Attuning to and uplifting black people’s voices in herbalism is one way of celebrating and honoring the rich cultural lineages that both American and African herbalism offer. When we can see our own stories reflected along the diverse paths of those who have walked the garden path before us, the way forward and our own relationship with nature becomes more apparent. The storied patchwork of people of color in herbalism is a weaving together of wisdom passed down through generations, often orally, and some would even say shared between the human and the natural worlds through the plants themselves.
Legendary healers in the African-American community include names you may not be familiar with, like Easter Sudie Campbell (‘Aunt Easter’), Mother D., and Emma Dupree, as well as household names like George Washington Carver. Healers traditionally went by many titles, including root doctors, midwives, herbalists, nurses, and spiritual healers or conjurers. Many of these medicine men and women – the males typically holding the role of a spiritual healer and the females fulfilling the responsibility of herbalist or midwife – made their own medicines from the plants that grew near them.
Health care was first a family affair and closely tied to both familial and spiritual life, and second, a down-to-earth collaboration with whatever happened to be growing outside the doorstep, whether it was ground ivy (Glechoma hederaceae) for a good night’s sleep or marigold wash (Calendula officinalis) for a skin rash. Many folks had parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents who had passed their particular versions of herbal tradition down to them and steeped them in the ways of natural medicine from a young age.
Commonly held folk medicine beliefs in such communities included sage advice such as bringing down a fever by soaking in a bath infused with peach leaves, rubbing cayenne pepper over stiff joints or achy muscles, and consuming garlic to help maintain a healthy blood pressure, all three of which are carried on by modern herbalists and even substantiated by scientific studies and clinical evidence.
George Washington Carver is one such liaison between plants and people. You may recall his name from your grade school days and associate it with peanuts, crop rotation, and cotton. But his story spreads much further than those well-known tidbits. Did you know that Carver was nicknamed ‘the plant doctor’ as a child because of his affection for the green world and his uncanny ability to nurse sick and dying botanicals back to health? His green thumb was verdant.
Born into slavery an orphan on a farm, Carver was a delicate child who often dealt with illnesses. Susan Carver, who raised George, introduced him early to the wonders of herbal medicines and had an extensive comprehension of what available plants were medicinal and what each did. George was soon captivated by the plant world and became the first African-American man to earn a Bachelor’s of Science. Unsurprisingly, he focused his degree on the health of food crops, specifically soybeans. He later earned the moniker the ‘peanut man’ through the process of inventing over 300 peanut-based foods and industrial products, from the experimental (peanut oil massages) to those which are now staples (such as Worcestershire sauce). His conviction about the importance of human reliance on plants for everything from fiber to food to fuel created a legacy we herbalists walk-in today. He believed, “We can learn to synthesize materials for every human need from the things that grow,” and he lived out that paradigm in his daily work connecting healthy plants with healing people.
Carver was not only an herbalist but also spread his tendrils of interest into mycology, the study of mushrooms. He was a prolific student of the mycelial world, identifying and cataloging many of the most abundant fungi in Alabama, an overlapping field with his passion for soil health and overall healing.
Perhaps the most endearing of Carver’s traits as an herbalist was his appreciation for the wild and weedy plants that the earth offers so freely to those who pick them. Carver is remembered for declaring, “There is no need for America to go hungry as long as nature provides weeds and wild vegetables…” He stuffed his sandwiches full of wild greens like chickweed and chives, which still today are among every forager’s favorite feral treats and make excellent pesto or additions to a salad.
As an herbalist myself, I am so grateful to the pioneers who have gone before me and shared their knowledge and wisdom of plant medicine and passed it down through the generations. My mission to keep this amazing healing art alive and bring the power of herbal medicine to the handcrafted formulations of Sunshine Botanicals is both a joy and a privilege for me.
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