HERBalachia graduates, pictured from left, Micky Morton, who owns Love Roots Farm; Lesley Setchim, who owns Appalachian Alchemy; Ralph Crawford, a retired Eastman engineer; Taylor Tucker a mother of three and owner of her own herbal business; and Sarah Devault, who is the nursing manager at a local hospital. (Contributed photo)

By Richard Rourk

There is a unique and free family festival coming to Erwin next weekend.

The Sassafras Moon Herbal Festival began as a vision to restore and preserve the herbal traditions and plants in Southern Appalachian.

“The Sassafras Moon Herbal Festival is a one-day celebration of herbalism for our community and it came about as the natural growth of interest in the use of herbal medicines has grown in our area in the last few years,” HERBalachia founder Michelle Bouton told The Erwin Record. “While HERBalachia’s Herbalist Lifestyle Program has been very successful in the past few years, I want to reach out to those who may not have financial means to allow them to attend herbal classes.”

Bouton wanted to be sure that HERBalachia’s festival is a free event. “I was determined from its inception that ‘SassyFest,’ as it has affectionately become known, be free to all who want to attend and I hope to find other avenues to offer this valuable information to others in future,” Bouton said. “I want Unicoi County to become known for its unique natural resource, and hope that the people here can use those more to add to health, and maybe even start new businesses based on herbals.”

According to Bouton, the festival is the result of grants.

“Through grant support from Appalachian Sustainable Development (ASD) and Central Appalachian Network (CAN), this festival will allow locals to come together and learn more about growing, harvesting, and use of native herbs,” Bouton said. “CAN awarded HERBalachia the grant to get the festival started and assisted me in getting training for fundraising and community development, and ASD served as our nonprofit fiscal sponsor for the grant, I have to give thanks to both of them.”

Bouton acknowledged that the festival will have something for everybody.

“The festival will offer vendors of all types, including herbal soaps, teas and artwork, as well as native plants for sale,” Bouton said. “Throughout the day, free presentations on a variety of topics related to herb growing and environmental stewardship of at-risk plants will be offered by local residents such as Joe Hollis of Mountain Gardens, Jeannie Dunn of Red Moon Herbs, and Chester Crain, ginseng specialist.”

According to Bouton, Sassafras Moon Herbal Festival will be beneficial to beginners and experts alike.

We will have nine free presentations by experts in the herbal field, from creating more fertile soils to raise herbs to understand how we can both continue our local tradition of ginseng harvesting but also make sure the plants are being replenished so it can be removed from the ‘at-risk’ species list,” Bouton said. “Many of our vendors will be offering interactive activities, such as tasting herbal foods to making their own bath products to take home and we will also have an area dedicated to herbal education opportunities in our area as well as United Plant Savers and Herbalists Without Borders, two of the most important herbal conservation organizations in the U.S.”

Bolton sees this festival a vital event for the community.

“I feel this event is important because herbalism is a pathway to connecting people in our area back to nature and our backyards and when we care about what is outside our doors, we take an active role in protecting that, meaning we are less willing to spray Roundup on our yard or dump our trash in the creek,” Bouton said. “East Tennessee has some of the most amazing biodiversity on the planet, and I believe if we learn more about that, value it, and take pride in it, it will be better for our health and our economy.”

According to Bouton, the Unicoi County area has long been known as a cradle of herbalism in the United States due to its amazing biodiversity, which rivals that of the Amazon as local  Appalachian root diggers provided around 75 percent of the crude herbs for medicine trade in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s.

“So many people have stories of their mamaw or papaw taking them into the woods to teach them about herbs, but the information on these plants and their usage is all but forgotten,” Bouton said.

To help keep these old traditions from dying out, Bouton started HERBalachia in Erwin in 2016 to provide the local community with knowledge of using what is growing in their back yard to boost health and prevent disease, as it has been done for hundreds of years in this area. “HERBalachia’s recent ‘Foraging Wild Foods’ workshop held at Erwin Outdoor Supply drew about 50 attendees, and brought students interested in learning about wild foods from as far as Knoxville,” Bouton said.

Now in its fourth year of programming, HERBalachia offers classes such as plant ID walks held in fields and woods, as well as hands-on medicine making classes teach students to create their own home apothecary of tinctures, teas, salves, lotions, and syrups.

“Due to high levels of interest by local medical providers, HERBalachia partnered with ETSU College of Nursing to offer Continuing Education Credits for their Advanced Herbals series of classes,” Bouton said.

Town of Erwin Communications Specialist Jamie Rice is excited to have HERBalachia and Sassafras Moon Herbal Festival in Erwin.

“The Town of Erwin is so proud to help sponsor and promote this festival,” Rice said. “It truly embodies the magic that lies within our mountains, and there has already been a great response on social media.”

Union Street Taproom Owner Michael Baker is also excited to be a part of the festival.

“We will be opening at 10 a.m. and we will be serving beermosas,” Baker said. “We will have three speakers throughout the day.”

For those interested in attending the first-ever Sassafras Moon Herbal Festival, more information can be found at HERBalachia.com or the HERBalachia Facebook page. The event will be held Saturday, Sept 7, from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. and is free to all.