Every spring an old friend collected dandelion greens for his grandmother. This was many years ago but I recall his grandmother calling the greens her spring tonic. “Grandmaw has to have her greens,” the friend used to say, “and they have to be picked when the plant is young.”
My friends dear old granny insisted on having dandelion greens in the spring and collecting of them was a ritual with near-religious overtones. While granny didn’t realize it, what she sought in the greens was probably a mega dose of vitamin A. In Stalking the Healthful Herbs, Euell Gibbons notes that the dandelion is the best-known source of vitamin A among the green vegetables. Another reference book on wild plants says dandelion greens are also high in vitamin C.
My friend’s grandmother knew little about vitamins but “folk instinct” told her that dandelions were a good cleanser and she ate them. Like other folks of her generation, granny occasionally looked to wild plants to “right the winter wrongs,” as they used to say. Relatively harmless greens such as those of the dandelion were often called upon to act as spring tonics and were probably more palatable than cod liver oil.
Nowadays we look with amusement on some of the beliefs and superstitions of past generations, especially those regarding medicinal plants. However, I know that at least one wild plant is good. Take the Teaberry, for example. When we were kids we picked and ate these berries for their wintergreen flavor. The friend who collected dandelion greens also gathered Teaberry leaves for his grandmother. She dried the leaves and made a tea, which I once sampled.
When you hear about the wild plants natives and settlers used for food, teas, and medicine, it’s best to be skeptical and leave the sampling to more adventurous souls. There are various wild food guides that tell you this or that plant is safe, but I wouldn’t trust them. That being said, here are a few other wild tonics and teas my friend’s dandelion eating granny and people of my grandparent’s generation told me about. Keep in mind that the following is based on folklore, superstition, and hearsay, and are to be taken as such.
Now a common weed in this area, Yarrow (the pinkish, purple variety) was introduced by the Acadians. I’ve read that the Acadians used Yarrow to treat throat and respiratory ailments. White Yarrow is a native plant. A tea made of dried Yarrow is said to have been used by the settlers as a tonic and stimulant. Some sources say that in the Old World Yarrow was used to treat wounds, call up the devil, to cast spells and make love charms.
Burdock, another common weed, was used by our ancestors as a food and as medicine. The seed and root were used by folk doctors as a blood purifier and tonic. Poultices of crushed were once used to treat poison ivy and insect bites.
We have several varieties here but I believe it was red clover that was singled out as a cure for athlete’s foot. Folk doctors are said to have used red clover, brewed as a tea, as a sedative. I remember a tea with red clover as the basic ingredient being called “gossip tea,” supposedly because it loosened the tongue.
Wild strawberry tea: sounds interesting and I recall my old friend’s granny talking about it. The leaf of the wild strawberry is high in vitamin C and this may explain the folktale that dried leaves of this plant were a great winter tonic when steeped as a tea.