I’ve been searching for a particular plant since I was a teenager. I saw it only once, so it isn’t clear in my memory, but it taught me a lesson about folk remedies. My grandmother called it butterweed.
Grandma Harper knew lots of remedies, some passed down to her and some learned through years of careful use on herself and her four children. Over the decades, she gave up many of her old ways in the name of progress, but sometimes she found that there was no substitute for a proven herbal remedy. That was the case when I was sixteen and had a sore lip.
For generations, my grandmother’s side of the family has had an allergic reaction to citric acid, which I inherited. Tomatoes, oranges, fresh peaches, or strawberries could set off two weeks of agonizing mouth sores accompanied by fever, swelling, and pain. Only since adulthood have I learned that eating plain, active-culture yogurt regularly will control the problem and allow me to eat all the foods I like, within reason.
At age sixteen, however, I was devastated when eating a pizza made my lower lip swell so much that I couldn’t close my mouth; even worse, I had a job interview the following day. I looked to my grandmother for sympathy.
“Let’s go look for some butterweed,” Grandma said and headed out the kitchen door. I followed, curious whether she had even been listening to my story of woe.
She walked around her backyard, looking first along the fence lines, then inspecting the garden and flower beds around the house. She found what she was looking for next to the foundation of the old garage.
“There’s always some butterweed around somewhere,” she said. “My grandfather taught me about this plant.” She picked a few of the pale green leaves, pointing out that the recent dry weather had stunted the usually vigorous plant. “The stems and leaves should be juicy,” she said.
Inside, Grandma found a small clean cloth and showed me how to make a poultice by mashing up the leaves with the back of a spoon and putting them onto the cloth. I was to apply the poultice to my swollen lower lip just before bedtime. “If it’s going to work at all, the swelling should be down in about fifteen minutes,” Grandma told me.
I went home, eager to try Grandma Harper’s poultice but also skeptical that mashed-up leaves would relieve my pain. At bedtime, I applied the poultice to my lip, feeling gullible. I went to bed, holding the cloth in place, and I watched the clock, trying to make the time pass.
At the end of fifteen minutes, I took off the cloth, got out of bed, and looked in the mirror. I could hardly believe it: my lower lip was back to its normal size. The swelling was gone, and the fever had abated as well. The sore place was still visible inside my lip, but now I could touch it lightly. I was excited but also afraid that the swelling would return by morning, and so I saved the poultice just in case.
Next morning, however, the swelling and fever were still down, and I went off for my job interview feeling optimistic. Grandma’s poultice had worked just as she said it would. This was my first and only experience with that plant, whatever it was.
My grandmother died a few years later, and no one else in the family remembered what the plant looked like. I’ve returned to her old home to search for it without success. Butterweed is listed as a common name for two plants, species of Erigeron and Senecio, but neither one looks like the plant Grandma showed me so many years ago. I continue my search for this plant that first introduced me to poultices and family folk medicine.
Jim Long is a long-time student of herbal medicine of many cultures and eras. His home, gardens, and shop, known collectively as Long Creek Herb Farm, are tucked into the beautiful mountains around Oak Grove, Arkansas.