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Doctoring Before Doctors

“And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.” Genesis 1:29

In the early years of our country, there were few doctors. Women took care of their households. No schooling or licenses were required. Some of the remedies were handed down from generation to generation, and others learned from the Indians.

As women cared for their neighbors and kin, and they began to learn the land, exchange occurred—an exchange of culture and knowledge. As these ancestral keepers of herbal wisdom shared seeds and passed along stories about keeping their communities well, a new lineage of herbal trailblazers was born.

18th-century American Women: On Fruits, Vegetables, & Herbs from ...

A knowledge of herbs was the only gift needed. Any woman who had this learning was called a yarb/herb doctor; she knew how to concoct teas and brews.

Sassafras or sassafack, burdock, pennyroyal, catnip, and spicewood made teas. Mullein was a remedy for man or animals. For bruises and rheumatism, horse radish or lye poultices were the treatment.


Pennyroyal is a mosquito and flea repellent




And then there was slippery ellum. When it was found, folks would travel for miles to dig the roots in times of sickness. Under the roots of an elm tree was the location.

Lady slipper was for nervousness, and butterfly root would produce heavy sweats in a fever. Dittany tea, balm of Gilead, or pine buds, steeped in whiskey, took care of colds and pulmonary issues. Boneset and wild cherry were for almost any illness.

Tansy water quieted nerves and headaches. Seneca snake root and ground ivy could cure hives. Sulphur and molasses was a yearly tonic for the young and old to thin the blood in the spring.

In the Blue Ridge mountains along its many streams are over 800 medicinal pants. Before the Revolutionary War, botanists had found this treasure trove of plants. Specimens were collected and shipped to various parts of Europe.

Perhaps a herb garden would be close to the kitchen. There is nothing more pleasing than the smells in the summer. (I have lavender planted in two pots on my front porch and am delighted to be greeted by this.) Sage, mint, thyme, and lemon balm were handy for adding to soups or freshening the air of a cabin.








Mint was of benefit to the stomach, and mice and spiders were not fans.


18th century herbalist Gerarld wrote about thyme that was considered a cure-all. “It bringeth downe the desired sickness, provoketh urine and applied in bathes it procureth sweat; being boyled in wine it helpeth the ague, stayeth the hicket, breaketh the stones in the bladder; it helpeth lethargie, frensie and madness and stayeth the vomiting of bloud…is good against the wambling and gripings of the bellie, ruptures, convulsions and inflammation of the liver.”


Lamb’s ear is so very soft to the touch. Though little has been written about it, it was used to dress or bandage wounds–the wooly leaves used in place of lint. The textured leaves could also be used as a washcloth.

The Colonial garden served as the apothecary, perfumery, and spice rack for the average household. In addition to using the herbs fresh, many plants were bound together in bunches and hung upside down to dry from the kitchen rafters. Dried roots were stored for later use. These women planned for having these plants all year; they knew their value.

The adventurer Christopher Columbus even recognized the delicious smells of herbs, saying, Ï believe that there are many herbs and many trees that are worth much in Europe for dyes and for medicines; but I do not know, and this causes me great sorrow. Arriving at this cape, I found the smell of the trees and flowers so delicious that it seemed the pleasantest thing in the world.”

So what about planting some of these herbs at your back or front door? I believe I might need more!






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