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.


Goodreads Giveaway

Last call for the giveaway of my second book, “Death of a Dyer




The giveaway ends Sunday night. In “Death of a Dyer”, Rees goes home to Dugard. He is trying to mend fences with David, his son. Lydia has accompanied him as well, as a housekeeper. Both have baggage from previous relationships and are hesitant to begin again.

Rees is home for only a short while when he is asked to look into the death of Nate Bowditch, Rees’s boyhood friend. A weaver like Rees, Nate has become a dyer. This is a time before the coal tar dyes. Besides indigo and cochineal, most of the dyes used in Dugard would have been natural dyes: some madder, black walnut, butternut and so on. And both indigo and cochineal were very expensive.

I had a lot of fun with this book since I got to include tons of stuff about dyeing and weaving.

Random thoughts on the Scandinavia trip

Just a few things I found interesting. I have already commented on how cold it was. The tour guides in every country mentioned a late and cool spring. That probably explains why we saw flocks and flocks and flocks of sheep. And why everyone was wearing a thick sweater.

Other notes about fashion.

Stripes are definitely in. I saw stripes on everything so I guess, without noticing it myself, stripes became the new orange.

The other thing is nail polish. When I saw a woman with polished nails she was almost always American. This does not seem to be a fashion in the Scandinavian countries. I didn’t really see nail salons or colored nails until I reached London. Not that important maybe, but interesting.

We also did not hit hot weather until London. The last time I was in the British Isles, it was cool and rainy even in London. Not this time. Not only was it hot, but the grass was brown and dry. We took a walk in Green Park and it was not that green. Everyone’s climates is undergoing some kind of change.

I also like to try the food of the region. Not a fan of herring. (At least guinea pigs were not on the menus – as they are in Peru) But I had the best cheese ever in Denmark and Norway and some really tasty bread.

One last thing. My Goodreads Giveaway for Death of a Dyer (learned a lot about the dye trade in Peru) lasts until August 23. So far 350+. Be sure and add yourself to the giveaway before it ends.



Norway number two

One of my favorite parts of this trips was seeing an Iron Age farm. Man, times were hard. The people lived in longhouses with sod roofs.

Peopel lived in the south, animals in the north, so the heat from the animals came down, Also the smells and other less nice things. I’ve read about the custom of keeping the animals in the house. Diseases that began in animals then jumped to humans.

But I digress.

I was very interested in the loom. The weaving was done top to bottom. The warp threads at the bottom were hung with weights. Weaving, which for me is a fairly quiet operation, must have been noisy.

loom weights

One of the things I found interesting was the green tape and the interpreter’s green shirt. I knew from my research for “Death of a Dyer” that there was no green dye in Europe. In Peru they used some plant but that had not been discovered in Europe. But they did have yellow, blue (indigo) and red (madder).


So, where did they get green? Here is a better shot of the green tape.

green tape

I asked the interpreter and he referred me to the Archaelogy Department. Answer: they over dyed, beginning with yellow and then blue.

For pictures of the dress and shoes I refer you to the blog by ArchaeoFox.


The Question of Titles

I am not good at creating titles; I’ll admit that first thing. Some authors seem to choose the perfect title. snappy and appropriate. I struggle.

I think of this now since I am struggling to title the fourth book. Right now it is titled “Death in Salem”. Bland, right? I started with “Salem Slay Ride” which I think is snappier but one of my readers said it sounded like winter. Since the story takes place in June, not a good thing.

Maybe I should have a vote.

The original title for my first book was “Hands to Murder”. I took it from the Shaker saying “Hearts to God, Hands to work”. The publisher felt that too many people wouldn’t get the allusion so it became “A Simple Murder.”

I was lucky with the second book. Since the mystery concerns a dyer – as in one who dyes – the title seemed perfect. But the third book, now titled “Cradle to Grave”, I called  The Book until my daughter suggested the title.

So now I’m struggling with the title for the fourth Will Rees.  “Death at Sea”? “”Blow the Man down”? I’m still partial to “Salem Slay Ride” because I like puns. Like I said, still struggling.

More about indigo

Although indigo is a pain to work with, and will dye your sink, your hands, the vat and practically anything it touches, it produces such a wonderful blue that one can’t help but love it.

Besides the silk scarf I dyed, that came out a pastel, I also dyed lambswool. It is intended for a young boy’s sweater. I prefer the tie-dyed look and that is what I got. Usually the fiber is spread out in a vat so that it dyes evenly.

It is easy to see the variation although these strands are primarily lightly dyed.

indigo lightI

Some of the strands dyed the dark indigo, so familiar to denim wearers.

indigo dark

And the skein overall demonstrates the variation, from very light to very dark.indigo wool