Charleston, South Carolina april@healingplanttraditions.com 1-828-284-5821

Wax myrtle/Bayberry

Wax myrtle shrub

Morella cerifera (Myrica cerifera) (wax myrtle, wax berry, bayberry, tallow shrub, muckle bush, American bayberry)

Family: Myricaceae (Bayberry Family)

Medicinal part: Leaves and root bark

Solvent: Boiling water

Bodily influence: Astringent, Stimulant, Tonic, Diuretic

Leaves: Antispasmodic, astringent, relaxant

Description: medium shrub to small tree, oblanceolate leaves, 4-6 x long as wide, evergreen.  The leaves are strongly aromatic. Look for yellow resin dots/glands on the underside of the leaf.  Female and male plants are separate, female plants have minute flowers in tiny spikes in the axils of last year’s leaves. Male flowers are yellow and cylindrical to 1 inch long.  Female flowers mature into fruit that resides below the current leaves, the fruit appears “granulated” because the bony seed is studded with small black particles overlaid with greenish-white wax resulting in a bluish appearance’ fruits may persist on branches for 2-3 years.

Yellow resin dots on underside of leaf

Habitat: Pinelands, Maritime forests, brackish marshes, Coastal sand dunes, now widely planted as an ornamental or landscaping shrub, able to naturalize in suburban woodlands in the Piedmont.

Range: NJ south to FL and west to TX.  Widespread in the Coastal Plain of the Southeastern United States.  Southeastern Mexico, Bahamas and Greater Antilles. 

Uses: Wax myrtle is considered one of the most useful plants in the Medical Herbal practice.  The leaves make a tea that can be used as a diuretic or a for a remedy of “aching back” in the belief that it “cleans out the kidneys”.  The leaf infusion produces a pleasant “tisane” that can relieve flatulence, employed as an stomachic.  Leaves and terminal twigs can be boiled for 3-4 minutes to help support or remedy diarrhea, severe colds and fever.  Traditionally in the South Carolina, wax myrtle was combined with long leaf pine tops (Pinus palustris), life everlasting (Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium), and lemon to combat a cold.  In the Bahamas, wax myrtle, known as muckle bush, the leaf decoction is given to the mother around the time of childbirth to “keep her supple” and a bath is made with the herb to help keep her relaxed. Also, a decoction of the leaves is used for arthritis to “keep the limbs supple”, the tea can be used for bath as well. 

Other utility: Leaves and fruits used for flavoring soups, used as a substitute for hops.  Leaves were placed over meat to keep flies away and strewn around dooryards, beds, and chicken houses to repel fleas.  The fresh fruits are boiled in water to release the greenish wax, which can be skimmed off to make a fragrant bayberry candle. 

Pharmacological notes: the plants contain various flavonoids, tannins, terpenoids, waxes, gum and resin. 

Personal experience:  The tea from this plant is a strong diuretic.  It has a very pleasant taste and can be drunken daily as a tonic. 

Bay Leaves

Persea boronia in the Low Country of South Carolina

Persea borbonia (red bay)

Family: Lauraceae

Habitat: Dunes, maritime forests, dry sandy soils on barrier islands.  

Range: Eastern North Carolina south to Florida and west to Southeast Texas.

The first time I stumbled upon a red bay tree in the Low Country of South Carolina, I harvested a handful of leaves for my family for Christmas.  After a day in the field, I always have several bay leaves hanging from my purse or sitting in my car.   There is nothing better than harvesting an herb from the wild that people identify with and commonly buy from the grocery store. It is a learning lesson, a great teaching opportunity to educate the public about what commonly grows around them. 

The most popular use of bay leaves is for seasoning soups, stews, and gumbo.  However, bay leaves have far greater uses than as a soup seasoning.  Red bay’s local abundance along the Coast of the Carolinas combined with it’s easy identification and array of reported uses make this species a must to become familiar with.  The young bay leaves were often used as a tea by the Seminole tribe.  In fact, the red bay tree is the most important plant to the Seminole Indians.  It was a panacea herb, used for “bear sickness”-fever, headache, constipation, and blocked urination; “bird sickness” -diarrhea, vomiting, appetite loss; and “buzzard sickness”-vomiting in children.  Further, the wood was used to make ladles.  Lastly, the leaves were burned as a psychological aid to remove impurities and negative energy.  

Since reading about the many uses of this plant by the Seminole Indians, I have experimented with it’s medicine.  I combine the leaves with lemon grass, turmeric, and ginger, and make a healing tea that tastes delicious.  They leaves when lit make noise, they fizzle. If you are a fan of burning sage or smudging to purify your body or space, you will enjoy burning bay leaves.  I have dried and burned the leaves and they have a pleasant smell.  

