Harbin and Campbell: Traditional Herbalism

Yvonne Harbin
, of McMinnville, is a revered traditional herbalist from the South Cumberland region. She was three years old when her father made her a cup of sassafras root tea, and she has been fascinated by native plants ever since. Yvonne eventually learned the different tree names and various uses from her father, who learned from his grandmother. Today she combines a lifelong love of herbs with forty years of practicing herbalism and teaching others about native plants through workshops and seminars.

She says, “Our family has followed that long tradition of plant gathering, processing, and everyday uses. My great-great-grandmother was a traveling midwife, who had the general care of many families, centered in Baxter, Tennessee in the mid-to-late 1800’s. My desire is to preserve what has been handed down to me: local plant identification, types of preparations, harvesting and processing, plant energies and how to use them to restore and maintain balance, and also making the preparations and knowing when and how to use them, as well as when not to.”

This knowledge was developed out of necessity, as Yvonne explains, “There was also no Amazon, Bulk Apothecary, or GNC around the corner or in the non-existent mall, and the best you could know was what uses the local flora could be put to. Small plantings nearby of the most necessary, most frequently used plants were cultivated, as well as having a strong knowledge of wild-crafting, and proper harvesting and processing methods. All these things were handed down primarily by word of mouth in opportune moments. My family tradition has grown out of the needs of the people.”

Apprentice Michael Campbell is Yvonne’s oldest son. He showed an interest in plants and helping his mother prepare them from a young age, and his curiosity continues to this day. He aspires to be an herbalist and teach others, just like his mother. Michael says, “I grew up watching, and sometimes helping, my mother with it. Everyone in my family knows about it, but only me and mom practice it. I believe I was about 4 or 5 when I started observing. I want to work with my mother as a teacher because she has helped so many people have better lives. I want to learn all that I possibly can, so that I, too, can help people to heal and have better lives. It is very important to preserve and pass it on, because healing and helping others is what makes life awesome and that must carry on.”

Yvonne is also a past recipient of the prestigious South Arts Folk & Traditional Arts Master Artist Fellowship.

*This team is funded through a special partnership with the South Arts’ initiative In These Mountains: Central Appalachian Folk Art & Culture.