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Home Remedy, Swamp Elder Salve, Worked

This article first appeared in issue 28, and was written by Charlene Bell.

By Charlene Bell, as told by Charles Green, Columbia 1998

It was July 16, 1940, and excitement was in the air at the home of Walter and Daisy Green. They had been blessed with the birth of their third son, Floyd. But the excitement soon turned to despair when Floyd developed a terrible sore on his head that would not respond to any doctor's medication. His parents felt helpless as they watched the sore spread across the infant's head. Their eldest son, Charles, can still recall the anguish in his mother's voice as she said, "Walter, I'm afraid we are going to lose our baby. He's getting worse each day." Then, just as they were about to give up, an elderly neighbor named Tom Duncan gave them renewed hope. He told them about an ointment, known as swamp elder salve, that supposedly "would cure anything."

In order to make the salve, Walter and Tom Duncan had to first locate the swamp elder plant. Knowing that this perennial shrub grew in wet, rocky soil around rivers and creeks, they went to the Dry Fork Creek in Adair County. The distinct characteristics of the plant made it easy to find. It produces white flowers on the top of its branches and has large, oval leaves. Although the shrub can reach a height up to ten feel tall, its normal growth is approximately five feet. The swamp elder's most unique characteristic is that it has three layers of bark, even though it is only about one-half inch in diameter. The first two paper-thin outer layers of bark are light brown in color and can be easily peeled or scratched off. The third layer of bark, which requires scraping to remove, is bright green. This layer contains the healing properties of the plant.

After Walter and Tom Duncan gathered several branches, they returned to Walter's house to begin the process of making the salve. It was a slow, tedious job to strip the branches and carefully scrape enough of the third bark to make a batch. A batch was made with equal parts of bark and lard. After at least a cup of pressed-down bark was obtained, Daisy began the cooking process of firing the bark in the lard. The bark was fried until it turned dark brown and crispy, then removed and discarded. What remained in the skillet was the bright green swamp elder salve with a peculiar smell.

After the salve was made, Walter and Daisy began using it on Floyd's head, and to their delight, he began to improve. In what seemed like a very short time, the infant's head was completely healed. Afterwards, Walter developed sores on his legs that a dermatologist in Louisville couldn't heal. Once again, Daisy turned to the swamp elder salve for help, which soon healed Walter's legs. Walter and Daisy became true believers in Mr. Duncan's salve that "could cure anything." Their home was never without this miraculous salve. Over the years, it was used on several members of the Green family, and its recipe was shared with many friends and neighbors.

Even though Walter and Daisy have passed away, swamp elder salve still remains in the Green family. Throughout the years, it has proven its healing power on many types of sores, 'including dreadful bed sores. Charles has experimented when making the salve by using Crisco or Vaseline, instead of lard. Since it is the swamp elder plant that contains the healing properties, he found no change in the healing power of the salve. After doing some research at the library, Charles discovered that the botanical name for swamp elder is wild hydrangea. His research also revealed that this shrub had been used by the Indians 'm this area for centuries. They realized that some of nature's most treasured possessions are hidden inside the leaves, bark, and roots of various plants. We must continue to pass down home remedies and alternative medicine secrets so as not to allow any of nature's secrets to die.

(Reprinted with permission from Broomsedge Chronicles, a publication of Western Kentucky University students' works, Dr. Loretta Martin Murrey Publisher. Copies available by calling WKU Glasgow campus.)

This story was posted on 2000-03-15 12:01:01
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