Passing on the Heritage of Herbs to the Next Generation

| April/May 1994

All their voices are silenced now, but from these women and my mother comes my heritage of herbs. The knowledge, passed on from mother to daughter, is a wisdom gained by countless years tending sick children, husbands, and neighbors, for women were the first healers.

As a child, I grew up in the 1950s with an extended family of cousins, uncles, and grandparents in a large, white farmhouse in upstate New York. All of us were knitted together by the strength and love of one small, exceptional woman, my mother.

Along with most farmers back then, we raised chickens, ducks, beef and milk cows, horses, goats, pigs, just about everything except sheep. We had fruit trees and a vegetable garden, but my mother never grew many herbs. Borage, horehound, houseleek, and a sage plant or two were all her kitchen garden contained.

Mother turned to the meadows, woods, and marshes surrounding our farm for the “simples” she needed. I used to tag along when she went to gather because the woods and fields were more exciting than the farmyard. I remember those walks well. Mother knew the common names of many plants, told to her by her mother—gravel root, birthwort, flannel leaf, Indian tobacco. Each name had a story behind it. Each plant had a purpose.

Birthwort got its name because it was used by early settlers to ease childbirth pains. The large woolly leaves of common mullein, aptly named flannel leaf, were sometimes used in place of flannel to wrap around sore throats. Gravel root was used to treat kidney stones. Some people called it kidney root, ague weed, and Joe-Pye-weed.

Indian tobacco was once used to treat asthma, but we children discovered another use for the plant. Certain amounts cause vomiting, hence another common name, pukeweed. Visiting friends were invited to sample the leaves until my mother put an abrupt stop to this rather dangerous prank. She was furious that we would use herbs to make someone sick. My mother believed that the cure for most of mankind’s ills was in the herbs of field and forest. Yet she knew their dark side, too: that which could cure could also poison.

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