When babies are sick, life can be very scary. It seemed that every time a young mother brought a crying baby to Aunt Bett's front door, the baby and the mom went away with smiles. I thought Aunt Bett was magic. I think the mothers thought so, too.
Colicroot was not something that I was familiar with when Aunt Bett asked me to go with her to collect its roots. I had been gathering roots for several years, traipsing up and down the mountains, but I had never heard of colicroot. She called it stargrass, too, but even that didn't stir a memory.
It was early on a Saturday morning and it must have been in fall because I remember the leaves crunching as we walked up the mountain beside Aunt Bett's home. Some mountains are harder to climb than others, and I was walking sideways on dried leaves slick with early morning dew. They slipped and slid under my feet and I slipped and slid all over the mountainside. When I slid into her for the dozenth time, I remember the look she threw back over her shoulder, the one that told me that I was too close inside her space.
She rarely ever corrected me for anything, but her look could have me walking a straight line pretty quickly. "What you gettin' colicroot for, Aunt Bett? I never heard of colic." Aunt Bett didn't like to talk going up the mountain, and since I am about the age that she was then, I find that I don't talk going up a mountain either. It undoubtedly has something to do with growing older. But she stopped to rest and she told me this: "Sometimes a mother's milk don't agree with a baby and when that happens, we have to help the baby and the mother out a little. So we will make an extraction out of th' colicroot to settle the baby's stomach."
Well, I knew enough about extractions to know that they were usually made with alcohol, not rubbing alcohol, but whiskey alcohol. I became unusually alarmed, and in that frame of mind there was no way I could keep my mouth shut. "Aunt Bett, you can't be givin' little babies whiskey! I think I better not be helpin' you make that colicroot extract, 'cause I don't want to be part of a whiskey sin." Aunt Bett didn't say a word. I went on: "Aunt Bett, I never heard of givin' no babies whiskey. An' where you gonna get the whiskey anyway? Aunt Bett, you don't keep whiskey in your house, do you? I believe I just better go on back home, don't you reckon?" And Aunt Bett got up and kept on walking. Not a word did she say.
Sometimes life is about choices, and that was a hard one for a little girl who was only about 8 or 9 years old. I would never have left her alone on that mountain, because even at that age I believed that I was helping her. And I thought it might take the magic of both of our asphidity bags to keep all the mountain monsters from carrying us away to a scary place. I kept quiet and followed.
Colicroot, Aletris farinosa, grows in consistently damp soils, so the open woods along the edge of the mountain was a good place to find it. It is a perennial herb and has a single stalk that grows close to 2 feet tall from the center of a rosette of pale green, lilylike leaves. The leaves are not very big, maybe 5 inches in length. It has tiny white urn-shaped flowers that bloom throughout the summer. The flowers form a spike along the upper part of the leafless stalk. The root is what we were searching for on that cool autumn morning.
Colicroot enjoys a degree of medicinal celebrity even today. According to some sources it was listed as a therapeutic herb in medical journals until about 1950, when the plant lost some of its medicinal standing for lack of conclusive scientific data regarding its usefulness. But current research suggests that it may offer some relief for intestinal muscle spasms, the cause of most colic. Aunt Bett got her handed down information from her Cherokee great grandmother. The Native Americans were the first to experiment with it, since it was native to the eastern United States and quite available, particularly to the Cherokees who were in that area. They made a bitter tasting tea from the plant's roots or leaves. The settlers of Appalachia adopted these uses, adding a few of their own. Sometimes they used a potent drink of dried and powdered colicroot mixed with whiskey, which surely reduced the pain by one means or another.
So I was faithful to Aunt Bett, and followed her till we came to the plant she needed. She pulled her hand tool out of the big pocket of her skirt and proceeded to dig. "Aunt Bett," I said, "I know you weren't goin' to do anything to hurt babies, and I am sorry that I thought about goin' home. You know I wouldn't leave you up here by yourself, I was just teasin'. Can I help? " I guess I was forgiven because she handed me the roots to put into the burlap sack, then after a rest and a drink of ice cold well water, we made our way back home. She, surefooted, and me, well, I slipped and slid back down the mountain. It was my smart mouth I was known for, certainly not my grace and charm.
We cleaned the roots when we got back to her house and hung them to dry from the rafters of her back porch. Later she chopped them into pieces and set them to soak in whiskey that I was not supposed to know about. The roots soaked for a couple of months, until finally she had what she wanted and strained them so that only the powerful liquid was left. That extraction was bottled and sealed and placed on the top shelf of her "medicine cupboard", a place that I could not reach. When tired mothers brought their crying babies to Aunt Bett, she mixed two drops of the liquid into a bottle half filled with warm water that she had boiled on her stove. She told the mother that boiling the water purified it, and that babies should only drink purified water. Usually the mom and the baby were both calm by the time they left Aunt Bett's house. Sometimes I thought the mothers needed the strong medicine more than the babies, and maybe that's why I never saw Aunt Bett give an entire bottle to the mother. She would usually only give her a tiny amount of the liquid to take home.
Colicroot still grows in the mountains, but in some places where it once was plentiful, it is now endangered. Modern herbalists use the rhizome and rootlets for digestive complaints even today, and recent research by pharmacologists indicate that the use of the plant for menstrual cramps may be valid.
All of the stories that I relate are based on home remedies used in the Appalachian mountains almost 60 years ago. It was a time when doctors were not always available, and a time when the only available information was what had been handed down from one generation to another. Though I do not always use the remedies that I learned to prepare all those years ago, and though I encourage you to use them only with caution, I do think it is important that we recognize the value of those who handed the knowledge down to us. Quite often when I read about these same plants today, I find that some chemical in the plant is still used for the same purpose as it was used hundreds of years ago. Remember the foxglove, the source for digitalis? Well, that of course, is another story.
All photos in this article are the excellent work of DG member hello85. The thumbnail can be found in Plant Files, and the others were graciously sent to me for use in this article. Thank you, Jeff, so very much.
About Sharon Brown
I am a retired high school art and humanities teacher. I grew up in the Appalachian mountains of southeast KY and now I live with my two rescued cats, Jazz and Daisy, in far western KY. I am an artist often doing commissioned work, and in addition to writing articles for Dave's Garden, I also write boating stories for a nautical magazine as well as other venues. My greatest loves are writing, painting, my 5 year old grandson, then learning the history of our numerous wildflowers in Kentucky. And, of course, there's gardening.