Ancestral Herbs


    The principle of early folk medicine was based on the theory that nature created a perfect body, and sickness is a result of an interference with that balance.  The use of herbs and other plant medicines enabled a restoration of the body’s perfect balance.  And the widespread use of herbal medicine probably had much to do with the lack of medical knowledge by "licensed" doctors.  Given a choice between being treated with herbs, or being purged, bled, leeched, lanced and given toxic chemicals such as mercury, most people preferred to bet their life on herbs.  Many centuries would pass before medicine became a true science.

    Whenever possible, immigrants migrating to America brought with them seeds from their favorite herbs.  Some of the herbs growing wild in the new land were unfamiliar to them, but with experimentation and the help of Indians, colonists quickly learned to take advantage of nature’s healing abilities.  Animals in the wild possess an instinct for eating plants that heal them, and avoiding those that are harmful.  Unfortunately, humans do not have that same instinct.  Collecting herbs in the wild created a problem if the wrong herb was chosen.  When that occurred, the "cure" for an ailment was often worse than the medical problem itself.

    Three methods were used to extract the beneficial qualities of herbs and roots.  Infusion involved making an herbal tea bag and seeping it in hot water.  The water removed some, but not all, of the healing properties from the herb or root.  Tincture, a stronger solution, was made by mixing water and alcohol with the herb for several hours or days.  The mixture was then pressed, which yielded the tincture.  Fluid extracts were more concentrated.  In addition to alcohol and water, other ingredients such as vinegar and glycerin were used. 

    Roots and herbs were an important part of any pioneer household.  They were not only used as medicines and food flavorings, but also as dyes for clothing, linens, furniture and gunstocks.  But most importantly, a family’s health depended on the herbal knowledge and skills of a household member.  This task usually fell to the wife and mother.

Our pioneer ancestors collected herbs and other plants from the nearby forests.  If they had been able to bring seeds or cuttings with them, those seeds and cuttings would have been carefully planted and nurtured close to the family cabin.  After the plants were harvested, they and their seeds were dried and preserved for use during the winter months.  A mortar and pestle would have been used to pound chopped leaves, roots or seeds into smaller particles or fine powder.  Plant cuttings were also given to grown children when they married or moved away.

When reading the ‘old-time’ usage of the following herbs, it is sometimes difficult to understand the variety of use for which one herb was used.  Perhaps the magic of believing had a lot to do with the cure.  Since scientists have been able to study and test the efficacy of these herbs, their present day use may be somewhat different than the purpose for which our ancestors used them.

ALKANET was a healing herb used before antiseptics.  One old recipe for a wound dressing called for alkanet pounded with oil and mixed with dried earthworms.

BASIL was used to keep flies out of houses, sometimes as snuff, and as a cure for travel sickness.  Basil has always been a good herb with tomatoes.

BERGAMOT was a tea and healing plant.  This was the tea that replaced "English Tea" after the colonists threw the imported tea overboard at the Boston Tea Party.

BILBERRIES (blueberry family) were used as food and for treating scurvy, diarrhea, dysentery, and improving eyesight.  Non-toxic, bilberries also lower blood sugar levels.

BONESET (feverwort\) was used as an emetic for fighting fevers.  Boneset can be very toxic.  If ingested by cattle, humans can become poisoned by eating contaminated milk products (called "milk sickness").  Such poisonings were known to wipe out as many as half the inhabitants of a settlement.

CARAWAY was a treatment for baldness, and for flatulent babies.  Fresh caraway leaves were valued as a food flavoring in vegetables, and as a garnish.  It was once believed that items containing a caraway seed couldn’t be stolen.

CHAMOMILE was the tea given to Peter Rabbit by his mother after he had eaten too many beans and radishes.  Soothes tummies and encourages sleep.  The dried flower heads are the part of the plant most frequently used.  Taken orally, chamomile was a digestive aid, and when made into a poultice, was believed effective in the treatment of abscesses.

DANDELION was used to fight fevers, cure boils and eye problems, ease heartburn, relieve diarrhea, skin and liver problems, and made into wine.

DILL has been used for the past 5,000 years as a cure for hiccups.  Soothes digestion and flavors vegetables, pickles, salads and relishes.

ECHINACEA was used more than any other plant by Native Americans.  The root was used for the healing of wounds, burns, abscesses and insect bites.  Echinacea was ingested for infections, toothaches, joint pain and rattlesnake bites.  After typhus and diphtheria were introduced into the Indian lifestyle, Echinacea was also used in their treatment.

ELDERBERRY was used for jellies, wines, face lotions, eyewashes, fritters and cake flavorings.

FEVERFEW (bachelor buttons) was used for centuries to treat anemia, headaches, dyspepsia, fever, trauma, stomach parasites, colds, and as an insecticide for pesky garden insects.

FLAX SEED was once used to remove foreign objects from an eye by placing a flax seed in the affected eye.

GARLIC was a food flavoring as well as a treatment for headache, bites, worms, coughs, toothache, earache, dandruff, hysteria, diarrhea, diphtheria and female disorders.

GINGER root was not only used as a food flavoring, but for stomachache, diarrhea, nausea, cholera, toothache and headache.  Wild ginger roots were dried and used as snuff.

GOLDENSEAL was used as a clothing dye by Indians.  The Cherokee also used it for eye and skin disorders, infections, fevers, boils, stomach parasites, gallbladder and liver problems.

