Yarb is Ozark-speak for a medicinal plant, but as all plants are seen as being powerful healers, any plant could be labeled as a yarb. There's a good deal of debate over where the name came from. Some have traced it back to rural Britain and even today you can hear the word used among farmers throughout the central and southwestern part of the region. Others trace it to the Spanish hierba often changed to yerba as in yerba sante or yerba mate. This isn't so far-fetched as Ozark culture bears the fingerprint of folkways from both European Spain as well as Latinx sources.
Biodiversity in the Ozarks is higher than a lot of other areas in the county. It can be seen an island of plant life. We share many of the same plants as the Appalachian Mountain region, as our climates and altitudes are very similar. Another reason hillfolk settled here from the Appalachians; it reminded them of home. The plants here are rich in medicinal chemical compounds. Many of our most powerful yarbs like Solomon's seal, goldenseal, ginseng, bloodroot, and witch hazel were hunted nearly to extinction by pharmaceutical companies and root diggers alike. Luckily, as synthetic medicines became more widely available, people stopped taking our plants from the area.
Knowledge of the healing quality of our yarbs would have come from interactions between white settlers and the indigenous peoples of the Appalachian Mountains. Many of our variety of healing plants still bear the names of those species that don't grow here in the Ozarks but do grow in the Appalachian Mountains. For example, the name yellowroot, which is used for goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)in the Ozarks and Xanthorhiza simplicissima in the Appalachia. Because both plants are used as a strong astringent, the common name is easy to apply but becomes tricky when you're trying to learn certain plants just by their folk names.
Below are some of our commonly used yarbs in Ozark folk healing and magic. You'll notice that these plants are divided by their Families, not just by name. Once you are able to group certain plants together by their common characteristics, it makes identification so much easier.
It's also important to understand that the natural world contains a life-force and energy of its own, often unknown to us in our everyday lives. These aren't just plants, but spirits. They have personalities of their own. They have desires, dislikes, etc. just like we do. When working within the Ozark system of medicine, these yarbs themselves are often consulted during the healing process. Traditional herbalism then becomes so much more than just memorizing names and contained chemical compounds.
A note about harvesting yarbs. Respect should always be given to the plant and their environment. The traditional Ozark way of harvesting involves a few "rules" that should be followed not only to ensure the continuation of the plant but to make sure the spirit of the yarb is happy and willing to help in our work. Here are the guidelines as I've gathered them:
Always harvest yarbs at the right time of the year. Roots are harvested in winter. Bark when the sap is "rising" in spring, or when it's "falling" in autumn.
Harvest above-ground foliage and flowers on the full moon. Harvest roots on the new moon.
If you can leave behind a flower or seed pod, do so! Harvest leaves from the lower part of the stalk leaving the head intact.
Harvesting roots kills the yarb! Harvest in the winter after the seeds have fallen.
When wild-harvesting yarbs, count four individual plants then harvest from the fifth. This ensures you aren't over-harvesting from an area. If there aren't more than four individual plants in the area, move on.
Never harvest on roadsides! Plants can take in and store heavy metals from exhaust in their systems.
Always leave behind a gift at the base of the plant you harvested from. We use cornmeal or tobacco in the Ozarks.
Never dry yarbs in sunlight! The UV rays will destroy the sensitive, volatile oils in the plants. The medicine is in the oils. Dry in a well ventilated area that is cool, dry, and completely dark.
Make sure your yarbs are completely dry before putting into sealed jars.
Use dried yarbs within a year of harvesting.
To preserve them for longer, make an alcohol tincture.
Blackhaw, Viburnum prunifolium, V. rufidulum Other names: Cramp Bark Parts used: Root, Bark, Berry Medicinal use: Decoction of root bark taken internally as a diaphoretic and febrifuge. Infusions of the bark used traditionally to aid menstrual cramps because of its antispasmodic properties. This is where it gets the name "cramp bark." Bark used externally and internally as an analgesic for pain relief. Large doses of the bark can act as a purgative and laxative. Berries soaked in alcohol then the liquid is taken internally for asthma, chest congestion, and stomachache. Magical use:
Elderberry, Sambucus nigra, S. canadensis Other names: Parts used: Medicinal use: Magical use:
Commonly called the "mint" or "deadnettle" family, Lamiaceae holds the largest amount of our medicinal yarbs here in the Ozarks as well as many of the non-native varieties brought in by European settlers. Non-natives like peppermint, sage, basil, thyme, etc. are also included in the materia media of hillfolk, although not listed here.
