August 1995

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Letters to Suzanna

Gathering Herbs


Barbara H. Bell

Letters to Suzanna is a series of fictional letters based closely on historical facts that tell of the day-to-day experiences of a family establishing a homestead in the region near the south end of Seneca Lake in the early nineteenth century. Click here for more letters.

Dear Suzanna,

You have asked about plants which Telenemut showed Mama to use for medicine or ones she already knew about, when she married Papa. First, I must say that not all those she gathered were for medicinal uses. For instance, there was latherwort. She boiled its leaves in rain water which she had strained through a clean cloth to remove specks of dirt or maybe bugs that had drowned in the rain barrel which Papa had made. This made a soft feeling liquid which foamed when you shook it or beat it with a whisk. It was the best "soap" for washing a fine fabric which might be harmed by the more common laundry soap made with lye. It made a good shampoo, too.

If Mama thought the leaves of a plant were too dirty or had been chewed a lot by insects, she dug the high roots or rhizomes and fixed them into the soft soap substitute. Sometimes, she just let the leaves or roots steep lightly for a long time at the outskirts of the hearth. I really never knew why she prepared it one way at times and then again differently.

Sometimes, folks would make oil from rose hips and petals to mix with rainwater. Ladies would pat this on their skin to smell nice. Grandmother mixed it with the white soap which she made. It was one of two or three odors she put into that soap. Lavender oil was another.

Mama gathered chicory which she dried to crush and use as a sort of coffee. The young leaves were used instew or soup, too. When she could find anise, she used the seeds in baking, especially for fancy breads.

A plant which Mama called Black Mustard was used raw or cooked. It made a welcome change in Spring diets before our kitchen garden began to produce. Dandelions were similarly eaten but were also the main ingredient in one type of wine. Papa never made this but some of our neighbors did. If we grew tired of dandelions greens, we would pick a panful of the flower buds while they were still tightly closed and about the size of green peas. These had a milder flavor than the greens but took a lot of time to pick. I guess it did not take longer than digging and washing greens, come to think of it.

There were certain plants which Mama used to dye cloth. The dandelion was good for that too. The blossoms, like those of Golden Rod, made a sort of yellow dye. Boiled dandelion roots made a purplish-red shade. The Lily-of-the-Valley provided a fine green color.

Sometimes we ate young milkweed sprouts but they had to be parboiled several times and you always threw away the water else they tasted bitter and might even make us ill. Sometimes Mama collected spicebush berries and dried them to use in baking to lend a different flavor to otherwise simple puddings.

We used to have fennel tea for indigestion and cramps.

Beekeepers liked to have fennel at hand because of the flavor it gave the honey. Honey carried a different flavor if the bees had lots of clover or a field of buckwheat in which to work.

When Mama could not find fennel to dry and grind or boil for stomach cramps, she had substitutes. One was Sweet Flag. She made an extract from its roots or rhizomes. Now that I am telling you this, I wish I had paid closer attention to Mama's medicines and dyes and plants gathered from the wild for our table use so I could tell you more.

Did you ever have a wart? Mama's cure was to squeeze one drop of Cowslip on it.

Some folks stewed a Partridge Berry tea for ladies to drink during childbirth if the baby was slow to come but Mama never believed in that.

Cough medicine might be made from a boiled onion, the resulting liquid sipped by the spoonful after it thickened. Other wild supplies for the same cure, and made in much the same way, came from the inner bark of a White Pine or from wild licorice. Wild cherries could be used as the base for a cough medicine and also to make wine.

We chewed catnip to alleviate a toothache. Mama dried the leaves for winter and would steep them just enough to soften for the treatment. Fresh-picked ones seemed more effective, though.

A flower called Evening Star had several uses, depending on how it was prepared. It could help stop a cough, or cure skin rashes, and was said to speed the healing of minor wounds, Lemon Balm tea, made from crushed leaves of that plant, also helped heal small cuts or scratches and stopped the irritation of insect bites, Telenemut taught us that horsefly weed was another plant to help heal sores and cuts.

When Papa's muscles ached, he might drink some wintergreen tea. Mama also made a wintergreeen oil to rub on for the same relief. A similar medication could be made with Black Birch bark. Crushed seeds of Black Mustard eased any surface inflammation and so did a poultice made with borage. Grandmother called it borage. We called it Bee Bread. It was supposed to reduce fever and soothe a sore throat, too, so Mama tried to lay in a good supply of borage each year. Once she was able to get it growing at the edge of the kitchen garden, it kept spreading like a weed. Borage has a pretty blue flower that turns pink with age.

Feverwort, which some folks called Boneset, was used to help reduce fevers. So did Mama's Golden Rod tea. Neither tasted very good.

"The worse it tastes, the better it works," Papa would tell us.

One pain killer that almost everyone used was a tart liquor made from Trembling Aspen. The Lily-of-the-Valley, which seemed to thrive in cemeteries, could be made into a liquid medication to help those with heart trouble.

Those who had spells of troubled breathing, with or without a cough, were often treated with an extract from the milkwort root. At our house, we were given Yellow Parilla if we became "bound" as we called it. In other words, it was a laxative.

Mama picked two different plants which she used to stop external bleeding. She would place a rag sopped in liquid, made from periwinkle or bugle and pure water, on the bleeding location. Applied with a little pressure, this seemed to work quite well in most cases.

Sometimes children would get tapeworms. This is a worm or a parasite which grew in one's intestines, I believe. Some grew to unbelievable lengths. Having a tapeworm would seriously sap one's strength and make one more susceptible to other ailments. This could be a real threat to health.

Some people chewed pumpkin seeds to kill the worms and then took a strong laxative to expel the culprit. For this problem, Mama collected Bear's Paw Fern rhizome or high root. She boiled it, using enough water to keep it from scorching. If she were asked to treat a child who had worms, she made a tea from this distilled juice, sweetening it with honey. This would kill the pest. Then the child was given a laxative and parents kept close watch to learn if the dead worm was expelled. It not, the treatment was repeated.

One more weed which Mama used was called Angelica. A boiled-down liquid made from its stems or seeds, or even the roots, was mostly used to stop coughs. Sometimes Mama would choose small stems and cut them into short pieces to boil in sugar water until it became syrupy. When it cooled this Angelica tasted like candy. It was then not any kind of medicine at all.

No kind of cough syrup Mama ever made seemed to help one little bit when we were having wrenching, throat-tearing coughs with whooping cough!

Suzanna, please pay careful attention to what I am going to say next! I believe some of the medicines, which Mama and Telenemut prepared when I was little, are still mentioned in books about herbs and wild flowers and their uses. I know, however, that some of the old-fashioned medicines did not really help sick people, but the sick stayed in bed and had tender loving care and the combination of rest and care is what truly made them get well.

Rest, alone, can cure many ailments. Mama would not make some of the medications that a few neighbors did because she thought they were harmful rather than helpful. That is one reason I never learned about many of them. Then, too, every year seemed to bring new discoveries in medical circles and women began to ease back on preparing home cures, little by little.

Suzanna, no one should try to make their own medicine in your day and age when so many safe and beneficial cures can by purchased from a pharmacist. Anyway, not many of Mama's medicines tasted good. Sometimes, we tried not to let her know if we did not feel well, just so we could avoid being doctored with them. I believe we usually got well just as fast without them as we would have with them.

How fortunate we would have considered ourselves if we could have gone to an apothecary shop to buy such things as aspirin and cough syrup with cherry flavor and other every day medications such as you have available!

© 1992, Barbara H. Bell
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