Arts Literature Outdoors

Regional Authors Share Botanical Wisdom in Recent Books, Blogs and Workshops

By Gina Malone

Western North Carolina shelters within its woods, along its mountain ridges and in its rivers and streams a richness of flora and fauna that naturalists and writers never tire of experiencing in person or capturing in words and photographs. Recent books by WNC authors explore a range of topics including native plants and rewilding, folk medicine and herbal remedies, recipes, foraging and witchcraft—all to help us form relationships with plants.

Devotion: Diary of an Appalachian Garden
A self-taught gardener and native North Carolinian, Mignon Durham’s accomplishments include serving as board chairman for Penland School of Craft and founding Toe River Valley Watch, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of rural landscapes and the protection of the Toe River Valley watershed. In 2012, the purchase of 2.77 neglected acres in Asheville led to a blog, “My Journey Home,” about the design, construction and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification of the house and gardens she calls “Devotion.”

When the pandemic hit in 2020, Durham began writing Devotion: Diary of an Appalachian Garden, in which she shares her insights and meditations for other gardeners. “Writing the book was my mental health project during many months of sequestration,” Durham says, “and my way of highlighting the importance of cultivating sanctuary in nature, environmental stewardship and the legacy of southern horticulture.”

Durham believes that rewilding the landscape with native plants, often left out of design plans by professional garden designers, is crucial in addressing climate change by “letting nature take care of itself, repairing damaged ecosystems and restoring degrading landscapes.” Her garden has been certified as a habitat for native plants, wildlife and pollinators. Among her favorite plants native to the Southern Appalachians are chokeberry bushes (enjoyed by Cedar Waxwings and good for preventing erosion), trout lilies, bloodroot, showy orchis, rattlesnake plantain and yellow lady’s slipper. The book contains an extensive index of plants as well as hundreds of beautiful photographs.

“I suffer from biophilia, the love of nature and living things,” Mignon says. She borrowed the term from neurologist Oliver Sacks, who wrote: “I cannot say exactly how nature exerts its calming and organizing effects on our brains, but I see the restorative and healing powers of nature and gardens. In many cases, gardens and nature are more powerful than any medication.”

Wild Witchcraft: Folk Herbalism, Garden Magic, and Foraging for Spells, Rituals, and Remedies
Rebecca Beyer was 18 years old when she stumbled upon a passion for plants at a summer internship on a living history farm. “I took the job to learn how to drive draft horses and to foster my love of history,” she says, “but I ended up foraging and tending a garden with historic hand tools, and fell in love. I wanted to know how to work with plants, feed myself and to feel less like a stranger in the woods.”

She earned a B.S. in plant and soil science from the University of Vermont and began her own studies of herbalism while in college. She continued to learn by taking workshops and while working for The Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine, in Weaverville. She also has a Masters in Appalachian Studies and Sustainability, concentrating in Appalachian Ethnobotany, from Appalachian State University.

Wild Witchcraft will benefit botanists at any level, she says, but she wrote it with beginners in mind. Much of her knowledge has been gained through self-study and she has advice for others who wish to be their own teachers. “First, you must be able to be truly humble and say, ‘I don’t know’ and ‘Let’s look that up,’” she says. “There are not any safe risks to take with herbs and plants. Be cautious and careful, be mindful and remember that herbs are not cure-alls or more perfect or better than human-made medicines. I think there is so much nuance in herbal medicine that I could have avoided a lot of dumb mistakes and embarrassing hubris if I had a good mentor or teacher to consistently work with.” Learning is, for her, an ongoing process, and online herbal classes help. “I would just suggest trying to get to know five common plants in your area very well,” she says. “Try and look up the history, their chemistry, the current uses, where they are from historically and all the current research. There is no plant too simple or humble.”

Beyer runs her own small school, The Spicebush School of Old Craft, teaching classes on folk magic and folk herbalism. Each year, she offers a program called Hedgecraft. “Hedgecraft is the art of wortcunning: knowing plants not just by their botany but by the currents of historical magic that run through them,” she says. In Appalachia, she adds, a “cottage witch” refers to “a cunning person.” Our ancestors learned to identify, harvest and craft folk remedies for common ailments and basic good health. “It is knowing how to find what you need to heal and nourish with that which flourishes just outside your doorstep,” she says.

The Healing Garden: Cultivating & Handcrafting Herbal Remedies
“Stamens, stigmas and anthers were my first dates in what would become a lifelong love affair with plants,” says Juliet Blankespoor, whose debut book, The Healing Garden, came out in April. She discovered herbal medicine in college botany classes and since that time has owned a slew of herbal businesses including a nursery, a medicinal products business, a clinical practice and, currently, The Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine, an online herbal school she founded in 2007 that specializes in bio-regional, hands-on herbalism.

