My Grandma's Herbs

Tonight I was watching someone younger than me wax poetically on Instagram about herbs and how “this is how our grandmothers would have healed people/made medicine/worked with herbs, etc.”. It sounds nice, right? We all want to be connected to something larger than yourselves so it's a good story. I used to tell this story, too. However, at some point I realized that this wasn’t true. At least it wasn’t true for my family and I kinda wonder how true it is for some of these people's families.

My paternal grandparents were city folk, and quite modern, so no herbs there. My maternal grandparents were country folk, though. Both my maternal grandparents would be 110+ this year….my grandma would have been 110 and my grandpa would have been 112. They were both born before most people had cars, electricity, central heating and indoor plumbing. My grandpa's family even used to use and breed farm horses. I did know both of them very well. They lived next door to me growing up and I spent much of my free time with them, so it’s not like I didn’t know them or only saw them periodically. We had a family farm and also a large garden so all of us worked together a lot. I learned how to garden from my grandpa but I only remember a little of it, learning it when I was so tiny. I grew up knowing it, I guess you could say.

garden rake

My grandmother grew up very poor in rural Southern Ohio near West Virginia and Kentucky. She was from English stock. Nana didn’t know squat about herbs. Her mom didn’t, either, considering all my Nana ever mentioned was the doctor, who would come to deliver babies. My great-grandparents told their kids the doctor brought the new sibling in his black medical bag! I know she did know something about specialized folk healers, though. That’s who you called if you wanted a wart removed. I’d classify that as folk healing not herbalism as that involved no plants but incantations, a bacon rind and a greasy old rag. That’s folk magic, peeps.

The only thing my grandma ever picked that was wild were blackberries for pies. She thought elderberries were poisonous and told me not to eat them. My grandma knew her garden plants, though, and she knew some home remedies, usually the kind with alcohol. Got a cough? Chopped onion smothered in honey then you’d mix that liquid with bourbon. Also, bread and milk poultice for infections, splinters, etc. No herbs, though, and definitely no going-into-the-woods for remedies. According to family lore, her people once had money and lost everything in the Civil War. If that’s true, it had probably been several generations prior at least, since those people used herbal remedies. That’s what you did when you got money in the 18th and 19th centuries. You went “modern” and that meant using doctors.

My grandpa, though, he did know a bit and would dig dandelions every spring. He knew some home remedies, too (grated potato for eye problems is one remedy he used I remember). And he was really into his Absorbine liniment. His people were English, as in his dad and grandfather emigrated from England in the late 19th century. His mother was from a local farming family. I don’t know who my grandpa learned his dandelion digging from. It may have been the menfolk in his family since his parents got divorced when he was really little. He did have a stepmother but I don’t know much about what she knew or if she taught my grandpa anything. He did pass on a love of bees to me as he was a beekeeper.

That’s the extent of the family herbal knowledge going back over 100 years that was passed on to me: dandelion greens in the spring and a few home remedies.

I could tell you now that on the family farm, growing as weeds, they still have burdock, yarrow, dandelion, two kinds of plantain, poke weed, elderberries, milkweed, wild garlic and more. I learned all those from my herbal teachers and books. I had no idea what burdock was called when I was a kid, even though I got covered in them every fall.

So, maybe for some people, learning herbs is bringing back what their grandmother’s knew. Just not mine. I could say, and often do, that I’m tapping into the tradition of my Ancestors when I work with plants. That might be more accurate. My grandma wouldn’t even teach me to darn socks (“You will never need to do that”, she’d say). I have a feeling she’d be a bit mortified at what I do, being both an herbalist and non-Christian spiritual healer, as she was a pretty devout Methodist. She’d probably be really freaked out by all these witch-y connotations some herbalists keep making about what everyone’s grandmothers did. She’d probably also wonder why in “Sam’s hill” I wasn’t just going to the doctor.

So I can’t say my grandma used to do this or that with herbs. And I don’t practice my grandma’s herbalism because she didn’t have any. I practice my own kind of healing, which involves plants because they call to me. I don’t know about other people’s grandmas, and if they did use herbs like in the stories their granddaughters tell. Perhaps it’s time for all of us to think about the stories we tell, if they’re true and if they need some re-telling. Maybe herbalism itself needs a new story. But in all actuality, I think we need to stop telling stories. They get written down and become static; they can be true or not. I think it’s time to sing, sing a song and weave a new world. One of beauty, grace, integrity and harmony. One that’s ours and belongs to us, not our grandparents.

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