Down to Earth: Grandma and the Butterweed

| October/November 1994

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.

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