LAFAYETTE — A new research project is exploring whether the plants that older generations in Acadiana relied on for healing might have applications in the modern world of medicine.
There was a time decades ago when mothers might have turned to elderberry flowers to cut a fever or concoct a goat weed tea to treat the flu, but that traditional knowledge has gradually died out in a world the relies heavily on over-the-counter cures.
“In those days the use of nature and the knowledge of it was more common,” said University of Louisiana at Lafayette anthropology professor Ray Brassieur.
Some of those old cures are attracting fresh attention in a project involving ULL, Pennington Biomedical Research Center, the National Wetlands Research Center and Rutgers University.
The project has its origins in the Healer’s Garden at the Vermilionville Living History Museum in Lafayette where Brassieur’s research along with work by the Lafayette Parish Master Gardeners spawned an exhibit that highlights plants that have traditionally been used as medicine in south Louisiana.
The garden exhibit led to the nascent medical study after a serendipitous encounter that Brassieur had in Lafayette with a Rutgers professor who collaborates with the Botanical Research Center at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge.
“Right now, there is a rebound in medical science to try and find cures that have been overlooked,” Brassieur said.
Pennington researcher Dr. William Cefalu said the center has long been involved in looking at the medicinal qualities of plants with a particular interest in plants that might affect the development of diabetes.
“We have essentially been screening compounds from around the world,” Cefalu said.
Cefalu said preliminary laboratory studies began this year to test a collection of about 20 to 25 plants that Brassieur has selected as promising candidates.
It’s too early to know how useful any of the plants might be in diabetes research, but Cefalu said plants that show promise could be selected for further testing.
Brassieur said the plants were initially selected based on a wide-range of sources, but a critical document was a 1930s academic paper by Charles Bienvenu on the Creole French dialect in St. Martin Parish.
In researching the dialect, Beinvenu asked residents to tell him about home remedies and the resulting scholarly study serves as an encyclopedia of traditional folkways, Brassieur said.
He said the awareness of which plants are used for certain ailments likely flowed from Native Americans in south Louisiana, who shared their traditional treatments with the Cajuns, Creoles and other groups that made their home here.
“Most of the knowledge came from Native Americans,” Brassieur said. “They are the ones who had the plants and knew what to do with them.”
He said the traditional knowledge of local plants was kept alive in Louisiana longer than many other areas of the country because Native American groups were not forced to relocate, and many still remain here today.
Most of the plants that have been used in traditional medicine are not rare — elderberry, sassafras, mamou, french mulberry, persimmon, Virginia creeper.
“With very few exceptions, these are all very common,” said Larry Allain, a botanist at the National Wetlands Research Center in Lafayette who is working with Brassieur to find specimens of the plants to send for testing. “ … I looked at the list and I said I could find half these things in my yard at home.”
Brassieur said what has been lost is not the plants but the knowledge of how to use them.
“Those plants are generally available, even if we don’t know them today,” he said.
For more information on the Healer’s Garden at Vermilionville, visit www.bayouvermilion.org.
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