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Definition: herbs from Benders' Dictionary of Nutrition and Food Technology

Soft-stemmed aromatic plants used fresh or dried to flavour and garnish dishes, and sometimes for medicinal effects. Not clearly distinguished from SPICES, except that herbs are usually the leaves or the whole of the plant, while spices are only part of the plant, commonly the seeds, or sometimes the roots or rhizomes.

Summary Article: HERBS
from World of a Slave: Encyclopedia of the Material Life of Slaves in the United States

An herb is a nonwoody plant used for its medicinal, culinary, or aromatic value. In American folklore and enslaved African American communities, an herb also could include parts of trees and common weeds. In both Western Europe and West and Central Africa, the notion of special herbs that were gathered for these purposes was a part of daily life in rural communities that were largely self-reliant and had limited access to spices, medicines, and perfumes. When these cultures encountered Native American traditions, this unique interpretation of the landscape was reinforced as foreign plants mixed with native ones in a new body of herbal knowledge. As enslaved Africans and their descendants worked at creating new Afro-Creole cultures from New England south to Texas and into the central interior, each community had its approach to growing, gathering, and making use of such plants to heal, feed, disinfect, and provide fragrance.

Herbs familiar to the contemporary Western world were well known in historic West and Central Africa. Some were native to Africa and Asia; others were introduced by Arab traders from North Africa and Europeans trading in enslaved persons and gold who settled on the coast. Others were completely native to Africa and would be introduced into the Americas with the slave trade.

Herbalism was an essential part of daily life. While specific people in the community were charged with healing, and therefore knew hundreds of herbal plants, remedies, and combinations, most West and Central Africans grew up collecting and learning the uses of common plants necessary for daily life. Among the Ewe, herbs were collected to disinfect and sweeten gourds and earthenware pottery; others were used to prevent infection in wounds or purify the body or, in the case of initiatory or religious ceremonies, the soul. In traditions analogous to those of southern and eastern Asia, sacred herbs were grown around temple compounds, others were made into special teas for consumption for both physical and spiritual imbalances, and others were specially selected to flavor foods while also acting as medicinal cures.

In what is now Ghana and Nigeria, for example, indigenous species of the basil plant were incorporated into both traditions of spiritual purification and food preparation. Thyme was used as a disinfectant and important ingredient in healing. European traders and explorers noted the dispersion of herbs as a part of West African life. Swedish botanist Adam Afzelius (1750–1837), traveling in what is now Sierra Leone, recorded sage, purslane, and thyme in the gardens of villagers there. Mint was incorporated into the teas and aromatic culture of the Sahel and Senegambia, having been brought from Morocco and other parts of the Islamic world. Special herbs collected from the bush were steeped for sacred herbal baths, burned to expel insects, or included as part of power objects such as amulets, charms, or offerings made to divine forces. In the words of Harriet Collins, a formerly enslaved woman, the idea that certain healing traditions came from Africa guaranteed their confidence and sense of authenticity in the enslaved community: “My mammy larned me a lots of doctorin' what she larnt from old folkses from Africy, and some de Indians larnt her.… All dese doctorin' things come clear from Africy, and dey allus worked for Mammy and for me, too.”

When enslaved Africans came to what would become the United States, they encountered both exotic and familiar herbs as a result of their contact with the Islamic and European worlds. They also found plants native to the northeastern and southeastern woodlands and coastline that were members of the same botanical families as those in West Africa. Those plants introduced with the slave trade dispersed around the South and the eastern seaboard, further linking enslaved blacks with ancestral traditions. Whatever their origin, enslaved blacks gained a reputation for their interest in and usage of herbs. Without these herbs, blacks could not accomplish much of the necessary healing because of the expense and the class and racial status of blacks in slave societies. Without such herbs, the foodways of enslaved people also would have been much blander, their spiritual traditions would have lacked a central component, and lives often lived in misery and challenging conditions would not have known the fragrance of these plants.

