Appalachian Medicinal Salves

Published on May 01, 2015
Written by Ray Access

Tried and true folk remedies

Early Appalachian settlers didn’t have access to health care. The nearest town with a real doctor might be days away, so they had to rely on themselves and whatever nature provided. As a result, they learned to make use of the natural medicines they found around them: roots, leaves, bark, flowers, fruit and seeds made into salves and tinctures. Even today, many Appalachian natives prefer to administer their own remedies rather than trust a doctor’s care.

Some medicinal cures the settlers used were based on tried and true treatments. Some they brought with them from various homelands as either acknowledged remedies or herbal medicine traditions. Some were little more than superstition based on faulty medical theories — remember that even accepted medical practice at that time was rudimentary at best.

But some of those early Appalachian folk medicines survive as time-tested (and later, science-tested) treatments. Before there were large pharmaceutical companies distilling the essence from plants, there were women who used those same plants to treat everything from bee stings to fever.

Medicinal Salves

Many cures were handed down, generation after generation, by word of mouth. Here are some examples of these functional Appalachian remedies:

  • American Fringe Tree produces white flowers and purple berries sprouting from its branches. Its dried roots and bark can be used in a salve to ease irritated skin.
  • Dandelions grow everywhere and everyone knows what they look like, but a dandelion salve has natural analgesic properties to ease aching muscles. Just let them wilt before using them.
  • Goldenrod is a common herb of bright bunches with small yellow flowers. After boiling the flowers, you can use the material in a salve that helps heal cuts and bruises. It is a natural antiviral herb.
  • Jimsonweed is a poisonous plant that can be used to treat wounds and ease pain, if prepared correctly. A tall weed, the jimsonweed (also called Jamestown weed or stinkwort) has long wide leaves with irregular serrated edges and blue tube-like flowers.
  • Milkweed can grow to four or five feet, with broad, oval leaves and purplish-green flowers near the top. The roots make a salve used to treat moles and warts.
  • Mullein grows into a tall stalk with five-petaled yellow flowers from a base circle of leaves. Its leaves, properly prepared, can treat hemorrhoids. Its flowers can ease burns, frostbite and bruises. The plant has a soothing effect when used as an emollient.
  • Orange Jewelweed produces small golden-orange flowers that resemble tilted cones with flouted ends. Break the stem and rub the sap on your skin to relieve poison ivy, insect bites and even athlete’s foot. The plant has fungicidal properties.
  • Sassafras root can be made into a salve that can help heal cuts and boils, as well as soothe sores and cool inflammation. Sassafras is an aromatic plant with leaves that resemble mittens.
  • Purple Echinacea is a small plant with a thin, leafed stem topped by a purplish flower. Using its roots in a salve can treat corns or help create a resistance to infection.
  • Witch Hazel is a small tree with short leaves and thin, yellow flowers. The twigs, leaves and bark can be used to make a salve for treating sprains and bruises. It’s also been used in shaving cream.

Turning Flowers into Medicine

  1. Place the dried flowers or herbs in a jar that has a tight lid. Cover the buds with a carrier oil such as olive or vegetable oil.
  2. Leave the jar in a sunny window for about two weeks, shaking it every day to intersperse the herbs throughout the oil.
  3. Strain the contents into a pot through cheesecloth. Wring the last of the oil from the remaining herbs. Throw away the remnants.
  4. Grate beeswax into the infused oil on the stove, using about 2 tablespoons of beeswax for every quarter-cup of oil. Stir until it dissolves.
  5. Spoon the mixture into a cool dish and place the dish in the freezer for about a minute.
  6. Adjust the consistency of the salve by either adding more oil or more beeswax.
  7. When you’ve reached the desired consistency, spoon the salve into tins or jars and let them cool completely. Don’t forget to label each jar or tin.

The salves are handy to keep around the house, but they also make thoughtful gifts. Tie them with a bow and include a small card with instructions for use.

Photo credits:,,,