For millennia, people have depended upon herbs to treat sickness. Before the advent of modern antibiotics and so on, herbs were the only way of treatment. In fact, more than a few of our current medicines : quinine, penicillin, and aspirin to name just a few, were used in their natural states. People didn’t know why they worked but years of observation had told them some of these plants did work.
The Shakers were no different from the previous immigrants to the United States; they brought their herbal lore with them and collected plants from the woods and fields around them. Since they found new and unfamiliar herbs in this new land, they studied the plant knowledge of the Native Americans around them. An epidemic, especially when the numbers of the Shakers were so small, would be disastrous.
Although they at first gathered herbs, they later planted physic gardens and grew certain varieties. If they produced more than required by their Families, they sold the remainder and purchased other medicines they could not produce themselves. Although their religious beliefs and practices were suspect, (celibacy? Gender Equality? What were they thinking?) their herbs, as with all their other products, were not only respectable, but reliable.
These medicinal herbs became a source of enormous profits for the Shakers.
What were some of the herbs used by the Shakers?
Many of the herbs are known to us today. Chamomile, which was used as a tonic, and chicory, for example. Black, blue, red and white cohosh were all used. Black Cohosh was used for ‘female complaints’, and has regained favor again for that purpose.
Other herbs, such as boneset, were known and used during the Middle Ages. As the name suggests, it was believed that this herb aided in the healing of broken bones. The Shakers used it for colds, fevers, jaundice and as a general tonic.
Burdock is now commonly considered a weed. Used as a salve or poultice, it treated gout and other rashy diseases, including leprosy and the rash associated with syphilis. I wonder how well they worked.
Another weed used as a medicine was the common dandelion. The young leaves can be eaten in a salad. However, the young plant does possess some slight narcotic properties. It was used as a tonic and a diuretic and used in constipation, dropsy and uterine obstructions.
Flax, which was used to make linen and flaxseed, as well as yellow dye from the flowers, was also given internally for coughs.
One of the ‘herbal’ uses that surprised me was common garden lettuce – used as a narcotic where opium was objectionable.