Alabama Folkways Articles
January 12, 2000

ALABAMA FOLKWAYS: HERBALIST BUFORD STITCHER PRESERVES KNOWLEDGE OF HEALING PLANTS
By Anne Kimzey

When Buford Stitcher grew up in Randolph County, his family and others in the community of Swagg were accustomed to treating their ailments with home remedies made from plants that grew in the woods or gardens nearby.

"We had to go out and get boneset, which is for coughs and colds. We had to go out and get yellow root for infections," he explained. "We had to drink black walnut tea for worms." His grandmother showed him how to locate and identify many of the plants she used for medicinal purposes. He recalls helping his grandmother dig red sassafras root to be used as a "blood purifier."

As a boy, when Stitcher had a sore throat, his father would light a pine splinter and collect the black tar that dripped off the end. He then made a concoction combining three drops of pine tar, three drops of kerosene, three drops of castor oil and a spoonful of sugar. When swallowed, "in two days your sore throat was gone. Your head was as clear as a bell," he explained. "And it still works. You just have trouble finding good kerosene" these days.

 When he returned to his family farm in later life, he said he began to have a lot of questions about the old herbal treatments. "I got to thinking about it more and more-- what I grew up with. Who’d done this and who’d done that and how the ailments were healed just by simple, little herbs. It could be bark, roots, leaves, or just weeds. It’s amazing how they work," he said. "I would talk to elderly people about different remedies they had used."

In his quest for more knowledge, he met the late Tommie Bass of Leesburg, Alabama. Bass, by then, had gained national recognition as a traditional herbalist. Stitcher visited Bass frequently in order to learn from him. "I spent eight years with him in the woods and the mountains and he taught me his ways. A lot of them were like mine. A lot of them were different."

Among the medicinal lore that Bass passed on to his student, were his recipes for a skin salve and a liniment, both of which Stitcher makes and provides to customers. His business, based in Wedowee, is called Little River Botanicals.

He advises people to consult a doctor first about a medical problem. "That’s one thing Tommie the old herb man taught me. Said, ‘Don’t you ever diagnose anybody. You let the doctors do that. That’s what they’re for.’ "

"We can’t claim this to take the place of modern medicine. I don’t mean to do that," he said, explaining that he goes to doctors for his own medical care. "This is what I like about herbs. Anytime you give the body something to help heal itself, more than likely it will."

Stitcher enjoys educating others about the traditional uses of herbs and is invited all over the state to talk about plants and their medical lore. He brings labeled samples of many of the plants he’s collected and holds each one up for his audience’s inspection, as he discusses its identifying features and medicinal properties. He cautions against using a plant unless one is absolutely certain of its identity. A mistake could be dangerous.

 At a recent festival at Landmark Park in Dothan, Stitcher held up a sprig of peppermint and sniffed its distinctive scent. "Anybody that has gas or heartburn, just chew a leaf of this thing and it’s mighty good," he explained. "If you can’t sleep at night, make yourself a cup of peppermint tea and it will calm your nerves."

As another sedative, he recommended peach leaves. "If you can’t sleep at night and you’re just hollering at everybody, strip you a handful of leaves and put them in a cup of hot water. Put a saucer on ‘em and let ‘em steep for about ten minutes, and then strain it up and drink it. Then you’ll feel good to everybody. It’ll relax your nerves and settle you down," he said.

He recommended drinking a cup of peach leaf tea before bed. "If you’re there 20 minutes and you’re not asleep, get up and make a second cup—but bring your pillow with you. You’re going to sleep."

He mentioned catnip as an old-time remedy to soothe fussy babies. "Growing up in the country, people would come up with a baby just a-screaming and crying. And they would get a leaf and crush it and rub the little baby’s gums and just instantly it would quit crying." It works for adults too, he claimed. "It’ll make us calm and sleep at night. You can boil it and make a tea or rub it on your gums."

Buford Stitcher’s pharmacy includes hundreds of native plants. And he can recommend one for almost any health concern.

For gout he advocates eating collard greens twice a week. Drinking a tea made from Queen Anne’s lace will help you lose weight, he said. Chickweed is another plant that will "take the weight right off of you," claimed Stitcher. "You can eat it green in a salad, or you can boil it and make a tea."

According to Stitcher, a tea made from wild blueberry will treat high blood pressure. Smoking rabbit tobacco, also known as "life everlasting," is good for "sinus, head colds, and congestion." Mullein is also useful for treating sinus problems and lung congestion.

"You may wonder why I talk about the same ailment and different herbs," he said. "I have people come to me and they want one herb that does everything. God didn’t make it like that. As a matter of fact he made several herbs for one ailment. Well, why is that? I guess it’s because everybody’s system is different. What works for one may not work for the other one."