My kitchen counter recently became home to a small arsenal of remedies in tiny, stoppered bottles. When prescriptions from two different doctors failed to resolve a persistent ear infection, I turned to alternatives that predate modern medicine.
Poultices, tinctures, teas and infusions were the only pharmacy available for most of human history. Medicine for thousands of years depended on a domestic pharmacopeia based on native herbs and wildflowers, that even today are the remedies of choice for some people.
Many of the herbs we employ for flavor also carry health benefits. In traditional medicine, a cough can be treated with tea steeped from coltsfoot and hyssop. Horehound is considered even more effective for cough. Sage, rubbed to a powder and steeped as tea, is useful for headache. Calming motherwort tea is good for nervousness and insomnia.
Fevers may be cooled with sweet-balm tea, and prevented with tea brewed from catnip, according to traditional medicine. Root vegetables, such as horseradish, may be steeped in vinegar, then mashed to a poultice and applied to incite a healing perspiration.
Elderflower tea remedies an upset stomach. Chicory is thought to be effective against all sorts of ills.
A common reference book of an earlier era, "The American Frugal Housewife," is still in print and offers remedies of all sorts that can be brewed from ingredients in the garden, field and woods. What we consider to be weeds offer effects that people once depended on.
A 1969 pamphlet published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, available online at fs.fed.us, lists 126 different plants indigenous to the Appalachian region that have medicinal properties. The guide describes how to dry or preserve the plants, which parts - stems, leaves, roots or pollen - is efficacious, what times of year to collect native plants and the best tools to use. It includes a glossary of botanical and pharmacological terms, and a listing of the scientific name for plants best known colloquially.
Becoming versed in the medical uses of herbs is not a casual enterprise. There are dozens upon dozens of plants known to have heath-promoting properties, and many of them have "cousins" with similar plant structures that are harmful or even poisonous. The rangy cousin of wild carrot, known commonly as Queen Anne's Lace, is a mild form of birth control. Using nature's pharmacy safely requires education.
This year, the Ohio-based Herb Society of America named elderberry its Native Herb of the Year. Varieties of this plant grow worldwide, and the berries and flowers have been used for millennia for culinary, wine-making and medicinal purposes. But while cooked elderberries are edible, the raw berries contain a substance akin to cyanide, and can kill.
I bought my herbal remedies from a reliable source. I don't trust myself to home-brew. And besides, it's warm enough now that the snakes are out; there will be no wild-herb collection in the woods and brush for me.
But in my kitchen now are preparations that contain arnica, hypericum, lycopodium, salicylicum and a botanist's list of other herbal and floral ingredients. I can't say they're doing a great job of clearing my poor, painful ear. But on the other hand, they're no worse than the controlled-substance, pharmaceutical approach the medical doctors prescribed.