I seldom like to be a passenger on trips; I prefer to drive the vehicle myself so I can be in charge of stopping for garage sales or for identifying interesting or new plants along the road. When my friends drive, they tend to chat constantly and ignore these attractions along the highway. For me, garage sales and roadside plants are what make driving an adventure. When I arrive in a new town and someone, trying to make conversation, asks how long it took to drive there, I give two answers: the number of normal hours of driving time, and the number spent lingering over the book tables at garage sales.
People’s reasons for stopping at garage sales are as varied as their reasons for growing one herb instead of another. For me, the attraction is herbal—or, more precisely, herbals. It’s not often that I find an old herbal tome hiding among the outdated college texts and Reader’s Digest condensed books, but it’s often enough to keep me searching. Stories such as that of a close friend, who found an 1847 botanical for $2 in a flea market, entice me to scan the book tables wherever I stop.
In C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books, the children step through a wardrobe into the ancient and magical land of Narnia, where nothing is impossible: horses can fly, all animals can talk, gnomes and elves are common, children are kings and queens, and everyone has magical powers. And just as Lewis’s children can step through the wardrobe, I feel I can step through the pages of an old herbal into the mysterious world of the past.
There is such magic in sitting in my upstairs library and reading thoughts that come directly from the mind and pen of an herbalist who lived generations ago. I imagine I hear the birds the author heard as he wrote, describing digging ginseng and goldenseal in his deep, rich woods. I can almost smell the pungent, spicy roots as they were washed and laid out on screens to dry. I can know the excitement the herb producer felt at selling his shipment of roots after waiting 8 or 10 years for the ginseng to mature.
There’s much to be learned from these old herbals about the origins of herbal remedies. There are hints of knowledge that was yet to be discovered, such as in The Young Lady’s Friend, an 1836 book that covered etiquette as well as remedies and nursing practices: “All the utensils in a sick room should be kept constantly clean. . . . As soon as possible after using an article, wash and wipe it, that it may be ready for the next occasion. . . . Many a poor, feeble sufferer has been disgusted . . . by seeing a nurse put her lips to [a spoon] whilst in preparation [of the meal].” At that time, cleanliness was a matter of preference: knowledge of germs wouldn’t be available for nearly three decades.
In the 1847 Medical Botany, the amounts of herb used, along with the dosages recommended, are recorded. These records of early trial-and-error medications allow for current researchers to duplicate the medication and delve into the possible useful attributes of old herbal remedies.
Baptisia tinctoria, known in the Ozarks as false indigo, was once considered useful for several medicinal purposes. “An ointment made by simmering the fresh root in lard, has been found beneficial in burns and ulcers,” states the entry in Medical Botany. Not only does this entry establish the historical use of the plant as medicinal (rather than merely a dye herb, as many have thought), but relates to salves and remedies that came into common usage over time.
Then, too, we find threads of our ancestry through these out-of-print writings. In John George Hohman’s Pow-Wows (1820), a collection of cures, remedies, and folk healings, there is an entry for “A Very Good Remedy for the Wild-Fire: Wild-fire and the dragon, flew over a wagon, The wild-fire abated, and the dragon skated.” It’s a curious, superstitious ditty which the folk healer recited while administering something herbal. But the words give clues to the source of the so-called remedy. Dragons weren’t part of the American tradition, so this folk remedy must come to us intact from Europe, complete with poetic verse.
We also find humor (or laugh to mask our horror) in the same tome: “Another Remedy for the Whooping Cough Which Has Cured the Majority of Those Who Have Applied It. . . . Thrust the child having the whooping cough three times through a blackberry bush without speaking or saying anything. The bush, however, must be grown fast at the two ends, and the child must be thrust through three times in the same manner, that is to say, from the same side it was thrust through in the first place.” I know if I’d had whooping cough as a child and my father had thrust me three times through a blackberry vine, I would have realized a cure immediately!
Some of the material in these early books is useful, while other portions are merely interesting. These old herbals, whether they are unpublished diaries, guides to nursing the sick, or medical botanies, bring us the thoughts, hopes, and fears of the author. Through the perspective of current understanding, we can look back over the shoulders of these authors, reading the records of their struggles to understand and master the herbal world.
Probably it’s the time trips I take through these early writings that prevent me from passing garage sales and used bookstores when I travel. Possibly it’s the intrigue of another trip through time, through the eyes of an obscure herbalist, that keeps me vigilant for old herbals, resting unused on dusty shelves, awaiting another traveler who’s ready to step through the pages into the herbal past.
Jim Long, based in Oak Grove, Arkansas, often travels through time and space to spread the word about various aspects of the herbs he grows at Long Creek Herb Farm.