As a child she loved the “solitude and magical freedom” of the woods, but had no interest in plants. This, despite the fact that her grandfather and father both tried to cultivate an interest in gardening. “I was very close to my Grandpa Joe (Joachim Naphtali Simon),” she says, “an eccentric intellectual who was a vegetable gardener and a naturalist. On his own initiative, Grandpa Joe labeled all the trees—with their common and scientific names—that grew on the path that led home from our school so all the kids could learn them.”

Those seeds planted early sprouted for her later, especially when she learned about the environmental crisis, organic gardening and plant medicine. “My conversion resulted in complete botanical bewitchment,” she says.

She wrote The Healing Garden for home gardeners, herbal cooks and anyone interested in the therapeutic benefits of healing herbs. Step-by-step photographic tutorials make it perfect for beginners, while more experienced gardeners and herbalists will find herbal profiles and recipes engaging. An online portal, The Healing Garden Gateway, includes videos on herb gardening and plant propagation.

Among her favorite natives are the medicinal trees: black birch (Betual lenta), basswood (Tilia spp.), black haw (Viburnum prunifolium) and witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana). “These woodies provide bountiful medicine and promote biodiversity by supporting local populations of insects, birds, mammals and amphibians,” Blankespoor says. “Everything I write and teach is centered on creating regenerative and sustainable herbal lifestyles—from the garden to the apothecary and kitchen, and beyond. The more people who know how to grow food and herbs, make medicine and administer it capably and gather sustenance from wild places, the better off we’ll all be.”

WNC’s temperate mountain climate offers plants to wildcrafters that include, in spring, stinging nettles, chickweed, dandelion, cleavers and violet; in summer, lamb’s quarters, red clover, wild bergamot, plantain and sochan; in fall, mountain blueberries, persimmons, pawpaws and elderberries; and in winter, various medicinal roots and rosehips.

Blankespoor recommends a course of self-study in partnership with formal herbal instruction. “With the bloom of online learning, it’s more possible than ever to study with your teacher of choice and learn at a pace that works for you and your life.”

Southeast Medicinal Plants: Identify, Harvest and Use 106 Wild Herbs for Health and Wellness
Growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, CoreyPine Shane lived at the edge of woods where he played and explored. His mother gardened, but it was the wild plants that drew him rather than the cultivated ones. “Even today, I’m more of a wildcrafter than a gardener,” he says.

While in college, he met an herbalist named 7Song, and joined the first class of students when 7Song founded the Northeast School of Botanical Medicine. Shane moved to Asheville and opened an office to see patients for a couple of years, then went to the Southwest School of Botanical Medicine in Brisbee, AZ. After moving back to Asheville, he founded his own school: the Blue Ridge School of Herbal Medicine in 1999.

“One of my primary goals for this book, for my herb school and for my life is to help people connect more to the natural world, to open our eyes to the beauty as well as the food and medicine all around us,” he says. For local-vores, he adds, there’s farm-to-table and, even more specific, “yard-to-table” or “yard-to-medicine-cabinet.” Seeking out what’s growing right in our front yards, he says, is “a powerful reminder that we are not separate from nature as we like to think, but are still very much a part of it.” Some of his favorite plants grow at the base of Carson Mountain in Barnardsville where he lives: Solomon’s seal, black cohosh and pipsissewa.

His book focuses on the Southeast, including WNC and covering areas from the Pennsylvania/Maryland border southwards to central Florida and westwards through Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana and eastern Texas. “Although the book is about wild plants,” he says, “they’re not all deep-woods plants; many are ones that gardeners are already weeding out, or that people might find in their yards or city parks. There are probably many plants in here that you already know, but didn’t know were medicinal.”

Annually, the Blue Ridge School of Herbal Medicine offers an herbalist training course that meets April through October and a one-weekend-a-month program focused more on practical, hands-on herbal medicine that starts in April. In addition, a Wild Medicine internship that includes Saturday plant walks, is offered twice a year, the next beginning August 27. Upcoming events for Shane include teaching at the national herb conference Medicines from the Earth June 4–6 in Black Mountain and at The Firefly Annual Gathering at Deerfield in Mills River June 7–12. (story, p. 46)

Respect for the land, the climate, the natural history of WNC and the history of the Cherokee and early settlers who learned about the plants around them guides each of the authors in their approach to gardening and wildcrafting, and sharing that knowledge with others. “The greatest lie we have ever been told is that there is an us and a nature,” says Beyer. “We are nature. We are animals. We are a part of everything and it is part of our natural way to know the animals, plants and other beings of our bio-regions.”

To learn more, visit MignonDurham.com, BloodandSpicebush.com, ChestnutHerbs.com and BlueRidgeSchool.org. Books are available through authors’ websites and at regional bookstores.

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