Tag Archives: herbal remedies

Bloom Day and 18th Century Herbal Remedies

My garden is looking a bit sparse for Garden Bloggers Bloom Day in March. I surely was hoping for more. I’m limited to not enough crocuses (never enough!) and some hopeful tulip foliage. I’ve been consoling myself by hacking away at an old stump with an axe. Excellent exercise and a great way to work out any frustration or tension you might be harboring.

So, with not much to report in the garden, I’ll tell you a little story. Last week I visited America’s very first hospital. Pennsylvania Hospital opened its doors in 1751 to much fanfare in Philadelphia. (4th grade field trip chaperone if you must know). Fascinating. And the hospital is still in business which is kind of cool.

The tour guide educated about colonial medical philosophies. Laxatives got a rise out of the kids. Folk remedies made them laugh. Leaches had them howling.  Conversation about herbal remedies bored the 4th graders but left me wishing I knew which plants healed what, what herbs to take for a headache, how to stew a rosemary stem until it was just right for making your stomach feel better. (Does stewed rosemary stem make your stomach feel better? See, I don’t even know!)  Colonists had recipe books for herbal remedies – many brought on their long voyage across the sea, many scribbled down from memories of mothers’ brews, many compiled from knowledge gathered from Native Americans. It is an art that has been lost to me, at least. Sure, there’s google, but somehow it’s not the same. Generations of women (and men, but mostly women) knew what to do when their family got sick. All I know is children’s Tylenol.

So there I was pining for a simpler time when we were in touch with the land, gardened for more than just our own pleasure, passed knowledge from one generation to the next. Clearly, I was missing the point. While herbal remedies had their place, they didn’t quite cover all the necessary medical treatments of the day. Echinacea and mint tea only went so far when you were facing something like, say, 18th century surgery. The three choices for anesthesia when the hospital opened were rum (lots and lots of rum), opium (which got you good and relaxed, but just until the scalpel hit), or a sharp tap on the skull with a wooden mallet (hard, but not too hard!). Oh, and you had to schedule your drunken, high, or major-head-injury surgery between the hours of 11am and 2pm because that’s when there was enough sunlight in the operating room. On sunny days.

But you’ve got to love a field trip that ends with your kid asking, “Can we plant lemon balm in our garden this year?” At the end, the tour guide had each of the children make a sachet of dried herbs like the ones 18th century Philadelphians held to their noses just to make their way through town. Apparently, colonial times stank. Bad. Buckets of lavender, lemon balm, rose petals, cloves, cinnamon, jasmine, and allspice turned into 23 little bags of yummy.

We rode home thankful for children’s Tylenol. And anesthesia. And surgeons who wash their hands BEFORE surgery. And delicious sachets that ignited the imagination and took the edge off of that school bus smell.

p.s. Thanks to Carol at May Dream’s Garden for hosting Garden Blogger Bloom Day!

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine


email this to a friend

Email to a friend

Advertisements

1st Reason to Love Public Gardens: Witch Hazel

When you cultivate a plot of land as small as I do, you learn quickly to appreciate acres and acres of professionally landscaped and maintained garden. Today’s adventure was to Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania, a  92 acre botanical garden just inside the city limits of Philadelphia. It used to be the summer home of John and Lydia Morris, who left their little plot to Penn in 1932 because they were dedicated to horticultural education. They kindly planted loads of  lovely plants and conveniently tagged them with both common and latin names. (Just didn’t want anyone to think I actually KNEW all this information).

Primavera Witchhazel - hemamelis x intermedia primavera

So there are tons of reasons why I love  botanical gardens. First, my favorite ones all used to be private estates. Part of the fun for me,  I’ll admit, is  to imagine what it would be like to live in the big house on the hill and watch your team of gardeners create and maintain this paradise for your own back yard. A little bit of role-play never hurt any of us, no matter our age.  Second, everything is always just right. The house lines up with the trees which line up with the lake which lines up with the paths.  They look amazing in all four seasons. There are no weeds in botanical gardens. They are just right. Third,  there are just so many darn plants.  I took hundreds of pictures of beautiful things today, and it’s January 31. Imagine what a bounty I’ll bring home in May.

Wintersweet witch hazel - chimononthus praecox

Wintersweet witch hazel - chimononthus praecox

Part of the joy of the “so many darn plants” scenario is that you get to see multiple cultivars of the same plant. The star today was witch hazel, because it’s 28 degrees and it snowed yesterday, but these guys are blooming their heads off. I’m a witch hazel newbie, but according to internet sources, there are three kinds of witch hazel: the North American native  (hemamelis americana), the japanese version (hemamelis japonica) and the chinese witch hazel (hemamelis mollis). The hamamelis x intermedia is a cross between Japanese and Chinese cultivars.  They grow to be 10-20 feet tall and 15-20 feet wide.

Orange Beauty Witchhazel - Hamamelis x intermedia "orange beauty"

But here’s the interesting thing. I googled “witch hazel” and had to really search for information on the plants themselves. The vast majority of the information was about the herbal remedy that comes from this shrub’s bark. This astringent reportedly clears up pimply skin (where was this information when I was in high school?) soothes diaper rash, reduces hemorrhoids (Tuck’s pads, anyone?), shrinks bags under your eyes, relieves varicose veins, reduces pain from poison ivy and oak (two of the less friendly plants native to N. America), heals skin ailments ranging from sunburn to dry skin to chicken pox blisters to bruises, and provides an important ingredient (along with a good amount of vodka, interestingly enough) for making your own deodorant. An impressive list without a doubt.

Lansing Witchhazel - hemamelis Lansing

So, if you ever have an occasional breakout, if you have child-birth induced complications (I see at least two listed above), if you sometimes look in dismay at the dark circles under your eyes, if you engage in outdoor activities which  might bring you in contact with poisonous plants, bruise inducing garden tools or the sun: this is the plant for you. (Do I sound like a snake oil salesperson to anyone besides myself?)

Rochester Witchhazel - hemamelis rochester

Seriously, I would love to have the space to grow one of these, because they really do bloom in the depths of winter. And who wouldn’t want to get rid of those dark circles??

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine