Archived Mountain Voices

Old-timers and their colorful plant names

It’s that time of the year, and the hills are alive not with music but “sang” hunters. As of now a dried pound of “green gold” is bringing about $500 and might rise before the ginseng season closes for good. Here are some random thoughts and observations regarding “sang” that might be of interest.

What’s in a name? When it comes to plant names, there’s quite a bit. A special allure of the plant world is the various common names one encounters. You’ll never meet a botanist, naturalist, nurseryman, herbalist, or florist who doesn’t delight in the colorful lingo used in their workaday world.

The Doctrine of Signatures was a governing principle in ancient herbal medicine and in assigning many of the names we use today. Up until the end of the 19th century, before plants could be scientifically tested to ascertain their active ingredients, each culture on earth independently evolved its own version of this principle. In Europe and subsequently in the Americas, the concept was called the Doctrine of Signatures. It was based upon the simple notion that the almighty spirit of whichever culture you happened to be a part of had marked everything with a sign. This sign was a taken as a clear indicator of the plant’s use as intended by that almighty spirit. Put in its simplest terms, the doctrine states that by careful observation of each plant one can learn the uses of that plant from some aspect of its form.

For instance, there is a very early spring-blooming plant sometimes called hepatica that is also known as liver-leaf because of its darkish brown older leaves that have a rounded liver-like appearance. The Cherokees — who had a wonderful knowledge of this region’s plant life passed down from shaman to shaman — thereby concluded that it was signed to cure liver ailments. Modern testing does not indicate active ingredients in the plant that would be useful for liver ailments; but occasionally, the herbalists in any given culture would stumble upon a plant that did have the active ingredients appropriate for the remedy indicated by the Doctrine of Signatures.

The most famous plant in the Smokies region is ginseng.  (Ramps would hold second place, with shortia, or oconee bells, coming in third.) The common name used in America is based on the Mandarin Chinese “jen shen,” which means “man like” because the lower rootstock is forked so that it resembles the trunk and legs of a human being. According to their version of the Doctrine of Signatures the plant was obviously signed for use as an all-purpose pick-me-up as well as an aphrodisiac. The Cherokees looked at the very similar North American species and made the same determination. Their priests addressed it as “Yunwi Usdi” (Little Man).

I don’t know if the “Little Man” works in these regards or not. I don’t know if the energy drinks so popular now like Red Bull work or not. But there are millions of people out there who do believe in them. Maybe it’s the “believing” that works.

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I’m interested in plant hunting strategies … the way knowledgeable people locate various plants in the wild. Sometimes, of course, they just stumble and bumble upon them. Sometimes they visualize a particular species ahead of time and then locate it in the wild as if by magic. Sometimes they keep an eye out for “indicator” species; that is, they have one or more plants they associate with the “target” plant that help them “zero” in on that plant. For instance, many mushroom hunters look under white pines for morels in the spring and for other mushroom species in the fall.

Bob, who lives in the Alarka community just west of Bryson City, knows as much about woodcraft, hunting, and fishing as anyone would ever want to know. Plant lore is an Alarka specialty. It has been passed down for generations.

I heard through a mutual friend that one of Bob’s prime “indicator” species for “sang” is a plant he called “sang master.” I had never heard of anything by that name, so I went into search mode in reference books and on the internet. Nothing doing. I went back to our mutual friend, who described the mystery plant as about waist high with a several forked stems that bore orange fruit.

OK, that narrowed it down. Osage orange has orange fruit, but it’s not native to this region and is but rarely encountered east of the Mississippi. But yellow mandarin (Disporum lingunosa), also called merrybells because of its yellow bell-like flowers does bear orange berries.

Bob showed up in my yard this morning. I asked him to look at a line drawing of yellow mandarin in a guidebook. He squinted at the image for awhile and said, “I believe that’s it.”

I am satisfied that yellow mandarin was the culprit. It grows in the rich woodlands of the sort associated with ginseng. It’d make a fine “indicator” species. Case closed.

Not so fast. As we parted ways, Bob said, “‘Sang granny’ is a good one. You find ‘sang’ where you find that plant, too.”

I don’t have a clue as to what “sang granny” might be. Bob said he’d bring me some to identify the next time he goes ‘sang’ hunting.

“‘Sang’ master” . . . “yellow mandarin” . . . “‘sang’ granny” . . . wonderful names.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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