Introduction: Lucy’s Healing Plant Gallery

by Christine Andreae

Like her neighbor Thomas Jefferson, Lucy Meriwether Lewis Marks may have kept a garden book of plants she grew for her healing practice. Or, like so many 18th-century women, she may have kept a “receipt” book of both culinary and medicinal recipes. She may have paid apothecary bills for opium, turpentine, and other commercial preparations to use along with her own store of herbs and roots. Doubtlessly she had herbals in the small library of books she valued enough to mention in her will. But to date, in the course of research for this project, none of these hoped-for sources has turned up. Accordingly, the plants chosen for this exhibit are plants that she might have used.

Some, like cayenne pepper, Thomas Jefferson grew in his garden. Dandelion and burdock were weedy aliens that probably arrived on the boots of the first settlers. Lavender, lemon balm, and peppermint were imports to Colonial era herb gardens. But most of botanicals in this gallery are native to Virginia and were originally used by indigenous tribes. The first waves of white settlers feared Indians as bloodthirsty pagans and regarded their medicines with suspicion. By Lucy’s day, however, Indians had virtually disappeared from the Virginia landscape and, in their remove, they had acquired the romantic aura of “noble savages.” Consequently their traditional remedies gained favor. Some, like Virginia snakeroot and black cohosh were harvested for commercially produced, over-the-apothecary-counter nostrums. In Lucy’s practice as a “yarb” or herb doctor, certainly she would have collected and used native plants. It is probable that she learned their uses from her father, Thomas Meriwether, a noted Albemarle healer. Possibly, she also may have learned some of her herb lore from local midwives and slave “root doctors.”

Not all the “simples” in our imagined collection have real medicinal value. Native Americans, for example, used bluebells as a spring tonic, but the lift they provide is aesthetic, not chemical. The majority of plants portrayed in this exhibit, however, have scientifically proven potency. The text that accompanies our botanical portraits is a collaborative work. Each artist provided a statement about her personal connection to the plant as well her research into the plant’s historical uses. One of the most-used sources was Steven Foster and James A. Duke’s A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America, a Peterson’s Field Guide. Another frequently consulted source was, an on-line version of English herbalist Maud Grieve’s 1931 “A Modern Herbal.”

Our historical plant lore has been supplemented by the project’s pharmacological consultant, Dr. Wendell Combest of Shenandoah University’s School of Pharmacy. In his laboratory, Dr. Combest has isolated and tested active chemicals in many of our plants, including ginseng and yaupon holly. He also has access to the Natural Standard Database, noted in the text as “NSD.” This database is an on-line compendium of independent scientific research on complementary and alternative therapies. The monographs on the site, accessible by subscription only, provide clinicians and medical institutions with objective and reliable information about plants with healing potential. Dr. Combest has marked potentially deadly plants like the Datura with a single asterisk. Plants that have carcinogenic properties or can cause organ failure with long term use are marked with two asterisks. Cautions regarding usage have been inserted in the text of other plants. As Dr. Combest discovered in testing Virginia snakeroot (using water from a well near Lucy’s home, no less!) the safety of plant decoctions can depend on its preparation. Dosage is equally key. Too much of any drug, derived from wild plants or manufactured in a lab, can be toxic and even fatal.

As the editor of these pages, I would like to thank all the artists for their enthusiastic participation. A special thanks to Dr. Combest whose has so generously shared both his love of healing plants and his scientific knowledge of how they work.