By Maggie Wolff Peterson
In the 19th century, poultices, tinctures, teas and infusions were the only pharmacy available. Medicine in the Civil War era depended on a domestic pharmacopeia based on native herbs and wildflowers, that even today are the remedies of choice for some people.
According to Billie Clifton, owner of Sunflower Cottage in Middletown, what we think of as weeds were valuable before the corner drugstore brought us over-the-counter medicines. Clifton's main interest is using herbs for culinary purposes, but it is only a small jump from there to a kitchen medicine cabinet.
In traditional medicine, a cough could be treated with tea steeped from coltsfoot and hyssop. Horehound was considered even more effective for cough. Sage, rubbed to a powder and steeped as tea, was used for headache. Calming motherwort tea was good for nervousness and insomnia.
Fevers were cooled with sweet-balm tea, and prevented with tea brewed from catnip, according to traditional medicine. Root vegetables, such as horseradish, were steeped in vinegar, then mashed to a poultice and applied to incite a healing perspiration.
Elderflower tea is said to be good for an upset stomach. Chicory is thought to be effective against all sorts of ills.
A common reference book of the era, "The American Frugal Housewife," is still in print and offers remedies of all sorts that can be brewed from ingredients in the garden, field and woods. Today, the Internet is the more immediate reference for those interested in naturalizing their health regimen.
A 1969 pamphlet published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, available online at fs.fed.us, lists 126 different plants indigenous to the Appalachian region that have medicinal properties. The guide describes how to dry or preserve the plants, which parts -- stems, leaves, roots or pollen -- are efficacious, what times of year to collect native plants and the best tools to use. It includes a glossary of botanical and pharmacological terms and a listing of the scientific name for plants best known colloquially.
Becoming versed in the medical uses of herbs is not a casual enterprise. There are dozens upon dozens of plants known to have health-promoting properties, and many of them have "cousins" with similar plant structures that are harmful or even poisonous. Using nature's pharmacy safely requires education.
Growing in popularity is the Medicine Wheel Garden, a circular construction that combines an interest in healing herbs with the constructs of Native American spiritualism. The oldest medicine wheel found has been dated at more than 4,500 years old, and many found in the western United States are quite large. Archaeologists believe the wheels served ritual and cosmological purposes, similar to those believed to be behind the construction of Stonehenge.
The idea is now translated in backyard herb gardens that are planted in quadrants, forming a circle around a central spoke. The arrangement represents the circle of life, divided in four quarters that face points on the compass and may include vertical elements to create shadows that follow the arc of the sun through the year, making an annual calendar. People are known to add totems such as seashells, crystals, feathers and animal bones to elevate the spirituality further.
"It's a fun design to grow," Clifton said.
This year, the Ohio-based Herb Society of America named the elderberry as its Native Herb of the Year. Varieties of this plant grow worldwide, and the berries and flowers have been used for millennia for culinary, wine-making and medicinal purposes. But while cooked elderberries are edible, the raw berries contain a substance akin to cyanide and can kill.
But processed correctly, elderberries are a wonder fruit, full of vitamin C and other nutrients.
"People swear by it," Clifton said.
People believe that "a drop, once a day, every day and you will not get sick," she said. "It's a wellness herb."