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Wayback Lowcountry: Life Everlasting

This old-timey cure-all grows all over the Lowcountry.

By Michele Roldán-Shaw

Springing up in fields and clearings, perhaps near the listing remains of an old wooden cabin where once a Gullah family dwelt, this modest plant persists. The winter months have dried it where it stands. Its appearance is drab from a distance but better appreciated close up, with sprays of little dusty flowers and slender silvery leaves. Raindrops or a pinch between the fingers bring out its sweet medicinal smell, evoking nostalgia in those who were forced to drink the tea by fussing mothers and grandmothers. Back then, everybody knew it could cure a cold, even if it couldn’t quite live up to the promise of its name. 

Life everlasting (Gnaphalium obtusifolium) grows throughout the Carolinas. It’s sometimes called sweet everlasting, or even “light molasses” by those whose forebears misapprehended the name. The Cherokees and other Southeastern tribes called it “rabbit tobacco,” and early travelers like botanist John Bartram and ethnographer James Mooney noted its sacred importance. The plant was smoked, used in sweat lodges, drunk as a decoction, applied topically to wounds and placed around the home to ward off evil spirits and witchcraft. Early settlers caught on and started making little pillows stuffed with Life everlasting to treat consumption, while modern enthusiasts have claimed to cure asthma by the same method. 

I first learned of this useful herb from the late Cornelia Bailey, last matriarch of the historic Geechee community on Sapelo Island. “It was the poor man’s Lipton,” she wrote in her memoir God, Dr. Buzzard and the Bolito Man, “just as good as store-bought tea.” Mrs. Cornelia showed me how to find it, tell it apart from a look-alike that didn’t carry the same scent or properties, and pluck it out of the ground, roots and all, to store through the winter wrapped in newspaper. (The name actually refers to the plant’s indefinite shelf life.) Any and all parts, from the flowers down to the roots, can be rinsed and boiled in a pot, then strained off for a potent tawny brew. It becomes ready to pick in fall when the leaves dry up, which times perfectly with cold and flu season, and you can drink it piping hot with lemon and honey right before bed to stave off an oncoming bug. Her father drank a glass of it every day and lived to 103 despite regular moonshine benders. A lot of Mrs. Cornelia’s family lived to extreme old age, and a lot of them drank Life everlasting. 

Look for this old-timey Lowcountry cure-all in disturbed areas of weeds and sandy soil, in meadows and abandoned home sites where the spirits of poor but resourceful families yet linger. Gather this free medicine, organically in times of Covid, in places that haven’t been sprayed with herbicides. (Hint: avoid highway sides, power-line rights-of-way and anywhere you see a line of dead brown plants.) Take it for a sore throat, a tight chest, a stuffy head, a down spirit, or just as a general tonic—take it for a good life, even if it’s not everlasting.

For generations, Life Everlasting has been used as a natural remedy for sore throats, pneumonia, colds, fevers and more. The plant gives off a maple syrup smell, making it a nice garden addition as well.