As herbal medicine gains popularity throughout mainstream outlets, it is important for us to understand the origination and cultural uses that led us to the practices we have today. As enslaved Africans made their way to the New World, their herbal traditions and medicine-making practices were carried along with them. During Black History Month, I invite you to explore the use of herbal medicinal practices on plantations by enslaved people and how the connection with plant allies gave them control over their own health during a time when they didn't have control over much at all.
Plantation Medicinal Practices
Health care was rarely provided to enslaved people. Instead, many relied on African American folk medicine to treat specific conditions during that time. Many herbal traditions used by enslaved people were not written down but rather passed verbally from person to person. The ability of those enslaved to gather herbs for their own treatment is nothing shy of brilliant perseverance on their behalf during a harsh time many of us will never understand.
It's important to recognize African American herbalism's spiritual component. The process of gathering herbs was a ritual that connected enslaved people to their higher power and the nature around them. As noted by historian Sharla Fett, the ritual of healing helped "maintain proper relationships between living persons and the world of ancestors and spirits." In a time as grim as the early 17th century was for Africans, they found identity and revelation in plant medicine.
The beauty of folk medicine is in the simplicity of the formulations. Enslaved people did not have access to alcohol or other commodities like the plantation owners. The time and resources needed to make tinctures — an extraction of plant constituents with alcohol — weren't present for those enslaved. They resorted to using water extractions for the majority of their medicine making. Water infusions are among the simplest to produce, and they are timeless in making decoctions or herbal teas. Decoctions made through boiling plant matter and topical poultices are among other preparations enslaved people used. The innate wisdom needed to locate, identify, and utilize these plants is one of the greatest gifts of knowledge demonstrated by humankind.
Three Plants Traditionally Used by African American Herbalists
Boneset, or Eupatorium perfoliatum, is characterized by its long leaves, which come to a point, and its noticeable white flowers, which grow in small clusters. A beautiful plant of the daisy (or Asteraceae) family, Boneset is traditionally used to disperse heat during elevated body temperatures. Boneset's bitter properties may improve appetite and digestion and support the organs of elimination by increasing circulation. Boneset is also a powerful immune-supportive herb. The availability of Boneset and ease of propagation allowed home cultivation of this botanical, which contributed to its prevalent use on plantations.
Perhaps one of the most stunning and noticeable plants, Mullein, or Verbascum thaspus, not only has a medicinal purpose in folk medicine, but a spiritual one as well. Noted for its fuzzy, wool-like leaves, Mullein forms a basal rosette, or leafy structure, as a base during its first year of life. As Mullein matures, a stalk will arise, sprouting bright yellow flowers. This stalk can reach heights of up to eight feet tall. Mullein historically has been used to support the respiratory tract, and it is often consumed as a tea. When taken before bedtime, Mullein is believed to provide a connection between the present and ancestral world, creating a path of communication during dreams. In addition to these uses, Mullein was burned as incense, smoked, and even used topically as a poultice to support a healthy inflammation response.
Mullein. Photo credit: Brittney Offenburg
Cotton, Gossypium hirsutum, a plant that provided reproductive health to enslaved women, is also the same plant used to suppress women through harsh working conditions. Gossypium hirsutum allowed women to take their reproductive health into their own hands during a time when medical treatment was rarely offered. Cotton Root bark has an affinity for the uterus and was liberating to women in need of reproductive care. The root was often chewed, and a decoction was made by boiling the roots and seeds to assist with pregnancy- or menstrual-related issues. Cotton, considered a luxury at the time, was a multifaceted plant that was both helpful and harmful. The ability of enslaved women to utilize this plant in a way that was beneficial to them is another example of resilience exhibited by women of color during this time.
As herbalism moves into the mainstream, I invite you to acknowledge that many of these practices were forcefully adopted from folk medicine and introduced to plantation owners throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. It's necessary for us to honor the wisdom and tradition brought forth by African American herbalism. In today's world, it's easy to lose sight of the historical indigenous practices of herbal medicine, but I believe it's our duty as modern herbalists to pay homage to those that came before us.
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Brittney Offenburg (she/her) believes in empowerment through education. She attended the Colorado School of Clinical Herbalism where she studied medical herbalism and is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition and Integrative Healthcare from Metropolitan State University of Denver. Brittney is a customer journey representative at WishGarden Herbs and a medicinal plant photographer for Adrift Imagery. (@AdriftImagery)
For educational purposes only. This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease, or sell any product.