Spotlight Columns

Pioneer medicine: Plant two seeds and call me in the spring

By From page B5 | August 02, 2017

By Charlie Basham
UCCE Master Gardener of El Dorado County

Staying healthy in Frontier America was a daily life or death challenge. There were countless diseases, illnesses and situations that could easily lead to permanent disabilities — or to an even more permanent death.

It was an era when the importance of good hygiene and sanitation was not understood. Medical treatments could often be worse than the diseases they purportedly cured. Many doctors were self-proclaimed, self-taught or poorly trained.

Perhaps out of a general mistrust for doctors or just the need to feel a little less helpless, pioneers relied on folk remedies made from organic concoctions of herbs, vegetables and healing plants. They would often grow what they needed or knew where to find the essential materials in nature. Most of the recipes for the remedies were handed down through the generations. Native Americans were also extremely knowledgeable about nature’s medicine cabinet and shared their cures with the pioneers.

Herbs and the leaves and roots of certain plants would be crushed into poultices and applied to wounds or to the chest to draw out the offending diseases. Herbal extracts were made into teas. But sometimes the organic materials were mixed with some horrifying ingredients like animal fats and raw meats, mercury, dung and turpentine.

Author’s note: The following “recipes” are strictly historic curiosities and are not to be considered as being medically sound. In fact these concoctions could make you even sicker than had you not tried them.

There were many recipes for curing the common cold. To draw out the cold a poultice was made by roasting an onion, wrapping it in a cloth, beating it until the juice soaks the cloth and then applying the cloth to the chest. Onions were also frequently hung in sickrooms and we know now that onions have antibacterial qualities.

Of course the best cold remedy was said to be eating a daily horseradish sandwich. But one could also render the fat from a skunk and eat two or three spoonfuls to bring up the phlegm. Yup, that’ll cure just about anything.

Rubbing half a clove of garlic on an inflamed tooth for around 10 minutes is said to have greatly diminished the pain of a toothache. An alternative method was to simply shove the clove into the ear on the same side of the head as the offending tooth.

Asthma symptoms could be relieved by ingesting tar water, sea water, nettle juice and quicksilver (mercury). But the most sure-fire method was living “a fortnight on boiled carrots only.”

Medically speaking we’ve come a long way from the days of the onion poultices and tar water teas. But modern medicine still relies on a wide mixture of natural, plant-based medicines to treat minor ailments and more serious conditions. There is also a gradual surge in people turning to natural, plant-based remedies to improve their health.

As a child of the ‘60s, I enthusiastically support the concepts of living more naturally. But when I’m suffering from the ravages of a head cold, I’m even more enthusiastic about having a wide selection of commercial cold remedies from the drug store aisles. I’m not quite ready to chomp into a horseradish sandwich.

Master Gardeners have wonderful classes in the coming  weeks. On Wednesday, Aug. 9, is Stone Fruit: From Garden to Table. This class will be jointly presented by both Master Gardeners and Master Food Preservers at the Cameron Park Community Center, 2502 Country Club Drive.  Saturday, Aug. 12, is Fall and Winter Vegetables and, yes, it’s time to plan. Join Zach Dowell at the El Dorado County Government Center hearing room, Building C, 2850 Fairlane Court, Placerville. Classes are 9 a.m. to noon and are free.

UCCE Master Gardeners of El Dorado County are available to answer home gardening questions Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to noon, by calling (530) 621-5512. Walk-ins are welcome at our office, located at 311 Fair Lane in Placerville. For more information about our public education classes and activities, go to our UCCE Master Gardeners of El Dorado County website at Sign up to receive our online notices and e-newsletter at gardener e-news. You can also find us on Facebook.

Master Gardeners


  • Recent Posts

  • Recent Comments

  • Follow Us On Facebook

  • Special Publications »

    Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our Terms of Service (updated 4/30/2015) and Privacy Policy (updated 4/7/2015).
    Copyright (c) 2017 McNaughton Newspapers, Inc., a family-owned local media company that proudly publishes the Daily Republic, Mountain Democrat, Davis Enterprise, Village Life, Winters Express, Georgetown Gazette, EDC Adventures, and other community-driven publications.