By Lauren Stepp
As a scientist with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Michelle Bouton’s grandfather spent his career researching cutting-edge nuclear warfare. But when the lab coat came off, he contented himself with backyard weeds. “Papaw was a nerd, and totally into making dandelion wine and hunting wild mushrooms,” she says.
Years later, it is obvious that the apple did not fall far from the tree. Bouton holds a master’s degree in acupuncture and Chinese herbalism and uses natural remedies like Boneset tea for fever and Echinacea to boost immunity.
Folk medicine has been practiced in the mountains for centuries. When intrepid pioneers first bellied through laurel hells, they began using dogwood bark for headaches and rabbit tobacco for cough. But with today’s reliance on Western medicine, Bouton fears this knowledge is dying out. To keep the tradition alive, she established HERBalachia, an herbalist training institution in east Tennessee.
“The strong tradition of using plants for medicine is part of our Appalachian heritage,” says Bouton. “I’m hoping the school will be a repository for that knowledge.”
Though the school is only a few months old, enrollment numbers already bode well. This spring semester, more than 30 community members are pursuing the Herbalist Lifestyle Program, a 105-hour curriculum that offers a hands-on medicine making experience. According to Bouton, students listen to lectures on homeopathy, extract willow tinctures and write research papers. But typically, hours are logged in the field. That much is apparent from the required materials: good hiking shoes, pruners and a sharp knife.
“I’d say two-thirds of class is spent outside,” Bouton says before stooping to water a lavender bunch. Her own backyard teems with American ginseng, Sichuan peppercorn and kitchen herbs. She sources most seedlings at Mountain Gardens, a Celo, NC nursery owned by Joe Hollis.
“He’s my mentor,” she says. Because of his guidance, she is sure to incorporate aspects of Eastern medicine into her curricula. Take kudzu, for instance. Though an invasive species, kudzu roots work wonders for headache and neck tension.
The garden is just one of many sites students experience. Over the seven-weekend modules, they might identify plants in the Cherokee National Forest or dig up roots alongside the Nolichucky River, the goal here being hands-on experience.
“They’ll walk away with a small apothecary,” says Bouton. “They will also have a basic understanding of how to treat a rash or seasonal cold.”
For those looking to go more in-depth, HERBalachia will offer the 400-hour Community Clinical Herbalist Program starting in 2018. Lengthier and more complex, the program is designed for individuals wishing to advise and dispense herbal remedies to patients. It requires that enrollees first graduate from the Herbalist Lifestyle Program and also includes a supervised clinical internship.
“There is a market out there. People are interested,” says Bouton. But the true joy is knowing that the deep mountain wisdom is being passed down. “My real success is teaching kids,” she says. “My son, Hayes, will slap plantain on a bee sting and my nieces and nephews love eating their dandelion salad.”
HERBalachia is located at 113 East Unaka Avenue in Johnson City, TN. Tuition for the 2018 Herbalist Lifestyle Program is $1,650 and does not include books and supplies. For more information, visit HERBalachia.com.