Disclaimer: Don’t try this at home, folks. It’s probably one reason they didn’t live long back in those days.
Back in the days when there wasn’t a drugstore on every corner or doctors handy, pioneers tried a little bit of everything when they got sick. There was a notion called “The Doctrine of Signatures” that theorized that the shape, color or odor of a plant indicated its medical use.
An example of this would be ginseng, in Chinese its Jin-Chen, which means “man-like.” (In Indiana, ginseng is a multi-million dollar business. And by the way, there is a season for hunting ginseng, and you need a license to collect it.)
Not only did pioneers use native plants for themselves but also for their animals.
Sow Thistles: This was used for high blood pressure in animals. Nursing mothers also were given this to up the production of milk. It also was used for wheezing and shortness of breath.
Mullein: Its leaves were used for green dyes, as tea for headaches, burned near animals that were wheezing and as rouge for cheeks (it was also called Quaker Rouge).
Solomon’s seal: Not only was this plant used, when dried, to repel spiders and snakes but in a tea for a contraceptive.
Rattlesnake Master: This plant was thought to cure bites by rattlesnakes (it doesn’t work). We have this plant growing in the prairie section at Beckenholdt Park.
Basil: Not only was this used for flavoring but also for indigestion and skin conditions and as a relief from diarrhea and coughs.
Bee Balm: Pioneers used it for colic, stomach aches and intestinal worms.
Black-eyed Susan: A tea made from the roots could expel worms and treat a cold. Using the juice from the roots was used to treat earaches.
Catalpa Tree: Its leaves were used as a poultice for wounds, and a tea from the seeds was used for bronchitis and asthma. From the bark, pioneers made a tea to make an antiseptic and a laxative and sedative and for intestinal worms and snakebite.
False Solomon Seal: The roots of this plant were burned to cure insanity and to quiet a crying child. It was believed that its dry, powdered roots could stop external bleeding plus rashes and itch. The fruit of this plant were eaten to prevent scurvy.
Catnip: A weak tea was made for a colicky baby.
Jewelweed (also known as Touch-Me-Not): The leaves were used to relieve itching (this one will work).
Blazing Stars: A tea from the roots was used to cure dysentery. The corms taste like carrots in the early spring.
Butterfly Weed: The tap root was used for pleurisy and asthma.
Fleabanes: This plant was used as a cure for diarrhea, kidney stones, diabetes and a host of other ailments.
Wild Bergamot: Tea made from the leaves was used for colic, flatulence, colds, fever and nosebleeds.
If you were lucky enough and lived close to a wetland area, you had the opportunity to use some of these plants:
Cardinal-Flower: Tea from the root or leaves was used as remedies for stomach ache, fever, headache and colds. It also was used to expel worms, soothe nerves, and cure syphilis and typhoid fever. At times it also was mixed in a love potion.
Jack-in-the-Pulpit: The corm of this plant is poisonous; however, when dried, it can be eaten and used to treat colds and bronchial ailments.
Joe-Pye-Weeds: These weeds were used to induce sweating in typhus fever. This plant was also used for urinary ailments.
Lady’s Slippers: The roots of this plant have a sedative property, and teas were made to calm the nerves, ease insomnia, depression and menstrual disorders and to treat epilepsy.
Skunk Cabbage: This was made into a salve for rheumatism, treatment of lockjaw, epilepsy and seizures. It also was used for headaches and made into a tea for use as a contraceptive.
I could keep going for a couple more pages, but I won’t. As you can see, the pioneers used just about everything that grew to some use — most of it wrong — but to some use. And as I said in the beginning: don’t try this at home.