Folk Medicine: Finding What Works & What is Fable

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Folk Medicine

When I first started my career as a professional speaker I was asked to speak at local garden and herb clubs. More times than I can count, right after asking me to come speak about the medicinal qualities of herbs the caller would say, “We don’t want you to share any folk remedies.”

The assumption being that folk remedies are always something crazy, with no basis in reality. I always assured groups that I speak exclusively about plant medicine that is based in science and a long history of use. Nonetheless, over the years, the constant concern left me with a concern over the blurred line between folk medicine and scientific acceptance.

Folk Medicine – Is it Just Crazy?

Some folk medicine is indeed a bit hard to swallow. The kind of advice I recently came across in a book called “Death in Early America” makes it easy to see where the skepticism arose. Here are just a few examples:

Chicken Pox

To cure, go out to the hen house after the sun goes down, lie down, and let a black hen fly over you.


To reduce fever, swallow a spider with syrup.


The eyes of an owl, placed on the eyelids, will cure blindness.


To cure a head of lice, wash the head with whiskey and sand; the lice will get drunk with the whiskey, and thinking that they are on sand, will fight each other to the death.


To remove, rub them with the hand of a corpse.

Finding the Folk Medicine That DOES Work

Folk medicine doesn’t have to be based on coincidence and strange superstition though. By its very definition, it was a vast collection of what the common folk did to keep themselves alive. I tend to look at this catalog of information with a skeptical eye, looking for scraps of plausibility. On the surface, these bits of advice may also seem far fetched, but there is a grain of truth in each:


For sore eyes, place damp rose petals on eyelids.

(The astringency and emollient qualities of rose petals are well known and many people today use the petals to soothe the eyes.)


To keep children free from colds, tie a big red onion to the bedpost.

(Sounds crazy, right? Today we understand that we can’t slice an onion and leave it out on the counter because it will absorb bacteria from the air. Suddenly this idea isn’t quite so far-fetched!)

To make cough syrup, boil goldenrod and add sugar and peppermint syrup.

(Goldenrod, or Solidago spp., is very good at addressing a cough and mucus production. Adding peppermint is a perfect way to help relieve a cough.)

This is the same work we must do when we come across journals and letters from our own family history. Instead of throwing out all folk wisdom as superstitious nonsense, we must mine it for the gems. This is, after all, how we have accumulated much of the folk recipes we know and love, such as fire cider and four thieves.

Somewhere, someone gave some of the old wisdom a chance, even when it was written in quaint old phrases and looked beyond the prejudice against old knowledge to see the science lurking beneath.

What folk remedies do you know and use in your home?


About Dawn Combs

Dawn is a wife, mother, farmer, author, ethnobotanist, professional speaker, and educator. She has over 20 years of ethnobotanical experience, is a certified herbalist, and has a B.A. in Botany and Humanities/Classics. Dawn is co-owner of Mockingbird Meadows Farm. Her books include Conceiving Healthy Babies and Heal Local.

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  1. Doug says

    For decades, I have been using freshly crushed and chopped garlic on an empty stomach with no more that 1/2 cup of water. 1 medium or larger clove twice a day does the trick. The cold symptoms are very much less at about the 5 hour mark, every time. One must maintain this method for about 5 days. It really works.

  2. wiseGranny says

    there are many ways you can use your own URIN !!(and it is a FREE medicin that you are carring around with you wherever you go…)

  3. Jennifer says

    I use plantain poultices on insect stings. With a little forethought, it can even be made into a salve for the same use.