Nature Bulletin No. 187 April 11, 1981
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
In springtime, many years ago, grandma made her family drink gallons
of tea made by boiling roots of the sassafras. That was supposed to thin
and purify the blood. Children were sent out to gather dandelion, curly
dock, wild mustard, pokeberry and other greens as soon as they
appeared -- not only because they added welcome variety to the diet of
bread, meat, potatoes and gravy, but because some of them were also
a bad "cold on the lungs," she slapped a mustard plaster on the
patient's back, and on his chest she put a square of red flannel soaked in
goose grease. For whooping cough she used a syrup of red clover
blossoms. She made cough medicine from the bloodroot plant, and a tea
from the compass plant of the prairies was also used for fevers and
coughs. She made a pleasant tea from the blossoms of the linden or
basswood tree. For stomach aches she used tea from any of several
aromatic herbs such as catnip, fennel, yarrow, peppermint, spearmint,
sweetflag, wild ginger, bergamot and splice bush.
asthma, she used a tea brewed from the common little vine-like
cinquefoil; for rheumatism, a tea brewed from blossoms of the bull
thistle, or from the early spring leaves of the wood nettle. For poison
ivy she used the leaves of jewelweed, or the red juice from the root of
bloodroot. When you got stung by a bee, you rubbed the wound with
leaves from a white ash tree. For an aching tooth, you chewed the
berries of the prickly ash or "toothache tree." Crushed leaves of the
yarrow, or Nosebleed Weed, were used to stop bleeding. Dandelion
roots are still used in tonics and liver medicines .
In pioneer days, doctors were scarce, medicines were scarce, and
money was scarcer. The early settlers, learning from the Indians and by
experiment, gathered and prepared their own remedies and tonics,
mostly from wild native plants. There were few plants, including trees,
from which the Indians did not use some part for some purpose. For
Instance, malaria -- called "ague" or "chills and fever" -- was very
common and sometimes fatal In many regions. Quinine, from the
cinchona tree of South America, was the best cure but expensive and
scarce. So, many native plants -- usually very bitter -- including the
plant called "boneset," the bark of willow trees and the bark of the
quaking aspen, were used as substitutes.
011 of witch hazel, distilled from Its twigs, Is still a favorite astringent
used by barbers and by trainers of athletes. In the old days, white oak
bark, dogwood bark, roots of the wild geranium and roots of the New
Jersey Tea, were used for the same purpose. Oil of wintergreen from the
teaberry, and oil of birch obtained by distilling the twigs and Inner bark
of birch trees, were good for rheumatism.
Some of the old remedies are recognized, today, as "official" drugs by
the Federal Food and Drug Administration. Others are listed but
classified as "unofficial," because they have proven unsatisfactory.
Many have been forgotten except by backwoods people. The
availability of drug plants from all over the world, and the development
of synthetics such as atabrine and the coal tar derivitives, have made it
largely unnecessary to rely upon our wild plants. However, penicillin --
one of the great modern discoveries -- was derived from the common
blue mold that grows on bread.
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