Before access to modern medicine became widespread, the rural poor mixed up their own treatments from the plants they grew and foraged. They learned which plants would relieve aches, supplement nutrition, and get rid of infections. These days, a trip to the pharmacy is a much more common way to heal an ailment. But there are still enclaves of natural healing around our region. Angela Hatton traveled to Clarksville, Tennessee, where a local herbalist has preserved her great-grandmother’s remedies.
Angelique Greer has set up a mixing table with bowls of dried herbs and bottles of oils in a former garage that’s been renovated to a comfy den. The ingredients are the same as the ones that her great-grandmother, Dorothy Louise Greenwade, stored in a cabinet on a back porch in Louisville.
“She just had Mason jars, and no labels on the Mason jars, but she knew what each one was," said Greer. "She would often go out there to mix and to store, and that was her little window of heaven, on that back porch.”
Greer calls the porch her “granny’s pharmacy.” It was there she kept a supply of salves, ointments, teas, a other “feel good” elixirs that she doled out to the neighborhood, most of it for free. One thing always on the shelf was a skin-nourishing salve made from comfrey, an herb grown widely across Kentucky and Tennessee. Greer explained the technique for making the product.
“Take a Mason jar, and fill that jar with the comfrey, and you could fill it to any level. You could actually pack it in," she said.
Greer poured olive oil over the comfrey and rolled the jar around in her hands to coat the dried green leaves with oil. Marinating the leaves takes about three to six months. For the finished product, Greer pulled out a white cosmetic jar.
“Your end product would be this," she said. "I call it a healing butter.”
The Greer family uses the body butter every day to keep their skin healthy. Greenwade didn't have fancy names or packaging for her remedies. And they weren’t always pleasant for the taker. Greer spent a lot of time with her granny as a girl and she remembered being forced to drink foul-tasting castor oil and mineral oil at the change of seasons to clean her body of toxins.
“I used to say, Granny, why are we really taking this? She said, ‘Look outside. Don’t you see those trees? What do the trees do during the change of season? Their leaves fall off; they bloom. That’s their cleansing. You have to do the same thing," Greer said.
Greer studied nutrition in college, and opened her own health and wellness shop in Clarksville in the mid-90s. But she said her real education began in 1996, when she decided to learn her granny’s techniques.
“I don’t even think that I asked, like formally said ‘Granny, I need to learn,'" she said. "I asked about her teas. I asked her if I could have the recipes, and she said ‘Recipes? What recipes?’ There are no recipes, there’s nothing written down. The only way you can learn it is if you come home.”
So she went home, to Louisville, to attend what she affectionately called “the university of granny.” There were no measuring spoons at the university of granny, but Greer said her great-grandmother was still an exacting teacher, which could lead to conversations like this one, as Greer demonstrated.
‘A pinch of this! Two of these! No, no, no, no! Now try it again. A pinch. Does this look like a pinch?’
'Well, granny, you’re pinch and my pinch are different.'
‘A pinch is a pinch! A pinch of this. OK, when you brew that I want you to taste mine and taste yours.’
'They taste different.'
‘That’s because you’re pinch wasn’t a pinch!’
Greenwade learned much the same way, from her grandmother, Mary Cox, a former Lexington plantation slave. Greer said the techniques came with a pledge.
“Her three rules for maintaining her legacy was teach my children, never let the work of machines do what your hands can do, and make everything with love, send everything out with love," Greer stated.
Greer’s education lasted eight years, until Greenwade died in 2004. The family continues her legacy. Greer makes a living selling the teas and ointments she learned to make from her granny. She’s also involved her three daughters in the business. They’ve helped her mix remedies and sell the products.
“One of them’s probably going to take the lead. I don’t know who it’s going to be at this point, but someone’s going to remember it," she said.
She said she hopes that after she’s long gone they’ll still use the remedies and create their own.