A few years ago I was snowed in on a mountaintop when my companion fell ill with a headache. We couldn’t dig the car out to a store—and there was no store for miles, anyway. I searched the cabin upside down for aspirin, then searched the car. Nothing. Then I thought deeper. Willow bark.
The woods are the original drugstore. Herbs and plants are NOT a substitute for going to the doctor, of course. But where I live in rural Appalachia, many people don’t have primary care physicians. It’s very hard to get an appointment—and to be honest, our remote town doesn’t always attract the best professionals.
As a toddler, my son was prescribed a drug that a doctor at a larger hospital in the city said hadn’t been used in ten years. Not long ago, my friend’s doctor showed up to her appointment visibly ill. Two OBGYNs just announced they are leaving, which the nurse says will cause the practice to close. Many times you end up having to diagnosis yourself around here.
In a lot of ways that are terrible to think about, rural and poor towns like my own are unprepared for a pandemic. Our health systems are overcrowded, outdated, unaffordable, and inaccessible to many people. Stocking up on groceries is an impossible expense. Same with medication.
One thing we can handle in rural Appalachia? Making do, and making the best with what we have, some of which is in the woods and by the river.
The recent news that the surgery centers at the three hospitals and clinics closest to me will be closing, to reserve protective gear for coronavirus cases, has me very worried. This means that if my son or I get in an accident, we may have to drive over an hour for treatment. I’m not sure there’s a real way to prepare for this or for the coronavirus, but along with vitamins (especially Vitamin C, zinc, and selenium), and first aid supplies, I’ve been making sure I have a few plants that have helped me personally in the past.
Here’s my small Herbal Toolbox. These plants have made me feel better in times of past stress, and they provide me a little comfort having them in my kitchen arsenal now.
Oils are weird. I don’t use perfume myself, and don’t use oils for their scent or relaxation. I’m concerned about how much plant matter it takes to make some oil, and I have read that oils can be deadly to cats. But if you’re pet-free, I have found eucalyptus to be helpful for congestion. Follow instructions on the bottle for adding drops to vaporizers or humidifiers (a good item to have).
OK this isn’t a herb. My favorite mushrooms to eat are morels and chicken-of-the-woods, but cordyceps are my emergency fungi and I love them as much as anyone can love a mushroom. I have also heard good things about lion’s mane and reishi mushrooms. My reliable mushrooms are grown just up the road, and sold locally, powdered, in capsules. If I’m feeling run down, I take several before bed and seem to have more energy in the morning.
Ginger Root and Garlic
Have some around to slice into soups, broths, or tea, or roast the garlic and eat.
Slippery Elm Bark or Marshmallow Root
You can find this in a tea called Throat Coat, which was recommended to me years before I started to study plants, back when I was a singer. The tea is great for helping sore throats, and you can find it in grocery stores, but if you can locate slippery elm in health food stores in bark form, that’s very useful too. You can chew on the bark to help a sore throat. I think of it as nature’s cough drop.
Slippery Elm can be over-harvested, however, so you might use Marshmallow Root.
Slippery Elm was the first plant given to me for medicinal purposes. After my son was born, I started having respiratory issues. When someone gave me a handful of this soft, pale brown bark, I felt extremely doubtful. But I tried it. It tastes good, naturally sweet, and soothed my cough. You never forget the first plant that helped you.
Please stay strong and well, and help your neighbors.