The Shakers and Herbs – Part 2 Medicinal qualities in common weeds

Many of the plants we despise as weeds actually have qualities that render them useful as medicines, dye plants or more. Take the humble dandelion, for example. First of all, it is not native to North America but was brought over by the first colonists. The leaves are edible and I’m sure most people have heard of dandelion wine. Using it as a dye produces a reddish color. I’ve also read, although never tried it, that if a woman who believes she might be pregnant urinates on the leaves and they change color, she will know she is expecting.

Medicinally, the dandelion is recommended for diseases of the liver, constipation and uterine obstructions. It should be collected when the plant is young. A freshly dried root can be used as a tonic for stomach troubles.

Broadleaf dock root, a common visitor in my yard, can be used as a purge and a tonic. The Shakers shipped great quantities of this root. In 1889, some forty four thousand pounds was shipped to one firm in Lowell Mass from Enfield, New Hampshire. Since at that time the root was selling for about 50 cents a pound, the community must have made quite a bit.

Skunk cabbage was another plant used successively as a treatment. A stimulant, the root was used for nervous irritability (not sure what this means) and whooping cough, asthma, chronic rheumatism and spasms.

Burdock leaves were used as a cooling poultice.

I’m sure you get the idea. Some of the other weeds they harvested and sold are: Butternut bark (the hulls of the nuts make a yellowish gray dye), elder flowers (tasty as well as medicinal), Yarrow, hoarhown, bugle, crosswort (or boneset) and many more.

They also made combinations as lozenges and syrups. Their cough medicine included wild cherry bark, seneca snakeroot with rhubarb and a tiny amount of morphine. (The Shakers also grew the opium poppy and sold the raw opium at tremendous prices.) Another popular offering was Tamar laxative. Among other ingredients it included Tamarind, prunes, fruit of cassia and sugar. The resulting paste was dried and cut into lozenges.

Interestingly, they also sold concentrated sarsaparilla syrup. Sarsaparilla is also known as wild licorice.

Although the Shakers were a religious community, they were also canny – but honest – businessmen and women. Next up, the marketing and selling of the herbs.

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Women’s health in the 1700’s

Pregnancy took an enormous toll on women. Besides the tremendous – and physical work – of running a household, women helped in the fields when needed. Childbirth was dangerous and it was not uncommon for a farmer to bury three wives.

We think that midwives handled the lying-in and birth for the mothers. Not exactly. Both Ministers and doctors attended. (I suspect male doctors were already moving into this sphere, although it is usually assumed that did not happen until the mid-1800s. But why the Ministers? A review of some of the early diaries indicates that a significant number of men were both Ministers and Doctors. What about the ones who weren’t?)

But I digress.

In any event, from the writings of these men, it is clear that they treated women for a variety of ailments. From the 1700s the Commonplace Book of Thomas Robie of Salem reveals that as a physician he stepped into to prevent and promote abortion (!) and to speed and ease delivery of the baby. Because many women experienced soreness of the breasts after childbirth (and this is still true), he recommended a concoction of “Millepedes with the heads off, stampt in white wine or beer” to be taken every morning and evening. (Can I say yuck now?)

Another male healer,  parson, also treated complications of pregnancy and menstrual disorders. His cure for cramps? “. . .every night you goe to bed smell your fingers after you have picked the stinking sweat that is between your toes.” Ugh!

Many of these men did consult with female healers when unsure what to do. Although these women, relying on herbal medicines and lore passed down orally from mother to daughter, were frequently illiterate, a survey of diaries show that the men regularly borrowed recipes from the them.

For all that women were legally dependent, unable to inherit without express willed instruction from her husband, she nevertheless was extremely important in the house. Her illness or death devastated the household. She was a major player in the economy of the family besides caring for children and performing the household tasks that were essential for survival. Perhaps because mortality was so high, every life was precious.

Next up: Herbs and remedies.