The Homesteader’s Medicine Chest

October 23rd, 2007

People who choose to live close to the land, to do for themselves as much as possible, and to learn to live in harmony with nature will also tend to want to assume some responsibility for their own health maintenance whenever they can. This commitment may play out in the garden by growing a variety of healthful foods and culinary herbs, and many homesteaders will also cultivate a variety of useful medicinal herbs while they’re at it – because they can.

Those who have chosen a rural environment and have managed to gain control over several acres of land will also want to become familiar with the many useful wild herbs that grow in their region and perhaps even on their property. Some of these are endangered in the wild due to over-harvesting (ginseng roots, for instance, are worth their weight in gold in the medicinal market), so you’ll be happy to learn that a good many homesteaders are making good economic use of their patches of shady woods and forested acres to cultivate these wild herbs as cash crops or homestead medicines.

There is a good deal of information out there about cultivated garden herbs, some linked below. Here I’d like to talk about the usually wild, forest-grown offerings, particularly Mayapple, goldenseal, ginseng and black cohosh.


Black Cohosh

When we purchased our 10-acre ‘stead here in the southern Appalachians, all but a bit over an acre of cabin, yards and garden terraces were still in hardwood forest, last logged back in the 1930s. This means some of our tulip poplars, oaks and maples are stately, interspersed with a lower level of dogwoods and sassafras as well as saplings that keep the forest floor well shaded for most of the year. We were also lucky enough to have some significant natural growth of useful and endangered botanicals.

In fact, we have an entire slope on the eastern side of the ridge that is blanketed with black cohosh and ferns amidst median growth hardwoods with a few 100-foot poplars to form the upper canopy. A local conservation society would pay me a fee every year not to harvest the roots, as black cohosh is becoming seriously endangered in the wild. I don’t take the money for a couple of reasons. First, I’m not fond of the idea of having ‘inspectors’ roaming my woods, when it’s enough of a pain in the neck to have agricultural ‘inspectors’ wandering my garden every other year to make sure i’m not cheating on my organic certification. Secondly, I can manage the stand just fine on my own, while cultivating the plant for harvest at the shady edges of my yard.

In crowded patches I dig a few of the smaller plants in the fall, cut away any remaining greenery stem, and replant them where I want them. They come up nicely the very next spring, and the wild patch has room to generate more. So far this has kept us in enough fall-harvested roots to sell some to local dealers and enough to make tinctures for the women in my life who are still experiencing womanly health issues. Black cohosh is an estrogen precursor useful for treating menstrual cramps, PMS symptoms and the frustrating issues of menopause.



Some of the wild ginseng plants down in the bottomland on both sides of the ridge were more than 25 years old, and the “big mamas” stood an impressive 3 feet tall. The way ginseng grows, there is usually an elder “mama” plant in the middle of the patch, with younger daughters growing around it where the seeds that don’t get consumed by deer fall and get covered by fall leaves for the two years it takes the seeds to sprout.

My habit was to plant 5 or 6 of the seeds out from the mama, then bring the rest up to the woods near the garden and plant them in marked-off beds. Sometimes I did harvest some of the smaller 3-4 year olds from a wild patch and replant the small roots in the cultivated patches. Ginseng is seriously endangered in the wild, worth as much as $650 a pound for dried roots from one of the licensed ‘sang brokers. An elder “Man-Root” may go for a thousand dollars on the black market in China, though ginseng roots older than 15 years (or younger than 5 years) are illegal to sell in the United States.

Ginseng (Asian or American) has legendary healing properties. It’s tonic as an immune system booster and stamina enhancer, a traditional treatment for erectile dysfunction, hepatitis C and menopausal symptoms, and research has demonstrated its effectiveness for lowering blood glucose levels and blood pressure. Some of my beds are 6 years old now, which means the seed-grown plants are 4 years old. I start a new bed every fall, which means I now have 6 ginseng beds. I won’t sell any roots until at least a year after the plants havev started producing seed, at which point they’ll be closer to 10 years old than 5. It’s a long-term investment, but I do enjoy watching them slowly grow.



Goldenseal [a.k.a. Yellow Root] grows in abundance on our property in thick stands among the trees in the bottomland near the spring-creeks on both sides of the ridge. It is not yet endangered, but its popularity has driven up the price and its survival in the wild is becoming a concern. I manage this resource much as I manage the more endangered wild plants – by carefully planting mature seeds in managed forest beds and occasionally thinning the natural stand by moving younger plant roots to managed beds. I do use some of the wilding harvest – I like to keep a jar of powdered goldenseal roots on hand for general purposes – but never enough to threaten the stand’s regeneration.

Goldenseal was used by the Indians to treat skin diseases, ulcers, liver ailments and gonorrhea. More modern uses are for control of bleeding and hemorrhage, colds and upper respiratory infections, diarrhea, eye infections and vaginitis. It also seems to have some effectiveness in treating cancers and canker sores.

