A Long Walk on the Bluff; Medicinal Plants

April 29, 2015.  Water levels in the swamp have finally returned to normal, after more than a week of flooded or partially-flooded conditions. I decide to return to the north bluffs and walk all the way to Toms Creek on the edge of the bluff line, a distance of about five miles (one way) from my access point off of South Cedar Creek Road. However, based on all of the meandering and walking around obstructions, the distance is probably closer to six miles. For some of the way I use old fire breaks and jeep trails, while the remainder consists of bushwhacking and trail blazing. In places the park boundary line lies within feet of the adjoining private hunt club and numerous, well-placed deer stands. It would be foolhardy to walk the boundary during deer season, even if wearing international orange. Although deer season is over, I choose to stay well within the boundary and out of sight where possible. In some areas this means walking along the base of the steep-sided bluff where the terrain is often soggy, angular, and slow going.

I start out at 6:30 AM and finish up the day eleven-and-a-half hours later. Of course, I was taking my time with periodic pauses and sometimes long stops, but even with a steady pace it would still take about five or six hours, round trip, of steady walking due to the uneven, meandering terrain and thickets to bushwhack. Fortunately, the weather is ideal, starting out in the low 50s and ending in the low 70s. Humidity is low, skies partially overcast, and a steady breeze from the northwest blows after 10:00. It feels more like fall than spring.

The wood thrush music, for whatever reason, has died down compared to a week ago, and so has the turkey gobbling. I do find a lot of turkey scratchings in the heavy leaf litter on top of the bluff and flush one turkey perched low in a small tree in a wet hardwood depression near Kitt’s Grave. As I get closer to Tom’s Creek, Cedar Creek has moved well away from the bluff line and has been replaced by muck swamp. In places the steep bluff has changed to a more gradual slope covered in rich woods of beech, buckeye, hickory, white oak, holly, ash, and elm. Partridge berry is prevalent as a ground cover, and I even find a large patch of may apple.

May apples typically grow in large clumps and spread by underground rhizomes.

The beautiful little partridge berry, Mitchellia repens, is in flower and scenting the air with its delicate, sweet smell. Even though this attractive, evergreen ground cover is oftentimes easy to overlook, the white blooms make it stand out this time of year. They must have just opened as I don’t think I would have missed them last week. The flowers are always in pairs, “joined at the hip,” and later produce a single, attractive red berry. Although edible, the berry is rather tasteless. Turkeys, ruffed grouse, and bobwhite quail feed on them.

The plant was named for John Mitchell, a native of Great Britain who came to America in the 1700s. Like many early botanists, Mitchell had a medical background; the two fields were intertwined at the time since plants offered cures or potential cures for many ailments and diseases. Native Americans were ahead of the curve in that respect, and knew that a tea from the dried leaves of partridge berry helped with rheumatism, hives, and swelling, and also aided with childbirth.

May apple was well known to Native Americans who used extracts from the rhizomes to treat tumors, skin disorders, and as a purgative; early colonists used it to treat snake bite. Modern medicine has been using these extracts as anti-cancer treatments and to treat rheumatoid arthritis.

It is unfortunate that so much medicinal plant knowledge developed over thousands of years by the first Americans has been lost. Fortunately, there has been a renewed interest in this field, sometimes referred to as alternative, or indigenous, medicine. Some aspects of alternative medicine are contentious and controversial, but there is no question that many plants have chemical properties that may be of human benefit. I wonder sometimes about which plants in the swamp have such properties, the knowledge of which has been lost through time.

On my return I hear the Kingville train go by and whistle at 4:00 PM and finally hear some wildlife music, made by coyotes responding to the train. The calls, as always, are interesting and a little different this time, sounding like children screaming and yelling at play.