock) and often a single plant is used to treat a variety of illnesses. For instance, the roots and bark of coral bean or Mamou plant (erythrina herbacea) can be made into cough syrup or tea for colds and congestion, while the seeds can be boiled and made into tea for fever, chills and pneumonia. Elderberry, or le sureau, is said to be good for rheumatism, colds, fever, chills and also as a tea for measles. Its syrup reportedly shortens the duration of flu by several days.
“The flood killed our elderberry tree,” says Armbruster, who has a doctorate in biological sciences, adding that she and the others maintain the garden from the ground up.
Elderberry is nicknamed “The King of the Garden” for its purported healing power and many locals vouch for it.
“The flowers are used as a mild laxative and for chronic hip pain,” Ambruster says.
“The leaves? Absolutely for joint pain,” adds Fuselier. “Once, I’d moved something heavy. All I needed to do was pat on olive oil, apply and elevate my leg wrapped in Saran Wrap. I slept soundly for the first night in days. The pain left and did not return.”
For all its wonders, native varieties of elderberry are poisonous. Leaves and stems contain a compound that can convert to cyanide.
“You have to know what you’re doing,” says Perrin. “Don’t try this at home.”
Except for the elderberry, she says, “most recipes are pretty forgiving.”
Much depends on whether the medicine is to be weak or strong. For instance, monglier is extremely bitter and not to be savored but swallowed more like a shot.
“My husband had been in bed with a sinus headache for three days and was up in 30 minutes,” Armbruster says of his recovery after taking the elixir.
But what appears mysterious often has some scientific basis. For instance, Fuselier and Perrin say fig sap, which contains a potent antiviral, applied three times a day for three days will get rid of warts. Willow bark, they say, contains salicin, a chemical similar to aspirin, and will get rid of headaches.
“You think sometimes it’s the belief, sometimes it’s not. I have faith, and I am used,” Fuselier says. “We are conduits.”