This relationship with plants and the landscape provided a source of conflict and empowerment for enslaved communities. On the one hand, certain enslaved healers were rewarded with emancipation for providing herbal cures for ailments and snakebites; and on the other hand, herbalism was condemned for its connections with traditional African religious practices and most especially with its connection to knowledge of poisons. In colonial-era Williamsburg, blacks were banned from practicing as apothecaries, and traditional methods of healing were occasionally outlawed or placed under stringent control by legal authorities. “Pizens” (poisonous substances) were used to rebel against slavery and were a subtle form of retaliation. Attempts at poisonings, and successful murders of whites from New York to Virginia to North Carolina to Louisiana, all point to the use of tuckahoe, oleander, and devil's shoestring among other toxic herbs to seek revenge against the forces of African American oppression.

Herbal traditions in enslaved communities borrowed heavily from those of their European masters. European settlers of the period favored culinary herbs such as lovage, parsley, sage, thyme, sweet marjoram, savory, borage, and horseradish. Early African American gardens included cuttings of rosemary, mint, catnip, pennyroyal, sage, balm, and various types of roses. Basil was grown for export in Virginia as early as the 1770s, and this may have some connection with the large West African population there. In Louisiana, among other parts of the South, basil was associated with good luck and was grown by the doorway to discourage negative forces and bring good luck. Sage tea was boiled for fevers or flux. In the Upper South, mint tea crossed the ocean from Senegambia, and mint-flavored beverages have retained their popularity in the region into the 21st century. Garlic was used to expel parasitic worms from the body. Many herbs were used in this capacity because of the lack of hygiene. Enslaved children often were required to eat with their hands in unsanitary conditions. Parasitic worms from animal or human waste consistently infected the ground and eating troughs from which enslaved children were fed.

A number of traditional herbs and plants that were similarly used for healing have been found among the archaeological remains of Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest. Bedstraw, carpetweed, cherry dock, goosefoot (lamb's quarters), mallow, nightshade, ragweed, smartweed, vervain, and poppy were recovered from the slave quarters at the site. Some of these herbs may have been edible potherbs; others provided infusions used for teas and soaking liquids used to soothe external ailments. Similarly, a number of important medicinal and spiritual herbs, including comfrey, mullein, mayapple, wormseed, tansy, pokeweed, and Sweet William, that originated in enslaved communities in the 18th and 19th centuries continued to be used in African American communities in Virginia into the early 20th century. Herbs, especially fragrant ones such as basil, rosemary, lavender, and roses, often were rubbed on or placed between safeguarded clothing as a means of deodorizing or perfuming special clothing. Herbs not only healed the enslaved body and spirit but also provided a sense of humanity despite the utter poverty and degradation that the enslaved people often had to endure.

Both men and women had access to and participated in herbalism in enslaved communities, but for women, the use and value of herbs was especially important in matters of healing, beginning with childbirth and continuing through child rearing and general family health care. In Georgia, Aunt Darkas was remembered as a blind woman who “could go ter the woods and pick out any kind of root or herb she wanted.” Polly Shine recalled that “Maser would get us a Negro mama, and she doctored us from herbs she got out of the woods.” Enslaved women were particularly valued for their role as midwives and healers of childhood illnesses and “women's troubles.” Indeed, the brutalities of slavery gave rise to the use of some herbs and plants such as pennyroyal and cotton root as abortifacients. “Conjure women,” midwives, and “doctors” were essential persons of the social landscape, drawing their personal and communal power from the herbs that they grew and gathered around them.

Further Reading
  • Ball, Charles. Slavery in the United States: A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball. Published by John S. Taylor New York, 1837. Documenting the American South. At
  • Edwards-Ingram, Ywone. “Medicating Slavery: Motherhood, Health Care, and Cultural Practices in the African Diaspora.” PhD diss., College of William and Mary, 2005.
  • Heath, Barbara J. “Bounded Yards and Fluid Boundaries: Landscapes of Slavery at Poplar Forest.” In Places of Cultural Memory: African Reflections on the American Landscape, Proceedings of National Park Service conference, May 9-12, 2001. At
  • Mellon, James. Bullwhip Days: The Slaves Remember. Avon Books New York, 1990.
  • Westmacott, Richard. African-American Gardens and Yards in the Rural South. University of Tennessee Press Knoxville, 1992.
  • Twitty, Michael W.
    Copyright 2011 by Martha B. Katz-Hyman and Kym S. Rice

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