Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Medicinal Plants
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 laxatives.

For 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.

For 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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