Saving the Healing Herbs of the Bayou

Whitney DardarBy

Now, the traditional herbs are in danger, Pitre said, threatened by decades of coastal erosion, hurricanes and development that have crept up on Golden Meadow in Bayou Lafourche, where many members of the United Houma Nation once lived.

"A lot of the plants that my great-grandfather used and that my grandfather grew up with are no longer there," he said. "It's a matter of time before more and more of them disappear."

After BP's Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and oil began gushing into the Gulf of Mexico in April, Pitre worried a hurricane could push oil or dispersants into the wetlands where the plants grow.

So Pitre, 26, and his grandfather began uprooting herbs to replant them on higher ground. On a recent afternoon, Pitre pulled his SUV up to a small blue house in Golden Meadow — the home of his grandfather, Whitney Dardar, 74.

Dardar said that as a young boy, people came long distances and knocked on the door at all hours of the night to be treated by his late father. "My father would go into the woods and pick plants for every sickness," Dardar said.

Dardar stepped along the walkway lined with broken oyster shells and pointed out a row of plants — tall dark-green straws poking out from the ground. The Houma people, who once spoke a mix of French and Houma, call the plant prelle, Dardar said.

He plucked one of the straws and ripped it into sections. "You get an odd number of them, tie it with a thread, and boil it to make a strong tea," he said. "It's good for blood infections."

A few steps away grew a saw palmetto. The trunk and fruit of the plant, which looks like a miniature palm tree, were used to treat prostate problems, and the leaves could be used to weave baskets.

Surrounding the house were other plants his father used: a plantain tree, whose large leaves were crushed to make a salve to treat poison ivy, heat stroke and skin swelling. The leaves of the bon blanc plant were used to brew a minty tea for babies with colic. The leaves of the sage-like venera treated colds.

Dardar says he wishes he had learned more from his father, Ernest, who did not write instructions for his remedies, but passed them down through word of mouth.

When he was young, Dardar used to hunt and trap muskrat and mink on the land that stretched as far as he could see from his home.

Today, much of that land lies below sea level, due to costal erosion that has been sped up by oil and gas drilling and levee systems that restrict the Mississippi River. Pipeline canals cut into the marshes have brought in saltwater, killing vegetation.

Many families from the Houma tribe had no choice but to move inland. Today, the 17,000-member tribe is scattered across coastal Louisiana.

Some of the plants Dardar's father used are gone too from the surrounding bayous, Dardar said. Cat's foot, an herb with clusters of small white flowers used as a tea to cleanse the body, is nowhere to be found, he said.

And now, though the BP oil well has been capped, Dardar worries about how the remaining plants will fare with the toxins that may still be in the marshes.

So he led his grandson to the side of his house and handed him a gray plastic bucket. Inside were a few inches of water and a light green grass shrub — turkey grass. "It's good for kidney and liver trouble," Dardar said.

Pitre drove with the plant to his home in Raceland, about 30 more miles inland. A few weeks earlier, Pitre had tried to replant a root of a plant called black vine, but it didn't take. He's only seen a few black vines growing in the bayou.

In the front yard, he shoveled a hole and carefully placed the turkey grass, hopeful that that what had survived in the bayou for centuries would continue to grow.