Friends of Scull Shoals Herb Walk in memory of Dr. Durham

Submitted by Debbie Cosgrove (turtle127@windstream.net)

Editor’s Note: Horticulturist Debbie Cosgrove recounts the November 7, 2010, herb walk in which she identified and discussed native herbs and other plants used by Dr. Lindsey Durham in his 19th-century herbal remedies.

 “Use what you have” must have been the philosophy of 19th century physician Dr. Linsey Durham who practiced near the historic mill town of Scull Shoals in present day Oconee County. Although Durham was a traditional doctor having gone to the University of Pennsylvania medical school, he was influenced by those in his community including Native Americans.

On Sunday, November 7th, the Friends of Scull Shoals hosted their first tour of the herb walk dedicated to the memory of Dr. Durham. The Friends bought the land from a timber company, and it’s adjacent to the Oconee National Forest. Needless to say, pines predominate on the property, but other species of plants grow among the pines.

Winter huckleberry.

Dr. Durham’s Receipts: A 19th Century Physician’s Use of Medicinal Herbs was published in 2008 by Debbie Cosgrove and Ellen Whitaker. The “receipts,” or recipes, were recorded from Dr. Durham’s notes in the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Georgia. Preparing the book gave impetus to the construction of the Herb Walk on the Friends’ property.

In the approximately 225 “receipts” that are printed in the book by Cosgrove and Whitaker, eighteen of them include parts or extracts of pine including turpentine. It was by far the most used ingredient of Dr. Durham. Not by intention several of the plants talked about on the tour have one common factor—they like acid soils. Two are in the Blueberry Family (Ericaceae) and the other in the same order also likes acid soils.

The first native plant shown in this family was a cluster of Sparkleberry shrubs (Vaccinium arboreum) known to Durham as Winter Huckleberry. Durham used this plant to break witchcraft spells (possibly had calming effects). The second plant of the blueberry family pointed out was the Sourwood tree. Boiled down sourwood leaves were the main ingredient in Dr. Durham’s famous blood pills which were used as a cure all for all types of debilitating illnesses. Finally, the third plant that also likes acid soils is the diminutive Pipsissewa (Chimaphila maculata). This plant was used in regulation of menses.

Sourwood leaves.

Pipissewa (Chimaphila maculata), called wild arsenic by Dr. Durham.

I have a 79 year old friend Lillie Porter whose mother actually used this herb to help her daughters in the 40s, 50s and 60s. Lillie and her sister Lee Norman remember their mother transplanting the Pipsissewa closer to their home for convenience. However, they call the plant Wild Arsenic.

One thing that was mentioned was that Durham used common names for the plants in his receipts. Some of these names are antiquated or may refer to more than one species. Overall the day was pleasant for the tour with a crowd of 40-50 people. Several joined Dr. Jack Wynn after the Walk for a brief tour of the Scull Shoals mill area.

Dr. Durham’s Receipts can be purchased at Homeplace in Five Points in Athens, the State Botanical Garden, the downtown copy shop in Greensboro, or online here.