Spring Tonics: Dandelions and Sassafras

Purify your blood with these plants

| April/May 1999

  • Fresh dandelion greens have four times the ­vitamin C, seven times the vitamin A, and twice the potassium of ­romaine lettuce. The German government has approved the leaves for use as a diruretic and ­digestive tonic to treat bloating, indigestion, and poor appetite.
  • Dandelions, a vigorous weed, can be cultivated to supply leaves and roots for spring tonics.
    Photography by Steven Foster
  • The safrole contained in sassafras tea, a traditional “blood purifier,” damages the liver.
  • In the landscape, sassafras trees provide brilliant fall color.
  • Chicory, a common roadside weed, can help protect the liver.
  • Slippery elm bark, a traditional herb used to treat irritated mucous membranes, is also listed as an over-the-counter drug in the United States.
  • Slippery elm bark contains ­numerous carbohydrates, ­especially mucilage.

In past centuries, most people spent cold winters huddled near a fire, eating grains, dried fruits and meats, and the root cellar’s vegetable stores. By ­winter’s end, the urge to purify the body had grown strong, and spring ­presented the opportunity to do so. Evacuation therapy, consisting of a regimen that could include blood purifiers, emetics, laxatives, and induced sweating, was practiced well into the nineteenth century by many cultures of the ­Northern Hemisphere. Many believed that optimal health required this physical “spring cleaning.”

This idea is based on the belief that the blood, bowels, and other systems of elimination retain poisons that must be expelled. Even the best foods, many believed, provided no physical benefit if the body was “clogged” with accumulated toxins. These poisons had to be “cleansed” from the body.

Penn­sylvania Germans used herbs called blutreinigungsmittel, “blood purifiers” or spring tonics. To “thin” the blood in preparation for warmer weather, they ate wild greens ­including dandelion, lettuce, plantain, and watercress. Roots and barks used for the same purpose included sassafras, ­sarsaparilla, and burdock. Another group of remedies were the schwitzgegreider, sweat-inducing herbs like ­European mugwort, wormwood, feverfew, and chamomile.

Blood purifiers

The concept of “blood purifiers” runs deep in herbal ­traditions. Herbalists still use the nineteenth-century term “alterative” to indicate the action of an herb that they believe returns blood or a body system to normal function. Before the discovery of antibiotics, alteratives were used to treat ­infections that could be—and often were—fatal. Because infection was strongly associated with blood, alteratives were understood as internal blood cleansers.

American herbalism’s use of evacuation therapy can be attributed to Samuel Thomson, a self-styled “doctor” born in 1769 to a poor homesteading couple in Alstead, New Hampshire. Thomson claimed to have learned about herbal remedies from an elderly widow, the “yarb” (herb) woman, who took him on foraging jaunts when he was a child. Disdaining farm work, Thomson developed a keen interest in medicinal plants and eventually set himself up in practice.

Thomson devised a plan to distribute his “Thomsonian System” of medicine, thus creating what was probably the first ­multilevel herbal marketing scheme. In 1813, he obtained a patent for it and sold the rights to use it for the then-­exorbitant price of $20 per family. By 1830, Thomson claimed to have three million followers in the United States.

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