Native Medicine


This year’s flu season has proven to be one of the worst in recent history. People looking to avoid catching the bug — or to shorten their time spent recuperating in bed —are turning to non-traditional treatments. Some of these treatments can be found in the lush landscape of the Lowcountry, offering natural healing.

From sassafras tonic to pine needle tea, Lowcountry greenery has been boiled and made into tinctures for years. Sassafras used to be the main ingredient in root beer, but companies parted ways with the plant due to a possible carcinogenic ingredient called safrole. Today’s tonics remove that ingredient on advice from the FDA. Pine needle tea, which offers four to five times the vitamin C than a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice, is made from steeping young pine needles in boiling water. The tea is said to strengthen the immune system, work as an expectorant and decongestant and, when cooled, be an effective antiseptic wash.

Home gardens have long offered a source of healing ingredients.

“When we were growing up, almost everybody had mint in their yard. They had outside pumps and they grew mint and garlic. Peppermint was what they used for upset stomachs, making tea from the leaves,” said Lynn Ravar, owner of Back to Nature, a natural food and grocery store in Bluffton. “With the peppermint oil, they would use it for headaches, touching it to their sides of their head. They used it externally on the area for pain, like a knee pain.”

A powerful antioxidant, garlic grown in Gullah gardens was used to regulate blood pressure and treat high cholesterol. Other herbs were more potent.

“Something relevant to the flu season right now is mullein,” Ravar said. “It’s an herb that grows here, a flat-spiny leaf low to the ground. It can be used for respiratory relief and a lot of the companies use it as their active ingredient in their herbal blends.”

At the Coastal Discovery Museum on Hilton Head Island, a tour of the grounds reveals several plants with medicinal properties. The toothache tree is a knobby, spiny tree that brings pain relief when chewed. Also called a tickle-tongue tree, the Southern prickly ash and its leathery leaves were first used by Native Americans to bring relief from tooth pain. Black willow, another tree used for pain relief, grows near the wetlands and can be a source of acetylsalicylic acid — also known as aspirin.

Seasonal allergies driving you crazy? Relief could be as close as a local produce stand selling raw, unpasteurized honey.

“The bees get pollen from the same plants to make their honey. When you eat honey with the bee pollen in it, it’s like you are getting inoculated to fight allergies,” Ravar said, which is why she carries local raw honey in her store.

Organic honey is also used in the herbal blends at The Herb Room Apothecary on Hilton Head, where herbalist and health educator April Lewis travels to Ridgeland to source honey from a small apiary. The store uses the honey in tinctures that soothe sore throats — though Lewis also is a fan of honey’s antibacterial properties.

“It’s great for pink eye,” she said. “Take a caffeinated black tea bag and steep it. When it is still warm, drag it in some honey and brush it from the inside of the eye to the outside. Do that a few times a day, and the pink eye will heal up.”