GOURDS were true herbs and included watermelons, muskmelons, cantaloupes, pumpkins, squashes, cucumbers and zucchini.  Not only were they used for food, but gourds were utilized as water and food containers.

HAWTHORN flowers and berries were used for heart tonics, angina and sore throats.

HOREHOUND was taken by anyone who suspected they were being poisoned by their stepmother.  It was also used as a gnat repellent and as an ingredient in cough drops.  Horehound candy was popular for centuries.

IRIS was a healing herb and used as a freckle remover.  To this day, it is still used as a potpourri fixative and perfume ingredient.

LAVENDER may have been brought to America as early as the 1500’s by the Melungeons, since it was indigenous to Mediterranean countries.  In addition to its usefulness in scenting linens and perfumes, lavender was also believed to be effective against apoplexy, palsy and loss of speech.  It was used to prevent headaches, induce pleasant dreams (when placed in pillows) and was thought to "still the passions of the heart".

LICORICE root was used to treat malaria, asthma, abdominal pain, insomnia, colds, female disorders and as a laxative.

LOBELIA \(Indian tobacco) was used as an emetic and sedative, for treating asthma, whooping cough, bruises, sprains, ringworm and poison ivy.

MARIGOLD flowers were used in salads and, when dried, were added to soups and broths.  The entire plant was made into an ointment and used on sores or skin irritations.

MARJORAM \(Joy of the Mountain\) would ensure a happy marriage, and was often given in or on a wedding present.  Our colonial ancestors were particularly fond of marjoram and used it fresh or dried in salads, egg dishes and as a poultry seasoning.

MEADOWSWEET was probably brought over from EnglandIts fragrant leaves made the heart "merrie and joyful" and "delighted the senses".  The flowers and leaves of the meadowsweet plant were strewn around a house or cabin to purify the air.  And a tea made from the plant was thought to be an effective cure for diarrhea.

MINT plants were favored during colonial times for their variety of uses.  The mint family provided food flavorings, medicinals and perfumes.  Members of the mint family include catnip, horehound, thyme, sage, skullcap, coleus, lavender, peppermint and spearmint.  These herbs were used to treat dog bites, soothe stomachs, cure hiccups, colds, fever, headache, indigestion, colic and to repel rats.  Topically, mint was used for muscle pain.

MUGWORTH was a dream inducer (when placed in pillows).  A traveler with mugworth leaves in his shoes was believed capable of walking 40 miles before noon.

MUSTARD seeds were pounded into powder, mixed with water and used as poultices.  Mustard seeds were also considered good luck.

ONIONS were used as food and food flavorings, for poultices, skin diseases and insect bites

PENNYROYAL repelled fleas, ticks and bugs, and was considered helpful for relieving sore thumb joints.

PINE BARK and pine needles were boiled and used as a tea by Indians to treat scurvy, diabetes, wounds and leg pains.

POTATOES were originally grown in South America. The "earth berries" are rootstalks of the herb Solanum tuberosum.  Presbyterian immigrants from Ireland brought potato plants to America in 1719.  The potato was considered a miracle plant because it was believed to revitalize impotence.

PURPLE LOOSESTRIFE was believed by colonists to be effective in relieving the tension of disordered minds.

PITCHER PLANT was used by the Indians as a remedy for pitting of the skin caused by smallpox.

SARSAPARILLA was used as a tonic, a blood purifier, to treat gout, arthritis, skin diseases, fevers and syphilis.  Sarsaparilla replaced the more toxic mercury as a cure for syphilis, but the patient had to be willing to be confined to a warm room for 30 days, followed by 40 days of abstention from drinking wine and participating in the activity that gave them syphilis in the first place. 

SQUAW BERRY (partridge berry) was used by Indians to relieve labor pains during childbirth, and may also have been used by our pioneer grandmothers.

STJOHN’S WORT was believed to be such an obnoxious herb that one whiff of it would repel evil spirits.  It was used on wounds, for kidney and lung ailments, depression and insomnia.

SUNDEW leaves were covered with sticky tentacles that were fond of wrapping themselves around pesky insects, particularly mosquitoes.

TANSY drove off moths and bugs, kept away flies and was used as a cure for freckles.

THYME was once used by magicians to see elves.

TRILLIUM (birthroot) was used by Indians in the southeast as an aphrodisiac.  Pioneers used it to ease heart palpitations and to stop hemorrhages after birth.  Trillium was also used as an astringent poultice.

VALERIAN cured insomnia, anxiety, pain, fatigue, headache and stomach cramps.

VERVAIN was used to keep away enemies and prevent dogs from barking.

VIOLETS were often used as a treatment for rheumatism of the RIGHT wrist.

WATERMELONS were a staple of Mediterranean countries, and the seeds may have been brought to America by the Melungeons in the 1500’s.




The Heritage Herb Garden at the Ozark Folk Center, Mountain View, ArkansasPlease visit their website at

Herbalism Through the Ages, Ralph Whiteside Kerr, Supreme Grand Lodge of Amorc, Inc., 1969

Herbal Medications, David G. Spoerke Jr., Woodbridge Press Publishing Co. 1990

The Healing Power of Herbs, Michael T. Murray N.D., Prima Communications Inc.  1992