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Wildflower Folklore

Short's Goldenrod

We all have those subjects that just fascinate us, for me it is the folklore of spring wildflowers. I read and re-read books trying to put myself in the different places and times trying to understand how these people could come up with these stories or explanations. How does one come to the conclusion that flowers are causing diseases or that up-rooting a plant can cause everything from pregnancy to financial ruin?

This spring I invite you to look with the eyes of an apothecary. These historic professionals were responsible for not only diagnosing medical conditions but finding the cure. Many people believed (and some still do) in the Doctrine of Signatures. This is the thought that a plant is linked to the body part it most resembles. For example, the three-lobed leaf of hepatica would be use as treatment for liver conditions, since our liver has three lobes. However, not all of the folklore has such clear roots. Some of my favorite examples are below.

Wildflower Folklore

  • Eating the greens or drinking a tea made from toothwort was to help with loose teeth, mouth and throat problems, because of the shape of the flower.

  • Bloodroot, due to the sap, was used to treat a person that was coughing up blood. But since it was known to be a dangerous poison it had to be used "sparingly."

  • If you transplanted a May apple you were to become pregnant before it bloomed again. It was also boiled into a love potion, because the roots are often in the shape of a person.

  • Anenomes were thought to contain vapors that caused plague-like illnesses, because they "danced in the wind" and frequently grew on gravesites, so people would hold their breath or walk around areas to avoid being downwind of them.

  • Violets were used to cure an incredible variety of ailments, because they persisted in all conditions. Now we know that many varieties contain salicylic acid, which is a common ingredient in aspirin.

  • An elixir of skunk cabbage was sold by traveling medicine as a form of birth control. You drank three tablespoons, three times a day for three weeks you would be permanently sterile. This was probably somewhat successful; I am guessing that most people kept their distance for quite some time.

Today's Wildflower Applications

As with many things, what’s old is new again. Many of these remedies have been re-examined with modern technology. The majority of the apothecary’s information has been explained away, but maybe some of the "seeds" will still sprout. We now know that transplanting May apples does not cause pregnancy, however the medical world is currently using it in a heart medication and in some experimental cancer, leukemia and spinal injuries treatments. So maybe our ancestors were on to something.

Most spring wildflowers are only here for a blink in time, but perhaps we can learn from them that nothing, no matter how brief, is insignificant … if we just pay closer attention.

—Stacey Allen, Naturalist I, Garfield Park Nature Center