When we think of herbs and plants used during the Civil War, we need to set the stage in at least broad strokes. In the North are pharmaceutical companies, metal works, manufacturing centers; in the South, cotton gins. The agricultural crops of the north are basic foods and animal fodders (cereal grains, white potatoes, corn). In the South crops are primarily trade goods (cotton, tobacco, sugar cane).
As the war drug on, the military imbalance in the field was not as critical as was the power of the Northern navy to blockade Southern ports. Blockade running and smuggling helped address these shortages in the South. Kings of Texas reminds us of Texas’ role in thwarting Northern naval ships. As Mexico was neutral, Texas businessmen obtained Mexican registration for their steamboats and then were able to deliver and retrieve goods from vessels trading with Mexico.
Private citizens – frequently women – became innovative smugglers (think hoop skirts!):
“We, ever and anon, are assisted in that way: sometimes a pound of tea … is snugged away in a friendly pocket, and after many dangers reaches us, and meets a hearty welcome; and what is more important still, medicine is brought the same way.” Judith McGuire, Richmond
Most longingly written about as missing from the Southern diet were tea, coffee, white sugar and salt, all imports. Coffee and tea (in their “pure” forms) became a drink of the wealthy. Beverage substitutions included dried leaves of currants, blackberries, willows, and holly; peanuts; dried potato slices; parched rye or cornmeal; roasted sweet potatoes.
The medical kit of a Northern practitioner was quite different than that of a Southern practitioner, another reflection of the blockades. In the Yankee kit one might find tinctures of opium or iron, morphine, chloroform, ether, camphor, sugar of lead, and a variety of liquors. A Southern diarist notes: “The woods, as well as being the great storehouse for all our dye-stuffs, were also our drug stores.”
The plant list that follows includes more woody plants (trees and shrubs) than non-woody plants. There are few plants that we know as culinary herbs. Not only is that because plants used for flavorings often are not American natives, i.e. cultivated only, but more importantly their green leaves, stems and blossoms are only available for a short time. Woodier plants are more broadly distributed in the landscape and their outer / inner bark and roots are accessible all year long.
It is the policy of the Herb Society of America not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medicinal or health treatment.
Seeds (tea)Pods (smoked & in teas)
Malaria (quinine substitute)
Tonic for tension headaches
Root bark (tea)
Inner bark (tea or powdered in gruel)
Inflammation anywhere in digestive tract, sore throat
Inner bark (tea, drunk)
Sore throats, colds, asthma, bronchitis
Green leaves (crushed)Inner bark (tea)
Inflammation & heal blisters
Leaves, roots (teas or in an alcohol base)
Dysentery, chronic diarrhea, cholera
Bark, fruit (tea, poultice)
Chronic diarrhea, rectal conditions,malaria, gargle for sore throat
Primarily root (infusion)
Intestinal worms, emetic
Leaves, stems (tea or just chewed)
Indigestion, mouth freshener
Leaves, flowers, root (tea or breathed in steam)
Coughs, lung disease, colds, pneumonia
Onion bulb, garlic cloves
Scurvy, antibioticFlea deterrent
Other Useful Herbs and Plants
Dyes - In Civil War Plants & Herbs Mitchell references a local southwestern Georgia shrub known as myrtle. It grew in low moist places and provided gray for woolen goods. She also cites a southern Alabama indigo weed that did provide a blue dye.
Fiber - Palmetto & various straws were plaited for hats, fans, baskets. Let me end with this telling quote in Mitchell’s booklet: “But these hats are beautifully plaited …that though a Parisian milliner might pronounce them old-fashioned, yet our Confederate girls look fresh and lovely in them: and what do we care for Parisian style, particularly as it would have to come to us through Yankee-land?”
Bown, Deni. 2001. The Herb Society of America New Encyclopedia of Herbs and Their Uses. New York, NY: Dorling Kindersley Publishing, Inc.
Brobst, Joyce E. 2005. Herbal Witness Trees of the Civil War. The Herbarist. 71:22-27
Graham, Don. 2003. Kings of Texas. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. PP 99 - 104.
Hutchens, Alma R. 1992. A Handbook of Native American Herbs. Boston: Shambhala Publications.
Mitchell, Patricia B. 1996. Civil War Plants & Herbs. Chatham VA: Mitchells Publications.
Sumner, Judith. 2000. The Natural History of Medicinal Plants. Cambridge, MA; Timber Press.
Sumner, Judith. 2005. American Household Botany: A History of Useful Plants 1620 – 1900. Cambridge, MA; Timber Press.
Submitted by Lois Sutton, Ph.D.
The Herb Society of America - South Texas Unit