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  Texas : Features : Columns : "Letters from Central Texas"

FOLK MEDICINE

by Clay Coppedge
Before there were drug stores and grocery stores, there was the land.

Before there were doctors, there were medicine men and folk healers, who often took what they learned from the Indians and applied it to the same uses.

Today we can drive the countryside and see grasses, flowers, weeds, critters, trees and the like. Modern-day herbalists and naturalists can still see a drug store.

Some of the treatments used in the early days, which some people still remember, might appear today as cruel and unusual punishment.

Take the asafetida bag, or the granny rag. Please.

The asafetida bag, a supposed cure-all in its day, consisted of a fetid gum resin that carried with it the pungent taste and odor of garlic.

A granny rag was "a flannel cloth smeared with suet or lard, camphor, dry mustard, turpentine, or coal oil and some other 'medicines' for good measure," according to John Q. Anderson in his book "Texas Folk Medicine."

Other unusual punishments, er, treatments included mixing a tea made from large bugs, preferably cockroaches, and drinking it to cure lockjaw.

A suggested cure for stuttering was to take the shank bone of a newly killed calf and hit the patient in the mouth with it. We're pretty sure this cure wasn't designed by a stutterer.

We can also imagine that chickens hated to see people get bitten by a snake because a popular cure for snakebite involved ripping a live chicken in half and applying one of the halves to the snakebite. The chicken would turn green, which meant that the poison had presumably gone from the human victim to the unfortunate barnyard fowl.

Not all pioneer cures were so bizarre. Or bloody. Medicinal teas were made from lemon mint, the bark of slippery elm, chamomile, huisache and other plants. Mesquite tea was used to treat coughs while gumwood was used to ease the symptoms of colds, asthma and rheumatism. Jimson weed was also used to soothe asthma attacks. Desert willow flowers were made into a brew for people with heart and lung diseases. Yarrow leaves were chewed to tame a toothache.

The purple coneflower, common on the native Blackland Prairie, is better known today as Echinacea, which may or may not boost the immune system, depending on which study by which group you choose to believe on any given day.

You can find a lot of these types of teas and herbs not only at the local health food store but also on the shelves of mainstream grocery and drug stores. Texas Cooperative Extension estimates that 40 percent of Americans use herbs for health reasons and that nearly $5 billion is spent annually on herbal medicines.

Howard Garrett, who has a radio show called "The Dirt Doctor" and a newspaper column by the same name is a regular featured speaker at the Lampasas Herb and Art Fest. He believes herbs are the world's most interesting plants.

"They make beautiful landscape choices, are useful for cooking, controlling insects and disease pests and are effective for improving the immune system," he says. "Some make you more alert, some make you feel better and some can even help solve serious medical problems."

Despite the popularity of medicinal herbs and teas, skeptics abound. "Sure, herbs are natural," extension nutritionist Jenna Anding said a couple of years ago at the Blackland Income Growth Conference in Waco. "So is lead. So is arsenic."

Still, most of the herbal remedies and supplements on the market today have to be at least as good, and a lot more agreeable, than that old stand-by, the asafetida bag.


İ Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
April 11, 2006 column

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