Mayapple [a.k.a. American Mandrake] grows in the early spring, often the first green-green to appear in the root-line of trees. They resemble foot-tall green umbrellas blanketing the root spread of a tree or group of trees and sport a single white blossom that develops into a green fruit. Also called “Cancer Root” in some herbals, a powder ground from the dried yellowish roots is called podophyllum. This powder is usually mixed with Benzoin (from a tree grown in the far east) and used for removal of warts. It is also used in a beeswax/olive oil salve with cleavers and poke root for treatment of basal cell carcinomas of the skin.

Mayapple is difficult to cultivate, but is in no danger from overharvesting in the wild. Just take what you need and leave the rest, which will regenerate the following season. If you have it growing beneath trees on your property, careful management will ensure there is plenty every season.

There are many other useful plants that grow wild in my mountains. Mountain Mint, also known as “Heal-All” is gathered in mid-summer, as is wild-growing St. Johnswort. The ubiquitous poke plant not only provides tasty greens (must be double-boiled) in the spring, but their tuberous roots and berry juice are useful for treating skin eruptions, cancers and warts. There’s plenty of small witch hazel growing along the driveway and trails. I harvest the small branches and flowering twigs in December and January, chop them up good and steep them in alcohol as a fine astringent.

We’ll talk more about medicinal plants from the woods, yard and garden in future posts, so stay tuned and do check out some of the links below!


Where Have All the Flowers Gone? Preserving wild by cultivating your own

Medicinal Herb Plants Nursery

eMedicinal: Medicinal Herbs, Herbal Formulas

Healing Herbs Guide

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10 Responses to “The Homesteader’s Medicine Chest”

  1. Homesteader’s Medicine Chest II at Wise Living Journal on October 30, 2007 6:16 pm

    [...] The Homesteader’s Medicine Chest [...]

  2. Yet More Pharmacopeia at Wise Living Journal on November 20, 2007 4:03 pm

    [...] The Homesteader’s Medicine Chest [...]

  3. Christine on February 4, 2009 12:05 am

    I have been looking for a picture of black cohosh everywhere I was wondering if you would give me permission touse your photo. Sorry to contact you this way, but there was no other contact place.

  4. Aileen on February 4, 2009 6:30 pm

    No problem, Christine!

  5. Tamara Shellenberger on July 2, 2012 12:48 am

    Hello! My sister sent me the link to your website today and I scanned through it. I find what you are doing completely fantastic and amazing! We recently moved to eastern TN from Seattle, WA and I wonder where you are approximately? I am a florist and have been gardening for about 30 years and I wonder if I can grow some of these same things? Are we in the same garden zone?

    Thanks for doing what you do. You are an inspiration!


  6. Zen Honeycutt on July 2, 2012 2:26 am

    Do you teach a hands on course in California? You website is wonderful. I think I will absorb it faster and for more long term if I can learn in person.Thank you for all you are doing to promote natural living.

  7. Steffanie Mormino on April 29, 2013 12:45 am

    Thank you for this post. It got my wheels turning to find out what grows wild in our backyard.

  8. Ashley Graham-Smith on July 25, 2013 7:17 pm

    My 3-year-old daughter developed kidney reflux around the age of 1. It has not gotten any better with prescribed meds, and I’m wondering if anybody has advice on a natural remedy that’s good for the kidneys or regeneration of healthy flow?

  9. Aileen on July 25, 2013 8:05 pm

    From what I can tell, reflux that’s not a result of injury is generally congenital. And in babies/young children usually improves (if it’s going to) over time. For such a mechanical issue, I’m not aware of any natural or pharmaceutical treatment that could actually ‘cure’ it. That might take surgery at some point if it doesn’t clear up on its own.

    However, having good flow to the bladder and preventing tract infections from reflux would seem most useful in managing such an issue. Good old cranberry juice (even well-diluted) and lots of good water are ‘the usual’ recommendations for that. Then again, increasing the output (flow) might aggravate the physical condition of ‘leaky’ valves. Really, if she has a doctor you trust who is managing her issue, I’d ask him/her directly and make him/her go into detail about both your daughter’s physical status and the specific action of the drugs s/he has prescribed for it. Then I’d take that to a recommended naturopathic practitioner and see what that medical tradition might have to offer. Don’t mix treatments, evaluate their nature and approaches before deciding on a course. If her present pharmaceutical is antibiotic due to recurring tract infections, I don’t think there are any natural remedies that are specific enough or powerful enough to work as well. Until some bug or other develops resistance, that is.

    In the end you want what’s best for your daughter. The best is you understanding the condition and how any offered pharmaceutical or natural treatments are supposed to ‘work’ to alleviate that condition. See how your daughter responds, and be sensitive to her symptoms. Best of luck to you, Ashley.

  10. Bessie Stokes on January 15, 2014 1:09 pm

    love this site pinning so I can come back again and again…thank you..

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