Herbalist Shares Lore of the Ozarks

Americana, Hometown Heroes, People, Traditions
on August 26, 2001

It’s a good thing that Jim Long decided not to take his grandfather at his word.

“What’s that, Granddad?” asked Long when he was 5 years old, walking down the country lanes of Missouri’s St. Clair County in the late 1940s. The child’s curiosity was directed at the native flora of the Ozarks, which interested him greatly.

“And Granddad would invariably reply, ‘Don’t touch that. It’s poison,’’’ Long recalls. “Didn’t matter if it was pokeweed or grapevine. His answer was always the same.”

Despite his granddad’s admonishments, Long persevered. He had another source of herbal knowledge nearby, and he posed the same questions.

“My grandmother on my mother’s side was a storehouse of information about plants. If I asked her what a plant was, she’d say, ‘Well, let me show you,’” Long adds. “She taught me how to make poultices, how to use herbs as medicines, how to grow them, and how to cook with them.”

Long’s future was cast in those early years in Taberville, Mo., where he was the only male student his age in the one-room schoolhouse. An only child, Long was surrounded by grown-ups and used gardening and learning about herbs as ways to occupy his time.

His mother also encouraged him, and at the age of 5, he was tending his own garden. “They plowed it for me, but I got to decide what I wanted to grow and was totally in charge of it.” Long spent his early years helping out in the family’s country store and in his own little garden, and he’s been stockpiling herbal lore ever since.

Nowadays, Long is a much-sought-after speaker at gardening and herb growers’ conventions across the country. He’s often seen on Home and Garden TV and The Learning Channel, most recently describing his methods of building bentwood trellises and making herbal dream pillows. He’s had several books on herbs and trellis-making published, and he’s a regular columnist for Herb Companion magazine. His herbal knowledge and landscaping abilities led him to be hired to create the Heritage Herb Garden at the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View, Ark.

Long has done extensive research on herbs used by the pioneers as they negotiated the Sante Fe Trail, the herbal medicines of the Civil War era, and more recently how the lore of herbs has been passed down (or lost) in America.

“Herbal remedies and herbal seasonings have been rooted in society probably before fire was discovered,” Long says. “The arrival of penicillin was the beginning of the end of herbal remedies, but now there is a renewed awareness of their powers.”

Long doesn’t profess to be a practitioner of herbal medicine. “I’m not trained medically in any way, but I do know which herbs have what curative properties. I’m more the vessel carrying the lore forward.”

He will tell you, for example, that dittany will do wonders to flavor beans and game stews; that spicebush is an excellent seasoning for venison and wild turkey; and that both make fine teas, which are “good for what ails you.”

Take a walk with Long, and you get the botanical tour of his native countryside—a 27-acre farm deep in the Missouri Ozarks, miles from the closest village named Blue Eye (pop. 129). He points out the medicinal plants, which early white settlers put to use in the nation’s interior—horehound, catnip, comfrey, ginseng, pennyroyal, poke and sassafras, and asafetida, the foul-smelling herb, which mothers, well into the 1950s, put in little bags around their children’s necks to ward off colds and other diseases.

All things good have blossomed here under the auspices of Long Creek Herbs, which, by catalog and the Internet (www.longcreekherbs.com), offers all sorts of things herbal, including books, dream pillows, and more than 400 varieties of herbs and herbal remedies.

But maybe the most important “product” Long offers is his knowledge. New generations are gaining a better understanding of the benefits of herbs as Long dispenses the lore he has harvested since the age of 5.