"I'm nobody. Who are you. Are you nobody, too?"...Emily Dickinson
I realize that stoneroot is not a very pretty plant, its blooms are rather insignificant, it smells a little like lemon but not enough to make it a truly aromatic plant. Most people don't even know its name. But there was a time when it was an honored herb, one that found its way into every cabin and settlement that could be found in the mountains. Even as a little girl, I knew what stoneroot was.
My great Aunt Bett knew everybody far and wide. When she made salves and balms, lotions and teas, more times than not she had somebody specific in mind. Take Callie May, for instance. Aunt Bett kept stoneroot on hand just for her. It seems Callie May had "the stone" quite often. I learned early on to never ask questions when adults that I didn't know very well were present. A lot of them believed very strongly that children should be seen and not heard, and trouble seemed to follow me wherever I went anyway, so those were two very strong reasons to keep quiet. I did not know what it meant when Aunt Bett said Callie May had "the stone".
Callie May was a large woman. When she walked the house shook. When she talked children and animals backed away from her. I know that for a fact, because somebody's old red hound had taken up residence beneath Aunt Bett's front porch one hot summer, and when Callie May stepped upon the porch, that old red hound crawled right out from under it and slithered away without saying a word to anyone. And it seemed that even the birds stopped singing.
I was out in the yard, playing in the dirt beneath the old oak tree, and I was watching Callie May when she yelled through the screen door. "Bett, you got my stone tea ready?" Now up till the moment Aunt Bett came to the door, Callie May was standing upright, tall and straight. As soon as Aunt Bett appeared, Callie May bent over and leaned against the door frame. She started moaning, and her moan could have competed with the roar of the loudest thunder. I was a little afraid of the big woman. Aunt Bett handed her a cup of tea and a brown bottle with a cork stopper. I watched as she slurped the tea, hidden as I was behind the oak tree. Callie Mae never knew I was there.
Stoneroot, Collinsonia canadensis, grows in moist woodlands or in shade on rich soil. It is native to north America and grows wild from Massachusetts and Vermont south to Florida and west to Ontario, Wisconsin and Arkansas. It was named by Linnaeus for Peter Collinson who was an amateur botanist. It grew in abundance in the mountains. It is a perennial herb growing up to four feet tall, with a single erect square stem. Oval toothed leaves grow in opposite pairs along the stem, which culminates in a cone shaped, branched cluster of small tubular bright yellow flowers from June through September. The flowers have a strong lemony smell. Some folks call it richweed because of the strong smell. It is a bit overpowering when you crush one of the blooms, and the scent remains on your hands and on the clothes that you wipe them on. The lemony balsamic scent is very strong and quite disagreeable also in the root, and that, I think, is the most conspicuous feature of this member of the mint family. The root itself looks and feels very much like a small hard stone, with thread like tentacles dangling below, drawing food for the plant from the soil's nutrients.
Its leaves and rhizome were brewed to make medicinal teas and washes, and sometimes lotions for cuts and wounds, by generations of American Indians and pioneering white settlers in the mountains of Virginia, the Carolinas, Kentucky, and Tennessee. As with many plants, the different names provide important background. The name stoneroot refers either to the plant's large, knobby, stone hard rhizome, or to the mountaineers' use of a tea brewed from the rhizome as a diuretic in the treatment of an affliction known as the stone, possibly kidney or bladder stone. It was also used by the Native Americans as a treatment of colic, and the settlers used it to treat everything from varicose veins to laryngitis. The primary part of the plant to be used is its large root, but leaves were also used to a lesser degree.
American Indians and white settlers treated wounds with stoneroot preparations, which they applied externally as a poultice or a wash. The tea brewed from the rhizome served not only as a diuretic, as in the treatment of the stone, but also as a general tonic, a headache remedy, and often as a laxative. The plant also enjoyed some further use among the 19th century physicians, but my only familiarity is in its use as a remedy for "stones", and I would never have known even that if I had not been spying on Callie May that hot summer day. Of course scientific evidence does not support any of these uses of stoneroot, which is why it is now such a little known plant. However, Callie May kept coming back for more, if she truly had a stone in the first place, and I wonder now if it might have had addictive properties. Perhaps Callie May simply needed the attention.
The big woman gave Aunt Bett a small jar of jelly as her payment for the bottle of stoneroot, and after drinking her tea, she lumbered her way off the porch and down the steps. I was still behind the oak tree trunk, hunkered down, hoping not to be seen. For some reason Callie May stopped at the tree and leaned against it. I was on the other side, and I swear that tree tilted from the weight of her bulk. "Betty Ann, there's a child out here under your tree," her big voice bounced around over my head, and leaves lost their hold on the tree. I tried to scrunch up smaller, and pretend I had not heard, but her next words boomed in my ear. "Who are you out here under Bettie Ann's tree, you ain't her young'un? Who are you?" Being seen and not heard was a bit difficult at that moment, and my words came out in a squeak, "I ain't nobody, m'am, I ain't nobody a'tall."
I still cannot believe I said that.
Sources for this article include references from the books: Complementary and Alternative Medicines, Third Edition, C.W.Fetrow, PharmD and Juan R. Avila, PharmD, published by Lippincott Williams and Wilkins, 2004, with special thanks to Dr. S. Urbach, U of L, Louisville, KY; and Reader's Digest publication of Magic and Medicine of Plants, 1989.
Photographs were not readily available for this little known plant, but the thumbnail image is from Wikipedia's Public Domain, and the second image is a photograph of a drawing that I did to show the shape of the leaves on the plant.