Common Dittany, Cunila origanoides Other names: Stonemint, Wild Oregano Note: Not to be confused with Dittany of Crete. Parts used: Leaf, Flower Medicinal use: Related to oregano and marjoram and can be used in similar ways. As an infusion it's good for colds and to help open up the sinuses. Boiled strong it helps the body sweat and can aid in lowering fevers. Infusion traditionally used as an analgesic to help aid a painful birth. Infusions used as a mild stimulant and tonic for general health and well-being. Magical use: A plant of protection, dittany can be added to house charms and bags to protect from all evil and sickness. Traditionally, a sprig of fresh dittany is warn behind the right ear while in the woods to protect from biting insects and losing the trail. Folklore: Because of the amount of oils in the sap of the plant, and because it tends to be hearty in the cold weather, it is one of a few plants that produce what are called “frost flowers” which are formed when the sap leaking from the dying plant freezes and forms these beautiful ribbons of ice. Common dittany is one of only a few plants that make these “frost flowers”. Another plant is White Crownbeard or Verbesina virginica, also known as “frostweed” for this reason.
Dittany, Cunila origanoides
Horsemint, Monarda bradburiana
Horsemint, Monarda bradburiana Other names: Wild Bergamot, Beebalm Note: The word "horsemint" is often applied to all varieties of the Monarda genus. Common species used are M. bradburiana, M. fistulosa, and M. citriodora. Parts used: Leaf, flower Medicinal use: Infusion used for colds, chills, as a remedy for a fever. Strong infusions taken internally for stomach and bowel complaints. Can be used externally in oils, salves, and washes for a number of dermatological needs including rashes, sunburns, burns, and dermatitis. Magical use: All of the Monardas are associated with dispelling or sending away wandering ghosts or "haints" as they are often called. Traditionally, hillfolk would bathe with horsemint after a funeral to ensure the spirit of the departed didn't follow them home. Infusions of the plant can also be sprayed around the home to help send away or calm angry spirits that might be there. The leaves and flowers are often carried to protect the holder from wandering ghosts. It is particularly useful for spirit mediums who can use a wash made from horsemint following their seances in order to ground themselves back in this world.
Plantain, Plantago Major, P. lanceolata Other names: Yard Plantain, White Man's Footprint, Snake Weed Parts used: Leaf, Flower, Root Medicinal use: Leaves used in poultices and salves for bug bites, inflammations, rashes, cuts, bruises, stings, and other skin complaints. Whole plant infusions for colds, fever, upper respiratory complaints, rheumatism, hypertension, regulating blood sugar, bladder problems, kidney problems. Root used as a gentle expectorant and in helping sinus issues. Magical use: Sometimes called “Snake Weed” because of the belief that the plant can help draw venom out of a snakebite. It was also thought that a person could carry the plant to help ward off snakes.
Self Heal, Prunella vulgaris Other names: All-Heal, Heal-All, Heart of the Earth Parts used: Leaf, Flower Medicinal use: Infusion of foliage can be used externally as an analgesic to wash sores, wounds, and in salves for many dermatological needs. Used to "sweeten" other medicines. Infusion taken internally to break a fever and protect against colds and general sickness. Decoction taken internally for sore throats. Mild sedative. Helps with stomach and bowel complaints. Antidiarrheal. Magical use:
Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis Other names: Red Puccoon, Redroot Parts used: Root Medicinal use: Highly astringent and possibly toxic internally. Traditionally, root infusions were taken internally for sore throats, cough, and croup. Infusions were also traditionally used to wash sores and wounds. Fresh juice applied to skin cancers. Snuff used for catarrh. The active chemical compound in bloodroot is sanguinarine, which is known to kill animal cells. Because of this, applying bloodroot to the skin may destroy tissue and lead to the formation of a large scab, called an eschar. Applying escharotic chemicals like bloodroot to the skin can be disfiguring and used orally can lead to the development of premalignant oral leukoplakia, which can develop into oral cancer. Magical use:
Blackberry, Rubus villosus Parts used: Leaf, Flower, Berry, Root Medicinal use: Edible fruit. Astringency of fruit, leaf, and root make it good for internal use with diarrhea and other bowel complaints. The root is much stronger than the foliage. Magical use:
Wild Cherry, Prunus serotina Parts used: Bark, Fruit Medicinal use: Magical use: