Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Freshly harvested Yellow root (aka goldenseal), Carolina swampland, 1999. photo: Michele Elizabeth Lee

Yellow root is a common root medicine that grows in the eastern part of the United States and flourishes in the south. Yellow root is used in a wide variety of remedies from a seasonal tonic in the winter to fend off colds to an ingredient in a "cocktail" to lower "high sugar" (diabetes or hyperglycemia). The image above shows a freshly harvested bunch of yellow root that I gathered with Eddie Nelson in 1999 after a 1 hour trek through a dense swampland where Gibson, North Carolina meets McColl, South Carolina. Yellow root is also known as Goldenseal.

Searching for Yellow Root

The post below is an excerpt from the book Working the Roots.

Image is of Eddie Nelson pushing through dense brush on his 52 acres to gather patches of yellow root, 1999. (State line, The Carolinas) photo: Michele Elizabeth Lee
In 1663, the province of Carolina was created and spanned the region in between Virginia to Florida. This lush, fertile homeland to the Tuscarora, Waccamaw, Cheraw, Yamasee, Catawba, Saponi, Occaneechi, and Mattamuskeet Indians would now have to be shared, forcibly and violently (on the part of the colonists) with the original inhabitants. Sixty six years later in 1729, the southern region of Carolina separated and became its own colony, hence, South Carolina. This action set the stage for what eventually became state number 8, South Carolina in 1788 and state number 12, North Carolina in 1789.

Boundaries have always been used to separate and segregate. That illusive line which humans draw to set one apart from another contains in itself an existence. To which side does that line belong? Not everyone accepted these boundaries. Some folks still live in the zone where the state lines are blurred. Eddie Nelson and his 90 year old father, Mr. Bears’ property was situated on 52 acres that literally sat on the line that separated the Carolinas -- located in between Gibson, North Carolina and McColl, South Carolina but a part of neither. They had an 803 South Carolina area code but a North Carolina address. The drive to their property took me down long, isolated country roads lined with stately pine and oak bush forests draped in Spanish moss and the occasional corn or tobacco field. Flocks of wild turkey ran free across fields without fear of winding up on someone’s dinner table. I had to swerve more than once to avoid smashing hefty pond tortoises who took their time crossing the road. Obviously, they rarely expected any metal four wheeled contraptions rolling through “their” parts. The road to the Nelson-Bears compound started off paved, and then became gravel and finally dirt. Eventually the street signs disappeared and I had to rely on landmarks such as “turn right at the second crossroads with the tree stump next to the big walnut tree.” It is here, the line in-between that is claimed by neither side, where I would finally find the potent strong medicine, yellow root. It was apropos because no one really owns the medicine or the root or the land, just like the state line. It belongs to the people, the animals, the trees, the water, the sun and the moon. Humans set up these archaic ideas of boundaries out of fear, the need to control, greed and a general feeling of not being connected to other humans, mother earth and the universe. Yellow root belongs to us all.

Yellow Root tops in the swampland, 1999

Since I began this project in 1996, everyone I interviewed had unequivocally extolled the virtues of yellow root medicine. I had gone out with others to find it, but it no longer rooted in the easy-to-access places near creek beds and under bridges. A couple of folks shared with me what little yellow root they had in their freezers, but it wasn’t the same as harvesting it fresh and seeing where it lived. Finally in 1999 Joe Hayes introduced me to Eddie Nelson who we hired to underpin our doublewide with cider blocks. Eventually I shared with Eddie my plight to find yellow root and to my delight he said, “We gots plenty on our property.”

We finally reach the pond in the center of the swamp forest where the yellow root resides, 1999.

Mr. Red holding a bottle of medicine with a yellow root cocktail for his "high sugar" (hyperglycemia.) Paradise settlement in Laurel Hill, North Carolina. photo: Michele Elizabeth Lee, 1998. Recipe is below.

"They call me Red since I was 'bout five or six years ol'. My mother's name was Carenna. I learned how to use the medicines from my mother. I reckon she learned from her mother. She's half Indian and half American Black woman. I never go to no doctor, you doctor yo'self . . . Accordin' to what kind of disease or what was botherin' you, you jus go out in da woods and find the thangs to cure it. I take my own medicine for my sugar. I mix green pine tops, pine straw and a lil thang that grows out in the woods, it's called lions tongue, peach tree leaves and yellow root. I makes me a jug and shake it up and take me a swallow. I don take nuthin but that for my sugar. I been takin that for six or seven years."

Mr. Red's high sugar cocktail:
Pine tops are from the top of the pine cone
Pine straw are the needles of the pine tree
Lion's Tongue is the wintergreen plant
Yellow root is golden seal
Peach tree leaves are the leaves from the peach tree which is plentiful in the Carolinas

Use a quart size mason jar. Use equal parts of the ingredients to fill up 1/4 to 1/2 of the jar. Fill it up with lukewarm water and let sit for a day. Sip on it 2 to 3 times a day.