Archived Mountain Voices

Feeling sprightlier on an early winter day

Sometimes I find myself walking without having made a conscious decision to do so. My body seems to feel the need for a stroll without having consulted my brain. My feet find their way, as if they had eyes of their own. I like such moments … when I don’t have specific objectives … when I’m not certain what I might encounter … when I’m just taking a look at things.     

Several days ago, I was out the door and several hundred yards down the trail beside the creek before I fully realized that I had ventured forth. My dogs led the way, looking back now and then to make sure I was following. The only sound was the wind in the rhododendron-laurel tangles alongside the creek. Mosses on the creek bank glowed emerald green.  

After ten minutes or so of poking along, I began to spot first one, then two, then many little evergreen plants on the forest floor. Had I been preoccupied with personal thoughts or with encountering something momentous like a wild boar or bear, I’d have no doubt overlooked these dainty plants.

Their ragged-edged waxy leaves displayed zigzagged whitish stripes. Accordingly, it’s known as striped wintergreen by some observers. But I prefer the more peculiar common name “pipsissewa,” a designation said to be of Iroquois origin (“pipsiskeweu,” which means “it breaks into small pieces” because the plant was used to treat kidney stones).

This semi-woody evergreen perennial bears the scientific name “Chimaphila maculata” (“cheima” for “winter” and “philo” for “to love”). Common throughout Western North Carolina in dry acidic woods with sandy soils, it has a reputation in both Indian and folk medicinal literature. Recent scientific investigation indicates that closely related species like prince’s pine are “loaded with biologically active compounds.”

It was formerly used as an ingredient in root beer that added a bittersweet taste. (Above all other popular commercial beverages, I dislike root beer the most). The Cherokees, among other applications, stewed pipsissewa in lard to cure ringworm, while the early white settlers utilized it as a blood purifier. Some enterprising moonshiners made “bitters” (an herbal tonic) by combining pipsissewa with white lightning, thereby creating a medicinal concoction of undoubted potency that was in considerable demand.

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I didn’t have any white lightning with me (and don’t care for it either), but there was plenty of pipsissewa; so, while Uly and Woodrow looked on with puzzled interest, I tried my first dose ever of “pipsiskewe” by nibbling some of the leaves. After due deliberation, I can report that pipsissewa leaves don’t taste good and they don’t taste bad.

Whistling up the dogs, I started back home. The wind had died down. I could hear water moving over and among the silent stones. Whether it was the walk or the pipsissewa or listening to the creek or some combination thereof, I felt a bit sprightlier. It was good to be out and about.

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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