The red bay trees have been impacted by laurel wilt, a vascular disease transmitted by the invasive red bay Ambrosia beetle.  We need to keep an eye on red bay trees to find the ones that show resistance to the laurel wilt.  Bay trees are definitely an important economic tree that we, here in the South, should create a market for.  

Blackroot

Pterocaulon pynostachyum

Inflorescence an oblong terminal spike and starts to nodd at anthesis

Pterocaulon pycnostachyum (Black root, rabbit tabacco, Indian blackroot)

Family: Asteraceae

Species Description: blackroot distinguishing characteristics are the stem and leaves that are covered in a  thick white tomentose hairs.  The leaves hug the stem and the leaf bases extend down the stem (decurrent), giving the stem a winged appearance. The inflorescence consists of a terminal spike that is oblong and starts to nod as it is flowering (anthesis).  The root is a thick, tuberous black root.  

Season: blackroot blooms May-June, or year round in the most southern extent of its range.  

Habitat: Sandhills, Pine Flatwood and Savanna ecosystems, old sandy fields.

Range: Southeast Coastal Plain endemic: North Carolina south to Florida and west to Mississippi.   

Traditional use: blackroot has a long traditional use among both the African Americans in the South and the indigenous people of the Southeast.  This herb was used to relieve menstrual pain and for colds.  A decoction of the roots was taken for colds and menstrual cramps. In South Carolina, African Americans would boil the whole root to make a tea for backache.  The Seminoles refer to blackroot as “blood saver medicine” and use the plant for pulmonary disorders.  The plant was also used to treat chronic coughs or colds.  Chemical studies have revealed that blackroot contains a variety of coumarins.  Coumarins have historically been used as a blood anticoagulant.  Further, blackroot contains other chemicals that are antioxidant, prooxidant, and antiviral.  

Spanish moss (Tillansdia usenoides)

The plant that brings charm to the South

Spanish moss grows easily on live oaks due to the architecture of the tree

Spanish moss swaying and hanging from the branches of tall trees, who knew it once helped heal a sprained knee. This plant is one of the most iconic plants of the South. Despite its popularity, few know that Spanish moss also known as long-moss, tree moss, crape-moss, and old man’s beard, is truly not a moss, but an epiphytic plant. Look closely in the spring for tiny flowers arising from the axils of silvery leaves. Flowers reportedly have alight, pleasant smell at night.

Spanish moss flower

Spanish moss belongs to the tropical and subtropical family Bromilaceae. It grows in areas with high humidity along the coast from southeast Virginia south to Florida and west to Texas in North America. Outside of the U.S., it occurs in Mexico, Central and South America, and the West Indies.

The plant forms long graceful festoons (a chain of leaves) that adorn and beautify trees and shrubs. Live oak (Quercus virginiana) branches extend outward horizontally instead of vertically, which allows light to hit the Spanish moss.

The traditional uses of Spanish moss, almost buried by time, still exists in the hearts of the Gullah people. Many can recall a time when people put it in their shoes to lower high blood pressure around their necks to relieve pain. The fresh green moss was collected and boiled in order to make a decoction for treating aching and inflamed joints. The decoction was put in the bath to relieve pain associated with rheumatism. Further, the Gullah used the plant as a fiber, stuffing pillows and mattresses with Spanish moss in the past. This plant is used medically in Mexico, Cuba, and Brazil. In Guatemala, they use it as a decoration for religious and festive occasions.

The long traditional use of Spanish moss followed by the graceful festoons that adorn live oaks make this species one of the most charismatic and iconic plants of the South. The familiar and nostalgic images of Spanish moss hanging from grand live oaks that line old dusty roads in the South give us a sense of place, a connection to the land. The plant’s beauty and wonder extend beyond adornment to practical, useful traditional purposes. I have made a decoction of this plant and put in my bath and it was very invigorating. Whenever I am collecting, people passing by always say-“be careful that plant has bugs in it”. However, I have yet to get bit by any insect. It is worth collecting and making a tea by boiling the plant for 10-15 minutes and adding it to your bath. I hope you give it a try.

Mulberry (Morus alba)

Morus alba (mulberry)

White mulberry, Morus alba-is an amazing healing herb that everyone should get to know. This plant is native to India, China, and Japan, but has naturalized in the United States. It grows abundantly along the coast of the southeast United States. It is a small tree with grey bark.

This plant is widely used in India, China, and Japan, but barely known as a medicinal herb in the U.S. The leaves have been used for insomnia, wound healing, eye infections, influenza, asthma, edema, bronchitis, and diabetes. The leaves have also been used to treat premature greying of the hair, fatigue, anemia, urinary incontinence, tinnitus, dizziness and constipation in elderly patients.

My first mulberry harvest

The mulberry leaf tea has a great nutritive taste and it enjoyable hot or cold. I have enjoyed many cups since harvesting and adding this herbal tea to my apothecary. It is definitely an herb worth giving a try. Stay tuned-we are currently making blends.