All their voices are silenced now, but from these women and my mother comes my heritage of herbs. The knowledge, passed on from mother to daughter, is a wisdom gained by countless years tending sick children, husbands, and neighbors, for women were the first healers.
As a child, I grew up in the 1950s with an extended family of cousins, uncles, and grandparents in a large, white farmhouse in upstate New York. All of us were knitted together by the strength and love of one small, exceptional woman, my mother.
Along with most farmers back then, we raised chickens, ducks, beef and milk cows, horses, goats, pigs, just about everything except sheep. We had fruit trees and a vegetable garden, but my mother never grew many herbs. Borage, horehound, houseleek, and a sage plant or two were all her kitchen garden contained.
Mother turned to the meadows, woods, and marshes surrounding our farm for the “simples” she needed. I used to tag along when she went to gather because the woods and fields were more exciting than the farmyard. I remember those walks well. Mother knew the common names of many plants, told to her by her mother–gravel root, birthwort, flannel leaf, Indian tobacco. Each name had a story behind it. Each plant had a purpose.
Birthwort got its name because it was used by early settlers to ease childbirth pains. The large woolly leaves of common mullein, aptly named flannel leaf, were sometimes used in place of flannel to wrap around sore throats. Gravel root was used to treat kidney stones. Some people called it kidney root, ague weed, and Joe-Pye-weed.
Indian tobacco was once used to treat asthma, but we children discovered another use for the plant. Certain amounts cause vomiting, hence another common name, pukeweed. Visiting friends were invited to sample the leaves until my mother put an abrupt stop to this rather dangerous prank. She was furious that we would use herbs to make someone sick. My mother believed that the cure for most of mankind’s ills was in the herbs of field and forest. Yet she knew their dark side, too: that which could cure could also poison.
With ten to thirteen people living at home, Mother was often too busy to gather herbs, so sometimes she sent my grandfather out picking. He was a short, bowlegged man called Jiggs, whom I always remember as being very old. A wellspring of folk sayings, which he took as gospel, ruled his farming life.
When it was breezy and the silver undersides of the tree leaves would turn up, he used to tell me, “The trees are calling for rain.” And sure enough, soon it would rain. He could tell how harsh the coming winter would be by the thickness of an onion’s skin and the way the horses’ coats grew in. Watching the behavior of the wild animals and birds enabled him to forecast the weather, too. The way the wild geese flew south and the muskrat built his home all spoke of the winter ahead. From him I learned “March, black ram, comes in like a lion, goes out like a lamb,” and “Mare’s tails and mackerel sky, not long wet and not long dry,” as well as countless other pieces of weather lore kept in rhyme by farmers over the years.
When Mother sent my grandfather gathering, he never made a mistake until he was getting well on in years, and then it was a big one. My mother told me she had sent him out to get sumac to make a wash for piles (hemorrhoids). Leaves of red-berried sumac were what she wanted, but the look-alike leaves of poison sumac were what she got. Without even looking, she brewed them up, and needless to say, ended up with a good case of poison sumac in a very uncomfortable place. After that, she checked over Grandpa’s gatherings very carefully.
As the seasons changed, so did the herbs my mother gathered and the teas and tonics she prepared. Spring brought a flurry of wild greens or potherbs and tonics to “thin the blood”. As a child, I thought blood thickened up like molasses in cold weather. How sassafras tea helped thin out blood I wasn’t sure, but I liked the taste. Now the Federal Drug Administration warns us that sassafras contains safrole, a potential carcinogen. Such advice didn’t exist forty years ago, or at least my mother never paid it much attention. She listened instead to the voices of her people from the past.
Summer was a bountiful time of gathering and drying. To keep the light and road dust from the drying herbs, the bunches were put in paper bags and the whole business tied at the neck. They were then hung on a line strung up in the summer kitchen to dry.
Summer also brought the wild blackberries–blackcaps, we called them–that we made into jellies and cordials. I enjoyed picking, although most ended up in my stomach. And I knew that I would get a cup of tea with blackberry jelly stirred into if I had the misfortune to get what was politely called intestinal cramps. Adults got the cordial for the same ailment. Blackberries, mother told me, were very “binding”.
Summer was my favorite season. School was out, my cousins and I could run barefoot and free through the fields and woods around our farm. We had the usual cuts and bruises and insect stings that country children get, but we knew what plants to use to provide on-the-spot first aid. It was a long walk home just for a beesting when a well-chewed plantain leaf mixed with mud and applied to the skin would soothe the sting. The leaves of wild yarrow could stop a bleeding cut, as could the powder from a ripe puffball. Having been the victims of stinging nettles, we knew enough to avoid the leaves, but for the unwary or careless, the juice of the nettle’s own stem would relieve the rash and pain.
In the fall and winter, when we got chilled from playing outside too long, a cup of hot ginger tea with honey was the perfect warm-up. Mother would ward off colds by bundling us up in layers of clothes to go out and soaking our wet feet in hot water with mustard powder. Getting chilled, wet feet, she was convinced, was the main cause of colds.
Mustard had other uses. My mother used a ground mustard-seed plaster for a “cold in the kidneys” or a chest cold. Ground mustard and flour were mixed together with oil or the white of an egg to make a thick paste. She spread this on our chests (well oiled to prevent blistering) and covered it with a flannel cloth. The plaster could not be left on for an extended period.
For feverish colds, she applied onions to the soles of our feet to “draw out the fever”. A healthy dose of hot yarrow, elderflower, and catnip tea before being bundled off to bed made the cure a certainty.
For many years, I did not understand why my mother’s herb medicines worked. Why did comfrey help broken bones to knit and wounds to heal? Why did peppermint calm an upset stomach or chickweed make a salve that stopped itching? I just used them on my own family as Mother had on us, but I grew many of the herbs I needed, because our farm was sold and herbs became more difficult to gather in the wild.
My interest in herbs became a ruling passion. No longer content just to know that they worked, I wanted to know why and how. I studied book after book, experimented, adding things to what I was taught, omitting others. I found a school of natural healing to help me explore the world I was raised in and reach for reasons.
Now I know comfrey contains allantoin, which promotes healing. Peppermint yields an oil that contains menthol. It is antispasmodic and carminative, relieving pains in the alimentary canal. Lowly chickweed contains mucilage and anti-inflammatory saponins to soothe a rash.
I do not give my daughters “spring tonic” to thin the blood anymore as my mother did, nor do I burn sulfur after an illness as my grandmother did. Still, the primary source of healing in our family is herbs. I am the healer and the teacher now, as my mother was before me and her mother before her.
And I hope someday my daughters will pass on our heritage of herbs to their own children.
Shawn Schultz operates The Apothecary Rose Shed, an herb shop in Pattersonville, New York, for whose patrons she produces a lively and informative newsletter.